Category Archives: Central Asia

The Great Game’s New Clothes

The Great Game’s New Clothes

Dispatches From The Edge

May 5, 2011

According to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Leon Panetta, the U.S. never informed Pakistan about the operation to assassinate al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Ladin because it thought the Pakistanis could “jeopardize the mission” by tipping off the target.

Maybe, and maybe not. This is, after all, the ground over which the 19th century “Great Game” was played, the essence of which was obfuscation. What you thought you saw or knew was not necessarily what was.

The “official” story is that three CIA helicopters—one for backup—took off from Jalalabad, Afghanistan and flew almost 200 miles to Abbottabad, most of it through Pakistani airspace. Pakistan scrambled jets, but the choppers still managed to land, spend 40 minutes on the ground, and get away.

Is it possible the helicopters really did dodge Pakistani radar? During the Cold War a West German pilot flew undetected through the teeth of the Soviet air defense system and landed his plane in Red Square, so yes. Choppers are slow, but these were stealth varieties and fairly quiet. But at top speed, the Blackhawks would have needed about an hour each way, plus the 40 minutes on the ground. That is a long time to remain undetected, particularly in a town hosting three regiments of the Pakistani Army, plus the Kakul Military Academy, the country’s equivalent of West Point. Abbottabad is also 35 miles from the capital, Islamabad, and the region is ringed with anti-aircraft sites.

Still, it is possible, except there is an alternative scenario that not only avoids magical thinking about what choppers can do, but better fits the politics of the moment: that Pakistan’s Directorate of Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) knew where Bin Ladin was and fingered him, estimating that his death would accelerate negotiations with the Taliban. Why now? Because for the first time in this long war, U.S. and Pakistani interests coincide.

Gen. Hammad Gul, former head of the ISI, told the Financial Times on May 3 that the ISI knew where he was, but regarded him as “inactive.” Writing in the May 5 Guardian (UK), author Tariq Ali says that a “senior” ISI official told him back in 2006 that the spy organization knew where bin Ladin was, but had no intention of arresting him because he was “The goose that laid the golden egg.” In short, the hunt for the al-Qaeda leader helped keep the U.S. aid spigot open.

Indeed, bin Ladin may have been under house arrest, which would explain the absence of trained bodyguards. By not allowing the al-Qaeda leader a private militia, the ISI forced him to rely on it for protection. And if they then dropped a dime on him, they knew he would be an easy target. As to why he was killed, not captured, neither the U.S. nor Pakistan wanted him alive, the former because of the judicial nightmare his incarceration would involve, the latter because dead men tell no tales.

As for the denials: the last thing the ISI wants is to be associated with the hit, since it could end up making the organization a target for Pakistan’s home-grown Taliban. If the ISI knew, so did the Army, though not necessarily at all levels. Did the Army turn a blind eye to the U.S. choppers? Who knows?

What we do know for certain is that there is a shift in Pakistan and the U.S. with regards to the Afghan war.

On the U.S. side, the war is going badly, and American military and intelligence agencies are openly warring with one another. In December the U.S. intelligence community released a study indicating that progress was minimal and that the 2009 surge of 30,000 troops had produced only tactical successes: “There remains no clear path toward defeating the insurgency.”  The Pentagon counter-attacked in late April with a report that the surge had been “a strategic defeat for the Taliban,” and that the military was making “tangible progress in some really key areas.”

It is not an analysis agreed with by our NATO allies, most of which are desperate to get their troops out of what they view as a deepening quagmire. A recent WikiLeak cable quotes Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Union, saying “No one believes in Afghanistan anymore. But we will give it 2010 to see results.” He went on to say Europe was only going along “out of deference to the United States.”  Translation: NATO support is falling apart.

Recent shifts by the Administration seem to signal that the White House is backing away from the surge and looking for ways to wind down the war. The shift of Gen. David Petraeus to the CIA removes the major U.S. booster of the current counterinsurgency strategy, and moving Panetta to the Defense Department puts a savvy political infighter with strong Democratic Party credentials into the heart of Pentagon. Democrats are overwhelmingly opposed to the war but could never get a hearing from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a Republican.

The last major civilian supporter of the war is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but Gates, her main ally, will soon be gone, as will Admiral Mike Mullen, head of the Joints Chiefs of Staff. The shuffle at the top is hardly a “night of the long knives,” but the White House has essentially eliminated or sidelined those in the administration who pushed for a robust war and long-term occupation.

A surge of sanity? Well, at least some careful poll reading. According to the Associated Press, six in 10 Americans want out of the war. Among Democrats 73 percent want to be out in a year, and a USA Today/Gallup Poll found that 72 percent of Americans want Congress to address an accelerated withdrawal. With the war now costing $8 billion a month, these numbers are hardly a surprise.

Pakistan has long been frustrated with the U.S.’s reluctance to talk to the Taliban, and, from Islamabad’s perspective, the war is largely being carried out at their expense. Pakistan has suffered tens of thousands of civilian and military casualties in what most Pakistanis see as an American war, and the country is literally up in arms over the drone attacks.

The Pakistani Army has been deployed in Swat, South Waziristan, and Bajaur, and the U.S. is pressing it to invade North Waziristan. One Pakistani grumbled to the Guardian (UK), “What do they [the U.S.] want us to do? Declare war on our whole country?” For the 30 million Pashtuns in the northwest regions, the Pakistani Army is foreign in language and culture, and Islamabad knows that it will eventually be seen as an outside occupier.

A poll by the New America Foundation and Terror Free Tomorrow of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan’s northwest—home and refuge to many of the insurgents fighting in Afghanistan—found some 80 percent oppose the U.S. war on terror, almost nine in every 10 people oppose U.S. attacks on the Taliban, and three quarters oppose the drone attacks.

The bottom line is that Pakistan simply cannot afford to continue the war, particularly as they are still trying to dig themselves out from under last year’s massive floods.

In April, Pakistan’s top military, intelligence and political leadership decamped to Kabul to meet with the government of Harmid Karzai. The outcome of the talks is secret, but they appear to have emboldened the parties to press the U.S. to start talking. According to Ahmed Rashid, author of “Taliban” and “Descent into Chaos,” the White House is moving “the fledgling peace process forward” and will “push to broker an end to the war.” This includes dropping “its preconditions that the Taliban sever links with al-Qaeda and accept the Afghan constitution before holding face-to-face talks.”

Given that in 2008 the Taliban agreed to not allow any “outside” forces in the country and pledged not to pose a danger to any other country, including those in the West, this demand has already been met. As for the constitution, since it excluded the Taliban it will have to be re-negotiated in any case.

While there appears to be a convergence of interests among the major parties, negotiations promise to be a thorny business.

The Pentagon will resist a major troop drawdown. There is also opposition in Afghanistan, where Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara minorities are deeply suspicious of the Taliban. The Karzai government also appears split on the talks, although recent cabinet shuffles have removed some of the more anti-Pakistan leaders.

Then there is the Taliban, which is hardly a centralized organization, especially since U.S. drone attacks and night raids have effectively removed more experienced Taliban leaders, leaving younger and more radical fighters in charge. Can Taliban leader Mullah Omar deliver his troops? That is not a given.

Both other insurgent groups—the Haqqani Group and Hizb-i-Islami—have indicated they are open to negotiations, but the Americans will have a hard time sitting down with the Haqqanis. The group has been implicated in the deaths of numerous U.S. and coalition forces. To leave the Haqqani Group out, however, will derail the whole process.

The U.S. would like to exclude Iran, but as Rashid points out, “No peace process in Afghanistan can succeed without Iran’s full participation.” And then there is India. Pakistan sees Indian involvement in Afghanistan as part of New Delhi’s strategy to surround Pakistan, and India accuses Pakistan of harboring terrorists who attack Indian-controlled Kashmir and launched the horrendous 2008 attack on Mumbai that killed 166 people.

Murphy’s Law suggests that things are more likely to end in chaos than reasoned diplomacy. But self-interest is a powerful motivator, and all parties, including India, stands to gain something by ending the war. India very much wants to see the 1,050-mile TAPI pipeline built, as it will carry gas from Turkmenistan, through Afghanistan and Pakistan, to Fazilka, India.

A lot is at stake, and if getting the peace process going involved taking out Osama bin Ladin. Well, in the cynical world of the “Great Game,” to make an omelet, you have to break eggs.

Back in the Victorian era the British Army marched off singing a song:

“We don’t want to fight but by jingo if we do/

We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, and we’ve got the money too”

But in the 21st century most our allies’ armies don’t want to fight, ships are useless in Afghanistan, there aren’t enough men, and everyone is broke.

For 33 years the people of Afghanistan have been bombed, burned, shot, tortured and turned into refugees. For at least the moment the pieces are aligned to bring this awful war to an end. It is time to close the book on the “Great Game” and bring the troops home.

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Pakistan’s Nukes: The U.S. Connection

 

Pakistan’s Nukes :The U.S. Connection

Dispatches From The Edge

March 8, 2011

 

Washington—New American intelligence assessments have concluded that Pakistan has steadily expanded its nuclear arsenal since President Obama came to office…for the Obama administration the assessment poses a direct challenge to a central element of the President’s national security strategy, the reduction of nuclear stockpiles around the world.”—New York Times

 

The above words, written this past February, were followed by a Times editorial, titled “Pakistan’s Nuclear Folly,” decrying that “the weapons buildup has gotten too little attention,” and calling on Washington to “look for points of leverage” to stop it.

 

Well, the administration and the Times may be unhappy about Pakistan’s nuclear buildup, but it certainly should not have come as a surprise, nor is there much of a secret to the “points of leverage” that would almost certainly put a stopper on it: scupper the so-called 1-2-3 Agreement between the U.S. and India.

 

Back in 2003, Douglas Feith, then Under Secretary of Defense for Policy in the Bush Administration, pulled together a meeting of the U.S.-India Defense Policy Group to map out a blueprint for pulling New Delhi into an alliance against China. The code word used during the discussions was “stability,” but as P.R. Chari of the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies noted, “What they really mean is how to deal with China.”

 

The Bush administration changed the Clinton Administration’s designation of China as a “strategic partner” to “strategic competitor,” and in its U.S.-China Security Review concluded that Beijing is “in direct competition with us for influence in Asia and beyond” and that in “the worst case this could lead to war.” Another Pentagon document revealed by Jane’s Foreign Report argued that both India and the U.S. were threatened by China, and that “India should emerge as a vital component of US strategy.”

 

One of the obstacles to that alliance was the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which blocks any country that is not a signer from buying nuclear fuel on the world market. Since neither India nor Pakistan has signed the Treaty, they can’t buy fuel from the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group. That has been particularly hard on India because it has few native uranium sources and has to split those between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. The ban, however, is central to the NPT, and one of the few checks on nuclear proliferation.

 

But the Bush administration proposed bypassing the NPT with the so-called 1-2-3 Agreement that permitted India to purchase nuclear materials even though New Delhi refused to sign the Treaty. India would agree to use the nuclear fuel only in its civilian plants and open those plants for inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But the Agreement also allowed India to divert its own domestic supplies to its weapons program, and those plants would remain off the inspection grid. In short, India would no longer have to choose between nuclear power and nuclear weapons: it could have both.

 

In July 2008, Pakistan’s then Foreign Minister Khurshid Kusuri predicted that if the 1-2-3 Agreement went through, “The whole Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will unravel,” and, in a letter to the IAEA, Pakistan warned that the pact “threatens to increase the chances of a nuclear arms race in the subcontinent.”

 

However, neither the Bush administration nor the Obama administration paid any attention to Pakistan’s complaints. The results were predictable.  Pakistan ramped up its nuclear weapons program and may soon pass Britain as the fifth largest nuclear weapons nation in the world.

 

It also dug in its heels at the 65-nation 2011 Conference on Disarmament in Geneva and blocked a proposal to halt the production of nuclear weapons-making material.  The 1-2-3 Agreement and the push to bring India into the Nuclear Suppliers group, warned Ambassador Zamir Akram, were “undermining the validity and sanctity of the international non-proliferation regime” and would “further destabilize security in South Asia.” The Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT) is a priority for the Obama administration.

 

Islamabad is not alone in its criticism of the 1-2-3 Agreement or the FMCT. A number of nations are challenging NPT signers, including the U.S., China, Russia, Britain and France, to fulfill Article VI of the NPT that requires the elimination of nuclear weapons. While the U.S. and Russia have reduced their arsenals, both still have thousands of weapons, and the Americans are in the process of modernizing their current warheads.

 

Pakistan is a far smaller country than India, and would likely face defeat in a conventional conflict. It has already lost three wars to India. Its ace in the hole is nuclear weapons, and some Pakistanis have a distressingly casual view of nuclear war. “You can die crossing the street, or you could die in a nuclear war,” remarked former Pakistan army chief Gen. Mirza Aslem Beg. A BBC poll found that the Pakistani public has an “abysmally low” understanding of the threat.

 

Many Indians are not much better. Former Indian Defense Minister Georges Fernandes commented that “India can survive a nuclear attack, but Pakistan cannot.” And that same BBC poll found that for most Indians “the terror of a nuclear conflict is hard to imagine.”

 

Both countries have recently rolled out cruise missiles that are capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The Pakistani Hatf-7, or “Babur,” has a range of almost 500 miles and a speed of 550 miles. It appears to have been copied from the U.S. BGM-109 “Tomahawk,” several of which crashed in Pakistan during 1998 air strikes against Afghanistan. The Indian PJ-10 BrahMos cruise has a shorter range—180 miles—but a top speed of 2100 mph. India and Pakistan also have ballistic missiles capable of striking major cities in both countries.

 

In its editorial declaiming Pakistan as guilty of “nuclear folly,” the Times pointed out that “Pakistan cannot feed its people [or] educate its children.” Neither can India. As a 2010 United Nations Development Program report discovered, as bad as things are in Pakistan, life expectancy is lower in India, and the gap between rich and poor is greater. In fact, neither country can afford large militaries—Pakistan spends 35 percent of its budget on arms, and India is in the middle of a $40 billion military spending spree—and a nuclear war would not only destroy both countries, but also profoundly affect the entire globe.

 

Nuclear weapons are always folly, but what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. The U.S. currently spends in excess of $1 trillion a year on all defense and security related items, while our education system is starving, our infrastructure is collapsing, and hunger and illiteracy are spreading.  If the Times wants to ratchet down tensions in South Asia, let it call for dumping the 1-2-3 Agreement and beginning the process called for in Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measure relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty of general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

 

 

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Pakistan, China, and the CIA

The CIA, Pakistan & Tangled Webs

Dispatches From The Edge

Feb. 27, 2011

Was American CIA agent Raymond Davis secretly working with the Taliban and al-Qaeda to destabilize Pakistan and lay the groundwork for a U.S. seizure of that country’s nuclear weapons? Was he photographing sensitive military installations and marking them with a global positioning device? Did he gun down two men in cold blood to prevent them from revealing what he was up to? These are just a few of the rumors ricocheting around Islamabad, Lahore and Peshawar in the aftermath of Davis’s arrest Jan. 27, and sorting through them is a little like stepping through Alice’s looking glass.

But one thing is certain: the U.S. has hundreds of intelligence agents working in Pakistan, most of them private contractors, and many of them so deep in the shadows that Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), doesn’t know who they are or what they are up to. “How many more Raymond Davises are out there?” one ISI official asked Associated Press.

Lots, it would appear. Five months ago, the Pakistani government directed its embassies in the U.S. to issue visas without letting the ISI or Pakistan’s Interior Ministry vet them. According to the Associated Press, this opened a “floodgate” that saw 3,555 visas for diplomats, military officials and employees issued in 2010.

Many of those visas were for non-governmental organizations and the staff for the huge, $1 billion fortress embassy Washington is building in Islamabad, but thousands of others covered consular agents and workers in Lahore (where Davis was arrested), Karachi and other cities. Some of those with visas work for Xe Services (formally Blackwater), others for low-profile agencies like Blackbird Technologies, Glevum Associates, and K2 Solutions. Many of the “employees” of these groups are former U.S. military personnel—Davis was in the Special Forces for 10 years—and former CIA agents. And the fact that these are private companies allows them to fly under the radar of congressional oversight, as frail a reed as that may be.

How one views the incident that touched off the current diplomatic crisis is an example of how deep the differences between Pakistan and the U.S. have become.

The Americans claim Davis was carrying out surveillance on radical insurgent groups, and was simply defending himself from two armed robbers.  But Davis’s story has problems. It does appear that the two men on the motorbike were armed, but neither fired their weapon and, according to the police report, one did not even have a shell in his pistol’s firing chamber. Davis apparently fired through the window of his armored SUV, then stepped out of the car and shot the two men in the back, one while attempting to flee. He then calmly took photos, called for backup, climbed into his car, and drove off. He was arrested shortly afterwards at an intersection.

The Pakistanis have a different view of the incident. According to Pakistani press reports, the two men were working for the ISI and were trailing Davis because the intelligence agency suspected that the CIA agent was in contact with the Tehrik-e-Taliban, a Pakistani group based in North Waziristan that is currently warring with Islamabad. As an illustration of how bizarre things are these days in Pakistan, one widespread rumor is that the U.S. is behind the Tehtik-e-Taliban bombings as part of a strategy to destabilize Pakistan and lay the groundwork for an American seizure of Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal.

The ISI maintains close ties with the Afghan Taliban based in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province, as well as its allies, the Hizb-e-Islami and the Haqqani Group. All three groups are careful to keep a distance from Pakistan’s Taliban

Yet another rumor claims that Davis was spying on Lashkar-e-Taiba, a group with close ties to the ISI that is accused of organizing the 2008 massacre in Mumbai, India. The Americans claim the organization is working with al-Qaeda, a charge the Pakistanis reject.

When Davis’s car was searched, police turned up not only the Glock semi-automatic he used to shoot the men, but four loaded clips, a GPS device, and a camera. The latter, according to the police report, had photos of “sensitive” border sites. “This is not the work of a diplomat,” Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah told the Guardian (UK), “he was doing espionage and surveillance activities.”

The shooting also had the feel of an execution. One of the men was shot twice in the back and his body was more than 30 feet from the motorbike, an indication he was attempting to flee. “It went way beyond what we define as self-defense, “ a senior police official told the Guardian (UK), “It was not commensurate with the threat.” The Lahore Chief of Police called it a “cold-blooded murder.”

The U.S. claims that Davis is protected by diplomatic immunity, but the matter might not be as open and shut as the U.S. is making it. According to the Pakistani Express Tribune, Davis’s name was not on a list of diplomats submitted to Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry on Jan. 25. The day after the shooting the embassy submitted a revised list that listed Davis as a diplomat.

Washington clearly considered Davis to be important. When he asked for backup on the day of the shooting, another SUV was dispatched to support him, apparently manned by agents living at the same safe house as Davis. The rescue mission went wrong when it ran over a motorcyclist while going the wrong direction down a one-way street. When the Pakistani authorities wanted to question the agents, they found that both had been whisked out of the country.

Almost immediately the Obama administration sent Sen. John Kerry, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to Islamabad to apologize and pressure Pakistan to release Davis. But the incident has stirred up a hornet’s nest in Pakistan, where the CIA’s drone war has deeply alienated most Pakistanis. Opposition parties are demanding that the CIA agent be tried for murder. A hearing on the issue of whether Davis has diplomatic immunity will be heard Mar. 14.

In the meantime, Davis is being held under rather extraordinary security because of rumors that the Americans will try to spring him, or even poison him. Davis is being shielded from any direct contact with U.S. officials, and a box of chocolates sent to Davis by the Embassy was confiscated.

The backdrop for the crisis is a growing estrangement between the two countries over their respective strategies in Afghanistan.

The U.S. has stepped up its attacks on the Afghan insurgents, launched a drone war in Pakistan, and is demanding that Islamabad take a much more aggressive stance toward the Taliban’s allies based in the Afghan border region. While Washington still talks about a “diplomatic resolution” to the Afghan war, it is busy blowing up the very people it will eventually need to negotiate with.

This approach makes no sense to Pakistan. From Islamabad’s point of view, increasing attacks on the Taliban and their allies will only further destabilize Pakistan, and substitutes military victory for a diplomatic settlement. Since virtually every single independent observer think the former is impossible, the current U.S. strategy is, as terror expert Anatol Lieven puts it, “lunatic reasoning.”

Pakistan wants to insure that any Afghan government that emerges from the war is not a close ally of India, a country with which it has already fought three wars. A pro-Indian government in Kabul would essentially surround Pakistan with hostile forces. Yet the Americans have pointedly refused to address the issue of Indian-Pakistan tension over Kashmir, in large part because Washington very much wants an alliance with India.

In short, the U.S. and Pakistan don’t see eye to eye on Afghanistan, and Islamabad is suspicious that Americans like Davis are undermining Pakistan’s interests in what Islamabad views as an area central to its national security. “They [the U.S.] need to come clean and tell us who they [agents] are, what they are doing,” one ISI official told the Guardian (UK). “They need to stop doing things behind our back.”

There are a lot of unanswered questions about the matter. Was the ISI onto Davis, and was he really in contact with groups the Pakistani army didn’t want him talking to? What did Washington know about Davis’ mission, and when did it know it? Did Davis think he was being held up, or was it a cold-blooded execution of two troublesome tails?

Rumor has it that the CIA and the ISI are in direct negotiations to find an acceptable solution, but there are constraints on all sides. The Pakistani public is enraged with the U.S. and resents that it has been pulled into the Afghan quagmire. On the other hand, there are many in Washington—particularly in Congress—who are openly talking about cutting off the $1.5 billion of yearly U.S. aid to Pakistan.

What the incident has served to illuminate is the fact that U.S. intelligence operations are increasingly being contracted out to private companies with little apparent oversight from Congress. At last count, the U.S. Defense Department had almost 225,000 private contractors working for them.

The privatization of intelligence adds yet another layer of opacity to an endeavor that is already well hidden by a blanket of “national security,” and funded by black budgets most Americans never see. The result of all this is a major diplomatic crisis in what is unarguably the most dangerous piece of ground on the planet.

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Killing The Peace In Afghanistan

Afghanistan: Killing Peace

Dispatches From The Edge

Jan. 15, 2011

In spite of a White House declaration that “progress” is being made in Afghanistan, by virtually any measure the war has deteriorated significantly since the Obama Administration surged troops into Kandahar and Helmand provinces. This past year has been the deadliest on record for U.S. and coalition troops. Civilian casualties are on the rise, and, according to the Red Cross, security has worsened throughout the country. U.S. allies are falling away, and the central government in Kabul has never been so isolated. Polls in Afghanistan, the U.S. and Europe reflect growing opposition to the nine-year conflict.

So why is the White House pursuing a strategy that is almost certain to accelerate a descent into chaos, and one that runs counter to the Administration’s stated goal of a diplomatic solution to the war?

It is not an easy question to answer, in part because the major actors are hardly being straight with the public.

For instance, while U.S. commander Maj. Gen. David Petraeus says his strategy of counterinsurgency is making headway, in fact the military abandoned that approach long ago. Instead it has ramped up the air war and replaced the campaign to win “hearts and minds” with “night raids” aimed at assassinating or capturing Taliban leaders and supporters.

“Night raids” have more than tripled, from an average of 5 a night to 17, and they more and more resemble the Phoenix Program during the Vietnam War. Phoenix was aimed at decapitating the leadership of the National Liberation Front (NLF) and dismantling the NLF infrastructure in the countryside. It ended up assassinating somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 people.

As in the Phoenix Program, night raids are directed at destroying “shadow governments” the Taliban have established in virtually every province in the country. Over the past three months, U.S. and NATO forces claim they have killed or captured 360 “insurgent leaders,” 960 “low-level leaders,” and some 2,400 fighters.

The Taliban have responded by assassinating government officials in Kandahar and increasing their cooperation with the two other insurgent groups, the Hizb-i-Islami and the Haqqani Group.

In spite of the raids, United Nation’s maps show that the central battlegrounds of Kandahar and Helmand provinces are still considered “very high risk” and the situation has grown considerably worse in the north and east.

The White House argues that the only solution to the long-running war is a diplomatic one, but the administration seems bent on systematically sabotaging that outcome by trying to kill the very people who will be central to any negotiated peace.

“By killing Taliban leaders, the war will not come to an end,” former Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Muttwakil told the Nation’s Jeremy Scahill, “on the contrary, things get worse.” Indeed, according to former Taliban leader Abdul Salam Zaeef, the killings push more radical leaders to the fore. “It will be worse for everyone if the [current] Taliban leadership disappears,” Zaeef told Scahill.

The US has also sharpened its criticism of Pakistan to the point that a recent intelligence analysis essentially says the Islamabad is the major problem. There is even talk about sending U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) and the special 3,000-man Afghan army organized by the CIA into Pakistan to attack insurgent camps near the border, an act that would almost certainly further inflame anti-Americanism in that country.

In reality, there is not a whole lot Pakistan’s 600,000-man army can do. It is already fighting a homegrown Taliban, and its tense relations with India require it keep substantial forces on their mutual border. It has also largely taken over the job of dealing with Pakistan’s devastating floods last year. But even were it use all its forces, it is doubtful it could control the mountainous, 1553-mile border with Afghanistan.

The Pakistanis argue that current U.S. policy, not the border, is the problem. They point to the fact that the Americans have hitched themselves to the corruption-plagued Karzi government and have little to show for the billions spent to train the Afghan Army and police. “The Americans are looking for a scapegoat,” says leading Pakistan politician Mushahid Hussain.

Is the problem that Obama has turned the war over the military?

For all of Petraeus’ talk about “hearts and minds,” the military’s job description is to kill people. That is why Karl von Clausewitz, the great theoretician of modern war, pointed out that war is much too important a matter to be left in the hands of generals.

The Obama Administration seems paralyzed by a combination of those in its ranks who support a muscular foreign policy, like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the late Richard Holbrooke, a fear that the Republicans will brand them as “soft” in the 2012 elections, and an unwillingness to confront the generals.

The tragedy here is that many of the pieces for a deal are already in place. The Taliban and its allies are not tightly organized groups with a common ideology other than expelling invaders. They range from dedicated jihadists to local people fighting over turf or for revenge. And while Afghans have a reputation for being fierce, they actually excel at the art of the deal. If they did not, the country would have been depopulated long ago.

Of course, there are substantial roadblocks to overcome. The Taliban insists all foreign troops must leave, and the U.S. and Karzi demand the insurgents accept the Afghan constitution and put down their weapons. None of the above is likely to happen.

But the Taliban said back in 2008 that they would accept a “timetable” for foreign troops to leave. Of course both sides would have to agree to a ceasefire.

The U.S will have to back off from its insistence that the insurgents accept the current constitution. The document establishes a powerful centralized government, a form of organization that flies in the face of the country’s history and which few Afghans outside of Kabul support. A constitution based on strong local autonomy would garner more support. In turn, the insurgents would have to guarantee that groups like al-Qaeda could not set up shop.

The Americans insist they will not talk with the Haqqani Group or others they consider “irreconcilables,” but you have to negotiate with the people you are fighting. No party has the right to veto the participation of another.

Any agreement will have to take into account regional security issues, including Islamabad’s fear that India will make Afghanistan a client state, thus surrounding Pakistan on both sides.

The polls are on the side of those who want to end the war.

A recent survey found that 83 percent of Afghanis want negotiations, (though 55 percent show little sympathy with the insurgency). According to an ABC/Washington Post poll, 60 percent of the American public say the war “is not worth fighting.” Opposition to the war is much higher in Europe, reaching 70 percent in Germany.

The U.S. polls suggest that any Republican charge of the administration being “soft” is not likely to make much headway with voters.

Further, the conflict is hemorrhaging money at a time of severe economic crisis. The war is costing $8 billion a month, not counting the tens of billions the U.S. has spent training the Afghan Army and police. So far, the cost of the Iraq and Afghan wars is $1.1 trillion, but, according to economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmer, the long-term costs of both wars will be $3 trillion.

One thing Democrats in Congress can do is to press for a troop drawdown starting this year. Again, the polls show 55 percent support withdrawals starting in summer 2011, with another 27 percent saying it should begin sooner.

According to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, delaying the withdrawal date from the end of 2011—the President’s original goal—to 2014 will cost an extra $125 billion. As a comparison, the House Republicans pledge to cut $100 billion from the domestic budget—excluding the military, Homeland Security, and veterans—would require a 20 percent across-the-board cut in all programs.

The war is lost. We are broke. Many of the key protagonists are prepared to talk. It is time to silence the guns and seek common ground.

Read Conn Hallinan at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com

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Kashmir: Obama and the Vale of Tears

Kashmir: Obama & the Vale of Tears

Dispatches From The Edge

Nov. 30, 2010

There are lots of dangerous places in this world: Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Bolivia, Iran, Palestine, Yemen, and Somalia to name a few. But there is only one that could destabilize a goodly part of the globe and end up killing tens of millions of people. And yet for reasons of state that is the one place the Obama administration will not talk about: Kashmir.

And yet this is a region that has sparked three wars between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, is in the midst of serious political upheaval, and is central to reducing tensions in Central and South Asia.

None of these facts come as a surprise to Obama. While running for office in 2008 he explicitly called for a solution to Kashmir.  “It won’t be easy, but it is important,” he told Joe Klein of Time magazine.

Given that India and Pakistan came within a hair’s breath of a full-scale nuclear confrontation during the 1999 Kargil incident, the importance seems obvious.

According to a recent study in Scientific American—“Local Nuclear Wars and Global Suffering”—such an exchange would kill and maim untold millions, flood the surrounding region with nuclear fallout, and create a “nuclear winter” for part of the globe.

Kashmir also fuels extremists in the region—both Hindu and Islamic—which in turn destabilizes Pakistan and Afghanistan. The conflict has killed between 50,000 and 80,000 people, “disappeared” several thousand others, seen thousands imprisoned and tortured, and subjected millions of Kashmiris to an onerous regime of occupation, with laws drawn straight from Britain’s colonial past.

Why then would President Obama remain silent on the subject, particularly since the outlines of a solution have been in place since 2007?

Commenting on Obama’s recent trip to Asia, Robert Kaplan, author of “Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power,” says “In geopolitical terms, the President’s visit” was about “one challenge: the rise of China on land and sea.”

Indeed, this past year has seen Washington hurl one missive after another at Beijing. The U.S. strongly backed Japan over its recent dust up with Chinese fishing vessels in the East China Sea. Washington also intervened between China and several Southeast Asian nations over tensions around the Spratly and Paracel islands. The U.S. and South Korea recently carried out naval maneuvers close to China’s shores, Washington announced new arms sales to Taiwan, and during the recent G20 meetings in Seoul, Obama tried to pin the blame for a global currency crisis on Beijing.

While Washington denies it has any plans to “surround” China with U.S. allies, that seems to be exactly what it is doing when it courts Indonesia, tightens its alliance with Japan, and sets up new military bases in Australia. But the jewel in this anti-Chinese crown is India, and Washington will do whatever it takes to bring New Delhi on board.

The Obama administration has already endorsed the Bush administration’s 1-2-3 Agreement that allows India to violate the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Not only does the Agreement undermine one of world’s most important nuclear treaties, but, in a letter to the International Atomic Agency and the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group, Pakistan warned that the Agreement “threatens to increase the chances of a nuclear arms race in the sub-continent.”

While in India, Obama announced it would end most “dual use” technology restrictions, allowing India to buy material that could end up enhancing its military. The U.S. also agreed to sell $5.8 billion in military transport planes to New Delhi.

But of all these, the decision to avoid Kashmir may be the most dangerous and destabilizing.

Tensions over Kashmir go back to 1947, when India and Pakistan first came into being. At the time, largely Muslim Kashmir was ruled by a Hindu prince, who decided to go with India even though, under the British formula for dividing the two countries, Kashmir should have become part of Pakistan. When Pakistan responded by infiltrating soldiers into Kashmir, it touched off a war that, to one degree or other, has gone on for 63 years.

Today Kashmir is divided between the Northern Areas and Azad Kashmir held by Pakistan, and the Indian-controlled Kashmir and largely Hindu Jammu. A Line of Control that divides the two areas.

In 1989 Kashmiris staged a revolt, and Pakistan began infiltrating paramilitaries across the Line to attack Indian forces in Kashmir. That war dragged on until 2007, when Pakistan and India began secret back channel negotiations towards achieving a settlement. The talks, however, were scuttled when military dictator-turned-president Pervez Musharraf lost power, and militant jihadis attacked Mumbai in 2009, killing 165 people. India charged that Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter-Service Directorate was behind the attack.

As difficult as the situation in Kashmir seems, according to journalist and writer Steve Coll, it is solvable and a failure to deal with it is dangerous. “The conflict has again and again spilled outside of Kashmir.”

Coll is a former reporter and editor at the Washington Post, author of numerous books on the Middle East and Central Asia, and president of the New American Foundation.

U.S. policy has been to keep Kashmir and Afghanistan as separate problems, but, Cole argues, “that policy is no longer consistent with the facts.” Muzamil Jaleel of the daily Indian Express agrees that the two countries “are linked so much now that India and Pakistan are fueling ethnic tension in Afghanistan.”

The current unrest in Kashmir, which has claimed more than 100 lives, is very different than the previous war. It is largely a non-violent movement composed almost exclusively of local Kashmiris rather than fighters infiltrated from Pakistan. It also has a strong contingent of young people, whose tech-savvy skills have put Kashmir’s resistance on the Internet. A decade ago Indian troops could wall off Kashmir. Today, the whole world is watching.

Cole contends the framework for a settlement is fairly straightforward.

First, India would have to rein it its 500,000 troops and paramilitaries. At the same time, the draconian Special Powers Act—originally designed to crush opposition to British rule in Ireland and currently used by the Israelis in the Occupied Territories—would have to be shelved. The laws give virtual immunity to widespread human rights violations by the Indian authorities and allow imprisonment without charges.

Second, the Line of Control would become an international border, but a porous one that allows free passage for Kashmiris.

Third, the residents of Kashmir and Jammu would be given a certain amount of local autonomy.

In the long run, the people of Kashmir ought to be able to hold a referendum about their future. The UN originally proposed such an undertaking, but first Pakistan and then India scotched it, fearful that residents might vote to join one or the other country. In fact, most residents would likely vote for independence.

An autonomous or even independent Kashmir is not only in the interests of the 10 million or so people that inhabit one of the most beautiful—and tragic—areas of the world, it would help defuse terrorism in Pakistan and India. To sacrifice that for what can only be a temporary alliance against an emerging China is profoundly short sighted.

Washington’s silence is no longer a viable option. “We are not asking the Americans to take a position against India and for Kashmir. We are just saying that there is a general recognition that India and Pakistan need to be pushed in terms of a dialogue,” Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the spiritual leader of Kashmir’s separatists, told the Financial Times.

Others warn that Indian repression of the current non-violent movement might drive it to take up arms. “The status quo is not digestible for Kashmiris,” Sheikh Showkat Hussan, a Kashmir law professor, told the Financial Times.

Today, Kashmir is a vale of tears, a place capable of sparking off a nuclear war that would affect everyone on the globe. It need not be so.

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Oil & Blood: The Looming Battle for Energy

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

July 30, 2009

In the past month, two seeming unrelated events have turned Central Asia into a potential flashpoint between an aggressively expanding North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and a nascent strategic alliance between Russia and China. At stake is nothing less than who holds the future high ground in the competition for the world’s energy resources.

Early this summer, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicted a sharp drop in world oil reserves, which energy expert Michael Klare says means that the “era of cheap and plentiful oil is drawing to a close” and is likely to result in “a new era of cutthroat energy competition.”

In early July, after a full court press by Washington and an agreement to increase its yearly rent, Kyrgyzstan reversed a decision to close the U.S. base at Manas, thus allowing the U.S. a powerful toehold in the countries bordering the oil and gas rich Caspian Basin.

While Manas is portrayed as a critical base for the ongoing campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the war in Central Asia is less over “terrorism” than it is over energy. “Never reading the words ‘Afghanistan” and ‘oil’ in the same sentence is still a source of endless amusement” says the Asia Times’ Pepe Escobar, author of “Globalistan.”

Escobar, who has coined the term “Pipelineistan” to describe the vast network of oil and gas pipelines that “crisscross the potential imperial battlefields of the planet,” sees Afghanistan as strategically placed between the Middle east, Central and South Asia, “at the core of Pipelineistan.”

As Escobar points out, “It’s no coincidence that the map of terror in the Middle East and Central Asia is practically interchangeable with the map of oil.”

As the old joke goes: It’s not all about oil; some of it is about natural gas.

For most Americans and Europeans, Afghanistan appeared on their radar screens shortly after the 9/11 assaults on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon. But according to Escobar, three months before the 2001 attack, U.S., Iranian, German and Italian officials got together in Geneva and discussed toppling the Taliban because it was “the proverbial fly in the ointment” in a scheme to run a $2 billion, 800 mile natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Karachi, Pakistan via southern Afghanistan.

According to the Pakistanis, the U.S. developed a plan in July for launching attacks into Afghanistan from bases in Tajikistan.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO moved aggressively to fill the vacuum left by the demise of the Warsaw Pact. One time Soviet allies Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and the Czech Republic, along with the former Soviet provinces of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were recruited. The Ukraine and Georgia are currently up for membership.

According to Escobar, one of NATO’s first forays in the energy war was the Balkans.

While NATO represented the Yugoslav war as a fight to liberate the Albanians in Kosovo, Moscow and Beijing viewed it as an opportunity for the Albanian Macedonian Bulgarian Oil Corporation (AMBO) to build a $1.1 billion pipeline to bring Caspian Basin oil to the West, thus bypassing Iran and Russia

The AMBO pipeline—due to open in 2011—will transport Caspian Basin oil via Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania. The pipeline is protected by the huge U.S. “Bondsteel” base in Kosovo, “The equivalent of a giant immobile aircraft carrier, capable of exercising surveillance not only over the Balkans but over Turkey and the Black Sea region,” says Escobar.

Certainly the AMBO pipeline, as well as the current Baku-Tblisis-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, makes little economic sense. It would be vastly easier and cheaper to send the oil through Iran.

How could Russia, China, and Iran not interpret the war in Kosovo, then the invasion of Afghanistan (where Washington had previously tried to pair with the Taliban and encourage the building of another of those avoid-Iran, avoid-Russia pipelines), and finally Georgia (that critical energy transportation junction) as straightforward wars for Pipelineistan?” Escobar asks.

For every action, however, there is an opposite and equal reaction.

In 2001, Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan founded the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which now has observer status from Iran, Pakistan and India, and growing relations with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, formally a U.S.-dominated alliance.

Unlike NATO, the SCO is a regional organization, not a military alliance, but one—counting observers— that embraces a growing percentage of the world’s GNP, and 75 percent of both the world’s energy resources and global population.

However, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is a military alliance that, besides being made up of all of the SCO members, also includes Belarus and Armenia.

Last February CSTO created a collective rapid reaction force, which Russian President Dmitry Medvedev says, “will be just as good or comparable with NATO.” The force will consist of a Russian airborne division and air assault brigade, a Kazakh air assault brigade, and battalions from each of the other members, excepting Uzbekistan. According to Russian expert Ilya Kramnik, the collective action force “will give CSTO a quick tool, leaving no time for third parties to intervene.”

The only “third party” capable of intervening in Central Asia is NATO.

In many ways, Beijing is the linch pin in this 21st century “Great game,” because China is weathering the current worldwide depression better than most countries. While its exports have taken a beating, the Chinese have successfully fallen back on their enormous internal market to take up some of the slack. As a result, China recently opened the aid spigots to nations in the region.

In June, China loaned Turkmenistan $3 billion, which will give it a stake in the Turkman’s enormous Yolotan Osman gas field, rumored to be the world’s largest. The Turkmenistan loan also benefits Moscow by underwriting the Russian oil company Roseneft, and the pipeline buildier, Transneft. Kazakhstan got a $15 billion loan, giving China a 22 percent share in Kazak oil production.

According to former Indian diplomat and current Asia Times commentator M.K. Bhadrakumar, after years of tension between Moscow and Beijing, the two countries are burying that past and “steering their relationship” in the direction of a “strategic partnership in the overall international situation,” rather than competing over energy resources.

This past April, Russia and China signed a $25 billion oil agreement that will supply Beijing with 4 percent of its needs through 2034. The two countries are currently negotiating a natural gas deal.

Beijing is planning an almost 4,000 mile, $26 billion Turkman-Kazakh-China pipeline to run from the Caspian Basin to Guangdong Province in China. Included in the deal is a proviso to keep “third parties”—NATO bases—out of the country

In the meantime, Russia is paying premium prices to lock up Kazakh, Uzbek, and Turkman gas. It is also negotiating to buy more Azerbaijani oil, which if successful, could end up bankrupting the western-controlled BTC pipeline that runs through Georgia.

Writing in Business Week, S. Adam Cardais, former editor of the Prague Post, says that Russia is “doing its damnedest to keep Europe out of Central Asia,” and that Russia and China “may have already outmaneuvered Europe.”

But Washington is hardly throwing in the towel. The Manas coup is a case in point, and the Obama administration is increasing aid to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Apparently the gas pipeline project from Turkmenistan to Pakistan that fell apart shortly before the U.S, invaded Afghanistan has also been revived.

In short, the Central Asian chessboard is enormous, the pieces are numerous, and the stakes are high.

Pipelineistan is not limited to the Middle East and Central Asia. It exists wherever gas and oil flow, from the steamy depths of Venezuela’s Oronoco Basin, to the depths of the South Atlantic off the coast of Brazil.

“Oil and gas by themselves are not the U.S.’s ultimate aim,” argues Escobar, “It’s all about control.” And if “the U.S. controls the sources of energy of its rivals—Europe, Japan, China, and other nations aspiring to be more independent—they win.”

The U.S. has enormous military power, but as Iraq, and now Afghanistan, makes clear, the old days when one could corner a market by engineering a coup or sending in the Marines are fast receding. The old imperial nations are fading, and the up and comers are more likely to be speaking Portuguese, Chinese and Hindi than English. The trick over the next several decades will be how to keep the competition for energy from sparking off brush fire wars or a catastrophic clash of the great powers.

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Kyrgyzstan: Tinderboxes & Tangled Webs

Dispatches From the Edge

Conn Hallinan

May 15, 2010

Trying to sort out the tides and cross currents sweeping across Central Asia in the aftermath of the March revolution in Kyrgyzstan is to revisit the politics of 6th Century Constantinople that led to the adjective “Byzantine.”

The uprising in the country’s capital Bishkek began over a 200 percent hike in utility rates, but by the time Kyrgyzstan’s President Kurmanbek Bakiyev fled the country, a tale of cynicism, corruption and subterfuge—in which the U.S. plays a central role—began to emerge.

For most Americans, Kyrgyzstan is the most unpronounceable of the six “stans” that constituted the former Soviet Union’s southern flank. It has little in the way of wealth or natural resources, and its population of five million hardly makes it a force in Central Asia. But Kyrgyzstan has what every real estate agent looks for: location, location, location. Bordered by Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and China, the mountainous nation is the U.S.’s wedge into Central Asia, and its umbilical cord to the war in Afghanistan.

Much of the oil and fuel that keep the U.S. war machine running comes through Kyrgyzstan’s Manas Air Base, a sprawling complex close to the country’s capital. In March of this year, 50,000 U.S. and NATO troops moved through the base. Indeed, without Manas, it is hard to conceive how the U.S. could support the current surge of troops into Southern Afghanistan.

When it comes to supply lines, Afghanistan is almost a bridge too far. Because the country is landlocked, the logistics of supplying fuel, food and weapons to U.S. troops is daunting. While it costs about $400,000 a year to support a soldier in Iraq, the price tag in Afghanistan is $1 million.

According to U.S. Marine Gen, James T. Conway, gasoline costs $400 a gallon in Afghanistan. Since the Marines use 800,000 gallons a day—a figure that is sure to rise once the U.S. deploys its new mine-resistant but gas guzzling all-terrain vehicles—that is a significant piece of cash.

Gasoline also comes in by truck from Pakistan, but ambushes knock out more than 40 a year, and the truckers must pay enormous bribes to the Taliban and crooked Afghan officials.

But that is hardly a barrier. The U.S. has been bribing Kyrgyz politicians since the country became independent after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. First, the Americans paid off the first post-Soviet president, Askir Akayev, and when he was overthrown by the so-called “Tulip Revolution” in 2005, Washington shifted the swag to his predecessor, Bakiyev.

This was not much of a stretch, because the families of both Akayev and Bakiyev were connected to two shadowy companies, Mina Corp. Ltd and Red Star Enterprises, both registered in Britain and British-controlled Gibraltar. The latter is little more than a big rock and a tax dodge.

According to Newsweek, the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency awarded $1.4 billion in no-bid contracts to the two companies. When Akayev was president, his son-in-law was the connection, and when Akayev got tossed out in 2005, Bakiyev’s son, Maksim, assumed the bagman position. According to the New York Times, some current Kyrgyz leaders say the Maksim skimmed as much as $8 million a month.

So far, the Obama administration is stonewalling the bribery charges. “I have read a lot of stories about black holes and corruption and things that happened,” Michael McFaul, a senior presidential advisor on the former Soviet Union told the New York Times, “they are not…true.”

But the House National Security Oversight Subcommittee is sniffing around the issue. The allegations that the U.S. has been bribing Kyrgyz officials “raises serious questions about the Department of Defense’s management and oversight of contractors along the Afghan supply line,” says Subcommittee Chair, John Tierney (D-Mass), and might have “allowed strategic and logistical expediency in Kyrgyzstan to become a lasting embrace of two corrupt and authoritarian regimes.”

The growing cost of the war in Afghanistan is certainly on the White House’s mind. A recent Pentagon report shows that the monthly cost of the war in Afghanistan has officially passed that of the Iraq war.

But the U.S. has more at stake in Central Asia than fuel costs.

Kyrgyzstan borders China’s volatile Xingjian Autonomous Region, where local Uyghur anger at the growing influx of Han into the area has touched off several riots over the past few years. There is also a nascent Islamic resistance movement in parts of the region.

If the U.S. wanted to stir up trouble for China in its restive west—and maybe peek into its military deployment in the area—Kyrgyzstan is the place to be. The U.S. has pressed Kyrgyzstan to allow it to set up a “counter terrorism” base near the country’s strategic Ferghana Valley close to China’s border.

So far, Beijing has been quiet on the recent revolution, merely commenting, “China hopes that relevant issues will be settled in a lawful way.” China is Kyrgyzstan’s number one trading partner, and it is clearly concerned about the quarter of a million Uyghurs residing in Kyrgyzstan.

There is certainly suspicion by the Russians that the U.S. would like to rope countries along its southern border into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), distrust, for which one can hardly fault them for. In spite of assurances given to the Russians that NATO would not expand into former Soviet states, or recruit ex-members of the Warsaw pact, NATO now counts Poland, Bulgaria, Albania, the Czech Republic, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia among its members and was on the verge of recruiting Georgia before its 2008 war with Russia.

Former Indian diplomat and Asia Times commentator M. K. Bhadrakumar argues that Kyrgyzstan is assuming “the nature of a pivotal state in any U.S. strategy toward the expansion” of NATO into Central Asia.

Following a February tour of Central Asia, Richard Holbrooke, the U.S.’s special representative to Afghanistan, proposed expanding NATO’s reach into the region as a foil to organizations like al-Qaeda. A recent NATO report calls for the Alliance to “help shape a more stable and peaceful international security environment,” the rationale for its current deployment in Afghanistan.

The Russians are worried not only about encroachment by NATO, but also by the instability generated by two revolutions in the last five years. “Kyrgyzstan remains our strategic partner and…we are not indifferent to the fate of this country’s people and the situation there,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in the aftermath of the recent coup.

Uzbekistan’s President Islom Karimov concurred: “There is a serious danger that what’s happening in Kyrgyzstan will take on a permanent character. The illusion is created that it is easy to overthrow any lawfully elected government.”

Karimov went on to say that Moscow and Tashkent were on the same page. “Our viewpoints coincide completely. What is going on in Kyrgyzstan today is in nobody’s interests—and above all it is not in the interests of the countries boarding Kyrgyzstan.”

The U.S.’s sponsorship of the Islamic radicalism to destabilize Afghanistan in the 1980s is certainly in the back of the Russian’s mind, which is already concerned about Islamic extremism in places like Chechnya. As Bhadrakumar points out, “for any U.S. strategy to use political Islam to bring about regime change in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in some form or other, Kyrgyzstan would be extremely valuable.”

There is no evidence that the U.S. had anything to do with the recent revolution, and there is nothing to suggest that the interim President of Kyrgyzstan, Roza Otunbayeva is leaning toward Washington.

But things are hardly settled in the country, as a temporary takeover of some government buildings by supporters of ousted President Bakiyev in southern Kyrgyzstan demonstrates. The interim government declared a state of emergency May 19 following fighting between Bakiyev supporters and Uzbeks in Jalalabad. Two other cities also reported clashes.

There is some ethnic tension between Uzbeks and Kyrgyzs in the south, which is poorer, more agricultural, and more religious than the more developed north. There are similar tensions between Kyrgyzs and the 700,000 ethnic Russians, who live mostly in the north. Otunbayeva is from the south, but she has spent most of her time either out of the country or in the nation’s northern capital, Bishkek. According to Michael Laubsch, a Central Asia expert from Germany, there is “great risk” of a civil war.

That is probably an overstatement, but instability is something that Islamic groups could use to their advantage. There are a number of them in the wings, including Hizb ut-Tahrir, Akromiya, Hizb un-Nasrat, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and the United Opposition of Tajikistan. And if the Afghan War really does wind down, there will be plenty of battle-hardened recruits coming home to fill the ranks those groups.

Kyrgyzstan is also a way station for drugs traveling from Afghanistan to Russia and Europe, and there are reports that poppy production in the country is expanding.

Most the nations in the region are tied together in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), whose meeting this June in Tashkent will likely focus on the situation in Kyrgyzstan. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a military alliance that also includes a number of countries in the area, has been working to stabilize the situation. Kazakhstan currently chairs the OSCE and had already sent a representative to Bishkek.

If the current situation remains regional, then there are organizations in place that can play an important role in defusing the instability. But if Kyrgyzstan becomes a pawn on a larger board, then the “Great Game” will shift from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the rest of Central Asia, with all the pain and misery that follows in the wake of imperial maneuvering.

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