Thursday, October 29, 2009

Bracing for a possible Taliban victory....?

The worsening Afghan war has brought some good news for Uzbekistan. On Tuesday, the European Union announced it was lifting a four-year old arms embargo against Uzbekistan. The EU imposed wide-ranging sanctions in 2005 after Uzbek troops fired on civilians during an uprising in the city of Andizhan in Ferghana Valley, and Tashkent rejected calls by Western countries for an international inquiry into those killings....

Tuesday's decision completes an incremental process stretched over the past year or so on the EU's part to kiss and make up with Tashkent. The EU officials justified their decision with Tashkent's recently release of some political prisoners and abolishment of the death penalty. Amnesty International has promptly contradicted the claim with facts and figures.

Aside from the veracity of the EU claim, the reality is that Europe not only blinked first, it also bent its knees while doing so. Brussels kept a straight face, though, assuring the world audience that it would "closely and continuously observe the human-rights situation in Uzbekistan … [and] assess progress made by the Uzbek authorities."

No more 'regime change' …

All the same, the EU decision is a good thing. It underscores a new degree of realism often lacking in Western policy towards the strategic Central Asian region. The West has been far too prescriptive towards a region whose civilization dates back several centuries further than Europe's. Besides, the dogma regarding democracy and "regime change" was alien to the steppes and somewhat irrelevant at this point in time.

Are we seeing the end of the "regime change" ideology? The signals are tentative. Statements made by United States Vice President Joseph Biden during his tour this month of Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania, hark back to the former president George W Bush era. But then, Biden was grandstanding in front of people upset over President Barack Obama's reversal on the Anti-Ballistic Missile system deployment in Central Europe.

As one Moscow commentator put it, Biden's mission was to "provide comfort to the distressed ... to heal the wounds of upset allies", by explaining "that the US would abandon neither its defense commitments ... nor the strong friendship … there will just be a political order in which Russia's interests hold more weight than under the Bush administration".

Indeed, the first detailed articulation of the Obama administration's Central Asia policy, as available from the major speech made by the US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns in Washington, DC, a fortnight ago, all but threw the "Great Central Asia strategy" that the Bush administration proclaimed out of the window. Burns's speech almost made Tuesday's decision on Uzbekistan at Brussels inevitable.

Burns paid no attention to "regime change" or democratization and instead the emphasis was on "a focus on mutual interests" with the Central Asian states "in a spirit of mutual respect, which means that we [the US] won't pretend to have a monopoly on wisdom, or seek to impose our system or to preach or patronize".

He explained this "blend of mutual interest and mutual respect" in terms of energy cooperation, increased trade and security ties and "practical cooperation" was based on the recognition that the countries of the region are "unique, independent, sovereign states, each with its own distinctive national cultures, experiences, people and economies".

All the same, Burns stressed the high priority the Obama administration attaches to the region and revealed that Washington has initiated "an effort to construct high-level mechanisms with each Central Asian country, featuring a structured, annual dialogue." True, he sidestepped Biden's combative tone toward Russia but then he implicitly suggested that the Obama administration wouldn't accept the thesis of "sphere of influence". Burns made not a single reference to Russia in his entire speech.

Arguably, therefore, the EU's decision on Uzbekistan has been taken in a holistic spirit taking into account many factors such as the Obama administration's new approach to the region, the promise of "reseting" US-Russia relations, energy security, trade and investment, and China's surge in Central Asia.

All the same, it should be traced first and foremost to the imperatives of the Afghan war, and only reminds us how far the war has transformed as a "bleeding wound" - to borrow former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev's unforgiving words.

... as Afghan war beckons

Germany took the initiative in Brussels to propel the EU toward full restoration of ties with Uzbekistan. Tashkent's goodwill has assumed the nature of a strategic asset for Berlin, given its heavy dependence on Uzbek transit facilities for ferrying supplies to the 4,500-strong German contingent deployed in the Amu Darya region in northern Afghanistan.

Termez port, on the Uzbek side, has become Germany's gateway to Afghanistan, and the Freedom Bridge built by the Soviets across the Amu Darya connecting the Afghan port of Heiraton is today the vital lifeline for the Bundeswehr contingents.

No doubt, Uzbekistan's strategic importance has risen manifold for the US and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies as a northern supply route for Afghanistan takes shape. Although Uzbekistan has only a relatively short border with Afghanistan (in comparison with Turkmenistan and Tajikistan), logistically its terrain offers the most convenient entry point to the nation. These considerations weighed heavily in the German mind when it encouraged Washington to painstakingly rebuild its own ties with Tashkent, while taking the initiative on lifting the EU sanctions.

The fact that EU was making an exception that it isn't ready to contemplate yet for China should drive home the fact that the Afghan war is hitting the European capitals where it hurts.

The EU decision comes at a time when alarm bells are beginning to ring in the Central Asian capitals regarding the spillover of the Afghan war to the region, which seems all but certain. The Taliban are strengthening their presence in northern Afghanistan and it is a matter of time before they threaten the Central Asian countries with retaliatory action for the latter's association with the US in Afghanistan.

Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are particularly vulnerable as their involvement in the war is much more direct and extensive than Turkmenistan's, which keeps a discreet, standoffish policy.

The outcome of the military operations in Waziristan on the Afghan-Pakistan border is viewed with utmost concern both in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. A group of Central Asian Islamist fighters estimated to be in the hundreds with strong ties to al-Qaeda is holed up in Waziristan. These fighters are also the toughest and most battle-hardened "foreign fighters" in the war.

It remains a toss-up whether the 28,000-strong Pakistani army units can vanquish the estimated 10,000-15,000 Taliban militants in Waziristan. Expert opinion says Pakistan needs 10 times its present force strength to establish control. The Central Asians will be keeping their fingers crossed for another few anxious weeks before the winter sets in, as the Pakistani army cannot sustain the momentum of even its current level of operations.

In the event of the Pakistani army driving the "foreign fighters" out of Waziristan altogether, these militants may move up north. Tajikistan had sent troops into the Rasht Valley bordering Afghanistan earlier this year on the basis of reports that militants were transiting through Tajikistan towards the Ferghana Valley, which has been historically a hotbed of radical Islam and resistance.

General David Petraeus, the Central Command (CENTCOM) chief, who visited the Tajik capital of Dushanbe on Monday, acknowledged the problem when he told reporters, "First of all let me say that we are very sensitive to the movement of extremists in response to our operation. One reason we have worked with all of the countries to the north of Afghanistan to help with their borders and customs and special operation forces is to ensure that they have the capacity if required to combat extremism."

Great game simmers

Commenting on Petraeus' consultations with Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon and Tajik military officials, the US embassy spokeswoman in Dushanbe said the discussions touched on "joint operation in promoting stability in Afghanistan. They are going to be talking about combating drug trafficking, preventing terrorism and ... border security", apart from the transit deal for NATO cargo for Afghanistan.

Conceivably, the EU hopes to play an active role in the emergent scenario. Petraeus' visit to Dushanbe itself took place just four days after Rakhmon's visit to Moscow, which was billed by the Kremlin as a "special occasion". The Joint Declaration issued in Moscow said, "Russia and Tajikistan perceive the difficult situation in Afghanistan and the threats originating from Afghan territory in exactly the same way." It identified "specific steps to strengthen cooperation between the two countries in military and military-technical spheres".

Considering the deterioration of the war, Washington should have been pleased that Moscow was prepared to boost security on the Tajik-Afghan border. But the contrary seems to be happening. The US prefers to cherry pick from the Russian offers of help:
  • "A transit route for NATO cargo through Russian territory?" "Yes, that'll be useful."
  • "A waiver of charges for using Russian airspace [estimated fee of US$1.2 billion annually]?' "Of course, yes."
  • "Russia providing training and equipping the Afghan army [which is used to Soviet standards and weapons]?" "Maybe, we'll discuss."
  • "But, how about a role for the Collective Security Treaty Organization [CSTO] in the war?" Mum's the word.
  • "A coordinated war effort between NATO and CSTO?" Pin-drop silence.

    Meanwhile, according to reports, the US is deploying its special forces in Central Asia.

    Smoke and mirrors

  • The Central Asians comprehend what is going on. They know that while the US keeps Russia out, NATO will never have the capacity to deploy in Afghanistan at the level of the Red Army in the 1980s. They also know that raising an Afghan army - "Afghanization" - is vacuous talk. They see an indefinite Western military presence in Afghanistan as the only way out, but the political will is lacking in European capitals for that to happen.

    However, the dilemma of the elites in Tashkent and Dushanbe is that while they accept that Moscow is genuinely concerned about the escalating security threat to the region from Afghanistan, and may ultimately be compelled to seek Russian protection, they would rather not do so if they have a choice. Like Afghan President Hamid Karzai wanting to demarcate a "cultural gap" vis-a-vis the US, they too would consider it prudent to distance themselves from Russia and consolidate their position as national leaders and as "good Muslims" to brace for a possible Taliban victory.

    Like Karzai, they too would be increasingly skeptical about the ability of the Western powers or Russia to avert a Taliban victory. Equally, they too would be mindful of the very real possibility bordering on probability that neither the US nor Russia will hesitate in the ultimate analysis to strike a deal with the Taliban in its interests, leaving fellow travelers and comrades-in-arms in the lurch.

    To quote a Central Asia scholar, "Increasingly, they [elites in Tashkent or Dushanbe] ask for assurance that they will not be left in the cold, or [they] demonstrate their independence from both Russia and the West so as to ensure their support domestically and possibly among the very same Islamists against whom they supposedly engage in the war."

    Clearly, no story quite ends in the Central Asian steppes. There is always a sub-plot, often more than one. It is against this complex backdrop that the uniqueness of Uzbekistan - a cradle of Islamic culture and civilization - needs to be grasped. The West learned the hard way that the pre-requisite of an effective engagement in Central Asia is a full-fledged relationship with the regime in Tashkent.