A regional solution

Published: July 25, 2012
The writer is a defence analyst who retired as an air vice-marshal in the Pakistan Air Force

The writer is a defence analyst who retired as an air vice-marshal in the Pakistan Air Force

What is it that America will leave behind in Afghanistan and the region after having been in control of it for more than a decade? An Afghanistan, which will still have a tenuous political structure? A region, whose dynamics will find its own normal after the dominating presence of the US recedes, significantly if not fully? And yet, the region consisting of the riches of central Asia, the rare earths that Afghanistan possesses — mapping of which has only recently been completed by the US — will continue to interest America for these and many more reasons.

America may have run out of steam after having been engaged in Afghanistan for more than 12 years before the bulk of its forces leave Afghanistan, with its economy under a suspect recovery and most of its people wanting out of a war that seems to be going nowhere. The blame game for a project left unfinished may continue for a long time souring old relationships, but that in no way mitigates what shall remain important to America — central Asia and southwest Asia. The US may hope to institute a proxy presence and outsource its interests to someone like India, but that too cannot be a given because of India’s historical disinclination to any straitjacketed alliance even as America works overtime to woo India to do its bidding.

The other compulsion for America remains the competitive interests of both China and Russia in the region; for one it is their backyard, and for the other an item of interest for its natural riches to meet growing energy demands. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is becoming more vibrant and active in its engagement of the neighbouring nations in central, southwest and south Asia. It remains, perhaps, for the two leaders, Russia and China, to pace assertion of their competitive control over the region. While it may not yet be the most apparent factor, the resonant presence of the SCO and its growing acceptability within the region may just spur America to seek a more lively presence. Do we see a strategic division of Asia, a la Warsaw Pact and Nato of the 20th century? It is too early to tell but the making of it is there. One saving grace to avoid such bifurcation of power is the increasing likelihood that the world may eventually see multi-polarity within this century. If such a prognosis does materialise, it is more likely that the world will simply be divided into zones of influence for each of the poles, finding a renewed balance. In a world in transition, as it stands today, a competitive streak is likely to dominate till other sobering factors begin to impact traditional assumptions. In the short-term, then, America is unlikely to abdicate pursuing its interests in the region.

As a declared American interest in central Asia, a State Department study notes a specific interest to secure and develop energy pipelines that travel out of these regions to Europe. Implicit in such control of the resources, there remains a pervasive awareness that ‘energy hungry’ China is increasingly sourcing its own needs from this largest reservoir of natural gas in the world and an oil basin that is likely to exceed the total oil available in Libya or the North Sea. India, another energy deficit country, is keen to link to the same reservoirs. By dominating central Asia the US will retain the ability to not only control but calibrate the supply to these two emerging competitive nations. Such control creates leverage that can be used to develop regulated relationships of interdependence. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s dream of the ‘new silk road’ is a manifestation of America’s abiding interest in the region.

There is an alternative theory of influence and domination to what comes with military might: armed domination alone is unsustainable as has been repeatedly proven in history and even recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. What will remain is a politico-economic combine, more economic, that can bring to bear the benefits to the larger populace and develop shared stakes in ensuring survival of a system that compliments human and social sustenance. Central Asia and the surrounding regions of Southwest and South Asia are steeped in poverty that economic integration of the region can only help unlock. Indeed, if such integration is possible with some effort the route to political domination becomes that much easier, almost like a one-window engagement. Economic integration permits easier political assimilation where political difference is subsumed by shared stakes of growth and prosperity. If a region exudes political similarities it is easier to influence it through an interdependent politico-military nexus. European Union comes to mind though it remains for the moment a destination far into the future.

Specific to central and south Asia there are two prerequisites to this end of integration: one, physical connectivity and infrastructure that ties in these regions for the economic traffic that is likely to flow — this has remained sadly neglected with only tactical and operational infrastructure finding attention. And two, the constituent states in the region continue to be cocooned with festering political conflicts, which have failed to find resonance for resolution. Richard Holbrooke’s remit to include India was cut short after initial inclination. America may rue that decision with bilateralism having failed to deliver. There is now a possibility to pursue a regional approach co-authored by an omnipresent America, and in its absence a surging SCO, that shall have to iron out the persistent drag exercised by legacy disagreements. There is too much good contained in this region to remain bottled up for too long. Among the likely contenders with a capacity to dominate the region it is inevitable that either the US or the SCO will have to step up to the plate. Both elements of forming a framework of regional integration will need genuine and sincere expression of political intent and practical follow-up.

Is such a collaborative effort to put in place an interfaced infrastructure possible now? Now or later, it will need to be done, anyway — it is never too late to start. Such a collaborative effort could also bring regional countries closer together to find solutions to their festering political issues. Of the two, the US and the SCO, anyone taking the initiative will also have the making of the dominant power.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 26th, 2012.


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Reader Comments (27)

  • karma
    Jul 25, 2012 - 11:32PM

    For all the predictions of multi-polar world, the reality remains it is not on envil for a few decades. USA will continue to be the technological, economical and military super power for a generation (my lifetime atleast).

    And most folks attribute ‘great game’ interests to USA, while it is most likely that no great game is worth a trillion dollars in war expenses. It is much cheaper to invent new types of energy (witness what is happening to solar PV and massive energy storage battery technologies).

    So, thinking militarily comes natural to an ex-serviceman. But, the likely outcomes in world energy games are entirely different within our lifetime.


  • BlackJack
    Jul 26, 2012 - 12:18AM

    Imagining that Central Asia as the new energy centre of the world is important for Pakistan because its increasingly irrelevant 65 year old ‘geo-strategic location’ theory comes to naught without ferrying Central Asian goodies to the nearest ocean. The writer is correct that everyone (including India) is interested in the mineral wealth of Afghanistan and the TAPI pipeline has many backers – but no one is willing to bet on the region until Afghanistan stabilizes. Surprisingly, for a nation that can only benefit as the land route for these supposed riches, Pakistani pigheadedness remains the only insurmountable stumbling block.
    Disappointingly for the writer and others of his ilk, there is going to be no ‘Warsaw Pact’ kind of division of Asia, simply because the time for such divisions has passed. Today every one wants countries to trade and grow economically prosperous so that they can buy more expensive services and toys from the guys who still make them. There are hardly any countries that still feel nostalgic when reminded of the Cold War – except Pakistan.
    The only country that is itching for the SCO nations to pick up fight with the US is Pakistan. Fortunately, none of them is that short-sighted, least of all China. For Russia, which is energy-sufficient in itself, the SCO holds importance from a security paradigm – in controlling an Islamist revival and the burgeoning drug trade. And if the US were to choose a spot to grandstand against China, the South China Sea is a much more logical location, instead of one where it would need to depend on Russian allies or Pakistan for access. The writer needs to stop hoping that Pakistan will find a new (and equally generous) master in the SCO.

  • Nagpuri
    Jul 26, 2012 - 12:37AM

    He is among those ‘experts’ who thought US would never leave Iraq, Germany or Japan. Only country in the history to never claim territory even after absolute victory. Some times it is difficult to fathom an exceptional behavior of a country which is contrary to your basic instinct of man kind and of thousands of years of history of typical statecraft.

    US has largest shale gas reserve and it would try to manage the basket cases like Pakistan and Afghanistan for same?

  • Rajendra Kalkhande
    Jul 26, 2012 - 1:29AM

    Author has not mentioned as to where Pakistan stands in such a regional solution. Russia as dominant player of former USSR had tried her hands in Afghanistan and we all know the outcome. In my view a dominant role by China won’t be of much help for Pakistan as energy pipe lines to China will bypass Pakistan. If at all Pakistan wants to benefit from the central Asian resources, she has to tango with India. No other alliance is going to be of much help for Pakistan. India,Pakistan and Afghanistan have to form an honest alliance. If Pakistan does not play ball, India will develop Iran-Afghanistan route to central Asia. Million dollar question is, will Pakistan form this essential alliance? Or it will be linked to same old slogan of Kashmir as core issue? Going by pat experiences, Pakistan is likely to miss this very important opportunity. Pakistan will be just day dreaming as if China will take care of her interests.


  • Arindom
    Jul 26, 2012 - 2:26AM

    No regional solution gonna work till one member insists on sending terrorists across the borders to the others….


  • mahakaalchakra
    Jul 26, 2012 - 3:51AM

    No mention of Pakistan?


  • Babloo
    Jul 26, 2012 - 5:18AM

    China can never be a leader because while it may have military and economy power it does not inspire any respect because of its terrible record of human rights, democracy and above all rule of law – where the ruling partry is corrupt to the core. China also is viewed negativelty by almost every neighbour.


  • Sagar
    Jul 26, 2012 - 7:09AM

    Well, if the author is wrongly assuming that in order to achieve energy pipeline goals, SCO or Russia or US would have to solve the historical disputes such as Kashmir. If at all they get involved, Pakistan will find that it has to accept position that India has been propositioning to it for many years. To achieve the goals, Pakistan as a nation, can be subdued, because of its many dependencies and weaknesses, not to mention the divisiveness in its society. My guess is Pakistan will easily capitulate as it has been doing behind the scenes. Author misses the point that in addition to pipeline goals, a measure of stability is required, which means a stable, democratic Afghanistan free of negative Taliban and retrogressive Pakistani influences. It is my guess that this desire is widespread and shared by even Russia and China not just India and US.


  • Feroz
    Jul 26, 2012 - 7:55AM

    Firstly, all this strategic talk has no possibility of coming to fruition as long as Religious extremism plagues Afghanistan and Pakistan. No one in South or Central Asia besides the two countries mentioned has any appetite for it. Once you eliminate Taliban and other non state proxies whatever you talk will make sense. Without uprooting terrorism indulging in dreaming is an exercise in futility. How can a thinker have a mind so foggy that they cannot identify the basic problem but put forth grandoise proposals.


  • Raj - USA
    Jul 26, 2012 - 9:01AM

    The author always writes on the lines of scenarios, doctrines, theories and strategies and never addresses the central and singular issue that is of interest to all players, be it regional like China, Russia and India or the powers from outside the region like US and NATO countries. This central and singular issue is terrorism and safe havens for terror groups. This is the most important issue for Afghanistan and Pakistan also. All economic activities would automatically flow through once terrorism and terror groups are eliminated from the region. This is where importance of Pakistan comes to play. When terror is eliminated from the region, all countries shall become natural allies and work with a mutual interest that would bring betterment to the entire region. No one needs to be controlling, nor is anyone interested in controlling Afghanistan. Everyone is interested in economic benefits only.


  • karma
    Jul 26, 2012 - 9:18AM

    Here are some facts:

    US total energy expenditure in a year – US$1.2trillion. Only 45% of it is from fossil fuel. US imports 40-60% of its oil/gas, depending on demand. That makes it about 20% of energy is imported.

    So, you can put the figure at about US$250billion in Oil imports. To spend US$1trillion over a decade increases the price of Oil by 30-40% more than market right away. This makes other sources of energey (Coal, Shale, Nuclear and also alternative energy) more attractive!!

    Simple logic – US can’t fight wars for its oil – it is much cheaper to pay higher price than rest of world.


  • GhostRider
    Jul 26, 2012 - 9:42AM

    @All Indians

    No mention of Pakistan is itching you guys because there is nothing to bash…lol…anyways in context of this article let me put it plainly…road to central Asia goes through Pakistan. This is the point where Indians get choked and they start bollywood style cursing like a “mazloom aurat” (as evident from comments of Indian trolls). The dream of opening the route of trade through Iranian ports while bypassing Pakistan is just a day dream. West is not allowing Iran to sell oil and they ll let Iran to be a trade corridor…yeah right (hilarious indeed)…now moving forward, peace and stability of Afghanistan is the critical question…and its all depend on Pakistan. And since Pakistan is notorious as per Indians…India will try to by pass Pakistan and Pakistan will stay quiet and will not use its notorious nature to sabotage the plans..is it possible ;)… now fill in the details yourself…cheers


  • Polpot
    Jul 26, 2012 - 9:52AM

    “interdependent politico-military nexus”
    Poor quality , irrelevant thinking dressed in fancy words.


  • Arijit Sharma
    Jul 26, 2012 - 10:26AM

    ” …. The US may hope to institute a proxy presence and outsource its interests to someone like India, but that too cannot be a given because of India’s historical disinclination to any straitjacketed alliance even as America works overtime to woo India to do its bidding. … “

    The US has always found it easy to deal with nations that have one predominant ethnicity. On the other hand, the cauldron of leftist, centrist and rightist politics and the sheer diversity of the Indian people makes India a very difficult moving target for anybody to “acquire”.


  • Dee Cee
    Jul 26, 2012 - 10:52AM

    @GhostRider: I hold no prejudice against the Pakistani awaam, but your statement (India will try to by pass Pakistan and Pakistan will stay quiet and will not use its notorious nature to sabotage the plans..is it possible) makes me sad. Have a certain section of Pakistanis internalized the label “rogue state” and secretly enjoy the supposed ability to throw a spanner in the works? I hope both India and Pakistan stand for something positive and do not enjoy any possible schadenfreude from each other’s miseries. However, the exchange of hate speech between Indians and Pakistanis in the comment section does not give me hope. Let me go and check the Bahria University video; that makes me happy! :)


  • chandran
    Jul 26, 2012 - 11:11AM

    INDIA GDP growth almost 6% annually even without accessing this central asian resources.


  • Mirza
    Jul 26, 2012 - 11:17AM

    Zero plus zero plus zero still comes out zero. We as a third world country can dream about being a major player but we have to wake up and think like most unstable, unsafe and a country ready to implode. Our generals and other officers live like first world generals but that is where the similarity must stop. Let us take care of our little beautiful home first and stop dreaming about power alliances.


  • mahakaalchakra
    Jul 26, 2012 - 11:20AM


    Pakistan stops access by road to central Asia for India;
    India will soon be able stop water going to Pakistan

    India has developed an alternate route to Central Asia via Iran;
    Pakistan will have no alternate to water that comes from India

    It is a lose-lose situation for Pakistan

    No road is or will ever be safe in Pakistan that crosses Balochistan or KP.
    Watch out after 2014 when USA won’t need road access through Pakistan


  • himanshu
    Jul 26, 2012 - 12:12PM

    Although I am an Indian but your statements are well written. I do love Pakistan bashing but sadly there is not much in this article to do.


  • David Smith
    Jul 26, 2012 - 1:03PM

    A better effort than the outburst of last week, but still a meandering piece. Yes, the US remains committed to Central Asia, both for access to its energy resources (and not mentioned in the article), strategic presence close to Russia, China, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan (for different reasons). Yes, it is well known that economic integration will help the countries of the two regions. And yes, for this to happen, connectivity has to improve and festering political/security issues resolved.
    Fine, curious however, that the AVM does not mention Pakistan’s policies (so far) to keep the regions apart, disallowing India’s ground access to Afghanistan, for example. And Pakistan remains obsessed at getting third parties to resolve its bilateral problems with India, the latest great hope being the SCO! President Obama has made the US position very clear on this a few days ago and SCO, in spite of it becoming “more vibrant”, will not be unrealistic enough to attempt mediation.
    Islamabad and Delhi are the two capitals where Indo-Pak problems have to be resolved
    , and for that Pakistan needs to take a few measures first, beginning with stopping its sponsorship of terrorism.


  • Polpot
    Jul 26, 2012 - 2:31PM

    This is nothing new
    President Zardari on his countless trips to Central Asian Republics has described rail roads that will integrate all those countries.

    No outcome except verbiage.


  • GhostRider
    Jul 26, 2012 - 2:47PM

    Please read again…. answers to your questions is in my earlier comment…and i knw you ll come out with more poisonous comment after that…so cheers we enjoy it


  • Arya
    Jul 26, 2012 - 3:01PM

    Any regional solution based on economic model and centered around Afghanistan is inconceivable without taking India into confidence, as it it the large consumer of energy and one who can pay in cash.


  • Jeffmahagaonvi
    Jul 26, 2012 - 3:08PM

    Have you and others elite in uniform really dreamed about such wishful
    but absurd thinking. Are we really believeable in the eyes of other nations
    for real friendship.
    Sorry, first we have to change our fanatic and totalitarian mindset to become
    acceptable to others..
    Live with love-Let democracy work


  • KT
    Jul 26, 2012 - 5:24PM

    This is a “here and now” kind of analysis, focusing only on the present and recent past. It does not take into account rapid strides the West is making towards reducing its dependence on fossil fuel and increasing its energy security. In the next 20 to 50 years, dominant energy will be electric as it can be generated from any fuel (fossil or biomass) or renewables (solar, thermal, hydal and wind) and can be transformed into any other form of energy (heat, light and motion). Completely electric cars are already selling in Europe and one can drive now from London to Glasgow purely on electricity without using an ounce of petrol or deisel. You may still have to wait a long time for an electric plane to take you on your holiday but airlines and jet manufacturers are already experimenting with biofuels (http://www.qantas.com.au/travel/airlines/sustainable-aviation-fuel/global/en). Even Americans, who traditionally shun renewables and biomass are adopting it just to reduce their dependence on energy sources in volatile, hostile and inaccessible parts of the world. Oil and gas consumption will reduce substantially and become evermore local to its production, that too for producing electricity which, as mentioned above, will become the common denominator in energy. In the past, the only issue with electricity was that it could not be stored on industrial scale, once produced, it had to be consumed. Swiss and French have now even devised an ingenious method for that in the form of dual-reservoir dams. These developments will make arguments in this op-ed irrelevant.


  • Cautious
    Jul 26, 2012 - 6:39PM

    Another article which is high on anti American blather and short on logic/facts. America isn’t in Afghanistan because of minerals, oil etc or because it needs a military footprint against China — that’s nonsense – it’s in Afghanistan because the Taliban allowed Al Qaeda to use it as a home base to launch an attack which slaughtered 3,000 American’s. I would also opine that every one of your neighbors has a legitimate concern about extremism which seems to emanate from Pakistan — it’s likely that any regional endeavor on any subject would exclude Pakistan.


  • Polpot
    Jul 26, 2012 - 10:31PM

    The theme has been around a long time
    Pakistan was the bridge between US & China in the 50s/60s….
    it was the broker between East n west…and see what happened..its just broke today.


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