Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Russian and China are looking to make Afghanistan a crossroad of rail, roads and pipelines from across the Indian Ocean and Eurasia [GALLO/GETTY]

The stakes couldn't be higher. Washington is at a loss, facing regional integration led by Russia and China.

On Wednesday, June 15, by all means, don't take your eyes off Astana, Kazakhstan's capital. The day may turn out to be the ultimate turning point as geopolitical tectonic plates clash in the New Great Game in Eurasia.

Astana will on Wednesday host the annual meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) - composed of China, Russia, and four Central Asian "stans", Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

What's more, the SCO is about to admit India and Pakistan as full members - and Afghanistan as an observer.

Instant translation: a geopolitical checkmate by Russia/China on the post-American world. The message, in a nutshell: Dear Washington, forget about getting embedded in Asia. The reaction: Washington elites freaking out, big time.

Washington's recent flurry of chessboard moves were interpreted in selected circles in Moscow and Beijing as concerted pre-emption. Such moves included:

The UN-sanctioned/Africom/NATO "humanitarian" intervention in Libya
The threat of a "humanitarian" intervention in Syria
The revival of the Bush administration's obsession in deploying a US missile defence system in Eastern Europe
The no-holds barred expansion of NATO from Northern Africa to Central Asia (spanning that famous, Pentagon-named "arc of instability")

Not to mention the serial invasions - via drone war or targeted assassination - of Pakistan's territory and sovereignty.

Reset remixed

Whether or not Washington pays lip service to a "reset" of US/Russia relations, Moscow has interpreted all these moves, both at the periphery and the center of Eurasia, as torpedoing - by all means necessary - the role of Russia as a top global energy exporter.

Moscow's strategy is to boost the SCO as a solid counterpunch not only to NATO but also to the US' designs on Central Asian energy.

Moscow and Beijing see NATO for what it is - essentially the weaponised European arm of the Pentagon. Thus Beijing's official policy of "soft reverse containment" of the US rush in Eurasia - with "all-weather ally" Pakistan as a key peon.

For its part, Washington registers India essentially as the key Asia-Pacific labourer in a strategy of Chinese containment.

For Moscow as much as Beijing, a central Asia that is not subject to the winds of change of the Great 2011 Arab Revolt implies a politically and economically stable Pakistan - even as Moscow still enjoys a "privileged" strategic partnership with New Delhi.

That's where a crucial trip by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to Russia in mid-May fits in.

Zardari discussed not only terrorism and drug smuggling with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev but also Gazprom's detailed, possible involvement in a crucial pipelineistan chapter; the eternally plagued TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) pipeline - which, it should always be stressed, has been the key issue at play in Afghanistan since the mid-1990s.

Incidentally, Russia-Pakistan bilateral projects are way more ambitious than US-Pakistan projects.

Equally crucial has been a pre-SCO meeting working trip by Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasoul last month to Beijing - openly defying a US "ban". India has invested over $1.5 million in Afghanistan. Yet China has invested over $3 billion - including the huge Aynak Copper Mine project.

At a recent lecture at Pakistan's National Defense University, US ambassador Husain Haqqani, asked the audience whether the biggest threat to the country was internal, India, or the US. The US "won" by a large majority.

Compare that with the US neocon view - which is the same as the Pentagon's - according to which "victory" against the Taliban in Afghanistan means NATO waging an air war on Pakistan as well.

When Islamabad looks at the Russian/Chinese charm offensive and compares it with the ultra-fractured relationship with Washington, no wonder what stands out is an essentially Punjabi fear of a hidden US agenda: a determination to balkanise Pakistan.

Apart from Pakistan itself, the other key victim of such a scenario would be China - as in the competing Iran-Pakistan pipeline that would transit fuel to the crucial, Chinese-built Arabian Sea port of Gwadar being definitely killed.

For the SCO, a potential Pakistani balkanisation - a crossroads in Eurasia of Southwest, Central and South Asia (Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Western China) - would represent the ultimate nightmare.

We are all Afghans now

Of course there is a huge wall of mistrust between New Delhi and Beijing - which may be alleviated over time by closer contacts inside the BRICS group of emerging powers (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). But the problem is not only the Russian political elite, but that the Indian political elite have also still have not developed a strategic vision of BRICS in the post-US world.

And this while imperial Washington - occasional help from David Cameron's beleaguered Britain and neo-Napoleonic Sarkozy's France notwithstanding - seems to be running out of ideas to counteract real strategic competitors Russia and China.

As facts on the ground go, Moscow and Beijing have been deeply alarmed by the NATO war on Libya, the threat of an intervention in Syria, the absolutely free pass for repression in Bahrain, and the Washington obsession on remaining in Iraq at all costs.

But instead of the Arab world, their counterattack has been focused closer to home, in Eurasia - "the world's heartland", as conceptualised by the (imperial British) father of geopolitics Halford Mackinder (1861-1947).

That's where the SCO concept for a stable Afghanistan fits in.

The SCO's long-term plan is to increase Islamabad's strategic autonomy so it may become immune to relentless Washington pressure/humiliation/violation of sovereignty. And getting Pakistan into the SCO is a sterling mechanism for both Moscow and Beijing to "force" Islamabad to fine-tune its stance towards Afghanistan.

Both Moscow and Beijing also want Afghanistan - like Pakistan - to become a crossroads of rail, roads and pipelines from across the Indian Ocean and Eurasia. That explains Beijing using the privileged Sino-Pak axis to "seduce" Kabul and, within the SCO, investing in "all-weather" strategic partnerships all across the board.

Moscow has also found the SCO immensely helpful. What Washington really wanted all along in Central Asia was for virtually unlimited gas from Turkmenistan to flow to Western Europe - via the also eternally plagued Nabucco pipeline - and thus cut off Gazprom's grip on Europe's energy.

With TAPI becoming viable with Gazprom's help, Moscow will be able to "reward" Pakistan with transit rights and India with much-needed gas. And on top of it, Turkmen gas won't compete with Russian gas in the European market.

The South Yolotan gas field in Turkmenistan - with 3,500 square kilometers - is the second largest in the world. This means gas, gas, gas until the 23rd century for China, India and Pakistan. And Turkmenistan can even export what's left.

So welcome to the much-vaunted "SCO energy club". And the winner is, once again, former Russian President Vladimir Putin, who came up with this idea way back in 2005.

If the SCO is instrumental in pulling this off - and that's still a major "if" - it would be a monster fact on the ground towards the Asian Energy Security Grid, a concept of pan-Asian integration I have been lectured about by energy experts since the early 2000s.

All aboard on the new silk road

Beijing has clearly identified Afghanistan-Pakistan - after the Obama-sanctioned extension - as a dangerous regional war. Beijing had to act not only in the geopolitical arena but because its economy is also at stake.

A Sino-Pak axis getting closer to Afghanistan spells out a crucial chapter of the much-taunted Silk Road revival - massive Chinese investment in a network of roads, pipelines and electric grids.

All those who travelled in the region have marvelled at the Wakhan corridor that links Northeastern Afghanistan to Western China. Fabled Kashgar is only a few hours away from the Wakhan.

For all its usually deplorable treatment of Uighurs, Beijing is investing tens of billion of dollars to turn its far west into a special economic zone (SEZ), geared towards Central and South Asia. Kashgar is being remixed to its former Silk Road glory, as a key crossroads to Pakistan (via the Karakoram Highway), Afghanistan and Central Asia.

There's no way the Pentagon's war on terror-based Full Spectrum Dominance doctrine can compete with that integrated vision.

By surveying the chessboard, this is what the SCO has concluded. Washington won't stabilise Afghanistan; the SCO has a better shot. No regional player wants eternal US military bases in Afghanistan - as the Pentagon, according to Full Spectrum Dominance, ardently desires.

Moscow is sure that Washington will stop at nothing to seduce the Central Asian "stans" into bypassing the Russian pipeline network.

And, sooner rather than later, NATO may be monopolised to "secure" pipelines that eventually bypass Russia (this was always a Bush administration wet dream).

Yan Xuetong, director of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University, couldn't be more precise: "The purpose of establishing the SCO is to challenge the American strategic intention of extending its military breach to Central Asia."

Via the SCO, Beijing and Moscow are now ready to smash the myth of NATO as a security umbrella in Eurasia. At the same time, China harmonises with India in their eagerness to stabilise both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and thus deflate the myth of a war on terror-based US "Great Central Asia" strategy.

The ball - and what a ball - is now somewhere across the Potomac.