Afghanistan, the Baltics and Caucasus: NATO and The West Extending the War beyond Their Borders


By Rick Rozoff

“In addition to being the lengthiest and biggest war in the world, the US and NATO Afghan campaign is the first armed conflict in this young millennium with an international dimension. In fact, its global scope in some aspects is grander than those of the two world wars of the first half of the last century…. This is true in two regards. First, in the historically unprecedented number of nations that have been called upon to supply troops for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) for the prosecution of the war. And second, in the repercussions of those troop and military equipment commitments on local and regional conflicts in several parts of the world far removed from Afghanistan.”

The century’s longest war continues to rage in South Asia with no sign of abating. Instead, the invasion of Afghanistan on October 7, 2001 has exploded into endless armed hostilities that have spread across the length and breadth of the nation, with US and NATO military forces fighting an intensified counterinsurgency conflict in the north, south, east and west of Afghanistan, now paralleled by equally brutal and even larger-scale combat operations in neighboring Pakistan.

With over 100,000 Western troops and rumors of perhaps a doubling of that number in the works, and with Washington spending billions of dollars in expanding bases to accommodate those reinforcements, the Afghanistan-Pakistan campaign under the direction of US and NATO military commander General Stanley McChrystal and Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke portends yet greater violence, bloodshed and imperiling of regional stability.

The US lost 22 personnel on October 26-27, making this month Washington’s costliest ever in the deadliest year of a war that is now in its ninth calendar year.
The White House and Pentagon have also extended lethal drone missile attacks inside Pakistan, where they are nearly daily occurrences, and will soon deploy Marines to the nation’s capital in a massively revamped US embassy and army trainers to the Iranian border, “the first foreign forces formally stationed in Baluchistan since Pakistan’s independence in 1947.”

Several million civilians have been uprooted and displaced by Western and Pakistani air and ground attacks.

In addition to being the lengthiest and biggest war in the world, the US and NATO Afghan campaign is the first armed conflict in this young millennium with an international dimension. In fact, its global scope in some aspects is grander than those of the two world wars of the first half of the last century.

This is true in two regards. First, in the historically unprecedented number of nations that have been called upon to supply troops for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) for the prosecution of the war. And second, in the repercussions of those troop and military equipment commitments on local and regional conflicts in several parts of the world far removed from Afghanistan.

In October, the defense chiefs of several dozen nations met for a two-day conference in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, to discuss NATO’s new Strategic Concept and a host of missions to be subsumed under it, with the war in Afghanistan at the top of the agenda.

The defense ministers and secretaries of all 28 full NATO member states and of 14 partnership (Partnership for Peace, Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, Contact Country, Adriatic Charter) nations were officially acknowledged to be in attendance.

Information is not available regarding which exact non-NATO nations were represented, but likely participants would have included Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Finland, Georgia, Ireland, Macedonia, New Zealand, Singapore, Sweden, Ukraine and the United Arab Emirates.

The defense ministers of Afghanistan and of Armenia, which has now committed forces for ISAF, were reported to have attended the meeting also.

In recent months reports have either verified or speculated that troop continents from several other nations would be recruited by the United States and NATO for the Afghan war front. These candidates include Colombia, South Korea, Mongolia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Montenegro and Moldova in addition to Armenia.
The combined US and NATO forces in Afghanistan could then include units from 50 nations in five continents, the Caucasus, the Persian Gulf and Oceania.
No such diverse military force has been gathered for one war in one location at any other time and place in history.

The current figure for US and NATO-led foreign forces in the country exceeds 100,000, but with regular troop rotations over an eight-year period the total number deployed is several times that.

The other side of the coin is that military forces from far-flung nations brought to fight in Afghanistan will return to their respective homelands with combat and wartime experience under their belts for use in local conflicts and will have secured from the US and NATO a reciprocal commitment to support them in local counterinsurgency and cross-border conflicts.

US-trained Colombian crack special forces will return from Afghanistan to continue their decades-old war against the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) resistance in the south of their country.

Georgian troops being trained at this very moment in a two-week exercise by US Marines for counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan will upon returning to their homeland be better prepared for the next war with neighboring Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Russia.

In late August, slightly over a year after a previous Immediate Response exercise with over 1,000 US troops was followed by an attack against South Ossetia and a five-day war with Russia, then Georgian defense minister Davit Sikharulidze met with General James Conway, Commandant of the US Marine Corps, and was quoted by the Associated Press as saying “that the training by the US Marine Corps will not only give his troops the skills necessary to fight alongside NATO allies in Afghanistan, but also could come into play if another war broke out between Georgia and Russia.”

Just as the 2,000 Georgian troops stationed in Iraq in 2008, the largest contingent after the US and Britain at the time, gained war zone experience for the conflict with Russia that year, in fact being transported back on US planes during the fighting in the Caucasus.

The US now conducts regular combat instruction in Bulgaria, Georgia and Romania for its own armed forces and those of its host countries for the war in Afghanistan in particular. Training client regimes for military operations at home and abroad takes on a greater degree of realism and effectiveness alike if held in a genuine war theater like that in Afghanistan.

The countries singled out by the US and NATO for their campaign in South Asia and by extension for the development of a multinational, rapidly deployable international military force available for use in conflict zones around the world fall into two main categories.

They are former Soviet bloc nations and new states that emerged from the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia and, largely as a result of the latters’ fragmentation, countries that themselves were recently beset by armed conflicts, among the world’s most vulnerable nations.

In 2003, of the 28 countries corralled by the United States and Britain into the so-called coalition of the willing for the occupation of Iraq — Albania, Armenia, Australia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, El Salvador, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Mongolia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Thailand and Ukraine — all but seven were at one time in the Soviet bloc or are former Yugoslav republics.

Those 21 nations had little experience in conducting independent foreign policy and were in the war in Iraq and even more so than in Afghanistan, being a formal NATO operation, have been employed to pull nations in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Asia out of residual Russian and Commonwealth of Independent States orbits and into NATO.

Of those states listed above that have sent or pledged troops for both Iraq and Afghanistan, eight border Russian territory: Azerbaijan, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Mongolia, Poland and Ukraine, as do Finland and Norway, both engaged in combat for the first time since World War II in Afghanistan. The two wars have also been used to complete the US’s and NATO’s military takeover of the former Yugoslavia and the Balkans as a whole.

US Vice President Joseph Biden was in Poland for two days in October to also “reassure” his host nation’s government that Washington — and NATO — were steadfast in commitment to the nation’s “defense”  — against Russia.

His discussion included the stationing of American SM-3 interceptor missiles, which will augment the deployment of 92 Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missiles, which will in turn be operated by 100 US troops to be stationed in Poland. This represents the first deployment, and a permanent one at that, of American armed forces in the country. Over the last three years the Pentagon has taken similar measures to base an initial force of 4,000 troops at seven new bases in Bulgaria and Romania.

While the American vice president was touring Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania in October and as NATO was holding its defense ministerial session in Slovakia, the US Senate held hearings on NATO expansion at which, inter alia, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, now chairing NATO’s committee on its new Strategic Concept, and former ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker and former NATO top military commander General John Craddock testified.

Senator and past presidential candidate John Kerry stated, “I hope we can…use this hearing to address the prospects for future NATO enlargement to include Balkan nations, Georgia and Ukraine.”

Ahead of the meeting, NATO Secretary General Rasmussen was paraphrased as saying the bloc “would consider staging military exercises in the Baltic Sea states to rebut concerns in the region about the newly-reassertive Russia.”

The quid pro quo, then, is this: By providing troops to the US and NATO for the war in Afghanistan nations like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland receive in turn a commitment from Washington and Brussels to support them — including with the NATO Article 5 military assistance clause and the American nuclear arsenal — in any confrontations with Russia. This reciprocity increasingly exists with NATO partner-states like Georgia and Ukraine, both of which were granted an unprecedented Annual National Program by NATO and a complementary Charter on Strategic Partnership with the US in late 2008; in the case of Georgia, within months of its August 2008 war with Russia.

After the unannounced visit by the top US and NATO military commander in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, at the NATO defense chiefs’ meeting in Slovakia in the fall, the Polish Defense Ministry announced that “Polish authorities plan to send 600 more soldiers to Afghanistan in spring 2010,” raising the nation’s total to 2,800.

As with the Baltics, so with the South Caucasus, all six nations in both locales provide troops for the Afghan war.

After the requests by NATO chief Rasmussen, Pentagon head Robert Gates and General McChrystal at the two-day NATO meeting in Slovakia, according to reports, “Azerbaijan gave an oral agreement to increase its military contingent. According to the agreement, NATO will assume the expenses of the personnel and material-technical provision.”

Azerbaijan’s neighbor and adversary Armenia sent its defense minister to the NATO meeting and has for the first time offered troops for Afghanistan. Evidently the US and NATO are making mutually exclusive promises to Azerbaijan and Armenia, at loggerheads over the Nagorno Karabagh conflict, in exchange for sending troops to the Afghan war zone.

Armenia, being one of seven members of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), seen by many as a fledgling counterpart to NATO in former Soviet space, is a more significant acquisition than Azerbaijan (and Georgia), already long in the NATO camp. In Slovakia “NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen welcomed the [Armenian] Defense Minister and expressed his intention to continue collaboration with Armenia on the Afghanistan issue.”

From October 22-24 NATO held a conference in Istanbul, Turkey on Non-Traditional Security Threats and Regional Cooperation In the Southern Caucasus. “Experts from Armenia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia” participated.

On October 24, in the third South Caucasus nation, Georgia, US Marines launched two-week training exercises ominously codenamed Immediate Response to train the first of 700 local troops for the Afghan war. According to the American embassy in Tbilisi, “The program is specifically designed to enhance Georgia’s ability to conduct joint counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan together with US forces.”

In Bratislava’s meeting, NATO chief Rasmussen praised the Georgian deployment as “a very important signal” and “a positive step” towards NATO integration. He also stated “that Georgia might become a member of the alliance without passing through a Membership Action Plan,” the traditional path to full membership. As a full member Georgia would be covered by the Alliance’s Article 5.

The past few days were as busy in Georgia as they were in Eastern Europe in the pursuit of US geopolitical offensives.
The new American ambassador, John R. Bass, presented his credentials to President Mikheil Saakashvili on October 16, with his predecessor John Tefft deployed to Ukraine to protect America’s “orange” asset Viktor Yushchenko ahead of a presidential election in which the latter faces a crushing defeat in his reelection bid.
On October 22, new US Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Tina Kaidanow, previously Washington’s first ambassador to Kosovo after its unilateral declaration of independence, paid a visit to the Georgian capital and “met with Georgian Deputy. During the same period, a three-week “Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield course [was] taught by three US Marine instructors from Navy and Marine Corps Intelligence Training Center (NMITC),” which “was designed to help Georgian soldiers hone their intelligence gathering skills” as part of the NATO ISAF mission.

US Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Alexander Vershbow arrived in Georgia on October 19 for three days of talks with the country’s president and the nation’s defense and foreign ministers.

Vershbow, former ambassador to NATO and to Russia, who in the second capacity was noted for his confrontational and abrasive manner, stated “Georgia’s forward movement towards the NATO is very important for us and we are ready to develop a special program to achieve this goal.”

During the visit Georgian Foreign Minister Alexander Nalbandov was asked about US plans to expand its missile shield system and responded, “If the USA applies to us with this request, we will discuss this issue.” [30] It’s hard to believe that Vershbow didn’t at least broach the subject as on October 19 he said that the US was considering including Ukraine in its missile shield grid.

While in Georgia he did pledge that Washington is committed to the “reform of the defense sphere [of Georgia] to bring it closer to NATO standards that will assist [Georgia’s] NATO membership” and added “We do have concerns about the lack of full compliance by Russia with some elements of the August 2008 cease-fire agreement.”

A Russian member of parliament responded to Vershbow’s promise to modernize the Georgian army by saying “Georgia does not need defense at all, because they do not have to be defended from anyone. Nobody is going to attack Georgia and any preparation of a military character will be considered as campaign for attacks on Abkhazia and South Ossetia….”

The upgrading of Georgia’s armed forces, its command structure and its battlefield techniques is already underway. The pretext under which this American and NATO transformation is being conducted is to prepare a comparatively small contingent of troops for the war in Afghanistan, but the objective of the program is much larger.

A Stratfor report of October 9 included the observations that “In Georgia, Vershbow will be overseeing coordination of an expansion of US training to the country’s troops. And unlike in the past, when such training was small-scale and mostly defensive in nature and mainly meant to train troops headed to Afghanistan and Iraq, this renewed focus will be greater in scope of personnel and resources and will likely include offensive training as well. In Ukraine, apart from the decision already announced of BMD [Ballistic Missile Defense] expansion into the country, it is rumored that the United States could encourage the resumption of weapons transfers into Georgia, a very sensitive issue given accusations by Moscow of such transfers during the August 2008 Russo-Georgian war.”

Far from NATO’s war in Afghanistan, its first land war and its first war in Asia, detracting from the agenda of surrounding Russia with troops, bases, military hardware and missiles, the two campaigns are inextricably connected.
(Rick Rozoff, a peace activist and an analyst of international affairs for 40 years, contributed this article to Media Monitors Network from Chicago.)