THE ROVING EYE Slouching towards balkanization
By Pepe Escobar
Happy Days are here again. It's as if the George W Bush years in Afghanistan
had never left, with Washington still wallowing in an intelligence-free
environment. A surge is coming to town - just like the one General David
Petraeus engineered in Iraq. A Bush proconsul (Zalmay Khalilzad) wants to run
the show - again. A hardliner (General Stanley McChrystal) is getting ready to
terrorize any Pashtun in sight. A new mega-base is sprouting in the "desert of
death" in the southern Afghan province of Helmand. And as in Bush time, no
one's talking pipeline, or the (invisible) greatest regional prize: Pakistani
Bush's "global war on terror" (GWOT) may have been rebranded, under new
management, "overseas contingency operation" (OCO). But history in Afghanistan
continues to repeat
itself as farce - or as an opium bad trip.
Zalmay does Pipelineistan
It was hardly stunning that Bush's pet Afghan hound Zalmay Khalilzad, a US
citizen born in Afghanistan and former envoy to both Afghanistan and Iraq,
would now be angling - via his pal President Hamid Karzai, who tried to get
President Barack Obama on board - to become the unelected CEO of Afghanistan,
or a sort of "unofficial" prime minister. Any Afghan that believes the West is
not behind this racket must be a stone statue in the Hindu Kush.
United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Obama's AfPak envoy
Richard Holbrooke are supposed to be very excited about the scheme. Karzai and
Khalilzad have had what the New York Times quaintly described as "a long and
sometimes bumpy relationship". Khalilzad certainly has CEO experience -
acquired as US ambassador to Afghanistan (2003-2005), when he was the real
power behind Karzai's shaky throne (as much as he was totally blind to anything
happening outside of Kabul).
Karzai has always denied - including to this correspondent - he was a minor
Unocal employee plus entertainer of Taliban delegations visiting Houston and
Washington in 1997. Khalilzad's relationship is less murky: he was a certified
Unocal advisor. The "prize" - from president Bill Clinton to Bush and now Obama
- is still the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline, then known as TAP
and now known as TAPI, with the inclusion of India (See
Pipelineistan goes Af-Pak Asia Times Online, May 14, 2009).
Khalilzad was a key player in setting up the Afghanistan-America Foundation in
the mid-1990s, a lobby that during the Clinton administration became very
influential because of its spinning of TAP, hyped as a key pipeline to bypass
both Iran and Russia.
Karzai's brother Qayum was on the advisory board, along with Khalilzad and
Ishaq Nadiri, who later conveniently became "economic advisor" to Karzai. Qayum
and another Karzai brother - Mahmoud - owned a Baltimore-based restaurant chain
in the US (that's why people in Kabul and western Pakistan call Karzai "the
kebab seller"). Hamid got a lot of kebab money during his exile in Quetta right
up until the end of 2001, when he was miraculously parachuted into Kabul by US
Khalilzad, as Bush's Afghan pet, was absolutely key in convincing suspicious
former mujahideen, many of them Tajiks, to have Hamid (from a minor Pashtun
tribe) installed as "interim" leader of Afghanistan after the Taliban fell in
December 2001. The mujahideen wanted King Zahir Shah. With the puppet
guaranteed in power, Karzai, Pakistan's president General Pervez Musharraf and
Turkmenistan's Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Nyazov signed an agreement to build
TAP in December 2001. The pipeline, now TAPI, is an absolutely key plank of
Washington's Central Asia strategy. Khalilzad as CEO will move mountains to
make sure that TAPI defeats its much more sound rival, IPI, the
Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, also known as the "peace pipeline".
It will be a bumpy ride. And - tragedy of tragedies - it will eventually lead
to Khalilzad having to talk pipelines with the Taliban all over again. Karzai
does not even control Kabul, not to mention the rest of a ravaged country
ranked as the fifth-most corrupt in the world by Transparency International.
The more Karzai's local governors get corrupted, the more the Taliban advance
village by village and tribal clan by tribal clan, propelled by their nasty mix
of outright threats and hardcore punishment. The Taliban, on top of it, have
struck alliances with myriad criminal groups, and are supported by their
Pashtun cousins in the Pakistani tribal areas.
The helpless Karzai, profiting from the good services of Islamabad and Riyadh,
is trying to talk to everybody - from the neo-Taliban to the historic Mullah
Omar-commanded Taliban and also old Saudi/Pakistan favorite Gulbuddin
Hekmatyar. And this while Obama's strategic advisers spin that the war is
"winnable" if Washington captures - with a lot of cash - the hearts and minds
of tribal Pashtuns.
Some of this new US cash flowing into Afghanistan has been diverted to the
Orwellian Afghan Social Outreach Program, which builds anti-Taliban local
councils, while the no less Orwellian Afghan Public Protection Force has
started to build Sunni Awakening-style militias. Arming Pashtun militias who
will inevitably turn against the Western occupiers does not exactly qualify as
Meanwhile, Balochistan, the biggest prize in the region (see
Balochistan is the ultimate prize Asia Times Online, May 9, 2009)
remains totally under the radar of the frenetic US news cycle. Numerous Balochi
readers pointed out to this correspondent that it is now in fact a 50%
Balochi/Pashtun province. Most Pashtuns live near the Afghan border. And many
happen to be neighbors of Afghanistan's Helmand province - the key site of the
upcoming Obama surge.
In case of a hypothetical balkanization of Pakistan, Balochis and Pashtuns
would go separate ways. Quetta, the provincial capital, in terms of population
and business activity, is already dominated by Pashtuns.
Balochistan's internal politics are complex. Balochis and Brahvies are separate
nationalities - with different spoken languages and culture. Quite a few
Balochis do not accept Brahvies as Balochis. What all Balochi tribal leaders
agree on is to demand maximum autonomy and control over their natural
resources. Islamabad always responds with firepower.
What is now Balochistan and Sind in Pakistan was conquered centuries ago by the
Balochi Rind tribe. They never submitted to the British. During the Ronald
Reagan 1980s, Balochis tried - in secret - to strike a deal with the US for an
independent Balochistan in return for the US controlling regional
Pipelineistan. Washington procrastinated. Balochis took it very badly. Some
decided to go underground or go for armed struggle. Islamabad still doesn't get
it. Washington may.
If the Pashtunwali - the ancestral Pashtun code - is still king (don't threaten
them, don't attack them, don't mislead them, don't dishonor them, or revenge is
inevitable), Balochis can be even more fearsome. Balochis as a whole have never
been conquered. These are warriors of ancestral fame. If you think Pashtuns are
tough, better not pick a fight with a Balochi. Even Pashtuns are terrified of
The geopolitical secret is not to antagonize but to court them, and offer them
total autonomy. In an evolving strategy of balkanization of Pakistan -
increasingly popular in quite a few Washington foreign policy circles -
Balochistan has very attractive assets: natural wealth, scarce population, and
a port, Gwadar, which is key for Washington's New Great Game in Eurasia
And it's not only oil and gas. Reko Diq (literally "sandy peak") is a small
town in the deserted Chaghi district, 70 kilometers northwest of already remote
Nok Kundi, near the Iran and Afghanistan borders. Reko Diq is the home of the
world's largest gold and copper reserves, reportedly worth more than US$65
billion. According to the Pakistani daily Dawn, these reserves are believed to
be even bigger than similar ones in Iran and Chile.
Reko Diq is being explored by the Australian Tethyan Copper Company (75%),
which sold 19.95% of its stake to Chile's Antofagasta Minerals. Only 25% is
allocated to the Balochistan Development Authority. Tethyan is jointly
controlled by Barrick Gold and Antofagasta Minerals. The Balochis had to have a
serious beef about that: they denounce that their natural wealth has been sold
by Islamabad to "Zionist-controlled regimes".
Washington is focused on Balochistan like a laser. One of high summer's
blockbusters will be the inauguration of Camp Leatherneck, a vast, brand new US
air base in Dasht-e-Margo, the “desert of death” in Helmand province in
Afghanistan. Quite a few of Obama's surge soldiers will be based in Camp
Leatherneck - a cross-border, covert ops stone's throw from southeast Iran and
Under McChrystal, the new US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization top
commander in Afghanistan, one should expect a continuous summer blockbuster of
death squads, search-and-destroy missions, targeted assassinations, bombing of
civilians and all-out paramilitary terrorization of tribal Pashtun villages,
community leaders, social networks or any social movement for that matter that
dares to defy Washington and provide support for the Afghan resistance.
"Black Ops" McChrystal is supposed to turn former Chinese leader Mao Zedong
upside down - he should "empty the sea" (kill and/or displace an untold number
of Pashtun peasants) to "catch the fish" (the Taliban or any Afghan opposing
the US occupation). There couldn't be a better man for the counter-insurgency
job assigned by Obama, Petraeus, Clinton and Holbrooke.
American journalist Seymour Hersh has detailed how McChrystal directed the
"executive assassination wing" of the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations
Command. No wonder he was a darling of former vice president Dick Cheney and
secretary of defense Rumsfeld. The Obama administration's belief in his extreme
terrorization methods qualifies as no more than Rumsfeldian foreign policy.
And McChrystal still has the luxury of raising any amount of calibrated hell in
neighboring Balochistan to suit Washington's plans - be they to provoke
Iranians or incite Balochis to revolt against Islamabad.
According to Pakistani writer Abd Al-Ghafar Aziz, writing for al-Jazeera's
Arabic website, Balochistan has been accused by the US for years of "supporting
terrorism and harboring the leaders of the Taliban and al-Qaeda". US Predator
drones "have been striking 'precious targets', resulting in the death of over
15,000 people". Aziz described Balochis as "orphans without shelter and without
Neighboring Iran is taking no chances; it is testing sophisticated border
patrolling techniques this week in its southeast province of
Sistan-Balochistan, along the 12,500 kilometers of border with both Afghanistan
and Pakistani Balochistan. One of Tehran's ultimate national security
nightmares is US-cross border covert ops launched from Pakistani Balochistan,
the kind of stuff that's music to McChrystal's ears.
Slouching towards balkanization
There's little doubt Obama's surge will fail. Washington's plan B is also lame
- it boils down to some kind of arrangement with the Taliban, something that
Saudi Arabia has been frantically mediating.
The problem is the military/Inter-Services Intelligence nexus in Islamabad will
continue to support the Taliban in Afghanistan - no matter what Washington
concocts - because the only possible outcome in their minds is the defeat of
the "pro-India" Northern Alliance, which is the de facto power in Kabul with
Karzai as a puppet. The Northern Alliance will renege on its alliance with
India over their dead bodies. And backed up not only by India but also Iran and
Russia, they will never allow the Taliban in power.
In the long run, Obama's AfPak strategy may acquire its own relentless,
volatile momentum of addicting the military in Islamabad to make war on their
own people - be they Pashtuns or Balochis. So Washington may in fact be setting
the slow but inexorable march towards the balkanization of Pakistan. If Pashtun
cousins on both sides of the border - 26 million in Pakistan, 13 million in
Afghanistan - would eventually find an opening to form a long-dreamed-of
Pashtunistan, Pakistan as we know it would break up. India might intervene to
subdue Sind and Punjab, keeping both under its sphere of influence. Washington
for its part would rather concentrate on exploiting the natural wealth and
strategic value of an independent Balochistan.
Thus a Pakistan not unlike an Iraq still under US occupation - broke up into
three parts - now starts to emerge as a distinct possibility. Unless an
improbable Pakistani popular revolt, backed by middle-ranking Pakistani
soldiers, rumbles on to make the top heads of the army/security/politico
establishment roll. But drones, not guillotines, are the flavor of the moment