US digs in deeper in AfghanistanKARACHI - After Afghanistan and Iraq, a new phase in the United States' "war on terror" is under preparation in which the military-minded decision-makers in Washington have short-listed various possible targets, including Iran and Syria. In this scenario, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will play a role, as will Pakistan.
A legacy of the Cold War is widespread anti-US sentiment in the South and Central Asian regions, including Pakistan, which has strong links to militancy. The US has already drawn Islamabad into its fold, and wants to keep a close eye on it to ensure it remains fully on side, and Washington also wants to be in a position to monitor the region closely.
Well-placed sources in Brussels have told Asia Times Online that as a result, a strong NATO base will be established in the Afghan province of Herat, bordering Iran, and a logistics hub for NATO might be established in Pakistan's southern port of Karachi.
Construction work has already begun on the NATO base in Herat, under the surveillance of Italian troops stationed there as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force contingent of peacekeepers in the country. Currently, about 8,000 of these soldiers from 36 countries serve in Kabul and nine provinces north of the capital. The new base in Herat is expected to be big enough for about 10,000 troops, will feature a military airbase, and will act as NATO's headquarters in the country. There are also about 18,000 US troops in Afghanistan.
A request for a NATO logistics hub in Karachi has already been conveyed to Pakistan. General Alessandro Minuto Rizzo, NATO deputy secretary general, was scheduled to meet Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf in January, but the meeting was postponed. Their next meeting is likely to be scheduled within the next few weeks and a decision taken on the hub.
A top retired military official and strategic expert told Asia Times Online that this development signifies longer-term goals for the US and its allies in Afghanistan.
"The development looks to be part of a new US plan in the region because previously they had a logistic hub at Karachi airport as well as an operational facility at Jacobabad Airbase. As soon as they occupied Afghanistan, they abandoned the Karachi airport facility and moved everything to Bagram Airbase [near Kabul]. Similarly, they have kept a very minimum of infrastructure at Jacobabad Airbase and abandoned operations from there. Their operations now also originate from Bagram Airbase," the official said.
"After having abandoned their facilities at Jacobabad and Karachi, the reopening of facilities in Herat and Karachi port gives a clear message that the US has some new and long-term designs in Afghanistan," the same strategic expert maintained.
"However, we cannot imply with the construction of a logistics hub that NATO would have any plans for a military base at Karachi port because the port's infrastructure and limited capacity do not allow for such a military base, which essentially needs a big area."
The strategic picture is completed when one tracks other US footsteps: it has asked for the use of a base near Khuzdar in Balochistan province (about 400 kilometers from Karachi), which will soon be operational for US troops.
Now that President George W Bush has won his second term, his priorities have visibly changed. The manhunt for al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan has virtually stopped. Whether it is military exercises or dialogue between the US and Pakistan, the "war against al-Qaeda" is a lesser priority: more important are agreements over the sale of military hardware and an increased role for the US in the region.
Syed Saleem Shahzadis Bureau Chief, Pakistan, Asia Times Online. He can be reached at email@example.com.