Archive | English article RSS feed for this section

Interview with U.S. Vietnam War veteran Don Knorr

7 Nov

The Black Berets in the Brown Waters of Vietnam: The U.S Navy Riverine Patrol Operations.

Based on the interview of Don Knorr, Voice Communications operator in the Vietnam War 1968 – 1971


Don in his Black Beret.

Don Knorr was born January 27, 1949 in Marshville, Wisconsin, USA. Right after he graduated from high school, he volunteered in the US Navy, thinking it would keep him from ending up on the ground in Vietnam, as several other sailors did when they received their draft notices for the Army. This led him to join the Vietnam war from 1968 to 1971, where he worked in voice communications as a radio operator. He served three tours in Vietnam, each of 12 months, and each time he went back, he was assigned some place else. His first assignment from 1968 to 1969 was to escort ships and patrol the South China Sea around Na Bay. His second assignment from 1969 to 1970 was in Ben Ouc, where he patrolled up and down the two rivers Vam Co Dong and Vam Co Tay, located around the Parrot’s Beak: a part of Cambodia coming into Vietnam. His mission there was to prevent the enemy’s infiltration of manpower, foodstuffs, medical supplies, arms, and ammunition into South Vietnam. For his third year (1970-1971) he was assigned to Patrol Boat River operations (PBR’s) where he patrolled a canal that runs along the Western side of Vietnam right below the Cambodian border. Mr. Don Knorr gained extensive experience in riverine patrol operations, which is a fascinating and somewhat overlooked aspect of the war. In this paper, I analyze the purpose of the riverine patrols in the brown waters of Vietnam through the example of Mr Knorr who coordinated these operations through voice communications. This study of riverine patrol operations can help us learn about how American military strategies evolved over the course of the Vietnam War. In order to determine the purpose of the riverine patrols operations, I will first discuss the reason for the US Navy riverine operations in Vietnam. Then I will describe the missions of the Patrol Boat River operations. Finally, I will argue that despite the fact that the US Navy had no formal riverine strategy before entering the Vietnam War those riverine patrols operations were successful in most of their intended missions and contributed to the establishment of a riverine warfare doctrine.


During the interview, Don Knorr declared that everybody in the Navy firmly believed that if you control the rivers of Vietnam you control the whole country. In fact, throughout Vietnam’s history, inland waterways have been vital to the country’s growth and development because they represent arteries of transportation, commerce and communication. The canals and rivers crossing the country, have therefore been key military areas in times of conflict and particularly in the Vietnam War.[1] Many scholars agree that the nature of the geography and demographics in Vietnam ultimately made control of the rivers and coastal regions vital[2]. The Bucklew Report of 1964 emphasized the crucial importance of rivers in Vietnam and influenced the establishment of an American naval presence in the Mekong Delta. In January 1964, Captain Philip H. Buclew with 8 naval officers went to Vietnam as part of the “Vietnam Delta Infiltration Study Group” to determine the extent of Communist movement in the Mekong Delta. The report showed that the enemy forces used South Vietnam’s waterways to transport foodstuffs, medical supplies, infiltrate weapons, equipment, and men[3]. Because the waterways were vital to the enemy, it was inevitable that a significant phase of the counterinsurgency  war  in  Vietnam  would  be  fought  on  water[4].  To   counter  this  flow of material, men and ammunitions, the study recommended that a river force, including both river patrol boats and a landing force, be created[5]. Besides, Naval and military leaders also considered history before deploying a riverine force onto South Vietnamese rivers. William Fulton in Riverine Operations 1966-1969 contends that there was “a tradition of past American success in riverine operations”. All of these documents contributed to the decision of the Secretary of Defense in August 1965 to authorize the navy to wage riverine warfare in Vietnam. On the 18th of December 1965 the River Patrol Force was created under the code name Operation Game Warden[6]. This new force was designated Task Force 116, and Don Knorr later become part of this force.


Don Knorr explained that the missions of the River Patrol Force were broad but could be summarized to four missions.

First, the river boats’ principal mission consisted of monitoring the rivers, stopping and checking people as they come and make sure that they were not carrying weapons. It was his mission during his second tour in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, which was the worst one according to him. They basically assumed the role of “police” in the Vietnam’s rivers. He recalls that in these perilous rivers and canals it was difficult to say who was your friend and who was your enemy so they had to stop and search the vessels.

Don knorr pointed out that it was even harder to distinguish your enemy from your friends in the darkness and that constituted another mission of the patrol river force:  they had to intercept boats at night. Most often the attacks occurred at night, Don confessed that during the day nothing really happened. He explained that you could do either night or day patrolling, but you always alternated. It fluctuated because of staff limitation and the working hours were either 8 hours on and 8 hours off the boat or 12 on and 12 off.

Don Knorr told me that another mission was to transport and infiltrate Navy Seals to a point and then come back to pick them up.

The last mission was to escort ships and protect them from the enemy. Don was assigned this task during his first tour in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969, when he escorted ships from the rivers in Na Bay to the South China sea and vice versa. His own mission in all of these operations was to request backup if a boat was shot, he would immediately call artillery from the Navy and air support. Though, he indicated that the boats always  patrolled  in  pairs  permitting  one  to  cover  the  other  during  searches  or  other investigations and making enemy ambushes less likely to happen[7].

Besides, Don mentioned that each riverine patrol boat (PBR) consisted of a 5 man crew with one person in the front who took care of the two large machine guns. In the driving compartment there were the captain and his assistant. Behind them, one person used another machine gun. Then the last sailor was on board with a smaller caliber (M16) and could go either side of the boat.

Even if the PBR have machine guns at their disposal, Cutler explained that they were usually not heavily armed-equipped  in order to be lighter and faster[8]. Don notified that the PBR’ speed allowed it to be partially protected from shootings, benefitting from extreme maneuverability. Yet Don considers himself very lucky because his role in the army put him in a relatively “safe spot” where his life was not in direct danger at all time compared to the men on the ground. Indeed for his last tour, as an advisor from 1970 to 1971, he never saw a firefight in the canal.

However his job was not without risk, as Don’s most turbulent memory was during his second tour from 1969 to 1970, where he participated in the Operation Giant Slingshot. This operation took place on the Vam Co Tay and Vam Co Dong rivers which converged on the Parrot’s Beak: a part of “neutral” Cambodia that jutted into Vietnam. The goal of this operation was to stop the flow of arms and supplies of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces that came all the way from the north, down on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and destined to resupply  infiltrated  the  troops  in  the  south[9].  According  to  Kirshen,  a  boat  captain who participated in the operation Giant Slingshot, it was a hotly contested area and he witnessed to several shootings. In 1969, a large number of PBRs departed their bases on the Vam Co Dong and established control along the river, as described by Don Knorr during the interview[10]. The Giant Slingshot Operation was a success. Between the 8th of February and the 4th of April, the PBR unit killed more than a hundred enemies while suffering the loss of only two PBRs and four sailors. Besides, a document found on a dead Communist confirmed the effectiveness of the Giant Slingshot operations. The writer complained that the operation “had resulted in heavy loses inflicted on our forces”[11].


Don Knorr, himself believed that the riverine patrol boat operations were successful and beneficial to the overall conduct of the war. The patrol operations certainly succeeded in controlling the traffic of the enemy in the rivers of Vietnam. Yet, we should not draw hasty conclusions,   because   as   Cutler   argues,   it is difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of  the riverine operations for several reasons.

First, it is suspect to claim the success of any component of a lost war, because the ultimate loss of the war makes it doubtful[12].

Furthermore, the activity of infiltration is clandestine and the captures are the only known data while the misses remain unknown. Thus, it is possible that boats passed without the awareness of US intelligence. Besides, without complete testimony from the enemy, it is not possible to assess accurately the effectiveness of the riverine patrol operations. Yet  stories  of Viet Cong soldiers prove that the PBR had prevented them from moving supplies on the river. One even reported he had been without food for two or three days[13].  

Many contemporary analyst join Don Knorr’s affirmation that the Riverine Patrol Operations fulfilled successfully their objectives. It was for sure a significant factor in reducing the enemy’s free use of river lines of communication. As a matter of fact, the North Enemies were forced to change their tactics and moved supplies through the jungle, which was much more complicated than using the rivers. Don Knorr participated directly to the success of the riverine operations by communication with other PBR or calling air support. Indeed, close air support and ground force communication was also essential to the success of riverine forces. The increase of U.S. presence in the delta, especially after 1968, enabled them to infiltrate significant combat forces for the invasion of Cambodia in 1970 and to counter the Communist Easter Offensive north of Saigon in 1972. Besides, the Mekong Delta was one of the last areas to fall into enemy hands in 1975[14]. Cutler explained that the PBR could have been a disaster, because it was tested in an atmosphere of urgency and without doctrine. Instead, Cutler stated that the PBR operation proved to be “a fierce little combatant” that accomplished its mission[15]. According to him, the men who served on the PBRs were the most important factor in the boat’s success. He changed the official meaning of the letters PBR to Proud – Brave and Reliable to characterize the PBR sailors.

More importantly, the river patrol operations added to US knowledge of riverine operations. In fact, despite the Navy’s long history of river operations, in 1965 there were no codified doctrine or manuals on river patrol operations. Initially, the brown water navy centered its tactics on a “body of theory or a collection of ideas based on experience and common sense”. That means that, the first sailors to be deployed in Vietnam conducted their operations only on informal doctrine (reports, verbal orders…)[16]. This lack of formal strategy meant that flexibility was inherent in the river force[17]. With little modern river warfare experience and no doctrine of its own to follow, the U.S. Navy proved adept at organizing, equipping, training, deploying, and supplying combat-ready forces. Based on operational experience and rules of engagement (ROE), the river patrol units developed their own operating procedures and tactics. In fact Don Knorr learned these newly created operation orders in his training in 1968. He remembered from these rules, that you should be careful of what you said on the radio, should not swear and use codes because they were monitored by the enemy. In essence, the century and a half of riverine combat experience culminated in formal publications that produced well-trained and prepared brown water sailors[18]. In 1971, the Navy created the Riverine Warfare Manual which presents concepts and techniques as a guide for riverine warfare. This experience and expertise gained by America’s river warfare forces continues to enlighten more recent military operations by creating a formalized tactical doctrine[19]. In fact, these methods contributed to the success of riverine patrol operations in Iraq, while patrolling the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers[20].


In conclusion, it can be said that Don Knorr offers relevant insights on the Riverine Patrol Operations in the brown waters of Vietnam. His firsthand insight into the Vietnam war helped me understand the purpose of riverine patrols in the brown waters of Vietnam. By the end of the war, the Vietnam Navy had become a combat-hardened force that fought and won many battles and partly secured the country’s inland waterways. Even though the Viet Cong showed an extraordinary ability to adapt their strategy in moving supplies along the Cambodian border into South Vietnam, the riverine patrol operations still managed to considerably reduce enemy movement. In fact, they inflicted real damage on the Viet Cong’s freedom of movement and largely succeeded in most of their intended missions. In the end, the Vietnam War marked a turning point in the emergence of a formalized riverine warfare tactical doctrine for the U.S. Navy. It materialized by the creation of the Riverine Warfare Manual in 1971, in which concepts and techniques are explained to guide officers in the riverine warfare operations.

Réalisé par Léa Berthon, étudiante Master 2, promotion 2018-2019 

Capture d’écran 2018-11-07 à 17.26.38.png

Don’s Tour in South Vietnam (1,2,3)

  1. 1968-1969: Don’s First Tour
  2. 1969-1970: Don’s Second Tour
  3. 1970-1971: Don’s Third Tour


Sans titre.png

The typical patrol boat river (PBR) in the brown waters of Vietnam


Sans titre.png

Voice communication in the river patrol boat



Interviews with Don Knorr, voice communications operator in the US Navy, 1968-1971, Vietnam. February, 17, 2017 / March, 2017.

Kirshen, Richard H. Vietnam War River Patrol: A U.S. Gunboat Captain Returns to the Mekong Delta. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2017.

 Herring, John. America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975. Third Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996.

Marolda, Edward J. and Dunnavent, R. Blake. Combat at Close Quarters: Warfare on the Rivers and Canals of Vietnam. Washington, D.C: Naval History & Heritage Command, 2015.

Cutler, Thomas J. Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal and Riverine Warfare in Vietnam. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988.

Fulton, William B. Vietnam Studies: Riverine Operations 1966-1969. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 1973.

Bassett, William B. The Birth of Modern Riverine Warfare: U.S. Riverine Operations in the Vietnam War. Joint Military Operations Department. Newport, RI: Naval War College, 2006.

Dunnavent, R. Blake. Brown Water Warfare: The U.S. Navy in Riverine Warfare and the Emergence of a Tactical Doctrine, 1775–1970. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003.




[1] Blake R. Dunnavent, Brown Water Warfare: The U.S. Navy in Riverine Warfare and the Emergence of a Tactical Doctrine, 1775–1970 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003), XVII

[2] William Bassett, The Birth of Modern Riverine Warfare: U.S. Riverine Operations in the Vietnam War (Newport, RI: Naval War College, 2006), 3

[3] Edward J. Marolda and Blake R. Dunnavent, Combat at Close Quarters: Warfare on the Rivers and Canals of Vietnam (Washington, D.C: Naval History & Heritage Command 2015), 17.

[4] William B. Bassett, The Birth of Modern Riverine Warfare: U.S. Riverine Operations in the Vietnam War (Newport, RI: Naval War College, 2006), 7.

[5] Blake R. Dunnavent, Brown Water Warfare: The U.S. Navy in Riverine Warfare and the Emergence of a Tactical Doctrine, 1775–1970 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003), 111

[6] Thomas J. Cutler, Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal and Riverine Warfare in Vietnam,(Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988), 159. 6.

[7] Thomas J. Cutler, Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal and Riverine Warfare in Vietnam, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988), 156

[8]  Ibid. p.157

[9] Richard H. Kirshen, Vietnam War River Patrol: A U.S. Gunboat Captain Returns to the Mekong Delta, (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2017), 79.

[10] Blake R. Dunnavent, Brown Water Warfare: The U.S. Navy in Riverine Warfare and the Emergence of a Tactical Doctrine, 1775–1970 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003), 124-125.

[11] Edward J. Marolda and Blake R. Dunnavent, Combat at Close Quarters: Warfare on the Rivers and Canals of Vietnam (Washington, D.C: Naval History & Heritage Command 2015), 53.

[12] Thomas J. Cutler, Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal and Riverine Warfare in Vietnam, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988), 133.

[13] Ibid. 205

[14] Edward J. Marolda and Blake R. Dunnavent, Combat at Close Quarters: Warfare on the Rivers and Canals of Vietnam (Washington, D.C: Naval History & Heritage Command 2015), 79.

[15] Thomas J. Cutler, Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal and Riverine Warfare in Vietnam, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988), 158.

[16] Blake R. Dunnavent, Brown Water Warfare: The U.S. Navy in Riverine Warfare and the Emergence of a Tactical Doctrine, 1775–1970 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003), 129.

[17] Thomas J. Cutler, Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal and Riverine Warfare in Vietnam, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988), 161.

[18] Blake R. Dunnavent, Brown Water Warfare: The U.S. Navy in Riverine Warfare and the Emergence of a Tactical Doctrine, 1775–1970 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003), 132.

[19] Edward J. Marolda and Blake R. Dunnavent, Combat at Close Quarters: Warfare on the Rivers and Canals of Vietnam (Washington, D.C: Naval History & Heritage Command 2015), 79.

[20] “Riverine Fact Sheet,” www., 1-2.




Towards a post-ISAF Partnership Policy for NATO in Central Asia

31 Mai

Une fois n’est pas coutume (mais nous réitérerons sûrement), au moment où l’introduction de cours en anglais à l’université fait débat, Etudes géostratégiques publie son premier article dans la langue de Shakespeare. Nouvelle exception, il est rédigé par une étudiante de 2e année de Sciences Po Aix, Claudia Lostanlen mais la qualité du travail le mérite amplement. La seconde partie du texte sera mise en ligne demain avec une version pdf pour ceux qui souhaiteraient avoir bénéficié de la version avec notes de bas de page renvoyant aux sources utilisées.

Key points :

The ISAF intervention in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2013 was only a qualified sucess

Afghanistan, a country which arouses keen interest in Central Asia

Towards a post-ISAF era, a new Partnership Policy for NATO with Kabul ?





If the naming « Central Asia » is a geographic abstraction from the XXth century, the fact remains that this area is arousing greed in particular among the Russians. Indeed, the territorial ambitions of Russia in Afghanistan explain why this country, acted as a « buffer » between the Russian and the British Empires, in a strategic rivalry known as the « Great Game ». This history explains why Afghanistan was formed more as a strategic battlefield than a country founded on the basis of the general will of its people. The debate over the control of Central Asia recently reopened with the announcement of NATO troop withdrawals in 2014, ending a thirteen-year-old ISAF mission. In the light of these recent developments we are going to focus our attention on the Afghan issue in this article. The objectives of this intervention, carried out under the direction of United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1368 and 1373, seemed to be distinct from the country’s past. The ISAF took part in this initiative to combat the rise of terrorism implanted under the Taliban régime and to train and advise the members of the fledgling government to stabilize their country, in turn protecting international security interests. However, the ISAF operations are inextricably linked with the creation of the Durand Line, which represents the rugged border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and has been targeted by the United States Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) program until June 2012.


The ISAF intervention in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2013 was only a qualified success.


The oversights of a quick and technocratic strategy


Among the errors made during the ISAF mission in Afghanistan, we could remark that international leadership most notably underestimated the durability of the Afghan political institutions. The idea was not only to protect the Afghanistan and the other countries against the threat of terrorism, but also to protect the Afghan State itself from its own excesses. The high paced, military-oriented ISAF strategy is marked most notably by the increase of troops on the ground between 2001 and 2012. During this period of time we saw the number of soldiers start from 1,500 and peak at 130,000 in 2012. While utilizing this tactic had measured successes, the international forces failed to account for the effects on the ground of corruption, Islamic fundamentalism and drug-trafficking. go add to the mix the symbol of easy money that is found with narcotics trafficking still holds strong for the Taliban. Today, the NATO technocrats still define the ISAF mission as a way “to assist the Afghan government in the establishment of a secure and stable environment” and to improve governance “for a sustainable stability by the end of the transition. » Unfortunately the government, under Hamid Karzai, is hindered by an apparent lack of readiness and continues to struggle for legitimacy after electoral fraud in 2009. Once NATO announced the progressive withdrawals, it was already too late to change the Afghan people’s mind, which is highlighted by the reappearance of inter-ethnic violence.

 According to writer and French Army Officer Jean-Pierre Steinhofer, NATO’s failure is understandable because its strategy was never clearly pinned down. At first the aim of the ISAF was to protect Kabul and the region. From there, between 2004 and 2006 the mission expanded to cover the majority of the territory. This approach was divided into four phases, each corresponding to a cardinal heading on a compass. The fact that the original objective was modified is explainable as it is very hard to define a clear enemy in such an asymmetric war. Terrorism seems to be more of a means of action than an enemy that can be defeated. Highlighted by the fact that the very definition of terrorism continues to raise problems for the United Nations even following a special commission in October of 2005 was directed to obtain and establish a precise definition for this notion/concept. It was aimed to concentrate a global policy to fight against terrorism but it produced mixed results. Indeed, the Afghan conflict is an asymmetric war thereby complicating the decision-making on how to combat the terrorist networks in this unforgiving territory.


Year 2011: Revealing the failure of the Reconciliation Policy


Facing such a mobile enemy, the United Nations and NATO, through the ISAF, attempted to achieve a Reconciliation Policy between the Taliban and the new government. To add legitimacy to this process, the High Peace Committee (HPC) was created in October 2010. The HPC, led by Burhanuddin Rabbani, was put in place to call on the insurgents to lay down their arms and start the process towards peace. However, on 21 September, 2011, Rabbani and the mainstay of the Afghan Transition Team, were killed in a suicide attack in Kabul. As a result Afghan president Hamid Karzaï lost a leader who led the program aimed at a peaceful transition in Afghanistan by means of negotiating with the Taliban. As the FT journalist, Matthew Green, said, “The death of such a well-known figure will add to tensions in Afghanistan, where the prospect of NATO combat forces leaving the country by the end of 2014 had kindled fears of a new round of civil war”.

 Following the death of Al-Qaeda leader and founder, Osama bin Laden in May, 2011, President Obama announced the planned troop withdrawals from Afghanistan with a completion goal of 2014. It was assumed that this event would lead to the decline of the terrorism in the region, but this did not prove to be true. The announced departure of the United States troops proved to restore the confidence of the Taliban regime. The untimely assassination of Rabbani demonstrated this increase in violence. According to a Pentagon Report, released in December 2012, that assessed the signs of progress in security and stability in Afghanistan, the situation had steadily worsened in the tribal belt since 2009. This report records an outbreak of high-profile attacks, especially from the Haqqani network, and affirms that the Taliban still possess the capacity to commit terrorist attacks. However, it should be kept in mind that the troop withdrawals are not only due to the death of the terrorist leader but also because of the financial crisis affecting the United States and its allies. According to an article from Courrier International, President Obama said that the United States of America could no longer face the astronomical cost of the troop’s presence in Afghanistan. The war in Central Asia and the Middle East (Iraq and Afghanistan) had already cost $1.3 trillion and had yet to achieve its goals 10 years after the beginning of the operation. High unemployment rate, critical budget deficit and national debt convinced the American president to put an end to a war he himself considered as «necessary».


A general assessment is that the ISAF failed to accomplish its missions since the terrorist networks remain at large in the country, there still exist extreme instability in the transitional government and there is a lack of economic, health and social development in this country. With the relatively fast withdrawal of coalition troops from this territory, an analysis of the regional stakes must be done in order to prevent history from repeating itself by leaving Afghanistan to itself to face the geopolitical aspirations its neighbors, as happened with the departure of the Russian troops in 1989.


Afghanistan, a country arousing keen interest in Central Asia.

Longstanding claims from neighbor states


Pakistan, much like Iran and Russia, is historically linked with the fate of Central Asia, and in particular with the future of Afghanistan. The dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan is the Pashtun people (which represented 42%of the Afghan population in 2007). The Pashtun tribes originate from the mountainous regions of northern Pakistan. However, when the British set up the Mortimer-Durand Line, as a border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, this ethnic group was split into two neighboring countries. The Pashtun people living in Pakistan continue to urge the country to extend its sphere of influence to Kabul. Moreover, Pakistan, which is in a longstanding conflict with India over the region of Kashmir, and ultimately fears of becoming a landlocked country between India and Afghanistan. It would be an enclave between India and Afghanistan if the latter come closer to the Indian policy. This predicament comes from the progressive merger between the Indian and Afghan governments by means of the economic expansion and developmental aid supplied by India in order to stabilize Afghanistan. Thus, Pakistan intends to retain the key-role in the Afghan political scene. Pakistan remains the leading player in the region out of necessity for obtaining the international support to cope with Afghan terrorist threats. Finally, Pakistan views Afghanistan for its geopolitical significance that in the event of an Indian attack through the Kashmir, it would provide the country strategic breathing room.

While Pakistan engages with Afghanistan based on its apparent strategic value, Iran looks at this country from another perspective, sharing an atavistic link with the Transoxiana region. In ancient times the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was a part of the Turkish and Persian empires, which can be more aptly described as an «oikoumene», namely a longstanding cultural community. Modern day Iran wishes to rediscover its ancestral ties with the Central Asian countries that made up the ancient Silk Road. Despite the remote location of the Iranian, Afghan, Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmen people, the existing Farsi literature establishes the cement and the unity of their cultural roots. This could explain why the two million Afghani refugees are turning to Iran asylum over the past twenty years. Iran hopes to foster political stability in Afghanistan after NATO troop withdrawals, so that it brings new trade-related partners. It is also the desire of Iran to reemerge on the international stage, after its isolation provoked by the American political agenda and the UN decisions.

In the end, another country, Russia, defends its sphere of influence as a result of preexisting relations with Afghanistan and more broadly with Central Asia.. The utilization of Afghanistan as a buffer between the Russian and the British Empires dates back to the 19th century. The control of this arena would allow the Russians to reach the sea, thereby opening a sea passage, which was an obsession of the Tsars.  This initiative failed because of British interventions, which were launched anticipating the repercussions of this scenario playing out for the world and more importantly for the gem of the British Empire, India. The Russian territorial claims to these regions remain unchanged as the actual Russian president Vladimir Putin still wishes to spread Russia’s influence beyond its borders so as to safeguard its peripheral areas. According to the French specialist on Russian history, Marc Ferro, “the Russians are the only people in the whole world thinking that colonization constitutes the very essence of its history.” Indeed the Soviet period, which imposed dominance over Afghanistan between 1979 and 1988 and over the other Central Asian countries until 1991, illustrates this quest for influence. This is highlighted by regional cooperation, of which Russia and its neighboring regions are part of, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In addition Russia still supports dictatorships established in its adjoining countries, which are used as potential border guards.


Economic and energy interest in Central Asia


While Russia puts forward cultural and historical reasons to legitimize its territorial claims, one of its true interest is the energy potential of Central Asia. Among the projects dealing with gas and oil field exploitation in the Caspian Sea, it is of note that they could have passed through the Russian territory. This would have allowed Russian companies to exploit hydrocarbon deposits at relatively low prices by signing bilateral agreements with former Soviet satellite states.  Indeed, the controlling portion of oil and gas pipelines would have been extensive since Russia could have decided to block transportations of oil and gas from its periphery to the Western markets. This explains why the Russian pipeline project has been abandoned since the new Central Asian Republics no longer want to remain dependent on Russia for the movement of their goods. The current Russian energy strategy considers Central Asia as a competitor. The core goal of Russia is thus to be involved in hydrocarbon extractions in order to control the reserves of others so that it does not exceed their own. Since the international intervention in Afghanistan, this can only be achieved with the aid of the United States, which could give their endorsement, resulting in an advantage, in the energy exploitation process. Even though the United States and Russia are former enemies the possibility of bilateral agreements exists facing the economic growth of China. Thus, if Russia allows over flights during ISAF missions, the country hopes to be better positioned in the overall post-war energy scene. It is also important to note that the new line envisaged for the energy trade in Central Asia could connect Turkmenistan to India or Pakistan (preliminary agreements for the Trans-Afghanistan pipeline between the three countries were signed in May of last year) This can only be implemented if civil war ends, since oil and gas pipelines will pass through the Afghan territory. Russia is therefore extremely keen to help stabilize tense areas so as to put in place this energy industry.

For Afghanistan, China, recently mentioned above, is the second country that counteracts US reserve bases which have been settled since 2001, the debut of the American intervention. This presents a battle space of a “new Great Game” to be played out between Russia, India and China. The Chinese energy strategy plans to receive its supplies of oil and gas from the Central Asian basins. This comes as a result of a steep increase of its energy demands therefore requiring a diversified list of petroleum suppliers. To achieve this, the Chinese government already started to invest and to strengthen their partnership with Afghanistan and Kazakhstan ($3 billion has been recently invested so as to help in the development of oil extraction and refining. Its involvement in raw materials exploitation in this region might be a double-edged sword. China could transform these countries into ”functional machines”, not only by increasing their exportations, but also by reducing their current operational costs by utilization of light industries. Therefore, we could notice a willingness to open up the region to the international networks, above all under the Chinese economic and energy interests. Finally, China could also wish to control Central Asia, and particularly Kirghizstan, for fear that Islamic fundamentalism would entice Uighurs from Xinjiang and triggers possible separatists movements. Russian and Chinese visions while quite divergent are joined together by the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization), which is aimed at fighting against extremisms, favoring economic cooperation and stabilizing the region. Each of them can satisfy its own needs since Russia uses it to counter NATO and OPEC, and China uses it to reinforce its presence in the energy market.

The dependence on energy from Middle-East is a great concern for global powers, such as China or the United States, the two largest importers of oil. Thus, Central Asia might prove to be the new energy base, circumventing imports from the Persian Gulf. This head-to-head competition between China and the United States urges the latter to counter Chinese and Russian energy policies with its base established during Afghanistan and Iraq interventions. This trend can be seen as early as the first Gulf War in 1991.  The United States has good ground to end the war on terror in Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom) in order to permit a stabilization of the region and to build closer economic relations. The Americans, just as the Europeans, have understood the importance of Central Asia in the new international system and have decided to implement their own foreign policy for this region which is used to push the implementation of a market economy and encourage privatizations. Since the 1990‘s, Europe has been involved in energy projects through various companies, such as Unocal or British Petroleum. Thus, France considers Central Asia as a high consumer of investment funds, services and facilities. This is the background for the recent state visit of the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Laurent Fabius, in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in March 2013. The trip was aimed to revitalize French relations with these countries, described by the Ministry as «a diaspora of high economic potential holding great importance for the stability of Central Asia».


Interests of Afghanistan’s neighboring states could hinder the establishment of a NATO partnership policy that favors the United States and Europe. For the western powers to avoid this situation, it would be necessary to provide a relative small, but consistent NATO presence through agreements between regional actors and international organizations.

La revue de l'Ifri depuis 1979

Études Géostratégiques

Master II Géostratégie, défense et sécurité internationale. Sciences Po Aix

Latin America Watch

Latin America Watch est un blog de veille et d’analyse de la situation des pays d’Amérique Latine.

Theatrum Belli

Master II Géostratégie, défense et sécurité internationale. Sciences Po Aix : Géopolitique, stratégie, relations internationales et cartes

Master II Géostratégie, défense et sécurité internationale. Sciences Po Aix

Foreign Affairs Feed

Master II Géostratégie, défense et sécurité internationale. Sciences Po Aix -

Master II Géostratégie, défense et sécurité internationale. Sciences Po Aix

Historicoblog (3)

Master II Géostratégie, défense et sécurité internationale. Sciences Po Aix

Lignes de défense

Master II Géostratégie, défense et sécurité internationale. Sciences Po Aix


Master II Géostratégie, défense et sécurité internationale. Sciences Po Aix

Master II Géostratégie, défense et sécurité internationale. Sciences Po Aix

La voie de l'épée

Master II Géostratégie, défense et sécurité internationale. Sciences Po Aix