Friday, February 28, 2014

America’s Silk Road Conundrum

Americans invited a senior delegation of Taliban for talks in Texas to construct a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan to Pakistan in December, 1997. Few years later the boat was rocked. The war on terror replaced commercial negotiations in the pursuit of profit from the rich energy reserves of the Caspian Sea.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s continuous refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with USA has put another dent in America’s Silk Road strategy. Afghanistan suspended talks on the BSA last year after USA engaged in talks with Taliban. Silk Road strategy is a code name for the Great Game which was designed by colonial powers to rule and plunder the natural resources of Asia in the early 1800’s.

Pakistan is a major player in the Silk Road strategy. Pakistan which was already in the driving seat due to its strategic location has further strengthened its position. Pakistan is a major corridor for China, India, Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe. This corridor can benefit billions of people in these regions.

India relies on Pakistan to connect to Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe by road. Pakistan is also a major corridor for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Emerging global power, China can cut almost ten thousand kilometres to connect with the Middle East through Pakistan.

Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang during his last visit to Pakistan said, “Both sides are of the view that by connecting China’s development and Pakistan’s development, we can create a joint economic corridor linking the central and western parts of China and Pakistan.” China is already operating Pakistan’s strategic port of Gwadar which is close to an important oil-shipping lane called Strait of Hormuz. Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping agreed to accelerate the construction of economic corridor during their recent meeting in Beijing.

Pakistan is consolidating its position while USA is struggling to hold together its allies. Taliban opened an office in Qatar's capital Doha and put a plaque with an inscription of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and Taliban’s flag last year. This further infuriated Karzai who suspended talks over the BSA.

White House in a recent statement said, “President Obama told President Karzai that because he has demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign the BSA, the United States is moving forward with additional contingency planning.”

“Specifically, President Obama has asked the Pentagon to ensure that it has adequate plans in place to accomplish an orderly withdrawal by the end of the year should the United States not keep any troops in Afghanistan after 2014.”

Proposed American plan to pull its invading forces from Afghanistan is another setback in its pursuit of strategic goals of the Silk Road strategy. If it cannot persuade Karzai or his successor to sign the BSA then it will act as a final nail in America’s economic hegemony. Even if the BSA is signed, it will not achieve its’ goals. USA and its allies could not control Afghanistan with hundreds of thousands of their soldiers. How a few thousand American troops will play any role to achieve strategic goals of its Silk Road strategy?

Perhaps, Former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton was dreaming as a de-facto Indian Foreign Minister when she said, “let’s work together to create a new Silk Road … That means building more rail lines, highways, energy infrastructure, like the proposed pipeline to run from Turkmenistan, through Afghanistan, through Pakistan into India” in Chennai, India on 20 July 2011.

Hillary Clinton further said that she “was pleased to see Afghanistan and Pakistan commit to implement fully their transit trade agreement…we want to see trade begin to move across that border, and then we want to see that trade expanded into Central Asia and India – two-way trade, multiple paths for trade.” Strengthening India and containing China are important goals of the Silk Road strategy.

British historian and Writer, William Dalrymple with his pro-Indian and Western stance has covered the Afghan issue in depth for the Brookings Institution. He believes that after America starts to end the longest war in its history, “Some Indian hawks, in the army and the Ministry of External Affairs, argue that by taking on a more robust and possibly even a military role in Afghanistan, India could fill the security vacuum left by the U.S. withdrawal, advance its regional interests, compete with their Chinese rivals for influence in Afghanistan, and thwart their Pakistani enemies at the same time.”

This sounds like a nightmare for Indians. USA, Russia and Briton with all of their military and economic might have failed to subjugate Afghanistan. How a country like India whose majority of population lives in absolute poverty can even think of invading Afghanistan? Which route they will take? May be through Pakistan?

These so called “hawks” have forgotten that Pakistan is a nuclear power. It is armed with tactical weapons which will destroy Indian army even before it moves from garrisons. This shows the quality of Dalrymple’s approach. It is absolutely absurd even to entertain such idea.

Dalrymple further says that, “a former Indian consul general in Kandahar privately admitted to me that he had met with Baluchi leaders at his consulate … he hinted to me that RAW personnel were present among the staff at the Kandahar and Jalalabad consulates.” Pakistan got proves of Indian involvement in Baluchistan and it has already warned India to stop such activities. Pakistan will be free from Afghanistan and it will be able to concentrate on India.

It is better for India to cooperate with Pakistan to improve lives of impoverished Indian population by using Pakistan’s economic corridor. However, this corridor will remain shut for India until it resolves the outstanding issue of Kashmir. It is also important for India to stop exploitation of Muslims and other minorities in India and follow its so called “secular” constitution.

Dalrymple also says that, “In June, 2010, much to the alarm of India—and the U.S.—Karzai decided to attempt negotiations with the Taliban. In preparation for this, Karzai removed his strongly pro-Indian and deeply anti-Pakistani security chief, Amrulla Saleh”

President Barack Obama’s former AfPak adviser, Bruce Riedel said, “Karzai’s decision to sack Saleh has worried me more than any other development, because it means that Karzai is already planning for a post-American Afghanistan.”  It seems that Afghanistan, Pakistan and China are getting ready for post-American Afghanistan.

Pakistan is waiting it out until the enemy forces are exhausted. It has also shown strategic patience. However, India as usual is playing a game of catch-up like it did after the downfall of Russia. India was an important ally of Russia. Now it is trying to build strategic relationship with another dwindling superpower called USA. Somehow India always ends up with losers.

Former CIA station chief in Pakistan, Milton Bearden who supported Afghan resistance against Russians from 1986 to 1989 has covered the demise of great powers in his article “Afghanistan, Graveyard of Empires”. The title tells the story of invader’s demise starting from Alexander the Great.

Indian “hawks” read the history even before you think of Afghanistan. Your current and former masters, America and Russia are licking their wounds inflicted by Afghans. The future of the Silk Road strategy relies on the course Pakistan takes. Remember! Pakistan is in the driving seat.