THE ROVING EYE AfPak and the new great game
By Pepe Escobar
Nine years ago - one day before Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud,
Lion of the Panjshir, was killed by two al-Qaeda jihadis disguised as
journalists; and three days before 9/11 - who would have thought that
Afghanistan would still be mired in a war of 150,000 United States and North
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops against 50 or 60 al-Qaeda jihadis
plus a horde of Pashtun nationalists vaguely bundled up as "Taliban"? Not even
the Bearded One upstairs who, by the way, according to Stephen Hawking, had
nothing to do with creating this valley of tears we all inhabit.
Another year. Another 9/11 anniversary. The same Afghanistan war. It may not be
the "war on terror" anymore - rebranded
"overseas contingency operations" by the Barack Obama administration. It may
have become Obama's "good war" - rebranded as AfPak and costing US taxpayers
US$100 billion a year (and counting). But Obama still wallows in the mire of
being a hostage to George W Bush's wars.
As much as Washington may entertain the illusion that it's in command, it's
actually Hamid Karzai, the wily Afghan president, who is playing an attacking
game in this latest installment of the New Great Game in Eurasia. And, as
usual, there's never a mention anywhere of the key Pipelineistan game.
Round up the usual suspects
As it must be clear by now, Pakistan is essentially an army/intelligence
establishment disguised as a country. The army/Inter-Services Intelligence
tandem has been and will always be pro-Taliban. Anyone who believes the tandem
will "reform" - with or without billions of dollars of US aid - believes in the
For Islamabad it's still - and will always be - about "strategic depth", the
doctrine that rules Afghanistan as a privileged Pakistani-controlled backyard
(that's exactly what it was between 1992, at the start of the intra-mujahideen
wars, till the end of the Taliban "government" in 2001).
Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kiani - a darling of the Pentagon -
has been granted a three-year extension to his mandate. Karzai took no time to
duly note the obvious: Kiani will continue to pull all stops to be the top dog
in Kabul. So he must be accommodated.
All of this, considering that the utmost objective for the Pakistan army
remains to collect more nuclear weapons in view of that particular South Asian
version of Armageddon - a do-or-die confrontation with visceral enemy India.
For all his infinite shenanigans, Karzai has - correctly - concluded that US
and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) firepower and General David
Petraeus' COIN-drenched operations will never defeat the
resistance-to-foreigners fighting umbrella commonly described as "Taliban".
Karzai has also sensed that Obama's Afghan strategy is in tatters. Inside the
US, Republicans - with their eyes on capturing congress in November's elections
- will go on overdrive to portray the president as a non-military wimp, while
the Pentagon will force him to back off his imposed July 2011 deadline for the
beginning of a transition to a measure of Afghan sovereignty. And all this
while Petraeus sells the current Afghan surge as a "victory", as he did with
the Iraqi version, thus burnishing his CV with a view to a run for the White
House in 2012.
As more than anything he is committed to perpetuating himself in power, Karzai
saw which way the wind was blowing and has decided to cultivate his own garden,
and improve relations with his two key neighbors east and west - Pakistan and
Iran. He has seen the future as a power-sharing deal in Kabul with no Americans
Thus Karzai's formal announcement this past weekend of a High Peace Council
tasked with engaging in peace talks with the Taliban. The idea had been
approved three months ago by a jirga in Kabul including 1,600 tribal,
religious and political leaders from a few Afghan provinces. Karzai basically
wants to seduce Taliban foot soldiers with cash and job offers in the
administration machine, and Taliban leaders with asylum in selected Muslim
One is bound to expect all the usual suspects engage in the travesty of being
peace council members. They include former mujahideen leader Burhanuddin
Rabbani (to whom Massoud was subordinated); former Saudi-connected mujahid
Abdul Rasul Sayyaf (suspected until today of having a role in Massoud's
assassination); and certainly a higher-up from the Hizb-i-Islami, led by former
mujahid Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the only prime minister in history (in the
mid-1990s) to have bombed his own capital.
Hizb-i-Islami and the Taliban - although extremely suspicious of each other -
are more or less fighting for the same objective, ie the expulsion of the
"foreign invaders". The Taliban are more predominant exactly where US and NATO
troops are concentrating - in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, while Hizb is
strongest in the north and eastern provinces.
What's left of this Karzai-engineered gambit is the Taliban agenda. Taliban
leader Mullah Omar - invisible somewhere near Quetta, capital of Pakistan's
Balochistan province - wants the invaders out immediately, and his unlimited
power back. There's no chance in heaven - or hell - he'll fraternize with
Karzai over a goat's head/Kabuli rice banquet.
Moreover, Karzai certainly won't seduce what remains of al-Qaeda. There are no
more than 60 Arab al-Qaeda jihadis in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal area,
along with a few Uzbeks, Chechens and Turks. And there are around 50 Arab
al-Qaeda jihadis who have crossed the border to Afghanistan - more or less the
same estimate expressed by US Central Intelligence Agency supremo Leon Panetta
over two months ago.
So essentially Washington is spending tsunamis of cash to fight a bunch of Arab
jihadi instructors. Worse; what the US/NATO are actually fighting is a remixed
version of the anti-Soviet 1980s jihad - a liberation war against foreign
Then there's the complicating factor of the Pakistani Taliban. There's hardly a
day when their top spokesman, Qari Hussain Mehsud, does not issue threats. He
has claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed at least 50
Shi'ites in Quetta last Friday. He has insisted "targets" now comprise not only
the "foreign invaders" but Shi'ites as well, and has promised attacks inside
Europe and the US.
What is certain is that attacks in Peshawar, Quetta and Lahore (which, for the
Pakistani Taliban, is like New York for al-Qaeda) are bound to intensify. For
Islamabad, the riddle is how to dismantle the collaborative network involving
al-Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, the anti-Shi'ite Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the
anti-Iran, Balochistan-based Jundallah. But Karzai is not worried about any of
this; he believes he now has a masterplan to "secure" Afghanistan.
All about Pipelineistan
What the Islamabad establishment wants for Afghanistan is diametrically opposed
to India's interests. So no wonder India is counter-attacking - by improving
its relations with both Russia and Iran.
For Russia, the key national security challenge in Afghanistan is not so much
the spread of Talibanization to Central Asia; rather it's the massive heroin
trafficking that is corrupting and devastating Russian youth. Moreover, instead
of just gleefully watching the US flounder in its own quagmire - Afghanistan as
a new Vietnam - Russia has also decided to unleash its own version of
nation-building in Afghanistan, investing in infrastructure and natural
resources while making some money on the side.
As for the India-Iran rapprochement, it is inevitable even with the avalanche
of cumulative United Nations/US/European Union sanctions against Tehran - as
New Delhi is actively encouraging Indian companies to invest in the Iranian
energy sector, and the Foreign Ministry has made it a priority to engage Iran
diplomatically. Russian, Indian and Turkish companies - they have all
spectacularly ignored Western sanctions and will continue to trade with Iran.
Meanwhile, in Washington, Team B-style outfits such as the Afghanistan study
group - which releases its report on Wednesday  - multiply their efforts in
trying to find a way out of the Afghan quagmire. But for all their intellectual
firepower, there is not a word about one of the absolutely key reasons for the
US to be in Afghanistan: Pipelineistan (the other key reason is of course the
Pentagon's crush on maintaining bases to monitor/survey both "strategic
competitors" China and Russia).
We're back once again to the TAPI vs IPI Pipelineistan "war"; TAPI as the
natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan crossing Afghanistan to Islamabad and
then India, and IPI as the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline.
In a few days, as Turkmenistan officials are spinning, there may be a
potentially crucial meeting in Ashgabat, when TAPI officials from all four
countries may lay down the basics for a pipeline deal (if built only as TAP,
the pipeline would be 2,000 kilometers long and cost $7 billion).
But while TAP or TAPI is an eternal pipe dream, the $7.5 billion,
1,100-kilometer-long IP is already rolling. That's what Iran and Pakistan
announced over two months ago, with operations starting in 2014. This proves,
once again, that Western sanctions against Iran also don't mean a thing to
Pakistan - as its energy needs are a vital matter of national security trumping
And the same applies to India. New Delhi's pragmatic leaders cannot possibly
believe that TAPI will ever see the light of day. It's also crucial to remember
that IP was originally IPI - the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, widely dubbed in
Southwest Asia as "the peace pipeline". India pulled out because of - what else
- relentless Washington pressure. But now India is back on the table -
discussing not only IPI but a second, although remote, possibility - an
underwater II (Iran-India) pipeline.
New Delhi very well knows that China is salivating with the prospect of a
northern extension of IP, alongside the Karakoram highway, towards Xinjiang in
western China. Already Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has
suggested that if India keeps on wobbling, this will be the Iran-Pakistan-China
The next contours of the New Great Game in Eurasia widely reside on who will
win in these Pipelineistan wars involving Central Asia, South Asia and
Southwest Asia. Considering the accumulated Western package of
sanctions/blockades/embargoes, the ball would be on Iran's court to fight
tremendous odds and upgrade its technology, build IP or IPI, and guarantee
natural gas flowing non-stop.
Any moves against Iran will be seen all across Asia as an attack against the
Asia Energy Security Grid; a classic, Pipelineistan-configured, war of
Washington against Asian integration. As for the competing option, it's pure
surrealism; who can possibly believe Karzai will convince the Taliban not to
profit from the same pipeline the Americans wanted to build before they decided
to bomb the Taliban out of power?