[Viewpoint]Approaching Afghanistan

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[Viewpoint]Approaching Afghanistan

When you look at Asia on a map of the world, you will find Afghanistan at the center. It stands at the crossroads of East and West, where Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East meet. It is literally the central strategic geopolitical point.

If you take over Afghanistan, you have Iran, Iraq, India and Pakistan within arm’s reach. In the 19th century, Afghanistan was the stage of the “Great Game” between the Russian Empire, which was promoting a southward policy, and the British Empire, which wanted to hinder Russia’s expansion toward its colony at the time, India.

But Afghanistan was not easily taken, and in 1919, Great Britain gave up. When an internal conflict broke out in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979. It withdrew 10 years later after a hard fight. When the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred in 2001, the United States drove away Afghanistan’s Taliban regime and established a pro-American government.

However, in contrast to the slow stabilization of Iraq, the war in Afghanistan is only getting worse. The new U.S. administration has no choice but to shift the focus of its overseas military operation to Afghanistan. Stabilizing the “graveyard of empires” is one of the hardest challenges the international community faces today.

President Barack Obama’s designated troubleshooter is former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke, known as the “Diplomatic H-bomb” for his aggressive, stubborn style. He knows how to twist arms as he shakes hands. He deftly brokered the Dayton Peace Accords that led to the end of the war in Bosnia. He was Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy tutor, and would have been the most likely candidate for secretary of state if Clinton were elected president.

With Clinton now the Secretary of State in the Obama administration, he has been named the special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is now the so-called AfPak envoy. President Obama and Secretary Clinton have virtually outsourced the Afghan issue to Holbrooke.

Secretary Clinton will tour East Asia next week, and Holbrooke is currently visiting the region he is assigned to. Holbrooke is expected to review the Afghanistan?Pakistan policy and to brief President Obama on a new approach to Afghanistan.

The big picture is already out. He wants to reduce the troops stationed in Iraq and increase those dispatched to Afghanistan.

The current U.S. troop presence of approximately 33,000 is to be increased to some 60,000, and Washington is to request NATO allies for reinforcements. Currently, 41 countries, including the United States, have a total of 70,000 troops dispatched in the region. The United States would ask NATO members for additional combat troops while requesting supplementary assistance such as intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, police, logistics, medics and training.

Because of the kidnapping of Koreans in Afghanistan last year, Korea withdrew 210 soldiers from the Dasan and Dongui Units in late 2007. While the memory of the hostage incident is still fresh, it is hard to win the people’s approval for another dispatch. The government needs to find an alternative plan.

On Feb. 11, the foreign ministers of Korea and Japan met in Seoul and agreed on a joint aid program to help Afghanistan. Using official development assistance funds, the two countries will build a job training center in Afghanistan and train vocational teachers together. They also agreed to work together to develop a bean variety that suits the Afghan climate. Moreover, the provincial reconstruction team, which currently has 24 members, will be enlarged to as many as 100.

It is very wise of Seoul to be pursuing a united front with Japan regarding aid to Afghanistan, as the Obama administration considers Japan its closest ally in East Asia.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is responding pre-emptively and wisely in Afghan diplomacy. It is also advisable that the expansion be limited to the civilian level.

Korea has lost two soldiers in Afghanistan already, one in an accident and another by a suicide bombing. Two of the 23 missionary workers taken hostage lost their lives.

Afghanistan is different from the Kurdish region in Iraq, where the Zaytun division was stationed. It is a place with more real and substantial danger. Korea needs to respond to the Obama government’s request on the level of noncombatant, civilian assistance.

*The writer is an editorial writer and traveling correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok
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