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    South Asia
     Sep 5, 2007
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Afghan bridge exposes huge divide
By M K Bhadrakumar

Some 2,300 years ago, a dignitary from the Western world came to the foothills of the Pamir Mountains, and he wondered how he and his army would cross the mighty Oxus River to reach the Hindu Kush.

That was when Alexander the Great paused in Bactria to rest his exhausted army and allow the winter to pass, before heading toward the Indo-Gangetic plains in the summer of 326 BC to

invade India. The great warrior finally decided to sew up the leather tents and use them as floats to cross over to Afghanistan.

Last week, the US Army Corps of Engineers plugged the gap in Alexander's logistics by building a bridge across the Pyanj River to connect Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The poignancy of the occasion was obvious. US President George W Bush made it a point amid the distractions over Iraq to send a cabinet-level official to be present at the bridge opening ceremony on August 26 in Tajikistan.

What is the significance of a 670-meter bridge? Previously, a sporadic ferry service connected the Tajik town of Nizhny Pyanj with the Afghan town of Shir Khan Bandar. The torrential river currents didn't allow the ferry to operate for months at a stretch when the ice and snow melted in the Pamirs and flooded the tributaries. But the new bridge can easily handle as many as 1,000 trucks per day.

Strictly speaking, US Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez didn't have to come all the way to witness the commissioning of the US$37 million project. But the US administration evidently regarded this as a showcase project. Gutierrez said the bridge would become "the widest connection between Afghanistan and the rest of the world". That was an interesting enough diplomatic statement - relating Afghanistan to its northern neighbors.

But more important, he went on to describe the bridge as a "physical and symbolic link between Central Asia and South Asia". Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was present, took a step further ahead and called it a link that "unites Central Asia with Southern and East Asia". China enters the podium.

Great game accelerating
It is extremely rare that the geopolitics of an entire region comes to be encapsulated within a single occasion. To be sure, the ceremony on the banks of the Pyanj River provided a movable feast for politicians, diplomats, the media and strategic thinkers alike. Anyone even remotely interested in the Great Game took note.

It was a microcosm of the highly complex calculus of the politics of Central Asia. Three things became clear.

First, the Great Game in Central Asia not only shows no signs of abating, but it is actually accelerating. Second, Washington is pressing ahead with its "Great Central Asia" strategy, no matter the fluidity of the Afghan (and Pakistani) security situation. Third, Washington has knowingly facilitated an efficient access route for China that leads to the markets in South Asia and the Persian Gulf. Here, the conventional wisdom among the strategic thinkers concerning Sino-US rivalries in Central Asia takes a beating.

The United States has not cared to hide the fact that the primary objective of the bridge over the Pyanj was to provide Tajikistan with a transportation route to the outside world that bypasses Russian territory. But Tajikistan's trade with Afghanistan amounted to a paltry US$25 million last year. Tajikistan is not a great manufacturing center and is unlikely to be one in the near future, though it is rich in precious metals and minerals. It has a subsistence economy. With mountains accounting for 93% of its territory, one potential export item would be electricity and water resources, but Tajikistan doesn't need a bridge across the Pyanj to export those.

Of late, the Great Game, which has been keenly pursued in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, has spilled over into Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. The transfer of power to a new leadership in Turkmenistan after the death of Saparmurat Niazov last December opened a window of opportunity for the US to contest the lead role established by Russia and China in accessing the country's vast resources of natural gas.

That is the new great-power rivalry brewing in Turkmenistan. Simply put, the US wants the new Turkmen leadership to take a serious second look at the 10-year-old idea regarding a trans-Caspian gas pipeline for the European market via Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey, which would cut down Europe's growing dependency on Russian energy supplies.

But what is unfolding over Tajikistan is indeed 19th-century Great Gamesmanship - "foreign devils on the Silk Road". Briefly, in October 2002, then-US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld made a tactical error of judgment in choosing to set up military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. During a memorable visit by Rumsfeld to Dushanbe, Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon ostentatiously spread a Soviet army map in front of him and made an open offer that Washington could pick and choose any of the military bases that the Soviet army had built. Rumsfeld was not interested.

But hardly five years has passed and the geopolitics of Central Asia had changed so dramatically that Rumsfeld, now a pensioner, must be ruing his error of judgment. With the rupture of US relations with Uzbekistan after the uprising in Andizhan in 2005 and the descending anarchy in Kyrgyzstan after the "Tulip Revolution", Tajikistan's importance has increased as a gateway to Central Asia for the US influence entrenched in Afghanistan.

Tajikistan's strategic importance needs no repetition - it is a corridor leading to the turbulent Ferghana Valley; it borders China's Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region; it is a hotbed of militant Islam; it is an oasis of Iranian (Persian) culture; it controls the region's watersheds; it is a principal route for the drug traffickers from Afghanistan; and it is the furthest post-Soviet military outpost for the Russian armed forces on the territory of the former Soviet Union.

Over and above, of course, Tajikistan is integral to the stabilization of Afghan politics. There are more ethnic Tajiks living in Afghanistan than in Tajikistan itself. Tajik nationalism can also be a potent weapon in the hands of Uzbekistan's adversaries.

America's 'Great Central Asia' strategy
Thus, for any number of good reasons, prying Tajikistan from the orbit of traditional Russian influence has become a key objective of US diplomacy. Washington is pressing Japan and the European Union to take interest. EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana visited Dushanbe last week.

The thrust of the United States' so-called "Great Central Asia" strategy is to pull Tajikistan toward Afghanistan by the scruff of its neck, as it were, in an effort to draw the Central Asian region itself incrementally toward the South Asian countries - with Afghanistan acting as a hub, or a revolving door. With the consolidation of US strategic influence in the recent years in the South Asian region, Washington estimates that its skillful midwifery in Central Asia has a fair chance of success.

The US has brought in financial institutions such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to explore the possibility of funding trans-regional projects aimed at strengthening the infrastructure and communication links among the countries of the Central/South Asian region.

Russia has taken serious note of the United States' Great Central Asia strategy, and signaled that it will resist the alleged US policy to "detach" the Central Asian countries from Russia's sphere of influence. Equally, Chinese commentators have taken exception to Washington's strategy, which in essence aims at stimulating 

Continued 1 2 

The new 'NATO of the East' takes shape (Aug 25, '07)

Tajikistan mired in great power game (Aug 15, '07)

1. Israel urged US to attack Iran - not Iraq

2. Gridlock on Pakistan's road to change   

3. Britain's last stand in the south

4. Another rabbit pops out of the Iraqi hat

5. Benchmarks come and go  

6. Trinkets and treasure: China tames the US 

7. 'China Barbie' takes on Mattel

8. India's Muslim 'problem'

9. Putting lipstick on pigs 

10. China breathes new life into Mongolia

(Aug 31-Sep 3, 2007)


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