This article is a Pakpotpourri Exclusive offered to us for exclusive running in Pakistan
During the Cold War era, the limits of national power between the two global powers was defined by the need to stay short of the threshold of nuclear tolerance of the other power i.e. while fighting ‘proxy wars’, never pose a threat that could escalate to a nuclear exchange which could end up destroying the world.
The disintegration of the USSR left the US as the sole super power and there seemed to be no limits to the extent to which it could exert national power. Slowly, the US began to flex its muscles and each time it went unchallenged, emboldened it further and further, till it was convinced that it could get away with anything. And in this fond belief, the US began to make the very same error made by the erstwhile USSR, which had caused its implosion; the US also began to stretch itself militarily, beyond its economic capabilities.
Now all this was not sheer idiocy; the US had expectations of economic gains. In Afghanistan; apart from Afghanistan’s store of untapped resources, the opening of a “Silk Route” from Central Asia, via Afghanistan-Pakistan would have more than made up for the expenses incurred during the war. In Iran, cheap oil could have resulted in the same.
Of course, both ventures would have only made the rich in the US richer and ordinary Americans might still have found it necessary to occupy Wall Street; but books could have been balanced. However, as they say, ‘the best laid plans…’.
Iraq refused to extend the period of US forces on their soil and US forces left without gaining anything financially substantial for their enormous expense incurred.
In Afghanistan, the US is again facing defeat while China and India seem to be walking away with mineral rights! It was generally accepted by the US that, when it came to a negotiated settlement on Afghanistan, Pakistan could be relied upon to use its relations with the Taliban; and, of course, Pakistan was a faithful pet dog that could always be brought to heel!
But then the unbelievable began to happen. In March 2010, the US President was very politely told by Pakistan’s army chief that he would not “obey” US demands that ran contrary to Pakistani interests. The Raymond Davis fiasco was turned into a “priceless opportunity” by the Pakistan army and ISI to oust the hundreds of CIA agents operating in Pakistan.
Operation Geronimo killed Osama bin Laden and embarrassed the military/ISI but they still survived. Memogate and the massacre of 26 Pakistani soldiers, including two officers at Salala were also embarrassments but merely seemed to strengthen Pakistan’s resolve. As I wrote in an earlier article, “this dog refused to come to heel again” and, while the domestic political scene in Pakistan is fraught with uncertainty and insecurity, the US has played all its cards and lost.
Gen Clark, on behalf of NATO has completed his investigation; a report that Pakistan has rejected. How far relations between the two countries will be restored is something time alone will tell; both countries are fully aware that relations will never again return to the pre-2011 level, nor will Pakistan facilitate talks with Afghans if they run contrary to its own interests.
Consequently, the US is looking at other options to strengthen its position by helping to open offices for Taliban in Qatar. Further, they are contemplating the release of Mullah Muhammed Fazl as a gesture of goodwill.
Mullah Fazl has been incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay for just over a decade. He was a very trusted general in Mullah Omer’s regime despite the fact that he was renowned for his cruelty. Apart from being personally responsible for the death of hundreds (some say many thousands) of Shia Hazarvis, he is accused of executing seven Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif.
The US is under tremendous pressure to be seen as being in control. With Europe caught in its economic crisis, none of US’ European partners are prepared to commit to an open ended term in Afghanistan. President Obama, coming up for re-election will look very silly if he is deserted by NATO. Consequently, he cannot afford to let the Chicago summit meet the same fate as the Istanbul and Bonn Conferences in November/December last year; thus the urgency accelerated pace of “talking to Taliban”.
While Mullah Fazl’s release and dispatch to Qatar could turn out to be a master-stroke to bring Mullah Omer to the table, but the gamble smacks of desperation. Fazl has been absent for a decade; new centers of power have emerged among the Taliban, most noteworthy being the Haqqani Network. Will the Haqqanis accept Fazl as their superior? Can Mulla Omer risk even asking them to do so?
Meantime, Pakistan hasn’t sat idle either. While stating that Iran has legitimate interests in Afghanistan is merely stating the obvious, but Pakistan has spent so long in the US’ pocket that the foreign office spokesman, Abdul Basit’s statement, “Establishing sustainable security and stability in Afghanistan is impossible without Iran’s role. To establish security and reinvigorate Afghanistan, Iran must be given due attention and must be trusted, because pushing the trend of peace and establishing durable security and stability without Iran’s partnership is impossible” was a very refreshing change.
A clarion warning, not only to US/NATO but also to the Taliban seeking Pakistani support; this statement made it clear that Afghanistan too has to live with its neighbors.
Fazl’s return is viewed uneasily, not only in Tehran, but also in Moscow and Central Asia. Fazl used to be responsible for the province of Kunduz and assisted all Islamist movements in Central Asia.
Nor has Moscow been inactive. Since it began its modest economic recovery in 2004/5, it has been mending fences with China, to their mutual benefit and, with Chinese approval; it has begun to re-exert its influence in Central Asia. Not only do we now have the SCO, but Russia has also created the Collective Security Treaty Organization, CSTO. Its members include: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
December last year, CSTO came up with an astonishing resolution which said, “The most important outcome of our meeting was an agreement on the coordination of military infrastructure deployment by non-members of CSTO on the territory of CSTO member states. Now, in order to deploy a military base of a third country on the territory of a CSTO member state, it will be necessary to obtain official approval of all CSTO member states. I think this is a clear sign of the organization’s unity and its members’ utmost loyalty to allied relations.”
Thus, in one fell blow putting to rest US’ and Indian aspirations of military bases in the region.
Commenting on this, former Indian diplomat, M K Bhadrakumar notes that:
“The last sentence was dripping with irony since the Obama administration had just recently taken a decision to provide military assistance to Uzbekistan in a policy turnaround with the intent to hijack the key Central Asian country to undermine the CSTO. To Washington’s dismay, Uzbek President Islam Karimov not only attended the CSTO summit in Moscow, but went on to voice his support of the alliance’s decision.
With this, Moscow signaled to Washington that its monopoly of conflict-resolution in Afghanistan has to end. The US has a choice to crawl back into Pakistan’s favor and persuade Islamabad to reopen the transit routes that have been shut down for a month already or, alternatively, fall back on the Northern Distribution Network for supplying NATO troops and for taking the men and materials out as the troop drawdown picks momentum through 2011.
The CSTO decision hangs like a sword of Damocles on the US base in Manas near Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, which is a strategic hub for air transportation.”
And let’s not forget that apart from the expense and difficulties being faced by US/NATO by being forced to rely exclusively on the “Northern Route”, due to which NATO spokesman admits that “we have supplies for only a few months”; Russia has also put the use of that supply route under threat by linking it to US’ decision to deploy the strategic nuclear defense shield in Europe.
While there are no indications that Russia and Pakistan are acting in unison, it is obvious that Russia also wants to mend fences with Pakistan, having lost India to the US. With Russu-Chinese cooperation on the one hand, the strengthened CSTO on the other; coupled with Pakistan playing its cards cleverly, balancing Iran and the Taliban, the US options in Afghanistan seem to have become increasingly limited and, as Bhadrakumar also notes, Pakistan’s role resumes its critical importance.
And so, the New Great Game, NGG, with the resources of Central Asia and Afghanistan, and containment of US vs Russia, China, and Iran goes on; but not without counter moves by emerging and re-emerging centers of power, along with the relatively insignificant countries like Pakistan.
China has followed the Russian example of announcing itself ready for another World War. Iran is threatening US’ oil supplies in the Straits of Hormuz.
It seems that intentionally or unintentionally, international compulsions and maneuvers are driving home to the US that its powers are not unlimited. A difficult lesson for the (still) sole super power to learn; but the sooner it learns it, the better off the world will be.
The writer is a retired brigadier from the armed forces of Pakistan & a known political commentator based in Rawalpindi.