Tuesday, 4 October 2011

"A Chess Game in Afghanistan".

An interesting recent perspective on the role Afghianistan plays in the calculations of the Great Powers in the New Great Game for hegemony in Central Asia has been written by Ashfaqur Rahman ( A Chess Game in Afghanistan, Daily Star, October 2 2011 ),

A look at the map of Afghanistan and a little knowledge of the region will make things clear. The real reason for military involvement of the West now, especially USA, is largely hidden.

Afghanistan sits next to the Middle East. The countries there are rich in oil and natural gas. Afghanistan itself has little of these resources. However, it borders Iran and Turkmenistan. Iran has the second largest gas reserves in the world, while Turkmenistan has the third largest. So what has that to do with Afghanistan?

Till 1991, Turkmenistan was a part of the Soviet Union, so all gas from there was piped only north through Soviet pipelines. The Russians are now working on another new pipeline to funnel Turkmenistan gas to their territory to the north. The Chinese in the meantime have contracted with Turkmenistan to take natural gas out towards them.

But the US is unhappy. It wants a share of this vital resource too. It is pushing for multiple oil and gas export routes. The US already has envoys working on Euro-Asian energy diplomacy.

Now this competition for pipeline routes and energy resources is the major cause for the struggle for power and control in the region. Pipelines it is said, like railways in the past, connect trading partners and have a bearing on the regional balance of power.

Afghanistan stands astride the path of this geo-political struggle. It has unknowingly, like our Kabuliwala, been caught up in the bigger chess move for power and dominance in the region.

Recall the statement of Richard Boucher, US Assistant Secretary of State in 2007: "One of our goals is to stabilise Afghanistan and to link South and Central Asia, so that energy can flow to the South."

The American pipeline is called TAPI as it involves four countries, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The Asian Development Bank is aware of and has participated in many planning meetings. The actual work may begin next year.

Iran in the meantime is also looking at building another pipeline to sell gas to Pakistan and India. This alternative pipeline to the one from Turkmenistan will rival the one sponsored by the USA. It will give Iran a geo-strategic leverage in the region. This pipeline will pierce Afghanistan and move from west to east to reach Pakistan. The US is reluctant to see the Iranian pipeline become a reality.

Amidst all this the US president, because of political pressure at home, had to announce phased withdrawal of US troops now stationed in Afghanistan. This will mean leaving much of the oversight of routing these pipelines in Afghan hands.

Add to this, the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Militants from across the Afghan border in Pakistan swoop down into Afghanistan and create security problems. The US is already quite unpopular as it uses unmanned drone aircraft to take out these militants with missiles. Many innocent people who are not militants also die due to collateral damage. This angers the Pakistanis as well as the people residing along the eastern Afghan border adjoining Pakistan.

The recent bombing of the US embassy in Kabul as well as incidents of violence and death are suspected by the US as the work of an extremist group called the Haqqani network based in Pakistan. It thinks that the network has connections with Pakistan's security and intelligence units.

The US is therefore angry. There are now serious moves within US Congress and in the US administration to find out the exact nature of this connection. The US is also reported to be contemplating to take unilateral military action against the perpetrators inside Pakistan.

Last week the Pakistan government, alarmed by the developing situation, conferred with all political parties to show a semblance of unity against any US designs.

The pipeline diplomacy will become anfractuous and the US may lose out if the militants rule the roost in Afghanistan and western Pakistan.

But do not forget that inside Afghanistan there are other elements besides the Taliban who also do not support the US plans. They are mainly from the Pashtun tribes. The recent assassination of the former president of Afghanistan Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was mediating peace between the government of Karzai and the Taliban, was to sabotage the talks and to show the US that any of their plans could be easily derailed. These elements are also aligned politically and militarily with tribes living in the northwest of Pakistan and in the Waziristan part of that country.

However, just as there are supporters for Pakistan operating inside Afghanistan there are people and tribes who largely look with favour on the interest of India. They are elements within the Uzbeks and the Tajiks living in Afghanistan. Once they belonged to the "Northern Alliance." They would not oppose the proposed Turkmenistan gas pipeline if it becomes a reality.

The jockeying for position in Afghanistan is however a cause of great concern for the government in Kabul. It needs the US to further its own internal security interest and support development work. But it is not ready to give in to any foreign interest, be it Pakistan or India or Iran or even the USA, which will jeopardise the sovereignty of Afghanistan in the long run.

John Gray on Afghanistan.

John Gray has written an impressive piece on the delusions of Western foreign policy in the decade following the terrorist attack by Islamists on September 11 2001. In the New Statesman ( Perpetual Warfare ) he writes that the USA blundered into Afghanistan and conflated the threat of Al Qaida with the Taliban.

The conflicts triggered by 9/11 have all been fought on false premises. Bombing al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan was a legitimate act of self-defence and, in the context of US politics, may have been inevitable, but it was not the only option. The relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda has never been simple or unproblematic, and there is evidence that the Taliban may have been considering expelling al-Qaeda from Afghanistan when the bombing campaign got under way.

Gray is right that ever since the war has been justified according to a series of 'shifting goals'-from installing democracy, promoting social and economic development to defending women's rights. Moreover, he is scathing about the validity of the so-called "war on drugs",

Linking the Afghan mission with the nonsensical "war on drugs" has been predictably counterproductive. Destroying drug production - the Americans at one point thinking of spraying the whole of Helmand Valley with weedkiller to wipe out the opium fields - would also have destroyed much of the Afghan economy. There is constant talk of preparing government forces to take over responsibility for security, Bamiyan being the first province handed over, on 17 July. But where government is weak and lacking in legitimacy, and where allegiance to any authority has long been a tradable commodity, it should be obvious that improving the training of local forces will not ensure their loyalty. Presiding over a territory that has never been ruled by a modern state, the Afghan government is not much more than a funnel for endemic corruption. In the event of a full-scale pull-out of US-led forces, it would be lucky to survive for more than 48 hours.

Where Gray gets it slightly wrong is in adhering too rigidly to the idea of the West bungling into Afghanistan because they had no coherent policy at all.

There are some who see the entire war on terror as a cover for neo-colonialism. Behind all the pro­clamations about democracy and human rights, they say, the real goal was building pipelines in Afghanistan and seizing oilfields in Iraq. In fact, the course of events has been much more absurd. There is no evidence of consecutive thought of the kind required to make any conspiracy theory credible. Certainly there has been disinformation - plenty of it - but rather than concealing any covert strategy, it masked the lack of any strategy at all.

On the contrary, there is quite a lot of evidence that pipelines are held to be the key to stabilising Afghanistan by bringing in transit fees and uniting the regional powers that are signatories to the TAPI pipeline together under Western auspices. The fact that this aim of creating an energy corridor is, as Gray suggests, a delusion does not mean it has not played a central role.

Clearly, no war, least of all Afghanistan, is "all about a pipeline". Yet that does not mean that now the other justifications for "staying the course" for a decade have been revealed as a utopian mirage , that the completion of the TAPI pipeline does not remain the one sole consolation prize to be attained there.