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    South Asia
     Apr 27, 2011

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The great Afghan carve-up
By Brian M Downing

The United States is seeking a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. It hopes to reverse the Taliban's momentum and bring them to the bargaining table through a counter-insurgency program, diplomacy with indigenous tribes and foreign powers, and the attrition of Taliban forces. This, the US expects, will give it an important if not central role in a settlement.

But regional powers - primarily Pakistan and China, with the support of Iran and Turkey - see the lone superpower as overextended, weary, and nearing a fiscal crisis - a situation they seek to turn to their advantage. These four regional powers are in a good position to play crucial roles in a settlement and in an

excellent position to benefit from one.

First, the regional powers, especially Pakistan, will use their influence with the Taliban to convince them to limit their ambitions to the south and east and accept a settlement with President Hamid Karzai at the helm in Kabul.

Second, the regional powers, especially Iran and Turkey, will press reluctant Afghan peoples to accept the settlement.

Third, the regional powers will help to form a rentier state to govern the country. Karzai will receive substantial revenue from foreign powers then allocate it to keep various peoples of the country in a loose but viable political framework.

Fourth, the regional powers will cooperate in the development of Afghanistan's resources - largely to the exclusion of other powers - and accrue substantial geopolitical goals as well.

This holds the promise of peace, stability and prosperity, but nothing is without pitfalls in this part of the world.

The Afghan state, optimally
Despite its ethnic heterogeneity and unattractive geopolitical position amid ambitious states and empires, Afghanistan has known periods of peace and prosperity. The state was never powerful or deeply involved in the localities, and its officials were never respected or trusted. Local officials were considered outsiders and their purview was circumscribed by custom.

The ruler in Kabul - king or president - dealt with disparate tribes and peoples, not through a parliamentary body or loya jirga, (tribal councils) but through dialog and pacts with local elders and notables. The ruler apportioned sums of money to them to be used largely as they saw fit, and in return, the localities pledged support to Kabul.

Too much central power triggered opposition, and if persistent, to jolting rebellions. This took place in the late 1970s when the state's reform efforts violated local custom and the country rebelled, leading to breakdown, Soviet intervention, and decades of war and turmoil.

Too little central power bred warlordism, foreign meddling and banditry. This was the state of affairs in the early 1990s when the Taliban rose to power by suppressing the chaos left after the Soviet Union departed and its client in Kabul lost control.

Because Afghanistan historically had little wealth, the money used by Kabul to hold things together came from foreign coffers, alternately British or Russian ones, in exchange for the country's support or neutrality in the Great Game.

Afghanistan, then, was governed as a rentier state since the 19th century and not along the lines of a centralized state. Unappealing, counter-intuitive, and seemingly unstable from the outside, this quilt-work polity is nonetheless the optimal arrangement in Afghanistan - one that resonates with local sensibilities and with memories of the country's best years.

Who will pay the rent?
The game continues, but Afghan's newly-found mineralogical resources make it more complicated than the one in Rudyard Kipling's day. Copper and iron, oil and gas, and the increasingly coveted rare earths are being discovered in Afghanistan in attractive quantities. Afghanistan is also a likely route for a pipeline connecting the oil and gas fields of Central Asia to ports on the Arabian Sea. Karzai knows all this and sees it as a sound basis for a long and prosperous rule.

Countries in and out of the region are looking to exploit these resources, including the US, Russia and India. However, history and events are working against them. Russia had few friends when it left in 1989, and India, though appreciated in northern Afghanistan, is disliked elsewhere as the enemy of Pakistan. The US has over the past nine years failed to bring the prosperity it promised when it invaded the country and is now deemed another power to be expelled. Its departure will be an essential part of any settlement.

Pakistan, China, Iran and Turkey are in a better position to become Karzai's business and state-building partners. Each has economic interests that mesh well with geopolitical ones: each wants to exploit Afghan resources and each wants to expel the US from Afghanistan.

Pakistan has the advantages of proximity, road systems into eastern and southern Afghanistan, and capacious port facilities. It has long tried to build commerce with Central Asia. Indeed, Pakistani intelligence (Inter-Services Intelligence - ISI) helped to build up the Taliban back in the 1990s to suppress the banditry that was interfering with commercial traffic with the north. The ISI deployed Pakistani troops to fight alongside the Taliban (and al-Qaeda) against the Northern Alliance, prior to and during the US intervention in 2001.

Today, the ISI supplies the Taliban and other insurgent groups and provides them safe havens across the Durand Line that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan. Last year, the ISI demonstrated that it could round up Taliban leaders on short notice and impress upon them, and the US as well, that no negotiations could proceed without its say-so and without its positions given considerable weight.

Crucially, the ISI has a great deal of power over the Taliban and is the only entity that can force them to the negotiating table and get them to sign a settlement and abide by it.

Pakistan's collaboration with Karzai at the expense of the US will bring many benefits. Pakistan's assistance to the US in Afghanistan has brought it into conflict with domestic militant groups such as the Tehrik-i Taliban (TTP), which is conducting a devastating bombing campaign in Pakistan - one that kills scores of people every month.

Breaking with the US will mollify the TTP and permit redirecting their talents toward the insurgency in India-administered Kashmir - the centerpiece of Pakistani foreign policy and the ISI's idee fixe since the country's inception. Pakistan also seeks to weaken India's position in northern Afghanistan and press it on the Kashmir conflict.

Further, the wealth from exploiting Afghanistan will bolster Pakistan's economy and military as well, and strengthen its partnership with a rising power in the region and the world - China.
China's booming economy and need for commodities constitute one of the principal dynamics in world affairs today. Blocked by powerful developed countries along much of its periphery, it's looking westward to Central Asia.

It has already skillfully, and with little notice, placed itself ahead of the other powers in the new Afghan game. It is operating an immense copper mine in eastern Afghanistan, developing iron mines in the central region, and building a railroad connecting the promising oil and gas wealth of Kunduz province in the north to the Khyber Pass and Pakistan in the south.

China shares Pakistan's wish to limit the presence of a mutual rival, India. It is bolstering its military partnership with Pakistan by sending in thousands of "flood relief" workers and by building a naval facility on the Arabian Sea, which in conjunction with its presence in Afghanistan and naval bases in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, poses a formidable problem for New Delhi.

These bases will also take China a long way on its quest to become a global military power - one whose navy operates near the Persian Gulf and one that can challenge the US in a growing portion of the globe. Not for nothing is the navalist thought of American geostrategist and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan avidly read in Beijing today.

The prospects for considerable Chinese influence across the Central Asian land mass are quite good. Not since the Yuan Dynasty of the 13th and 14th centuries will China have wielded so much power and commanded so much respect. English geographer Halford Mackinder's writings on Central Asia's geopolitical import are also enjoying a readership in Beijing.

Existing enterprises in Afghanistan offer insight into an already operational arrangement. China obtained mining licenses by delivering a sum of money to the appropriate persons in Kabul, and then set to work. It extracts huge amounts of ore then transports them south - with little if any difficulty from the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other insurgent bands that roam the area. Evidently, Pakistan, the insurgent groups and China have already reached a working arrangement, which, though preliminary, augurs well for all parties.

Iran shares the same economic and geopolitical interests as Pakistan and China. Hurt by US-led sanctions, it seeks greater trade opportunities and geopolitical support. Persia once reigned over large parts of Central Asia and its culture and influence have persisted well after the last of the Safavids and Qajars.

Iran loathes the Taliban, which massacred thousands of Shi'ites, killed several Iranian diplomats in Mazar-i Sharif in 1998, and contributes mightily to the country's drug problem. However, Iran would agree to a settlement that restrained the Taliban, opened economic opportunities, and expelled the US.

Iran presently enjoys good relations with the northern peoples of Afghanistan (Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and others) as it long supported them against the Taliban and helped them (and the US) oust the Taliban in 2001. Today, Iran contributes to rebuilding western Afghanistan and revitalizing commerce between the two countries.

Iranian influence will be critical to any negotiated settlement. The northern peoples, though a slight majority of the population, feel increasingly marginalized in public life by Karzai and other Pashtuns in his coterie. Northerners have been ousted from key ministries and from high positions in the military - a process somewhat reversed in recent weeks, perhaps at Tehran's request. 

Continued 1 2  

Imran Khan in Taliban peace spotlight (Apr 20, '11)

1. China yearns for peace on southern flank

2. Israel and North Korea: Missing the real story

3. Sleepwalking into the imperial dark

4. Fear and loathing in the House of Saud

5. With friends like these...

6. New spy links to Mumbai carnage

7. Critical theory

8. Assad deceives his people

9. Imran Khan in Taliban peace spotlight

10. Renren seeks US listing

(Apr 22-25, 2011)


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