An AfPak star over Central Asia
By M K Bhadrakumar
United States AfPak special representative Richard Holbrooke enjoys a fabulous
reputation, no matter the current prospects of the Afghan war. The Eurasian
space knew him as a potential Nobel winner who evicted Russia from the Balkans.
The world at large expects him to take over if and when Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton steps down to enter the US presidential election ring in 2012.
Holbrooke's tours abroad inevitably get noticed.
His maiden tour of Central Asia and the Caucasus last week was no exception. A
State Department spokesman drew attention to it as a significant happening in
US regional policy. The tour turned
out to be somewhat more than symbolic; it wasn't altogether bereft of result.
The result actually came at the end of Holbrooke's tour. His halt in Tbilisi
came as a morale booster for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. In
comparison, his tour of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan
merely underscored that diplomacy is a seamless affair and that Holbrooke is at
liberty to exceed his hitherto narrowly focused AfPak brief.
Saakashvili has been low on morale following the demise of the Orange
revolution in Ukraine, US President Barack Obama's manifest disinterest in
color revolutionaries and the growing unease in the West over the Georgian
leader's governance style, marked by cronyism, corruption and authoritarianism.
To be sure, Holbrooke's unannounced visit perked him up.
Saakashvili summarily dropped any tentative ideas apropos some sort of
"normalization" with Moscow, which the Europeans have been counseling him to
undertake. He told a nationwide audience that Georgia, which survived the
"despotic rule of Persian emperor Shah Abbas in the 16th century, would also
endure [Russian Prime Minister] Vladimir Putin - ... Georgia will never kneel
down before its enemies".
Holbrooke's visit convinced Saakashvili that despite the rhetoric of a "reset"
of US-Russia ties, the Obama administration hasn't quite abandoned the
strategic vision of Georgia's North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
Conceivably, Georgia falls within Holbrooke's diplomatic turf. The country
provides a 600-strong military contingent for fighting the 25,000-strong
Taliban militia, but it is not the numbers that count. Holbrooke said the
Georgian contingent was destined to play a major role in the world's victory
over terrorism. Saakashvili responded that not only the fate of the world but
of Georgia's too depended on the success of the NATO mission.
Holbrooke insisted his visit "had nothing to do with Georgian-Russian
relations", but the reality is that Washington hopes to incorporate Georgia as
a vital link in the proposed NATO supply chain leading to Afghanistan from
Europe, which will bypass Russian territory. Clearly, NATO is gearing up to
cross over from the Balkans, across the Black Sea, to the Caucasus in an
historic journey that will take it to Central Asia via Afghanistan.
Clinton also made it clear in her hard-hitting speech at a NATO strategic
concept seminar organized by the Atlantic Council in Washington last Tuesday
that "there can be no question that NATO will continue to keep its doors open
to new members ... We are already working with many of these nations in
Afghanistan. And we must find ways to build on these efforts ... We have
already determined the need for a NATO that can operate at strategic distance.
We need to cultivate strategic relationships in support of that goal."
Later, the US's permanent representative to NATO, ambassador Ivo Daalder,
amplified: "We're not going to change the way we do business. We believe that
an enlargement of the alliance is a stabilizing factor. We believe that NATO's
door must remain open to new members. We believe that no country [read Russia]
can have a veto over which other sovereign country can or cannot join an
alliance. That reality will remain."
Taliban pose no threat
Equally, Holbrooke's mission to the Central Asian capitals was an opening
gambit. He got mixed results, which was only to be expected since the Central
Asians are no more babes in the woods of international diplomacy. There are
longstanding problems between the Central Asian states, but the region doesn't
present a geopolitical vacuum.
Holbrooke thumb-sketched a futuristic security scenario for the region in the
nature of an al-Qaeda threat. As he put it, "I think the real threat in this
region is less from the Taliban than from al-Qaeda, which wants to train
international terrorists." He said this in Dushanbe after meeting with Tajik
President Emomali Rahmon.
On the one hand, Holbrooke gently eased Central Asian concerns regarding the
US's expected reconciliation with the Taliban. At the same time, he calmed the
Central Asian mind regarding the Taliban's extremist ideology.
This is not the first time that Central Asian leaders have heard from a
visiting US official a projection of the Taliban as a benign movement.
Holbrooke echoed what US diplomats almost routinely propagated in the 1996-97
period as the Taliban came to power in Kabul.
Holbrooke added, "For ethnic and geographic and strategic reasons, Tajikistan
is the country of immense importance if one wants to have a peaceful outcome in
Afghanistan." These are profound remarks. It is the sort of description that
fits only one other country in Afghanistan's neighborhood - Pakistan. Dushanbe
has a complex relationship with Afghan Tajiks. The ethnic Tajik population in
Afghanistan is numerically bigger than Tajikistan's, but it has lacked
leadership since the assassination by al-Qaeda of Ahmad Shah Massoud in 2001.
At any rate, Tajik nationalism is a can of worms - almost as much as Pashtun
Holbrooke also revealed that he "talked [with Rahmon] especially about energy
and water and about Tajikistan's capabilities to help deal with the water
crisis in other parts of the region, especially Pakistan and India." This is an
extremely controversial subject that concerns many regional powers, where Tajik
and Uzbek interests, in fact, collide. How the US will eventually "balance"
Tashkent and Dushanbe will bear watching.
No doubt, Washington sees Tashkent as the prize catch of its Central Asian
diplomacy in the recent past. But Uzbek language is highly nuanced and
according to state media, "The leader of our nation ... expressed Uzbekistan's
firm determination to further develop US-Uzbek relations in a constructive way
in light of efforts to bring lasting peace and stability to Afghanistan."
Holbrooke was quoted as responding that he, too, wanted to "strengthen
cooperation with Uzbekistan over security". The American Embassy refused to
confirm or deny reports on whether he brought up the reopening of an air base
in Uzbekistan from where the US was evicted half a decade ago.
In sum, Holbrooke heard many vague promises of support, but they fell short of
any visible outcome. There were missteps too. His trip to Turkmenistan was
canceled at the last minute due to "scheduling conflicts". A joint press
briefing with Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in Bishkek was abruptly
canceled without explanation. His public appearance in Dushanbe was unnaturally
terse and he wasn't even open to questions and answers.
There was indeed a noticeable lack of concrete results. On the other hand,
Holbrooke was merely wetting his toes in an enigmatic region that puzzles even
brilliant minds. What cannot be overlooked is that Holbrooke decided to take a
look at the region at all. The summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation
Organization, which is due to be held in June in Tashkent, can be expected to
have "maintenance of peace and stability in Afghanistan" as a key agenda item.
Strictly speaking, Central Asia is not within the purview of Holbrooke's AfPak
brief. As far as the logistics of the Afghan war are concerned, US Central
Command chief General David Petraeus regularly visits Central Asian capitals.
Conceivably, Washington would like to measure how the regional powers -
especially Russia, Iran and China - react to Holbrooke's appearance in Central
Asia at a time when the Afghan war appears set to spill over into the region.
English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, "If Winter comes, can Spring
be far behind?" If Holbrooke comes, can he be far behind in returning?
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.