Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2008 > May 10, 2008 > Central Asia in World Politics

Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 21

Central Asia in World Politics

Wednesday 14 May 2008, by M K Bhadrakumar

Introduction

The doomsday predictions about the future of the newly independent Central Asian states that were endemic in the 1990s have died down. No one speculates anymore that it was inevitable that the region would descend into anarchy. True, the problems endemic to a critical period of state formation still linger. The transition economies are just about switching gear. Regional cooperation has not gained traction. There is widespread poverty and deprivation.

But on the positive side, there has been an appreciable consolidation of national independence and sovereignty. Alongside, the region’s integration into the international system is already advanced. The challenges posed by terrorism and religious terrorism are being effectively countered collectively within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation [SCO] and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation [CSTO]. Most important, the Central Asian leaderships have firmly rebutted the prescriptive policies adopted by major powers to that region. Again, the SCO provides a forum of collective security that categorically rejects the ideology of “colour revolution”. The Central Asian countries have quietly but insistently shown that there could be a “third way“—a Central Asian way in terms of the region’s history and culture. Curiously, the international community may have begun to grasp that political reality.

To be sure, the turning point came with the abortive “Tulip Revolution“ in Kyrghyzstan in 2005. The SCO provided a shield from behind which the Central Asian states successfully rebuffed the intrusive approaches by the western powers. Of course, the Central Asian leaderships could turn into advantages several factors in the world politics—the US’s quagmire in Iraq and Afghanistan and a consequent inability for Washington to be as assertive in the Central Asian and Caspian regions as it would have liked; the chill in US-Russia relations and the consequent determination by Moscow to strengthen alliances in the former Soviet space that would help it frustrate American designs to encircle Russia; the imperatives felt by China apropos the economic development and political stability of the Xinjiang Autonomous Republic, which pushed the Central Asian region into the frist circle of Beijing’s foreign policy priorities; the worldwide awareness in the period since the 9/11 attacks about the grave dangers posed by religious extremism and terrorism; the great rivalries shaping up over energy security, etc.

The result is there for all to see. The Central Asian states have created much strategic space around them so that they can manoeuvre to their best advantage. They have made it obligatory for outside powers to negotiate with them—be it regarding military bases on lease or the price of natural gas or access to oilfields—rather than blandly assume that the terms of engagement can be dictated from a position of strength. Two developments in the recent past underscored these geopolitical realities. First, the Kashagan dispute, which the world was watching with immense interest, finally ended in January with Kazakhstan greatly expanding its role in the Caspian venture.

When Kazakhstan shed its status of a junior partner in the venture, and took a place at the high table with powerful Western oil conglomera-tes, it signified that the days when foreign oil majors could dictate the terms of energy development are over for good. The legislation introduced by Kazakhstan last September gives the authorities the power to review any contract with a foreign entity if the contract holds a potential threat to national security. It took decades for many other oil producing countries to reach a similar point.

A second development in February, which was of considerable importance in geopolitical terms, was the visit to Tashkent by the former chief of the US Central Command Admiral William Fallon. The US Admiral essentially undertook a diplomatic mission Aimed at putting behind the strains in bilateral relations over the Andizhan incidents in 2005. Washington worked hard for over a year to prepare the ground for Admiral Fallon’s mission. The US had to take help from the European Union member countries to put in a word on its behalf with the Uzbek authorities. Uzbekistan became the second country (after Kyrghyzstan) to “renegotiate“ the terms of engagement with the US over military bases in Central Asia.

The very fact that Washington has felt the need to negotiate with two Central Asian states within the two-year period brings home the strategic significance of the region in contemporary world politics. The region has figured in the geo-strategies of major powers in one way or another. This became apparent no sooner than the newly independent states of Central Asia emerged out of the debris of the former Soviet Union in 1991. Many players reached out to the region even as the newly independent states groped for a way forward in an extremely complicated process of transition.

The foreign powers, which trained their eyes on the “new region“ of Central Asia included such major players as the United States, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and a string of minor players like Japan, India, South Korea and Malaysia and some European countries. China ploughed a path of its own, all by itself in the first five-year period, carefully choreographing its regional strategy, though a next-door neighbour with exceptionally high stakes in the Central Asian region’s stability. China had the huge backlog of Soviet history to put behind, during which China was often etched in the Central Asian political consciousness as an unwelcome neighbour.

By the second half of the 1990s, however, we see China after having put the necessary underpinnings of state-to-state relations duly in place, shifting gear in its regional policy in Central Asia, and incrementally making its presence felt. The “Shanghai initiative“ was born in 1996. Also during the late 1990s, we see Turkey, Iran and Pakistan already appearing over-extended and exhausted, and resigning themselves to the futility of pretending that they were big players on the Central Asian stage. The realisation dawned on these “pretenders“ that Soviet Central Asia, after all, had a significantly higher level of social formation and the newly independent states in the region, which harboured a fierce sense of independence and national sovereignty, had no intentions of being led by the nose by any regional power on grounds of “Pan-Turkism“ or Islam or shared history and culture.

All through the 1990s, however, the United States remained a dominating presence in the Central Asian region. This was dramatically brought home by the military exercise conducted by the United States in the summer of 1996 involving the non-stop airlift of troops with mid-air refuelling from the North American mainland to the borders of Kazakhstan with China. It was the longest ever haul of troops by air in military history. Washington was under no particular pressure to undertake such a mission. The Central Asian region’s specific security concerns—religious extremism, terrorism and separatism— did not warrant such a military exercise either. No doubt, the US was flexing its muscles and demonstrating its awesome military capabilities.

Compared to the high water mark in the late 1990s, US prestige and influence in the Central Asian region plummeted in recent years. A variety of factors account for the loss of American stature—such as the US defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan, US’s “double standards“ on issues of religious extremism and terrorism, the US Administration’s “unilateralist“ policies and its tendency to be prescriptive, especially its sponsoring of “colour revolutions” in the former Soviet republics. On the other hand, the US double standards on critical issues such as terrorism, democracy and human rights also made the Central Asian ruling elites wary of ultimate American intentions.

US Global Strategy and Central Asia

BUT the US will strive to regain its influence, given the twists and turns in the equations involving the US, Russia and China. A good starting point, therefore, will be the kind of world order that the United States, as the sole remaining superpower in the post-Cold War era, envisages for the 21st century. There is a propensity to view the global strategy of the United States during the seven-year period of the George W. Bush Administration as an aberration borne out of the preponderant influence of the so-called neo-conservatives on the policy-makers in Washington. That an ideologically driven set of influential personalities networking closely with each other and having mutual affinities occupied key positions in the present US Administration and strove to guide policies abroad is beyond any doubt. But what often escapes notice is that there is also remarkable consistency in the US policies since the early 1990s.

In brief, the US policies since the collapse of the Soviet Union consistently aimed at developing a strategy for maintaining US preponderance in the new post-Cold War era. Therefore, the impact of international politics on the Central Asian region cannot be properly understood without an outline of the overall US global strategy.

The Independent National Security Archive in Washington has released in late February the de-classified documents relating to the genesis and development of the controversial Defence Planning Guidance in early 1992 (which subsequently became the intellectual fountainhead for the so-called “Project for the New American Century“). The 15 previously classified documents, which have now been released by the US Administration for public scrutiny, were drafted during the two-year period following the end of the Gulf War in 1991. The personalities who worked on these documents in the early 1990s include such well-known names in the George W. Bush Administration as Paul Wolfowitz, Elliot Abrams, Lewis “Scooter“ Libby, Albert Wohlstetter, Richard Perle, Abram Shulsky, Zalmay Khalilzad and of course Richard Cheney, then Secretary of Defence and currently the Vice-President of the United States.

The thrust of the Defence Planning Guidance was on preserving at all costs the unique position of American predominance that was emerging in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. It meant preventing a “new rival“ from appearing on the world arena and to evolve strategies to prevent future global threats to American power and interests. In order to “preclude any hostile power from dominating a region critical to our interests“, the Defence Planning Guidance set out the directions of US global strategies:

• Pursue the “military-technological revolution“ to preserve its superiority in the latest weapon systems.

• Sustain the “forward“ presence of US ground, air, and naval forces in strategically important areas, to validate commitments, and to provide a capability to respond to crises affecting significant interests, such as freedom of the seas and access to markets and energy supplies.

• Preserve a smaller but diverse “mix“ of survivable nuclear forces to support a global role, validate security guarantees, and deter Russian nuclear forces.

• Field a missile defence system as a shield against accidental missile launches or limited missile strikes by “international outlaws“.

• Maintain a capability to reconstitute military forces in the event a regional hegemon threatens to become a global threat.

• Find ways to integrate the “new democracies“ of the former Soviet bloc into the US-led system.

• Work with allies in NATO Europe and elsewhere but be ready to act unilaterally or with only a few other nations when multilateral and cooperative action becomes too “sluggish“ to protect vital interests.

As mentioned earlier, there is a tendency to establish a relationship between the Guidance and neo-conservative ideology, but the reality is that there is remarkable continuity with the US national security policy. Indeed, it can be argued that the pursuit of military superiority and economic and political domination has been a concept of US national security which is traceable to the 1940s. Let us recall that it was in 1944 that the US State Department referred to Middle Eastern oil as “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one the greatest material prizes in world history“. During Anglo-American negotiations over the control of Middle Eastern oil, then US President Franklin Roosevelt sketched out a map of the Middle East and told the British ambassador: “Persian oil is yours. We share the oil of Iraq and Kuwait. As for Saudi Arabian oil, it’s ours.“ On August 8, 1944, the Anglo-American Petroleum Agreement was signed, splitting Middle Eastern oil between the US and Britain.

Challenge from Russia

FROM this historical perspective, the regional challenge that the US encounters in Central Asia is two-fold: one, Russia’s resurgence, and two, China’s rise as a world power. The Guidance, in fact, posited two distinct major policy goals, which would have relevance for Central Asia. First, it sought to “prevent the emergence of a new rival“ by developing a new order from the security, political and economic angles, which would assure that US leadership of the region remained unchallenged. Second, the Guidance underscored the objective of addressing “sources of regional conflict and instability“ that could unsettle international relations by threatening US interests or those of its allies. That is to say, the US would have “pre-eminent responsibility“ in countering threats such as proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, or loss of control over energy and raw material sources. (Interestingly, the Guidance strove to define “critical region“ as one “whose resources could, under consolidated control, generate global power“).

In the Central Asian region, the US is focusing on Russia, while there is no immediate fear of a rising China. Whereas the strategic “threat“ that Russia poses is a current one, the potential threat from China will be a matter at least 15-20 years away. Besides, the US estimates that it has sufficient leverage vis-à-vis China. On the other hand, Russian-American relations have touched a new low, especially as Russia’s recovery is accelerating and correspondingly, Russia’s strategic might is reviving.

Moscow has announced that it is embarking on an ambitious upgradation plan in its strategic nuclear capabilities that is designed to negate the effectiveness of the US’s ABM systems. The plan features Tu-160 strategic bombers of the air force; the strategic missile force’s land-based Topol-M ICBMs (inter-continental ballistic missiles); and Project 941 (Typhoon) strategic nuclear submarines of the Navy. Meanwhile, Russia is developing its own fifth-generation missile defence system, while at the same time expanding its missile defense network in its “near abroad“ in Belarus, Armenia and Kazakhstan. Also, Moscow is speeding up the development of new ICBMs and realigning its strategic warheads. On July 14, the Kremlin announced that it was suspending the implementation of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty. Simply put, Russia is determined to arrest the steady erosion in its Soviet era strategic parity with the US.

By the end of 2006, Russian economy had recovered to its 1991 level before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Surplus resources are once again available to keep the military machine running. Russia’s economy has been undeniably recovering after it hit rock bottom as a result of the ‘shock therapy’ following the end of the Cold War. The country has been profiting from high oil prices on the world market in recent years. The influx of oil and gas dollars has pumped up the country’s confidence.

Under Putin’s leadership, Russia strengthened its statehood, began modernising its economy and addressing extensive social tasks, and, most important, ensuring its security more effectively. Also, for the first time in its history, perhaps, Russia today has the ability and resolve and the financial resources to cope with all these tasks simultaneously. Russia has also concurrently strengthened its positions in the global economy and in global finances. In short, Putin has created a solid foundation for formulating Russia’s foreign policy strategy.

All this adds up to one geopolitical reality, which holds immense significance for Central Asia. That is, Russia’s post-Soviet transformation hasn’t gone the way that Washington scripted. The result is there for everyone to see today on the international scene. Moscow no longer feels it has to behave in deference to the US. Russians are now ready to say whatever they want, like what President Vladimir Putin did at the European security summit in Munich last year. Thanks to Putin’s massive popularity-rating above 80 per cent, Washington’s hue and cry about “authorita-rianism“ isn’t frightening the Kremlin. Russia is bent on rebuilding its traditional empirical power.

Therefore, the fundamental objective of the US regional strategy in Central Asia is to weaken Russian influence in a region, which constitutes Russia’s “soft underbelly“, no matter Russia’s legitimate interests there. This is despite the fact that Russian regional policies are pragmatic and have shown willingness to work in harmony with US interests. To quote Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the press conference in Moscow in January on Russia’s foreign policy outcomes for the year 2007,

We [Russia] have striven and will continue to ensure that our foreign policy rests on a firm basis of comprehensible national interests, on the basis of pragmatism and common sense and that it is a real-life policy. In our foreign policy, we’ve got no ideology… our principled approaches to how to build foreign policy activities… are, first and foremost, pragmatism, a multi-vector approach, and the willingness to cooperate with everyone who is ready for this, and to uphold our national interests firmly, but without any confrontation.

Great Central Asia Strategy

THE US strategy of “containment“ of Russia in the Central Asian region works on different planes vis-à-vis different protagonists. Where does India figure in this paradigm? Washington has been eyeing New Delhi as a potential junior partner in the pursuit of its Central Asia policy. Thus, US diplomacy with Indian interlocutors harps on China’s growing influence in Central Asia and the thickening strategic cooperation between Russia and China. This projection principally aims at playing on India’s perceived sense of rivalry with China.

The US intention seems to be to work on the Indian strategic community, which has gnawing anxieties over China’s phenomenal rise and would feel tempted to lap up theories regarding Chinese “encirclement“ of India. This is a shrewd approach because there are no takers in New Delhi for the US’s strategy of rolling back Russian influence in Central Asia. Despite the big changes in the character of Delhi’s ties with Moscow, Russia is still viewed as a traditional ally by India. Delhi has regarded Russian influence in the Central Asian region as a positive factor for regional stability and security.

At the very minimum, India has no real clash of interests with Russia in Central Asia. Not too long ago, Russia used to regard India as a reliable partner in Central Asia. Russian diplomacy constantly urged India to play a proactive role in Central Asia’s difficult post-Soviet transition. Russian diplomats even showed frustration that Delhi was not active in Central Asia as it could be, and ought to be.

It is doubtful if any country in the Indian subcontinent would subscribe to the US’s “Great Central Asia“ strategy, which has the professed aim of “liberating“ the Central Asian states from the Russian and Chinese sphere of influence and get them to form a regional community with the south Asian region. Indeed, on India’s part, its Central Asia policy has consistently refrained from being prescriptive; it has strictly adhered to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of the countries of the region; it has placed emphasis on the age-old civilisational bonds between the region and the Indian subcontinent; it has constantly endeavoured to expand the mutual understanding on issues affecting regional stability and security; and, most important, it placed emphasis on high level political exchanges. India has shown no panache to be a player in the so-called Great Game in Central Asia.

The US’s “Great Central Asia“ strategy cannot work in the long run. The south Asian region as a whole still lacks a basic sense of identity and experience in regional cooperation, let alone act as a model for the Central Asian states. India and Pakistan are quite far away from dispelling the mutual mistrust in their relationship. Cross-border infrastructure projects can proceed only if harmony prevails in the intra-regional relations among the countries of South Asia. Also, Afghanistan, which is a critically important pawn in the U.S strategy, remains highly unstable.

China Factor in Central Asia

UNSURPRISINGLY, even while projecting the “Great Central Asia“ strategy in front of its South Asian interlocutors, the US has been pursuing a differentiated approach toward China. The core agenda of the US policy is to create a wedge between Russia and China in Central Asia, which would prove the nemesis of the SCO. The point is, over the near to medium term at least, Washington doesn’t perceive China’s growing presence in Central Asia as presenting a pressing challenge to the US interests.

This comfort level in Washington is attributable to several factors. First, much as China has made impressive gains in Central Asia, it faces many challenges and competitors while furthering its political, diplomatic and economic presence in the region. Even assuming that Russian influence in the region is waning (which is not the case), the ground reality is that at the end of the day, the Central Asian elites feel far more at home in harbouring close ties with Russia than with China. Again, despite recent setbacks, the US still remains a major contender in the region. So is Japan, which is fixated with the idea of countering Chinese influence in Central Asia.

Second, in the American perception, Chinese diplomatic strategy in Central Asia is mainly driven by the imperative of creating a beneficial external environment in its neighbourhood so that Beijing can meaningfully address the enormous socio-political and development challenges within China. Of course, China cannot be faulted if it strives to legitimise its image as a benign regional leader. In other words, the US has no reason to feel “threat perceptions“ over the proactive Chinese diplomacy in Central Asia.

Third, Washington appreciates that China has several legitimate national security interests at stake in Central Asia. The huge territorial concessions that China made in settling its border dispute with the Central Asian states, and the key agreements of 1996 and 1997 showed that China regarded that the region’s goodwill needed to be cultivated and therefore making compromises was every bit worthwhile in China’s medium and long term interests. China’s obsession with the “three evils“ manifest in the region (terrorism, separatism and religious extremism) is palpable.

Again, the US would have no reason to quarrel with China on account of the latter keenly exploring opportunities of trade and economic cooperation with Central Asia. In fact, it suits the US regional strategy that China is increasingly figuring as a major business competitor for Russia both in the energy and non-energy sectors. For instance, there is a good possibility that China is likely to replace Russia’s UC Rusal in the US $ 1.3 billion aluminium-cum-hydroelectric power project in Tajikistan. A degree of rivalry already exists between China and Russia in gaining access to Turkmenistan’s gas reserves.

The fact is, as China moves up the economic ladder, it is better placed than Russia in providing much-needed capital, technology, expertise and the range of consumer goods that the Central Asian countries need. Furthermore, it is possible for the US to harmonise its Central Asia strategy with China’s focus on building transportation infrastructure, especially a multilateral highway transportation infrastructure, which would only weaken Russia’s Soviet era stranglehold on the region’s communication links.

Finally, Washington estimates that since China’s relations remain at a relatively early stage in the region, it is only through a strategic partnership with Russia that Beijing can venture into any balance-of-power games. Of course, looking further ahead, Washington and Beijing could find themselves competing for influence in Central Asia as their regional priorities continue to expand beyond immediate security concerns and touch upon Great Power influence and diplomatic strategy. In other words, in the short term at least, the US is pursuing a careful policy to engage China in the region and assuring that China’s emergence is consistent with the US interests.

NATO Expansion and Central Asia

LOOKING ahead, the summit meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation [NATO] in April in Bucharest, Romania, is an event of great significance for the Central Asian region. It is NATO’s largest summit ever with over 60 nations. The summit is expected to adopt a political-military strategy that will set common goals and common benchmarks. Any decision at the summit in favour of accepting the requests of Ukraine and Georgia for NATO membership is bound to deepen the chill in US-Russia relations. Georgia’s induction in particular brings NATO almost to the doorsteps of Central Asia.

For a variety of reasons, though, the high probability is that NATO may not put Ukraine and Georgia on its Membership Action Plan at the Bucharest summit. First, NATO would be sensitive about Russia’s reaction at the present juncture when Moscow’s help might be required for effectively dealing with the hostilities in Afghanistan. Second, Western capitals would await the transition of power in the Kremlin to be complete and to take stock of Dmitry Medvedev’s watch, which many expect to be more reticent toward the West than Putin’s. Third, the developments within Ukraine and Georgia remain complicated and NATO would be wary of being drawn into potential conflict situations. Finally, while the US remains bullish about the eligibility of NATO membership of Ukraine and Georgia, a number of European countries are distinctly less enthusiastic.

At the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the alliance at Brussels on March 6, the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner urged the NATO Council to “take into account Russia’s sensitivity and the important role it plays“. Moreover, he argued, relations with Russia are already strained over Kosovo and the planned missile defence shield, and should not be subjected to further strain. The French newspaper Le Monde quoted him as saying:
We [France] think that EU-Russia relations are absolutely important. And France is not the only country wanting to maintain a relationship with Russia as a great nation.

All the same, the idea of Ukraine and Georgia’s NATO membership is not going to go away and this will prompt Moscow to sustain an effective system of counter-alliance built around the Collective Security Treaty Organisation CSTO]. At least two of the three leading presidential candidates in the US—John McCain and Hillary Clinton—champion the idea of NATO enlarge-ment.

But NATO enlargement is not the only issue at the Bucharest summit. There is every indication that the NATO will mark the Bucharest summit, which is also coinciding with the alliance’s 60th anniversary as a memorable landmark in 21st century world politics. Scheffer is on record that NATO must endeavour to become a “prime player“ on issues of energy security. He has implicitly questioned the wisdom of leaving the “protection of critical energy infrastructure“ as first and foremost a national responsibility. He offered that in these areas of energy security, NATO could define its “added value. It can create benchmarks. It can create a system of best practices.“ The implications for the Caspian and Central Asian region are very obvious, to put it mildly.

To sum up, the evolution of NATO will be of profound consequence for the geopolitics of the Central Asian region. NATO’s new round of expansion reinforces a growing, emerging globalisation trend. Second, NATO’s actions will essentially reflect the American strategy. Third, its forays into new areas of activity such as energy security or cyber crime go hand in hand with the US global strategy. The US’s determination to transform NATO is never in doubt. To quote a noted Chinese scholar, Shen Jiru of the Institute of World Economies and Politics under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, NATO’s raison d’etre is the

need for the US to defend its global hegemony. The US, through the eastward enlargement of NATO, attempts to penetrate its forces into the former Soviet republics in Central Asia to encircle Russia from its southern arc cycle and exert pressures onto China from West and North. Meanwhile, it attempts to link NATO with the Japan-US Security Treaty and the US-Australia-New Zealand Alliance.

Of course, NATO’s continuous eastern enlargement has squeezed Russia’s strategic space and impacted on its national security concerns. On its part, NATO has spared no efforts in recent years to advance its relations with the countries of the Central Asian region. Its strategy in Central Asia has staggered. A principal reason has been that it proved to be difficult to get a firm foothold in the region where Russia’s traditional influence is still almost overwhelming. But NATO is still trudging ahead towards its pre-set objectives. Equally, the US’s determination in NATO’s transformation also remains unshaken.

Observers of the US global strategy would notice that the war on terror is not the top focus of the present US Administration anymore. The US is increasingly turning toward the challenges from other powers as its main attention. The rise of non-Western powers—such as Russia, China, India, Brazil, etc.—is an irreversible trend in world politics. And Russia also happens to be a power with a superpower’s capability to rival the US as far as its strategic nuclear stockpile is concerned. That is the real reason why the US is hell-bent on NATO’s eastward expansion and on spreading the wings of the alliance by developing “partnerships“ and military ties with non-allies.

For a variety of reasons, therefore, the crunch comes at the NATO’s Bucharest summit. According to Scheffer, NATO is preparing its first significant decision on missile defence at the April summit. The US would like its NATO allies to integrate a planned US anti-ballistic missile shield in Eastern Europe with NATO’s own short and medium-range missile defence system. There is a sense lately that the “bolt-on“ idea would work. If the NATO summit endorses the idea, Russian reaction will be strong and Central Asian security will be affected.

NATO Mission in Afghanistan

BEFORE concluding, I must say a few words about NATO’s role in Afghanistan. I am saying this with special reference to a statement that I came across in the Russian media in the recent days, attributed to a Uzbek strategic analyst Alisher Komilov at the 68th Rose-Roth seminar of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Baku, Azerbaijan. Komilov reportedly said:
We [Uzbekistan] are absolutely not interested in NATO reducing its presence in or withdrawing from Afghanistan.

American area specialists on Central Asia have quickly seen yet another sharp turn in Uzbekistan’s strategic thinking by its recent decision to admit the selective use of individual Americans from the civil advisory and administrative structure of the NATO to have access to the German ‘air bridge’ from Termez to Afghanistan. As one US expert put it, “Uzbekistan is gradually moving centre stage in connection with Western strategic interests in Afghanistan“.

We do not know whether Tashkent actually feels that way. There has been no Uzbek official statement so far. But, what are the so-called “Western strategic interests“ in Afghanistan? While addressing a Brooking Institution audience in Washington on February 28, NATO Secretary General Scheffer provided an answer. He said,

Afghanistan has already provided us with a host of lessons to learn from the need to review our force planning and force generation processes to the urgency of fighting caveats, the limitations on our forces, and enhancing the usability of our forces. In that sense, Afghanistan has become a real catalyst for NATO’s evolution and transformation, very much like our Balkans engagement was in the nineties. (emphasis added)

Scheffer underlined that Afghanistan was strategically vital to NATO. That is so, Scheffer pointed out, because Afghanistan has a border with China and it lies on Russia’s southern flank. He explained that in the 21st century, NATO’s tasks included taking the defence and control of energy resources and Afghanistan happens to lie athwart potential transportation routes from Central Asia.

What is the actual status of NATO’s “war on terror“ in Afghanistan? Neither the US nor NATO can claim credit for the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001. The credit goes to the Northern Alliance. As British author Robin Blackburn recently wrote,

The US dollar, stronger then than now, played an important role in purchasing changes in loyalties. The US depended on the collaboration of Russia, Iran and Pakistan, with the use of Uzbeki and Tajik facilities and China’s blessing. Without the ’‘group of six’—none of whom are NATO members—the whole operation would not have been possible.

Again, let us remember that the United Nations mandate for the International Security assistance Force [ISAF] in December 2001 was for a 6-month period specifically for deployment in the area around Kabul. Subsequently, by an ingenious method of circular justification, the ISAF mission was expanded—upon the request by the interim government of Hamid Karzai, which was of course installed by the ISAF. The ISAF presently operates—as per Resolution 1776 of the UN Security Council in 2007—to “root out terrorism“ so that Afghanistan ceases to be a “threat to world peace“. Yet, the ground reality is that there was no terrorist activity worth mentioning in Afghanistan during the period 2002-2006.

The recrudescence of violence in Afghanistan in the recent past is to be understood as an indigenous insurgency. Who are the Taliban today? Taliban is a rubric, which covers a loose alliance of elements that are opposed to the foreign forces in Afghanistan. The British and other NATO forces realise fully well how weakly defined the Taliban are. They have entered local agreements with the Taliban on several occasions. Abdul Hakim Monib who was on the NATO’s ‘wanted list’ of al-Qaeda commanders in 2005 showed up as the governor of Uruzgan province two years later.

The heart of the matter is whether the NATO mission is still valid, even on its own terms. The NATO presence is seen as illegitimate by a growing number of Afghanis and it has seriously damaged Karzai’s credibility.

The time has come for the international community to concede that the Afghan people need to reach their own solutions. This can only be achieved through an intra-Afghan dialogue, with the Kabul government seeking a new understanding with regional and tribal militias. But in order for such a process to begin, the pre-requisite will be the commitment to a time-bound withdrawal of the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. But, unfortunately, the Bush administration’s attempt in both Iraq and Afghanistan is to create a legacy of long-term American military presence.

Moscow and the Central Asian capitals estimate that open-ended presence of the NATO-led foreign forces on their southern tier offers a buffer of security. Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia and Global Affairs rationalised it earlier this week saying, “Russia and NATO share the same goals [in Afghanistan] even though they are not fighting shoulder to shoulder“. In an interview with the German newspaper Der Spiegel on March 10, Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin said,

We [Russia] support the anti-terror campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. I hope we can manage to reach a series of very important agreements with our Western partners at the Bucharest summit. We will demonstrate that we are ready to contribute to the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

But isn’t NATO repeating the mistake of the Soviet Union? An explosive mix of humiliation and anger is building up among the Afghan people. We will do well to remember that when thousands of students took to the streets in Jalalabad and half a dozen other cities across Afghanistan to protest against the Danish cartoons profaning Prophet Mohammed, they shouted slogans, ‘Death to America, Long Live Osama bin Laden’. Time may have come for a regional initiative in search of an Afghan settlement.

[Paper presented at the International Conference on “Cooperative Development and Peace in Central Asia” organised by the Centra for Reserach in Rural and Industrial Development with the support of the Ministry of External Affairs in Chandigarh Affairs in Chandigarh on March 15-17, 2008]

M. K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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