There can be no doubt about the plenitude of power of the US. There is also no doubt that it is on the march. It has been so for sometime but the pace of events has been quickening after President George W. Bush adumbrated his Axis of Evil theory and began the grand crusade against International Terrorism – after the terrorist attacks against several US targets in September 2001.
The people in South Asia the situation until Sept. ’01 could perceive that the American power was globally dominant and that it had tremendous influence in many Asian countries such as South Korea, Japan and that, as a result of its alliance with many others, meant that it was, for all practical purposes, sitting in all the strategic areas in Asia. Its reach was truly all Asian in a way that made America a virtual neighbour of almost every Asian country. But the kind of change that the War against Terrorism, beginning with Afghanistan has brought about makes the situation insistently clearer. It is also more intrusive for South Asians in particular.
Until Sept 01, again from the viewpoint of South Asians, American power was mainly anchored in the Middle East in several ways: it had the largest unsinkable aircraft carrier that is, of course, Israel. It is loaded with all manner of weaponry and fighting skills, including the largest nuclear deterrent in Asia, perhaps larger than China and India’s. But other than that the American military – air force, ground troops, marines and navy – were present in the Middle East in strategic locations like bases in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bahrain and of course the Fifth and Seventh fleets are also more or less massively present in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea from time to time or when needed. The change brought about by the war on Afghanistan was that the US military colossus moved north from the Middle East and Persian Gulf, both militarily and physically. It swept over much of Central Asia, taking in the whole of South Asia in its sweep. Indian and Pakistani military forces are a sort of bipod for American power insofar as the particular region, South Asia, is concerned as also for Central Asia.
The heart of the Central Asia comprises Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. The Americans are physically present in all of them, except Turkmenistan, which does not seem to have any American military base, though American influence there has been quite comfortably at home there. America has military bases in all other countries; Kazakhastan and Azerbaijan are the only other countries where America does not have bases but has plenty of influence, based especially on its oil interests. All these countries are not merely ready to allow the stationing of American troops and equipment but have already permitted overflying by US aircraft. Given the friendly relationship between Russia and America, with all its frustrations for the Russians, it may be assumed in a rough and ready way that all of Asia, west and north of China is now solidly either a part of the American power system (its imperium), or is at peace with it.
It will be a mistake to ignore that the great American imperium begins and ends over only this part of Asia. The only large country that can be said still to be not a part of the American imperium and is independent is China. But Japan is an integral part of the American military juggernaut. So is, in a manner of speaking, Taiwan. The position of the South Asian nations is that the American troops are not present on their soil. But their relationship with America is of crucial importance today. Currently, like China there is another exception in a limited current political terms, which is Malaysia. All others, for practical purposes should be taken as within the sphere of American influence, virtually in all senses of the term. What makes it doubly sure is the power and alliance of Australia and New Zealand with the US. That leaves very little of Asia to the Asians in an obvious sort of way.
The question of questions is what goes on inside this colossal imperium? It would be impossible to cover all parts of Asia in this article. Since the point of view here is centred on South Asia, it is best to take South Asia itself and areas of Central Asia that adjoin on it and something about China. To begin with, South Asia is the world’s queerest place. The region is dominated by two powers, India and Pakistan. Both are nuclear weapons powers and both are bitter rivals with extraordinarily tense relations. Popular expectations in both countries have been that of a war that can easily degenerate into a nuclear war. The armies of India and Pakistan, backed by their air forces and in their own fashion by their navies, are in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation on the borders, with nuclear sabre-rattling from time to time. And yet both are serving the same master playing more or less an active part in the War against International Terror. Americans find not much difficulty in coping with the situation. Indeed they are tackling the situation with aplomb. But if the massing of the Indian troops on the border with Pakistan and the latter’s counter deployment are as actively hostile as seems to be, how can the American purposes be fulfilled by two such mutually-inimical friends who look inward into the region, ready to go to war with each other rather than with the main enemy of America: terrorism. But the Americans are not greatly bothered. Apparently there is something that we do not know and the Americans do, giving rise to the suspicion that either the confrontation between India and Pakistan over the borders may not be as hostile as it appears on the surface, or there may be aspects that are not obvious. At any rate, the politics of the two countries is in a mess of their own making.
In India, power is being exercised by BJP and its allies at the Centre with only one state remaining under its control. The state where BJP directly rules is Gujarat. It is burning with anti-minority pogrom in which the state government is widely being implicated. It is supposed to be complicit with Hindu fanatics in the view of many foreign observers like Britain, EU and several others. The Americans have said a few deprecatory things in a proforma sort of way and have marched on. In Pakistan we have a military government that is extraordinarily dear to the US for its cooperation in the war against Afghanistan and is engaged in actively pursuing Al-Qaeda men. The US is more or less satisfied with the level of Pakistani effort and its sincerity. The Americans could not have found a better regime in Pakistan than the one there is. They do say that Pakistan should make the transition to democracy – on the record. But that is more or less proforma. Wouldn’t they? The Americans would clearly like the Pakistan armed forces to remain in power under a democratic label, if possible. General Musharraf is sure to acquire a label of working democracy before too long. But the point is that the US is making do with the two such allies as India and Pakistan that are so inimical to each other and are so engrossed with each other: how can the purposes of US imperium be efficiently served by India and Pakistan? It is to be noted that the Americans are not too seriously dissatisfied with the state of affairs and they say so. The politics of the two countries is confrontational towards each other and is devoted to militarisation that is aimed at each other. Not that it is something extraordinary that the Americans would dislike per se; it is the standard conservative politics and the Americans are quite at home with it, with all their Latin American experience. There is the heart of darkness in the middle of all the blinding clarity. There it is and we have to take it as it is.
Let us then move on to Afghanistan proper, the centrepiece of the War so far. The Americans have bombed Afghanistan to an extent that the infrastructure has been reduced to very little. They are in the process of putting together some $ 10 billion or more in order to rebuild it. As a preliminary, they have roughhewed a government for it outside Afghanistan. Following the traditions set by Pakistan in 1992, they have ferried this new-born government from Bonn to Kabul and installed it on December 22. Its head is Hamid Karzai — a clear political featherweight if ever there was one. In order to reinforce him, the old deposed King Zahir Shah has been wheeled in, who, with the magic of his name, is expected to stabilise the Karzai regime. Those who know the Afghans laugh in their sleeves. The course of the war itself, according to them, should make the people uneasy, including Americans who have been congratulating themselves on their magnificent victory too quickly and too early. What happened was that it was a more or less one-sided war. The Americans attacked and bombed from the air. The Taliban retreated and indeed wilted and some say melted away. How many Taliban have died and how many of them are roaming in mountains are facts that have not been adequately investigated. Anti-American elements that abound in Pakistan think that the Al-Qaeda and Taliban men are still numerous enough and safe enough. They are sure to regroup and fight a hit and run war. It cannot be a guerilla war in the sense of what it was in China or Vietnam. Ideology, it is said, is lacking.
While Islamic Fundamentalism is said to be such an ideology, it is of a different genre and does not involve the same alchemy of a guerilla war that made Red Army in China triumph over all other forces. The guerilla war’s alchemy resides in the mobilization of the people and involvement of the people in active warfare in suitable ways. Islamic Ideology provides enough incentives and reason to fight and die. But is not attuned to the guerilla kind of warfare. It is more suitable to produce dedicated snipers, ambush makers and possibly suicide bombers were Afghans not so pragmatic. And this is what awaits the Americans in Afghanistan, Pakistani experts say. The war is quite far from having been won. The Americans have still to go a long way.
Insofar as Karzai regime is concerned, the Americans and the others know that it exists within the four walls of government buildings in Kabul and maybe its writ might run to the areas where British-led western soldiery is providing guard. And that is confined to Kabul city. Who governs and rules the rest of the fairly large country is anybody’s guess. All the old field commanders and tribal elders and Sardars are still out there with their armed men extorting taxes at will and posing danger to life and limb of all who transit through their areas. But let one fact be clear: The Americans are quite comfortable with them; it looks like being a part of the script they are playing to from the beginning. Where Pakistani experts are wrong is that they appear to believe that with a ramshackle, largely fictitious government Afghanistan would be a thorn in the sides of America. The Americans have no such worry. So long as Bagram and a few other airports nearby are under the efficient control of their personnel — a few small rocket attacks once in a while make no difference — they have nothing to worry. Others would provide the means to keep the Afghans well contained. And they will get the minimum response that may be required. American taxpayer is rich enough for that. So long as the overall American policies can continue to roll on in Asia, they would not bother what goes on inside Afghanistan or whether it is being rebuilt or not. The American purposes have largely been served already. Afghanistan is a firm and safe rear base, if not a redoubt, for the other American forces deployed forward in Central Asia. And that is QED for the US. That is just what they appear to have been done in South Asia also. All three governments, Indian, Pakistani and Afghan, eat out of the American hands and in many ways are dependent on them.
Insofar as other countries of Central Asia are concerned, only a few pointers can be mentioned. In part the available information about them is not detailed. The Americans are not out there for any crude colonial reason, much less to rule the areas. Their actual interest is to mould the government policies in a way that remain in substantial harmony with American geo-strategic purposes. Just that, with one exception: and that exception is that their energy policies and policy of opening these states to foreign capital. This must be what the Americans want them to become. Doubtless the US, or rather its Seven Sisters, the oil giants, want to exploit Central Asian hydrocarbon reserves, especially in Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. But the mainthrust of the American policies in these countries is primarily geo-strategic, without prejudice to the ability of their oil interests to exploit what opportunities may come their way. These countries are rich in many minerals, particularly hydrocarbons. The American oil giants, the famous Seven Sisters, would want to preempt the rest of the world in exploiting them, carry them, refine them and sell it to international buyers, with whatever partnership might become necessary with the original or host country where the hydrocarbons were found. So long as this happens they do not care how Islamically are the Tajiks being governed or what the former communist rulers in such states are doing or may become. All these are matters of minor detail for the Americans. These local governments can be left to their devices — so long as they remain amenable to American influence.
Only a slight and superficial mention of China can be made here from the viewpoint of South Asia — and not really on the substance of the Sino-American relations which is a large subject. The Chinese have become alarmed at the regime’s overall policy orientation and the march of events in Pakistan. They have just the other day frozen their investments in Pakistan. The Pakistan authorities have adopted a hush-hush attitude on the subject. But given the kind of long background that Pakistan-China friendship had had, this action of China is troubling and looks like being symptomatic. It seems to underline the alarm that they feel over the success of the Americans over yoking both India and Pakistan to their purposes that may render the latter’s old relationship meaningless from their own viewpoint. Doubtless beautiful words would continue to be used as a cover to describe the political retreat that China may be making from Pakistan, giving the impression that nothing has changed. But things might actually change, though they do not seem to have done so already. The Chinese action, so far, comprises elementary caution that may only be for a reassessment. But then it may be the first instalment of the price that Pakistan has to pay for the renewal of the friendship with America. It is for Pakistan to look sharp. The rest shall be for Pakistan to say and do. For the rest, China is the only potential rival of the US, given its burgeoning economy. The only economy in the world that is not beset with grave problems is China, with still a high rate of growth, while the Americans, the Japanese and the EU economies are in one trouble or other, with Japan leading downward and Americans so far been following, though the latest news points to the American economy looking up.