Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The New Great Game

In the past, Great empires have rarely been built for philanthropic reasons. The British did not ‘civilize’ the Indian subcontinent for the good of the natives, ditto for the French in Africa. Most of the time, the ‘colonized’ countries happened to be rich in raw materials badly required to feed the economic engine of the paramount powers.
The recent happenings in Afghanistan seem to follow the same pattern?
For the past nine years, we have heard of the war against terror forcing more than a lakh of American (and NATO) jawans to risk their lives in the far-away Central Asian land to fight for the good of humanity and destroy asuric Talibans roaming around the country.
Remember. A month after the tragedy of 9/11, the United States supported by the United Kingdom and several other countries from the NATO alliance began bombing Taliban (more nebulously known as Al Qaeda) forces. The military operations’ objective was to grab the power out of fundamentalist hands and prevent the use of Afghanistan’s territory as a terrorist base. Nobody in Washington thought at that time, that ‘terrorism’ could also have some roots in Afghanistan’s neighbouring country; Pakistan was THE ally per excellence.
Early October 2001, the CIA's elite Special Activities Division landed in Kabul; it was the beginning of the ‘cleansing’ operation to flush out the agents of terror. Eventually, the Taliban regime of Mollah Omar fell and the NATO forces started to ‘control’ the country. Till then, things were rather simple to understand. Unfortunately for the Pentagon strategists, the ‘control’ is still missing nine years later.
But there is now a new angle to the Afghan imbroglio.
Washington disclosed recently that its surveyors have discovered more than one $1 trillion in mineral deposits in Afghanistan. The New York Times noted: “it is far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself.”
It appears that an internal Pentagon memo even mentions that Afghanistan could become the ‘Saudi Arabia of lithium’, a very useful mineral to manufacture batteries for electronic gadgets.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, commanding the United States Forces declared: “There is stunning potential here …There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.”
Jalil Jumriany, an adviser to the Afghan Minister of Mines told The New York Times: “This will become the backbone of the Afghan economy.”
But everybody is not convinced by the ‘new’ discovery.
Stephen Walt in an article entitled Is Afghanistan really the next El Dorado?, published in Foreign Policy wrote: “So today -- surprise, surprise -- comes news that Afghanistan isn't a poor country whose primary strategic asset is its ability to grow opium poppies. Nope, turns out Afghanistan is just brimming with iron ore, lithium, cobalt, copper, and other strategic minerals. This report -- which comes from ‘a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists’ may well be completely correct, but isn't the timing of the release a mite suspicious? This looks to me like an attempt to provide a convincing strategic rationale for an effort that isn't going well.”
Not surprisingly, one of the first countries to react was China. Xinhua commented the Pentagon announcement: “it may function as a double-edged sword for the Central Asian country, and it will likely justify continuous US engagement in Afghanistan's rebuilding process.”
Xinhua quotes Wu Dahui, a scholar with the Institute of Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who believes that “the well-timed report will help justify the US' presence in the country” He added: “Washington has insisted that the stability of Afghanistan relies on its economic rebuilding. The announcement was timed to prove that the US can gain strategically from its involvement in rebuilding the war-torn country. The resources in Afghanistan would feed the US' demand to boost its economy.”
The Chinese probably have a point. They themselves are interested to get a share of the cake. In April, Christian Le Mière, the Editor of Jane's Intelligence Review in Foreign Affairs put it thus: “The possibility of cheap resources on its border is of significant interest to Beijing. China has already made the largest single foreign direct investment in Afghanistan: $3.5 billion in the Aynak copper field in Logar province.”
Kabul knows that the Americans and their NATO partners are to withdraw in July 2011. Though Beijing is not interested in Afghanistan for security reasons, there is a place to take in the future economy of Afghanistan.
A few months back President Hu declared that the development of the western region is a priority of China's twelfth Five-Year Plan (2011 to 2015).
In the words of Le Mière: “Trade and development assistance form an even larger part of the burgeoning Afghan-Chinese relationship.”
The security aspect is however not negligible, as the leadership in Beijing would not like to see its Western provinces, particularly the restive Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) destabilized.
It was another reason for President Hamid Karzai to visit China in March 2010. It was his fourth trip to China as President and according to analysts a sign that Kabul has wanted to diversify its patrons and not bank entirely on the US.
In January 2010, Russell Hsiao and Glen E. Howard in The China Brief of the Jamestown Institute mentioned some Chinese moves in the strategic Wakan Corridor: “A recent Chinese report has shed light on three major Chinese developments along the Wakhan Corridor that reportedly began in 2009, which highlight preparations in regional infrastructure along that border.”
The report speaks of a 75 kilometers-long road, extending up to 10 kilometers from the China-Afghanistan border. The road, built by Chinese Ministry of Defense is badly needed for the transportation of military supplies to Chinese frontier guards. Then, the Chinese have constructed a supply depot to improve the “food quality standard for the police forces”.
The third development is a mobile communications center which would permit the operation of mobile devices along the border. Earlier border troops had to depend on satellite communications.
However for Russell Hsiao, China is not ready to play a ‘strategic’ or military role in Afghanistan. He quotes the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Qin Gang: “Except for the U.N. peace-keeping missions approved by the U.N. Security Council, China never sends a single troop abroad”, adding: “At the same time, there are also those [in the Chinese government] who view NATO operations in Afghanistan more cynically and see them as part of a U.S. strategy to gain control over Central Asia.”
With the ‘discovery’ that Afghanistan is a rich country (not only for its poppies) cynicism is bound to increase. Many believe that we are witnessing the beginning of a new Great Game like during the 19th century.
One could ask: where does India fit in this new political and economic order?
Delhi has a big problem. Were India to get a stake in the minerals, how to bring them home?
Indrani Bagchi rightly explains in The Times of India: “Pakistan's India blockade and an international sanctions regime in Iran may put a spanner in Indian companies' drive to exploit the mineral bonanza in Afghanistan.”
Technically, Indian companies like Arcelor-Mittal or Vedanta could have a chance, for example when the bid for Hajigak iron ore mines opens up, but will Pakistan let the raw materials transit through its territory. Certainly not.
The other road through Iran is also doubtful in view of the new UN sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Manmohan would certainly not like to antagonize his American friends.
In a near future, the Chinese are bound to win the raw materials market in Afghanistan. While the NATO forces are fighting an unwinnable war, Beijing has quietly started tapping the wealth of the country. India, may be highly considered by the people of Afghanistan, but in the end, business  is business and China is better prepared, with the infrastructure in particular. One question remains, is this newly discovered wealth a bane or a blessing for the people of Afghanistan?
I still remember when as a young student I visited Afghanistan with a backpack; it was at the end of 1960’s. I was in love with this country; it was so peaceful (one would say ‘cool’ now). I remember the beauty of Herat, the fabulous Buddhas of Bamyan (today no more, courtesy some fanatical Talibans) or the extraordinary blue lakes of Band-i-Amir. More than anything else, the hospitality of the different tribes, whether Pashtus, Tajiks or Uzbeks. People seemed so relaxed and content. What has happened?
The US ‘discovery’ will certainly not help to bring the old peace and harmony back.

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