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History speaks of a Pax Romana, a Pax Britannica, and a Pax Americana – but no other namable eras of sustained peace, for the simple reason cited by Henry Kissinger: nothing maintains peace except hegemony and the balance of power. The balancing act always fails, though, as it did in Europe in 1914, and as it will in Central and South Asia precisely a century later. The result will be suppurating instability in the region during the next two years and a slow but deadly drift toward great-power animosity. Those who wanted an end to US hegemony will get what they wished for. But they won’t like it.
“No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation,” US President Barack Obama told the United Nations on September 23. “No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold.” Having renounced hegemony as well as the balance of power, Obama by year-end chose to prop up the power balance in the region with additional American and allied soldiers in Afghanistan. Obama chose the least popular as well as the least effective alternative. The US president’s apparent fecklessness reflects the gravity of the strategic problems in the region.
There is one great parallel, but also one great difference, between the Balkans on the eve of World War I and the witch’s cauldron comprising Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and contiguous territory. The failure of the region’s most populous state – in that case the Ottoman Empire, in this case Pakistan – makes shambles out of the power balance, leaving the initiative in the hands of irredentist radicals who threaten to tug their sponsors among the great powers along behind them. But in 1914, both France and Germany thought it more advantageous to fight sooner rather than later. No matter how great the provocation, both India and China want to postpone any major conflict. The problem is that they may promote minor ones.
Western analysts are unanimous that Pakistan must not be allowed to become a failed state, for example, through a seizure of power on the part of Islamist elements in the military allied to the Taliban. Enlisting Pakistan in counter-insurgency against Pashtun rebels in Afghanistan, though, ensures this outcome. US policy, wrote Syed Saleem Shahzad on this site on October 23 (Where Pakistan’s militants go to ground ), “draws Pakistan, already mired in political and economic crises, into an ever deepening quagmire. The country has become a playing field for operators of all shades. These include Iranian Balochi insurgents, over a dozen Pakistani militant groups linked with the Taliban or al-Qaeda, the US Central Intelligence Agency’s network, security contractors associated with the American establishment, and last but not least, agents provocateurs. Pakistan, one of the booming economies of Asia just two years ago, seriously risks becoming a failed state.”
The US-sponsored frontier war amounts to Punjabis – traditionally the core of the country’s military – killing Pashtuns. The default view of area defense analysts has been that army operations against the Taliban may turn into a Punjabi-Pashtun ethnic conflict. But the cracks in the Pakistani state run in several directions. Punjabi Islamists allied to the Taliban, meanwhile, are in open revolt; Punjabi terrorists took part in the October siege of Pakistan’s army headquarters in Rawalpindi.
Pakistan is being ground between two millstones: the Afghan war and the global economic crisis. Half the country is illiterate, and half of Pakistanis live on less than US$1 a day. The country’s respectable economic growth rate of 5% per annum during the late 2000s was fed by foreign credit, which allowed it to run a current-account deficit of 8.3% as of 2008. The country’s finances collapsed in late 2008, forcing Islamabad to adopt an austerity program under the auspices of the International Monetary Fund. “Pakistan is not yet a failed economy,” wrote Santosh Kumar in The Hindu on November 24. “But it can happen. This is not a prospect the world, especially India, can view with equanimity, since the spillover will impact us badly.”
The credibility of secular government – with its promise of economic improvement – is threadbare. The alternative is an Islamist regime committed to confronting India over Kashmir and suppressing the Shi’ite minority that comprises 30% of Pakistan’s population. The Islamist alternative has such appeal that Punjabi terrorists, as noted, are conducting suicide attacks against the Punjabi-dominated army.
India might be compelled to respond to the victory of Islamist radicals in its nuclear-armed neighbor. Iran, for that matter, cannot maintain its credibility with its Shi’ite allies around the region if it sits on its hands while Pakistan crushes its co-confessionalists. Iran’s interest in obtaining nuclear weapons has several motivations. One is to establish a screen of deterrence behind which it can grab its neighbors’ oil, as it proposed to do by sending a division of the Iranian army to surround an Iraqi oilfield last week. Another is to prepare for prospective conflict with Pakistan; if Pakistan fails, Iran will have a strong interest in interfering in Pakistan on behalf of the Shi’ite minority.
The Obama administration’s response to the threat of Islamist takeover has been “to pick a new fight with India on Kashmir,” as Indian analyst C Raja Mohan complained in the online edition of Forbes magazine on November 8:
Obama has also sensed, rightly, that the US cannot stabilize Afghanistan unless it fixes Pakistan’s profound insecurities and gets its army to level with the US and stop supporting America’s enemies in Afghanistan. Few Indians disagree with Obama’s reasoning that the threats to Pakistan’s security are internal and do not come from India. But many are beginning to get anxious about the third step in Obama’s logic: to get Pakistan to cooperate with the US in Afghanistan, Washington must actively seek to resolve Islamabad’s problem with New Delhi over Kashmir. Put simply, the Indian fear is that they are being asked to pick up the political tab for America’s failed policy in Afghanistan, and for the Pakistan Army’s deliberate betrayal of US interests there.
The Obama administration has antagonized India in the hope of mollifying Pakistani irredentism, just as it has antagonized Israel with the dubious argument that if Israel makes concessions to the divided, ineffectual Palestine Authority, it will be able to mollify Iran. Nothing will assuage the Palestinians, who are failed before coming a state, nor the Pakistanis, whose failure is ineluctable.
As I argued in Asia Times Online on October 20 (When the cat’s away, the mice kill each other), the net effect of America’s fecklessness is to give the Russian Empire an opportunity to stretch a hand out of the geopolitical grave and grasp a last, great opportunity. Russia faces a slow demographic death, but it remains a great power in terms of military technology: its surface-to-air missile systems are as good as anything American can field, and its newest system, the as yet undeployed S-500, may be better, according to a senior American aviation executive.
Compared with the airframe and avionics technology now in development phase in the Unites States, Russia remains a second-best producer of warplanes. But Obama’s budget cuts have hit military aviation hard, leaving its closest allies – including Israel and Australia – without a clear alternative to the aging F-16 force. Russia and India, meanwhile, are developing a “fifth generation” fighter, with some inputs from France and Israel. There is widespread speculation that Russia’s decision to cancel deliveries of its S-300 anti-missile system to Iran carried a price tag for the Israelis: order the latest Russian systems for their own use, and make available the entire package of Israeli avionics.
In short, Washington appears to have driven its two closest allies in Asia – Israel and India – into a technology alliance with Russia that may have enormous long-term consequences. It is not only that the US has renounced its intention to act as a hegemon; a few years from now, it no longer may have the technological ability to act as a hegemon. This threatens to close off what may become the best chance to maintain peace in the region.
Rather than chanting in unison “Pakistan must not be allowed to fail!”, Western strategists should plan for the consequences of a failed state in Pakistan. One alternative – with its own attendant difficulties – was raised by M K Bhadrakumar on this site on October 10 (Pakistan warns India to ‘back off’):
India, of course, can do a lot to help the US and NATO in such a scenario by training the militia operating under the ‘warlords’ and also providing them with weapons. In sum, without military deployment in Afghanistan, Delhi has the capacity to play a decisive role in crushing the Taliban insurgency, which is what makes the Pakistani military establishment extremely anxious in the developing political scenario on the Afghan chessboard.
In this scenario, India would encircle and contain a Pakistani failed state, cutting off the Afghanistan operations of the Islamist wing of Pakistan’s military. Pakistan would be aghast, but the vise-grip around its borders would be so tight as to discourage future misbehavior.
There is one problem with this scenario, and that is China. As Francesco Sisci wrote on this site on December 15 (A radical empire looms), “Afghanistan and Pakistan are not unstable domino tiles that can be moved at will in a careful balance of weights and counterweights, as in old political power games. Pakistan and Afghanistan are part of a more complex balancing act that is both domestic and international and in which we also find China and India.”
China cannot sit by and allow India to encircle and eventually crush its ally Pakistan – not because China has fundamental strategic interests in Pakistan, but because it cannot tolerate such a blemish to its credibility. The problem does not lie in Pakistan, but in the mutual capacity of India and China to destabilize each other. Maoist rebels are active in about a third of Indian territory, and the Indian government claims that they receive their weapons from China – without yet accusing the Chinese government of direct involvement. India has a probe stuck prominently into China’s most sensitive spot, namely Tibet. On November 10, the Chinese government denounced India for permitting the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, to visit Tawang on the Tibetan border. China still claims as part of Tibet the whole border state of Arunachal Pradesh, including Tawang.
Unlike World War I, in which the warring parties in the Balkans drew Russia and Austria into war and the rest of Europe with them, India and China will not go to war over trifling border issues. But in the absence of a solution to Pakistan’s state failure, they will continue to support low-intensity operations and add to the region’s instability. China in this respect most resembles Austria in 1914. It is the power that wants stability at all costs, and has the most to lose – through the provincial rebellion of ethnic minorities – from instability. But it cannot impose stability through any means within its own reach. More than any other power in the world, it regards the prospective failure of the Pakistani state with horror. Beijing does not seem to have thought through the configuration of a post-Pakistani world.
The balance of power fails along with Pakistan. The alternative to the balance of power, as Kissinger said, is hegemony, and no one but the United States can exercise it. A hegemonic US would do the following:
- Invite New Delhi to increase its role in Afghanistan – which the Russians emphatically support – and make clear to Islamabad that the consequences of a shift toward radical Islam will be to leave Pakistan at the mercy of India.
- Dictate to India a conciliatory policy toward China, including an empty dance card for the Dalai Lama and consideration for Chinese interests in Nepal and Myanmar.
- Persuade China to throw its Pakistani ally under the bus, in return for assurances of Indian good behavior, as well as other incentives (access to US technology, for example).
- Assure China that the United States will not take advantage of its troubles with the Uighurs in Xinjiang or any other Chinese ethnic minority – and that it will police such allies as Turkey with respect to such problems.
- Crush Iran’s imperial ambitions in the region, both to protect US allies such as Saudi Arabia and to eliminate a potential existential threat to Pakistan and remove a claim to legitimacy for radical Sunni Islamists.
- Give Russia assurances that matters pertaining to its “near abroad” from Ukraine to Kyrgyzstan will be considered with a view toward Russian interests.
The implications of such an exercise in great-power politics are in some respects ugly. They include a perpetual civil war in Afghanistan and the continuation of at least low-level civil war in Pakistan. The object would not be to prevent Pakistan from turning into a failed state, but to prevent a failed state in Pakistan from poisoning the rest of the region. It also implies a self-interested recognition that the United States has nothing but sentimental interests in Ukraine, Georgia and Tibet – and that sentiment is cheap. It is not the best alternative, to be sure, but as General George Patton said, the best is the enemy of the good.
At the close of 2009, Washington still has the capacity to act as a hegemon. The most dangerous undertaking of the Obama administration is not the petty failures of policy, such as the hapless effort to appease the Palestinians over West Bank settlements, or Pakistan over Kashmir. If America’s technological leadership in fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, and related technologies continues to erode, the United States – like Britain in 1914 – no longer will have the power and credibility to enforce an agreement among prospectively hostile players.
America’s self-sabotage in this regard is a unique act of abnegation in the history of world strategy. It lost Vietnam because to win would have required more boots on the ground and more body bags on homebound aircraft. But the problems of South and Central Asia do not require a substantial US troop commitment. On the contrary, the escalation of US force in Afghanistan makes matters worse. India can put sufficient boots on Afghan soil to prevent a Taliban victory. No one else wants or needs US troops. But America’s capacity to sail an aircraft carrier to any coast in the world and be master of the situation is essential.
Russia and India may field a fifth-generation fighter, perhaps a very good one if it contains the full Israeli avionics package. But a sixth-generation fighter is already in the research-and-development phase in the United States. If Washington puts resources behind cutting-edge defense technology, no other country or combination of countries can mount a challenge for a generation or more. America’s failure to sustain its own power will be as tragic as it is unnecessary.