By Shahzad Chaudhry
October 17, 2011
Stephen Hadley, George W Bush’s national security adviser, was in town seeking views and ideas on the current US-Pakistan imbroglio. One question posed to him frequently was a glaring lack of clarity vis-a-vis America’s objectives as the war in Afghanistan drew to a close. Did the US have some ‘great-game’ objectives to pursue as she sought closure on the kinetic phase of the war; or, was the conspiratorial theme of keeping an eye on an energy-rich Central Asia, an irritating Iran and a nuclear-Pakistan actually her hidden agenda; or whether America wanted out of a badly conceived, badly conducted and poorly completed war, a la Vietnam, albeit with some grace to hide her discomfiture.
He never answered preferring to remain in the grey. Most others, serious readers of Afghanistan, would perhaps see some of all three playing into the evolving matrix on what is now called the endgame. There are signs aplenty, however, of what is slowly emerging as the more enveloping reality in Asia. There are a few ‘strategic high grounds’ in Asia, the control of which, in operational terms, means that the one occupying those heights commands the areas around. The Tibetan plateau is one; the Mongolian heights another; and Afghanistan the third. Tibet and Mongolia have a direct China reference and therefore have become the competing ground for those directly engaged in boxing China. Afghanistan, however, is pure and simple indirect strategy from the Liddell Hart School. Let’s see how it works.
A recent principal from the American administration on a visit to Delhi has famously urged that their newfound strategic partners not only ‘Look East’ but ‘Move East’. This is a euphemism for trying to contend against the growing Chinese clout in the region. The South China Sea is being slowly converted into a battlefield for control and influence. The Spratly Islands are where Indonesia, Malaysia and India are being woven into a combined front to challenge China’s claimed control of their territory. M K Bhadrakumar, a former Indian diplomat and now a prolific writer on geostrategic matters, has encapsulated in a couple of his articles India’s growing interest and involvement in East Asia as a precursor to a competitive engagement there. India’s growing relationship with Vietnam is a case in point. The Indian foreign minister was recently in Vietnam in a direct challenge to China’s exclusive hold over the region. Vietnam’s and Myanmar’s leaders have been to Delhi for their own sojourns. The trend manifested well in a recent trilateral interaction between China, India and Pakistan, when a seasoned Indian interlocutor cautioned China to “expect and accept a growing Indian presence around China; that Australia, Japan, South Korea, and India were now natural allies; and that India’s presence in Vietnam was as much a reality as was China’s in Tibet and Pakistan”. China was duly cautioned on an increasingly assertive Indian disposition around its borders and in her backyard. Act I.
Act II: Afghanistan. The forthcoming Conference on Afghanistan in Istanbul in early November is likely to reinforce a couple of new coinages; one of those is touted as the “Heart of Asia” — the new term encapsulating the fulcrum that Afghanistan is in Asia and hence the focus that it must garner all future considerations. Next is the ‘New Silk Road’ emblem touted famously now by Hillary Clinton and aimed at creating a Eurasian centre of gravity linking the energy and rare earth metals-rich Asian region to Europe in the west and Japan in the east. Compare this to a recent, albeit relatively weaker, attempt by Pakistan to re-enshrine the age-old Silk Road connecting China, Central Asia and the former India sub-continent (read Pakistan now) with the trading region of the Middle East. The latter is considered an effort by China to establish its influence through trade and presence in the former Silk Road region while the former is aimed at exactly the opposite-to sabotage any such effort.
After a recent visit to China, Pakistan’s defence minister claimed in a casual chat with newsmen that Pakistan had offered Gwadar in Balochistan to China for operation and maintenance as well as to develop naval berthing facilities. Nonplussed at such careless disclosure the Chinese ministry chose to deny what the minister had said. The truth is likely to be somewhere in between; it is useful to be reminded of a Deng Xiaoping admonition, “shanyu shouzhuo”, as in keep a low profile”. The work that China is doing to restore and widen the Karakoram Highway and link with Pakistan’s southern network of roads is meant to integrate its western regions, Xinjiang et al, with the potential of prosperity that could come to these regions. China is conscious of the need for even growth and stability associated with economic promise; recent troubles in Xinjiang in many ways reflect the economic unevenness that has held the region back. Pakistan, for its own sake, and in order to integrate the hinterlands in its provinces of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, is keen to find space and stability to develop infrastructure that could help realise the potential of Gwadar.
Enter Afghanistan again as an important element of American geo-strategy. As long as strife — or better still controlled chaos — remains in the eastern regions of Afghanistan and the contiguous Khyber-Pahtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces of Pakistan, the Chinese Silk road is hardly ever going to see the light of the day in its fully envisioned dimensions. Gwadar may therefore never be linked through a destabilised Balochistan and a dislocated Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa with China’s west. This is when the third element of the Istanbul Conference shall find relevance. A conglomerate of fourteen nations with a main actor in India could fill in that role in Afghanistan after the US leaves. It will also add to India’s growing persona in the international community even if it is to fill in as a proxy. Some of these roles will include sustaining the post-US structure, keeping the Taliban or remnants of Al Qaeda out, and more likely keeping eastern Afghanistan and by implication western Pakistan active through deliberately incited strife. That notionally and geographically will keep China boxed along its Asian axis.
A plan, whether in war or in game, is usually the first casualty when the whistle goes up. What remains is the interplay of opposing forces; what results is the cumulative residue of a multi-prong effort. Victory is only a relative end-state measured against the long shadows of time.
The writer is a defence and security analyst who served as vice-chief of the Pakistan Air Force and as Pakistan’s ambassador to Sri Lanka.
Source: The Express Tribune, Lahore