January 05, 2010

“Smart power” and “bear traps” in the Hindu Kush

Source: Strategic Culture Foundation

31.12.2009
M.K. BHADRAKUMAR (India)

The US President Barack Obama threw down the gauntlet at the regional powers with his latest Afghan strategy. The constructive ambiguity in his strategy falls in the Kissingerian tradition of negotiating tactic. In a climate of deeply polarized political opinion, he is free to advance matters of vital US interests, while retaining the prerogative to revisit unresolved questions at a date of his choice.

This leaves major regional powers – Pakistan, Iran, India, China and Russia – in some quandary. Obama taunted them to respond within 58 days when they assemble for the London conference on “Afghanisation” on January 28. That’s a tough call.

To be sure, the regional powers are placed at a disadvantage as their internecine tensions preclude scope of a regional initiative materializing. Obama’s strategy is all that is left, therefore, on the table. Pakistan and India are locked in adversarial embrace and that creates much geopolitical space for the US. No doubt, the US military presence seriously destabilized Pakistan. The latest anti-Shi’ite serial terrorist strikes in Karachi testify that in the name of the Taliban, all sorts of forces are operating inside Pakistan – ranging from the CIA to the Blackwater security firm to Wahhabi elements. Pakistan faces a stark choice – fall in line with the US geo-strategy and earn American goodwill, or face the consequences of recalcitrance.

As for the India, Washington holds out the comfort line that Obama is bent on “stabilizing” Pakistan. Washington’s noble endeavour of cleansing Pakistan of militancy pleases Delhi although there is some ennui. At any rate, Delhi is raring to contribute to the “Afghanisation” of the war. Being a natural ally, there is no choice but to cooperate with Washington’s entreaties. On top of it all, there is the larger preoccupation of “catching up” with China’s surge, which modulates the Indian mind at all hours.

Iran presents a case by itself. The US has succeeded in shaking the foundations of Iran-Russia strategic understanding, which was a historic legacy of Evgeniy Primakov’s astute diplomacy with his Iranian counterpart Ali Akbar Velayati to bring the bloody Tajik civil war to an end. The erosion of Russia-Iran understanding enables Washington to make the brazen attempt at “regime change” in Tehran. The geopolitics of the Greater Middle East hangs in the balance. Of course, Tehran withstood ferocious US assaults in the past and the revolutionary heritage is far from dissipated. Also, China’s continued support impacts on the co-relation of forces.

China’s role is immensely important also with regard to the efficacy of the US policy toward Pakistan. The US ability to “pressure” China is limited and hence Washington’s smart overture for a Sino-American joint venture in South Asia. But China remained reticent, keeping in mind the “big picture” of the security inter-linkages of Xinjiang with Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

America keenly wanted China to wet its toes in the fight against al-Qaeda and Taliban but the latter knew a military involvement could prove to be a dangerous gambit. Pakistan presents itself as a showcase of the “collateral damage” of the US-led war. China, which was an accomplice of the Americans in the great Afghan jihad of the 1980s against the Soviet Union, would also know that the US has incredible methods of “synergizing” militant Islam – and, in the present case, Xinjiang’s stability is involved.

The US is conscious that China (and Russia) does not share its predicament of being in the crosshairs of the Islamists operating in the Hindu Kush. While it got bogged down in a security quagmire, China wisely focused on commerce. Life can be cruel at times. As the doughty scholar on Xinjiang, Frederick Starr told the New York Times, “We [US] do the heavy lifting. And they [China] pick the fruit”.

Thus, in a startling show of “smart power”, the US has presented Taiwan with an invitation to render “non-military” assistance to Afghanistan. It is an invitation that Taipei cannot spurn, as it comes alongside a huge US arms package and in the downstream it holds out the tantalising prospect that Taipei may look a rising star. Arguably, Washington is cocking a snook at Beijing for its refusal to cooperate with Obama’s Afghan (or Iranian) strategy by muddying the waters in the Taiwan Straits.

Russia’s position is equally delicate. Obama’s war is helpful for Russia to the extent that it may arrest the march of Islamism into the heart of Central Asia. Russia has provided supply routes for the NATO countries. Conceivably, Russia regards cooperation in Afghanistan to be helpful for the “reset” of its US ties. Now comes the testy part. Like with China, Washington wants Moscow to wet its toes in the Afghan war. It wants Moscow to supply weapons and to dispatch military advisors to train Afghan armed forces.

However, the fact remains that although the overall atmosphere of ties with the US has improved, the reset as such remains hostage to a range of issues – missile defence, NATO expansion, Moscow’s acquiescence with the containment strategy toward Iran, etc. Meanwhile, in bits and pieces, what emerges is also that far from lapsing into an isolationist policy, the US is searching for a robust geopolitical engagement in the post-Soviet space in Central Asia.

In effect, Washington wants Moscow to help consolidate the US military presence in Afghanistan, which would pave the way for an expansion of American influence in the Greater Middle East, including Central Asia. Unsurprisingly, Russia seems to face a dilemma somewhat similar to China’s but then, Russia-US engagement has a far more complicated history. Obama’s emphasis on “Afghanisation” is welcome. But the medium and long-term US intentions remain obscure. All evidence points toward a long-term – even open-ended – US military presence in Afghanistan. Any lingering doubt was dispelled when in front of the crème de la crème of the American Right, gathered under the canopy of the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, Senator McCain openly vowed to be Obama’s “ally in this effort”.

McCain is an indefatigable warrior who leaps out of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Eurasian chessboard. McCain saw three great virtues in Obama’s Afghan strategy. First, Obama affirmed a “counterinsurgency” (as against “counterterrorist”) strategy, which was what the Pentagon passionately sought. Second, “large numbers of US combat troops will likely remain in Afghanistan long after July 2011”. Three, following from the above, the US will remain the “only actor in the region with the strength and the stake” to “check and counter” external influences that are “unhealthy” and to ensure on a long-term footing that Afghanistan ceases to be “a field of regional competition and proxy battles”.

McCain summed up with total clarity of mind that “our [US’s] regional strategy must turn military gains [in Afghanistan] into diplomatic leverage outside the country”.

In fact, the US strategy of widening the gyre of the Afghan strategy to draw in the Central Asian states, is steadily gaining momentum. A study conducted recently by the influential Center of Strategic and International Studies in Washington titled “The Northern Distribution Network and the Modern Silk Road” (co-authored by Starr) http://csis.org/files/publication/091217_Kuchins_NorthernDistNet_Web.pdf proposes the coalescing of Central Asia with the AfPak as the crucial underpinning of the entire US geo-strategy towards Greater Middle East, Russia and China.

As diplomats from the regional capitals warily trudge toward the London conference on “Afghanisation”, there will be a lot on their mind. Is “Afghanisation” a genuinely collective effort under UN leadership? Or is it a mere “bear trap” under a new rubric? There hangs a tale. The chilling reality is that Taliban, too, will be watching – having made clear it will look back in anger at foreign powers that associate with the US’s intervention in the three-decade old fratricidal war.

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