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.