Monday, June 21, 2010

What's At Stake In South-Central Asia? Questions of formidable complexity....

After nearly nine years, there is no consensus on the strategic goal of the American commitment in Afghanistan and its neighbors. Does our presence in Pakistan and Central Asia exist only to support our war in Afghanistan? Or are we waging war in Afghanistan in the cause of stability and wider U.S. interests in the region? For many mindful of domestic U.S. politics, the goal is simply "never again 9/11," a counterterrorism campaign narrowly focused on al-Qaeda. For many who are mindful of history, the goal is "never again 1989," not repeating the collapse of U.S. interest after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan that let the country slide into instability. For those mindful of economics, the stakes are not just Afghanistan's recently touted trillion-dollar mineral deposits -- originally mapped by the Russians and on Chinese investment lists -- but Afghanistan's location as a potential crossroads between India's growing economy, hungry for both markets and resources, and Central Asia's wealth of oil and natural gas. For the realpolitik traditionalists, Afghanistan's location makes it a strategic outpost outflanking both Russia and Iran. But do any of these reasons, alone or in combination, justify a nine-year war?

Questions of formidable complexity. It is opportune to consider them since they are implicit in the United States' progressive engagement across Islamic Asia. Yet, the broad strategic issues have not been enunciated - much less given serious answers. While it may not be quite accurate to say that we are trying to build a sphere of influence in a state of absentmindedness, a more reasonable depiction is that we have allowed ourselves to become party to the affairs of distant places of no obvious consequence for our core national interests. Our exposure is far greater than our influence or control. That risky state of affairs stems from a foreign policy of disjointed incrementalism that has no visible means of strategic or intellectual support.

We find ourselves out on several shaky limbs due to the two driving passions animating American foreign policy for the past decade: the terrorism obsession, and the Iran obsession. Their lazy, highly dubious fusing into justification for a relentless campaign against demons actual or imagined has led us to trace Alexander's footsteps into realms previously known only as colorful settings for National Geographic specials. How to make sense of a foreign policy as perpetual motion that could have possibly momentous repercussions when clearly we have little idea of what we're doing, why or - most certainly - what dire implications might await us?

Let's begin with interests - as always. Apart from terrorism,[ fueled by our own inside job of 9/11 and its atrocious consequences worldwide...] there are two American interests in the broad region: hydrocarbon fuels, and Indo-Pak nuclear relations. Stressing the first distorts our estimation of the latter two while skewing strategic choices. I am of the school that believes our massive interventions, military and political, to eliminate all manner of terrorist threat is ill-conceived and counter-productive. The danger is grossly exaggerated, our methods unsuitable and the consequences augment the very threats we seek to erase. Islamic terrorism that targets the United States is essentially a police and intelligence problem - as Pat Lang and others have argued. As for Iran, it previously targeted Americans stationed in the Middle East, not in the United States. It no longer does the former. Moreover, there are better ways to deal with the Mullahs' regime - including talking seriously with them about the entire spectrum of both sides' security concerns.

Hydro-carbons in Central Asia? Valuable, certainly. Do we have to own them or control the governments of producing states? No. How important is preventing China or Russia from doing so? Somewhat. To deny either a major direct stake there is to set ourselves another impossible dream. Furthermore, the global oil market's integration makes all oil fungible. The geo-strategic fears voiced in some circles have an oddly stale smell about them, redolent of early 20th century intrigue. Still, it is worthwhile supporting the domestic stability and autonomy of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to the modest degree that we can. The relative stability of the first two, we should note, correlates with the absence of major American involvements of a tangible kind. By contrast, Washington’s meddling in the roiled politics of Kyrgyzstan to protect its stake in the Manas air base (promoting disgraced ex-president Bakiyev) has contributed to the bloody civil strife. Following our current course has the potential only to undermine rather than strengthen such stability as exists in the region.

Nuclear weapons? As to Iran, some reflection leads to the conclusion that the only productive course open to us is engagement - however odious the regime and its workings. A barrage of self-serving denunciations of Tehran as spoiling our magnificent work in Iraq and now Afghanistan is a diversion and obstacle rather than an assist. This is especially so since the charges have never been documented and, in any case, their alleged foul deeds pale when compared to the injuries that we have inflicted on ourselves. Sending Special Forces to stir up Baluchis in southeastern Iran is a futile game of ‘push-back’that also could backfire when it is linked to a serious separatist movement in Pakistani Baluchistan, adding to the general disorder in that Taliban riddled province.

As to Pakistani nuclear weapons, three questions arise. One concerns the risk of atomic war with India due to miscalculation or error. Technical help and addressing Kashmir are the keys to diminishing that risk. I fail to see how anything we now doing in other spheres contributes anything whatsoever to that constructive approach. The second is Pakistan's former commerce in nuclear relevant technology and hardware. It now seems to be under control - thanks to traditional diplomacy and suasion unconnected to the 'war on terror.' Finally, there is the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons and the danger of their falling under the control of some Islamist group or junta in Pakistan proper. The risk here probably is overstated. To the extent that it does exist, that is a factor pointing towards policies diametrically apposed to those we are now following. If you want to provoke a radical, violent fundamentalist force in the Punjab as well as in NWFP that makes inroads into the military establishment and security services, then we need just keep doing what we're doing. If you don't want that to happen, then its time to cease and desist from the self indulgent game of avenger that we’ve been playing for nearly nine years. Outrage is not a foreign policy.

Our compulsive terrorism obsession has had the enervating effect of draining time, energy and brains from the deliberative processes of devising strategy and executing it. The Obama team would be hard put to meet the requirements for addressing novel developments in the international environment under the most temperate conditions. They are obviously incapable of even thinking through those challenges (e.g. accommodating the rise of China’s presence and influence) while trying to square circles in AfPak with one eye on the electoral calendar at home.

Finally, it would help us to regain perspective and proportion if we could cultivate a sense of the absurd and ridiculous. Perhaps, we then could see ourselves as Michael Caine and Sean Connery in Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” straggling back from their misadventure in the mountain fastness while clutching a dead GPS receiver in one hand and a tattered copy of Rand’s COIN mega study in the other.