Political implications of another Afghan war


US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister have eloquently detailed the aims of the war. It is going to be a long, determined fight against (international) terrorism wherever to be found; it will be like no other war before and is not going to be confined to Afghanistan. Iraq has been indicated as the next objective. The world is debating the subject in depth. Most of the emphases in the debate is on the concept of terrorism, its definition, causes and the best means of countering it. But there are so many implications, concomitants and consequences of it in terms of geo-strategy and politics at the international level that are simply unavoidable — indeed are inherent in the process of large militarily significant troop movements and deployment of military assets, especially into contested areas. The theoretical debates about and consequences can go on but become a sideshow to the geo-political changes attendant on strategic troop movement. It is a subject of surpassing interest to those who concern themselves with national security.

From an international viewpoint, stated war aims are scarcely ever taken at face value. Other people, especially those who are responsible observers/commentators or officials concerned with security of a state, look more at the inevitable changes in the correlation of forces or balance of power in a particular region and at the likely alterations in the international situation. It does not mean that the stated aims are insincerely made or are not well meant. That whole subject of personal sincerity is beside the point in studying the larger consequences of well-meant moves. What is important for the responsible opinion makers is the not necessarily intended changes in the international situation and comparative strengths of various active players of the international power games. 

Thus the noble aim of cornering, killing or countering the Osama bin Laden’s network of Islamic terror ensconced in Afghanistan may be all very well. But the point is what will be the consequences of the Anglo-American moves? Some of these are quite obvious, no matter what do the Americans think their motive was in doing what they have done. In terms of deployed power and the perceptions it has generated, it is clear that what is called Middle East — in fact the area from Morocco to Oman — was an American backyard, the politics of which was only an American concern. American wishes were, and are, supreme in this whole region and no one ever tried to counter them because the US military power, represented chiefly by Sixth, Fifth and Seventh fleets, bolsters American position in this otherwise volatile region. The US is ably assisted politically by Britain which too has economic interests: investments in oil companies that are engaged in extracting hydro-carbons throughout this region with friendly agreement with the US. It is as a token of that partnership that British naval and air power supplements the burdens on the US military commanders.

As for South Asia, its position has been peculiar. It was the only tacitly agreed area of detente there was between the two superpowers from the earliest days of cold war. It was based on a combination of several factors. They were the British abilities and knowledge of both the Arabs of the Gulf and the Subcontinent, the latter’s fearful complexities and the perception of India emerging eventually as a major power that had to be courted on a long-term basis. Nehru’s able foreign policy, based on a success of democratic institutions and making India stable, created a pro-India school in American academia. The Soviets and Americans agreed to leave India and rest of South Asia out of cold war contest. Only Pakistan was loosely and warily taken onboard by the Americans, though they took extreme care not to become a full member of the Baghdad Pact, later CENTO, mainly to allay Nehru’s fears. Pakistan’s integration into western power system was never similar to, say Turkey’s or Iran’s or South Korea’s; it was partial. Care was taken not to offend India too much. The point is, west deliberately exercised restraint and did not try to dominate South Asia to an extent that the Soviets accepted this American restraint in good faith and joined in with matching restraint, despite the US facilities at Badabere, near Peshawar or PIA’s odd intelligence jobs. It is changing only now with the US forcefully advancing north from the Gulf aggressively that is sure to have longer-term effects whether or not intended. 

Now the situation is that the US has, in part and mainly notionally – rather theoretically – has moved not only into South Asia — using three or four exclusive air bases in Pakistan and the likelihood at the time of writing remains of American ground troops being eventually stationed there and elsewhere in Pakistan – but more importantly in central Asia: bases for ground troops in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan already exist. In fact this notionally bypasses, as well as encircles, South Asia from at least three sides. Indeed if physical geography is kept in view, very large parts of Asia should now be treated as being within the sphere of American influence exerted through deployed military strength. The willing conversion of India into a US satellite means that much of South Asia has fallen into the American power structure, notwithstanding Pakistan’s squeamishness and public opinion. Its succumbing to US pressure into fully cooperating with the US reduces Pakistan into a sort of occupied territory, in view of wide-scale support of the entire Right wing to Taliban in this country. How far into central Asia has the American influence penetrated and what of Russia and other powers in Asia? Let us see each major power in turn.

Take Iran first. It feels nervous. Might it be next in the line of the accused of being rogue state, or for protecting, terrorists. American ill will for Iran, often not without a historical context, is well-known. Iran was much safer so long as Afghanistan remained a neutral buffer between the Soviets and the US power system, earlier represented by the partial and notional alignment of Pakistan with the US and of course the undoubted US military power with a long reach. Today, from an Iranian viewpoint, it is as good as the Americans having actually entered Afghanistan. This nearly completes Iran’s encirclement by western military forces. In the west is Turkey and Iraq, both of which were western outposts, though Iraq for practical purposes has collapsed as a military entity, opening a chink of light for Iran. In the south there is the Persian Gulf, now infested with American military. In the east, Afghans had posed a threat of anarchy during the last 10 years, further complicated by Pakistan’s linkages with Taliban and other Afghan warlords. Now, the inimical US notionally dominates this mountainous central Asian gateway into central Asia proper and South Asia; to Iran this vividly brings back all the dangers to ward off which Afghanistan was accepted as a neutral buffer state. In Iran’s north, American oil companies are entrenched in Azerbaijan, with whom Iran had bad blood and historic disputes. Other former central Asian republics, hungry for high technology and foreign investments, have either invited American forces as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have done or have been infiltrated in a political and cultural sense by the US or may succeed in doing so. Iran has everything to fear from the US strategic advance north from its old stronghold of Gulf Sheikhdoms. 

Russia’s was a major influence in all of central Asia. Its current need for IMF cash and western aid and investments has made it a toothless tiger. All the promise that one had thought was inherent in the apparent success of China’s strategy of a rapprochement with Russia after a 30 to 34 years hiatus of rivalry and cold war seems to be at grave risk by Russian weakness. Otherwise a Sino-Russian axis would have prevented America’s advance or sharply reduced political and diplomatic role in Asia from sweeping away every other influence. And which may not have allowed American capital to have imposed its own terms on all and sundry in Asia. Russians, it looks, theoretically agree with China but are not ready to oppose American wishes no matter on what subject. In one’s judgement, the Russians have become an unreliable partner who will ditch China in the hope of a few billion dollars in investments or credits from the west. Russia’s stubborn and rapid economic slide that started in Gorbachev’s time has not halted and Russian policy will remain susceptible to its economic uncertainties. Anyhow, Russia is in retreat from at least central Asia and is caught in a situation where it has to win western, mainly American goodwill for the preservation of Russian Federation’s integrity on quite insufficient and unreliable grounds. 

The primary impact of America’s strategic advance, i.e. militarily into Afghanistan and stationing of US troops in Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, with India over eager to place its bases and other facilities — troops? — at the disposal of the US, is to preempt our oust China from central Asia in the first place and to create conditions in which the inherent potential of the Sino-Soviet reconciliation can be frustrated. It is possible to note that the US was mighty worried by the fast growth of China’s power, its growing influence in Asia, especially as a result of Sino-Soviet strategic consensus. China’s lead by forming the Shanghai Five (later Six) to counter Taliban — about whom the US ambiguity has not quite ended more than a month into the war — did not go down well with the US. What China was doing in Pakistan, it seems, must have aggravated the American suspicions. 

The US has long viewed the growth of Sino-Pakistan ties with suspicion, especially its putative role in the development of Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programmes. Even as Pakistan-India relations plunged in recent past, especially after Kargil and Agra, Pak-China ties had gone on improving. Its highest point must have been reached when Pakistan granted the contracts for the development of Gwadur deep sea port and the Mekran highway to the Chinese. The US Admirals and security thinkers could only have read these decisions as a provocative gesture of defiance by Pakistan. There was a report that was not followed up later that there was some kind of understanding with China about some of Gwadur’s facilities being made available to the Chinese navy in some circumstances. Even a cursory look at Gwadur’s location, cheek by jowl with the Iranian base of Chah Bahar and not too far from Straits of Hormuz, made the idea of Chinese presence seem threatening to the crucially important chokepoint for the strategic oil trade to the Far East and Europe. A hostile power ensconced in Gwadur can threaten even the American fleet in the Gulf by dominating the chokepoint. 

Some of the observers have felt that the US, with its determination to stay on in the Gulf to keep Israel and the Sheikhs secure from their Arab people could simply not have tolerated these developments being completed normally. While the causes of Sept 11, terrorist attacks on World Trade Towers in New York and Pentagon in Washington and the exact identity of attackers still remains to be conclusively proven, the alacrity with which the attention was focused on Afghanistan and the visible hostility with which the Americans initially regarded Pakistan were significant developments. It appears they dusted out obscure war plans from the shelves. That shows contingency plans vis-a-vis Pakistan and Afghanistan existed. They have been made so much easier by Musharraf government’s quick turnaround to support the US. But a mainly anti-Chinese drift of current US strategic moves can scarcely be missed. 

At any rate, it does look as if the Americans were desirous of advancing into central Asia and had plans for the purpose that could be implemented behind the cover provided by terrorist attacks of Black Sept 11 or some other contingency. What has happened is a giant step for achieving the objective of China’s containment. For over a year, the US was urging and inducing President Vladimir Putin of Russia to take a hard military line against Taliban who are said to be stoking the fires of revolt in Chechnya and even Xingjiang. That urging was in competition with China’s political approach through Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The US wanted to cooperate in the military effort with the Russians and central Asians. In contrast, the US stayed cool about the Chinese SCO. The immediate objective of all that Persuasion of Russia was to put elements of American military in central Asia. American diplomacy seemed to have achieved a significant amount of success in Uzbekistan by last year (2000). The Chinese seemed to have regarded this American influence in Uzbekistan as a setback. The Chinese can scarcely be blamed if they see the recent inrush of US troops — still in small numbers that are sure to grow with time — in central Asia as making their western flank vulnerable while it faced western allies in the east and American troops in the north. Its southern borders are protected by geography, though India’s political orientation is too pro-American for comfort. At any rate, China has no reason to look at the implications of the American moves with complacency. Few can forget that the US is still in search of a more credible — and durable — enemy to justify vastly increased defence spending that a Republican Administration habitually undertakes.

India has already been touched on. It is pining for a more active role in America’s war against terrorism. It is a country that has welcomed American initiatives in indecent haste. Its anti-Pakistan and anti-Chinese psychoses are well-known. As time passes and BJP government lasts, India is sure to move into a tight embrace with the US. Pakistan’s public life is divided, indeed polarised, into modernists and pro-Taliban religious extremists whom China can scarcely love, though they profess to be pro-Chinese. The ruling elite has been pro-America as also anti-India in an irrational way, lurching from one crisis to the next setbacks. The country is at bay, virtually at the mercy of the US for both economic and political reasons, while the US still has reasons to punish Pakistan for its crude way of trying to play the Chinese card in order to counter America’s pro-India tilt. 

The Indians and Pakistanis remain intransigently unreconciled. That has diminished both in stature and weight in international affairs. Despite a long tradition of leaving South Asia alone in American policy, this is now giving way to the launching of a serious western move into the Subcontinent by somehow integrating both India and Pakistan into the US system. This is sure to cause trouble in days to come, unless the Americans can successfully manage both India and Pakistan after they succeed in ejecting China from their secure position in Islamabad. That is why they keep Pakistan on a tight financial leash in a way that preempts Pakistan’s freedom of action, while the price they propose to pay is a few sympathetic-seeming but ambiguous American gestures on Kashmir. 

For Asians as a whole, the Americans look like closing in on them. Much of Far East and southeast Asia is pro-American and is bolstered by American-Japanese alliance and Australian power. In the north east the Americans are militarily present and if the US presence in central Asia becomes a familiar fact of life, their overall control over the most populous Continent will be near-complete and it will be able to control, isolate and corner recalcitrant countries, Russia being kept quiescent through financial instruments. This is what this Afghan war might result in — unless new and unpredicted forces somehow get released.