Afghanistan in its Greater Context
Shaping the future of the ‘Heartland’ of the greater globe.
by Parvez Asad Sheikh
Afghanistan represents the active site of an unsuccessful effort on the part of regional and international powers to establish a stable post-cold war balance in what S.Frederick Starr termed “Greater Central Asia”. That is the region from the Kazakh-Chechen border to Karachi and the Caspian Sea to Xingjiang or East-Turkistan.
Regional political organizations (apart from the quasi-Soviet CIS and its military extension the CSTO) such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and NATO have not been able thus far to consolidate geopolitically due to cross-purposes in the perspectives of their dominant members, leaving the region increasingly unstable. Imagine China, Europe, America and Russia trying to play a game of chess on a single board with seven pawns.
Some analysts have proceeded to do what Nigel J. R. Allen called a throwing about of the term ‘Great Game’ with ‘great abandon’. The current situation differs from that romanticized and somewhat imagined rivalry between Imperial Russia and the British Empire, in that there are not two empires but four significant political dynamos and no clear line of demarcation to ensure that equal pressure achieves relative regional stability. This, by comparison, was also the case during the Cold War.
Biden’s ‘Changing World’:
The toppling of the Taliban in 2001 placed the region in a position that necessitated a complete and absolute overhaul of geopolitical conventions and has lead to the clumsy attempts at dismantling the rusted cold-war relics of geopolitical structures and economic infrastructure that predated the latest war in Afghanistan. This has proved more difficult than America seems to have anticipated. Particularly after what can only be described as the US’s ‘spaced-out’ decade that saw it regard the post-Soviet region as unwanted spoils of war; the brief Pax Americana honeymoon.
The first relic is Russian influence on its former Soviet satellites. The Commonwealth of Independent States and the CSTO have proven to be efficient tools for Russia to maintain dominance in the former USSR, apart from Georgia and Ukraine which are being wooed by NATO membership.
The five ‘Stans’ on the other hand have found a Russian oriented foreign policy beneficial mainly as a result of the symbiotic nature of their economies; Kazakhstan exports coal to Russia for its electricity plants and in turn imports electricity produced from that same coal. While Kazakhstan will chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010, it is still very much an extension of Russian economic and political interests.
Turkmenistan’s staunchly neutral stance does not prevent it from dependence on Russian pipelines to export energy to the West. This has effectively undermined the ability of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation to act as a counterweight to NATO in a geo-political sense. The SCO suffers from a guarded distrust between its two major members, China and Russia that has prevented it from consolidating itself into anything more than a loose platform for regional cooperation on economic issues, terrorism and drug trafficking. While a strategic alliance between the two makes sense, China’s sheer demographics and sycophantic dollar diplomacy poses a threat to Russia’s regional energy hegemony and its aims to diversify its economy. Evan A. Feigenbaum of the Council on Foreign Relations stated concerning the strategic differences, ‘it is hard to point to concrete achievements in many of these areas - except on the basis of bilateral or non-SCO agreements and understandings’. Russia’s preference for its own cooperative platforms that exclude China further illustrates this.
The second relic is energy. Europe and America are finding it increasingly difficult to establish an independent stake in Central Asia’s vast energy resources. The fantastic diplomatic language of the Western planned Nabucco and Trans-Caspian pipelines show that Europe is trying to disentangle itself from dependence on Russian energy. The fact is, however, that Europe, and especially France and Germany, are aware that they are currently still economically, and increasingly politically, intertwined with Russia. This cleaves a rift between Europe and the US in their views on NATO’s post-cold war reality.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, in an interview on July 26th with The Wall Street Journal following his visits to the politically sensitive Russian ‘spheres of influence’ of Ukraine and Georgia, revealed America’s stance on Russia stating that ‘the United States “vastly” underestimates its hand’. He went on to summarily dismiss Russian geopolitical relevance based on the assumption that its economy and population base are shrinking and that ‘they’re in a situation where the world is changing before them and they’re clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable.’ It seems the pot called the kettle black. Fears of ‘encirclement’ expressed both on the part of Russia and China could only be fanned by this stance, further exacerbating the political ramifications of Europe’s need to maintain its energy security at the expense of NATO’s strategic alliance with US interests.
This brings us to the issue of Islamic Militancy in Greater Central Asia and the third and most important cold-war relic: the use of Islamic Nationalist movements as proxies to maintain ‘strategic depth’ in hostile regions. While President Obama has put on a political toupée to make his predecessor’s maverick foreign policy more palatable to the geopolitically sensitive (he has renamed the ‘Global War On Terror’ ‘Overseas Contingency Operations’) and European and Russian concerns of America’s disregard for international law (by stressing the importance of the U.N. as ‘pivotal’ to international action), U.S. Foreign Policy in general, and its military presence in Greater Central Asia in particular, is still defined and justified as a war against ‘extremists’/ ‘terrorists’/ ‘al-Qaeda’/ ‘Taliban’.
The Nationalism of ‘Terror’:
There are two major epicenters of Nationalism in Greater Central Asia; the first is ‘Pashtunistan’ that is divided between Afghanistan and Pakistan and the second is the Ferghana Valley, birthplace of Babur, which is divided between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Tajikistan has proven to be a corridor that provides for the movement of men, arms and ideology between these two volatile areas. While the other four ‘Stans’ managed the transition from soviet satellite to independence rather smoothly thanks to their strong-arm, soviet-era leaders, Tajikistan was embroiled in a civil war fought on ethnic and Machiavellian political lines that has kept it comparatively weak and unstable.
The Taliban is a Pathan nationalist movement and the evolutionary result of US-Saudi support for the mujahideen during Soviet Russia’s incursion into Afghanistan. Following the Soviet retreat, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia used the Taliban as a means to gain ‘strategic depth’ against Iran and India respectively. Saudi foreign policy revolves around the containment of its Shia neighbour Iran (and the threat of its radical Shia ideology), and Pakistan’s on the containment of India. Iran in turn funded Shia militants and prominent generals aligned to the Northern Alliance and India has links with the Baloch nationalist movement and strong ties with Afghanistan’s current administration. Saudi Arabia’s petrodollars also funded the Wahabbi Islamic Revival in Central Asia as a means to ensure its hand in the energy-rich Muslim lands of the ex-soviet states, the Ferghana Valley being fertile for the growth of an Islamic nationalist movement.
The Ferghana Valley is home to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) that first emerged in 1999 after and incursion into Kyrgyzstan from Tajikistan to capture a small border town. According to the verbose Ahmed Rashid, prior to this event, IMU militants fought alongside the Taliban against Ahmed Shah Mas’ud in the late 1990’s. In fact, the leading IMU figurehead Jumma Namangani lost his life in an American air strike in 2001 in Afghanistan, after which (once again according to Rashid), they fled to Western Pakistan. We therefore have the entire core region of Greater Central Asia with links to these nationalist movements. On the periphery lie Xinjiang in China and Chechnya and Dagestan in Russia.
The situation in Afghanistan reveals two matters that must be recognized for what they are:
Firstly, the idea of democracy, that is a central government with parliamentary representation, cannot be established in the Greater Central Asia. Not one of the countries in the region has any track record to show the contrary. Even Kyrgyzstan’s ‘Tulip’ Revolution has resulted in a clan-based regime.
Secondly, this is due to the ethnic nature of the nation states into which the region has been divided. The ‘Stans’ were founded by Soviet Russia that built on Imperial Russia’s wanton use of cultivating Cossacks and clan-based political structures in order to consolidate its hold on the region. The Durand Line that separates Pakistan and Afghanistan was formalized as a strategic boundary from which nineteenth century Imperial Britain could ensure an advantageous defensive position against a not-so-probable Russian offensive.
Therefore, the cause for what is termed ‘terrorism’ is nationalism and the root cause of nationalism in the region is the manner in which the region is divided. Nigel J. R. Allen, in his brilliant 2001 article on the region ‘Defining Place and People in Afghanistan’ stated that; ‘The absurdity of a Eurocentric world also extends to the concept of a nation-state’. It is little wonder then that the US-ISAF forces are in the process of dismantling that truly absurd suggestion of the Durand Line that remains the Pakistan-Afghan border.
To Make All Things New:
The current political dialectic can only lead to further destabilization without offering any prospects of a logical and peaceful balance of powers. If US-ISAF forces begin to place pressure on the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border, the ramifications would be disastrous. According to Nicklas Norling of CACI, Russia is moving towards the militarisation of the ‘Stans’ through the use of Islamic militants whose activities would provide the provocation and justification for it. One Russian analyst has stated that ‘preservation of Russia’s wholeness begins in the Ferghana Valley’. A similar caveat was used by the FSB in order to provide the justification for the second Chechen War in 1999.
With the geopolitical tensions growing between Russia and the US and the geo-strategic interests of China and Europe at stake, the use of the terrorist dialectic is wholly problematic as it fails to make a clear distinction between players and reflect the greater reality on the ground. P. J. Taj, a Pakistani political analyst interviewed on al Jazeera on the 8th of August stressed the fact that 'we are reduced to sophomoric speculation when determining who funds the Taliban; the lines are blurred. But there is one reality that must be taken into consideration by think tanks and leaders alike; the entire region is a Sea of Islam; it is Muslim.
The situation in Greater Central Asia will necessitate the reworking of the current political dialectic. Muslims of the region have two options; they either allow themselves to be herded into the next phase of bloodshed or they consolidate politically, using their intellects, and shape the future of what Sir Halford Mackinder called the ‘Heartland’ of the greater globe.
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