Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Great Game Begins (again) : Big boys eyeing Central Asia.

Please allow me to quote Wikipedia, which is not advisable and must be avoided in normal circumstances, to introduce you to a popular and readily available literature on 'The Great Game'.

"The Great Game or Tournament of Shadows (Russian: Турниры теней, Turniry Teney) in Russia, were terms for the strategic rivalry and conflict between the British Empire and the Russian Empire for supremacy in Central Asia."

Those who believe that recently concluded (2-3 Nov, 2011) Istanbul conference was a flop show must factor in the perceptions of those participants who returned back with a sense of triumph. It was most likely a no show for the US but for Pakistan it was a more than a thumping victory and a confidence booster for the future to come. Many participants returned back, well educated, with the chilling realities of power tussle going on between the big boys of 21st century. It was a curtain raiser event for those, European nations, who were (still) confused over 'The End Game in Afghanistan' or were lost in all this 'Global War on Terror' Hara-Kiri.
Istanbul Conference had set a stage for the regional stakeholders to seriously revisit their strategies and set realistic objectives for Bonn conference.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Istanbul Conference : Wats in it for me(WIIFM) ?

The Istanbul Conference slated for November 2, 2011 is all set to go down in history as an event extraordinaire. It promises to be a star studded event, like a worldwide premier of some long awaited blockbuster movie. In popular culture this event will mark the start of 'End Game in Afghanistan’. Though, there are many who take strong exception to this nomenclature of end game and rather insist on calling it as an 'Afghan Lead, Afghan Owned, Transition Process’. All the invitees are sceptical and are busy analysing the obvious question ,which is 'What’s in it for me'.

Either ways, this will be an exercise where a committee of nations sit down and take an oath of allegiance to the sole superpower which is desperate to force a settlement of her choice. If the hype and preparations are taken into account; it is very much clear from the outset that this conference means business and cannot be termed as yet another occasion of Media scrum.

Success and failure of this painstaking exercise will depend a lot on -1) the convincing power of the US and her allies to portray all rosy picture of the future settlement, 2) the continuation/discontinuation of rebellious and resistive attitude of Pakistan to carry on with the current proxy war and 3) the flexibility of the regional stakeholders to accommodate genuine concerns and not so modest wishes/demands of US and her NATO Allies.

The highlights of the Agenda Items are as following:

1. Economic Objectives - The prime objective of this conference is to try and sell a rosy dream of economic prosperity in the region via trade, commerce and an enhanced economic activity.US will be touting hard for the benefits of connectivity, transit and economic integration.

At the top of the agenda item will be the TAPI (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India) gas pipeline project. The idea of new silk road is for ornamentation, This may turn out to be a marketing prop coined by some enthusiastic PR agency working for some energy giant having a majority stake in the oil and gas fields of central Asia .Many in the region believe that realization of TAPI project is the sole reason behind the vigorous promotion of the new silk road phenomenon.
  • This project will set free the vast energy reserves land locked in central asia.US and Russia(via Gazprom) were eying for this window of opportunity for a very long time
  • The other benefit could be the transit fees charged by Afghanistan will act as steady source of income essential for the survival of Afghan state in its current form.
  • This project has the potential to transform energy hungry region by providing energy security for next 30 years and could help manage the power crisis through a much cleaner (than coal) alternative. 
  • Realization of this project will badly affect the chances of the rival IPI(Iran Pakistan India) project and immensely support the US efforts to isolate Iran. Iran is finding it increasingly difficult to earn the maximum benefit out of its vast energy resources. It will be up to Pakistan to choose both, any one or none of these options.
It is still to be seen as which all neighbours’ falls for this mirage of economic revolution through a pipeline project and if this will actually lead to the economic integration via a new silk road as it is played out to be. Cautious pragmatic approach and a modest expectation should be the rally points for all the dreamers and the dream seller.

2. Political Objectives - US will make sure that all the regional players and stakeholders moves one step ahead of making promises and pledge their commitment towards the so called peace and reconciliation efforts. This will be the first step to showcase that the 10 year long war has come to an end and what follows is the sharing of fruits of victory.
  • Shares of leverage and increased influence will be on sale for those interested parties who are willing to share the burden of capacity building of Afghan government and training of Afghan Forces. India seems to have taken the bait and the fallout will depend on their ability to objectivity analyse the extent of their engagement. India will be betting on her resolve to say no to any follow-up demands which my upset their strategy of limited engagement and drag them right in the middle of this war of divergent ideologies.
  • Mining contracts, large construction projects and other goodies will be on offer to those who are willing to share the burden of training and equipping afghan forces at 'their own risk'(For the likes of India, China and Turkey) . 
  • Iran will be more than happy to raise her voice through a public forum like this and claim a significant role in political settlement.
3. Strategic Objectives - A lot less emphasis will be given on this aspect as not much progress is expected unless Pakistan brings a fundamental change to her policy making and continue with her support to proxies in hope of a strategic depth in future settlement. They continue to choose being a security state rather than a welfare state. They are more interested in drawing maximum benefit out of their geostrategic location by being involved in a military conflict. So far the efforts and persuasion to make them realize the potential of economic prosperity if they use their geostrategic location for trade and commerce has not produced any meaningful results.

Hillary Clintons recent visit to Pakistan was focussed on consoling the Pakistanis after an all-out media assault which followed the explosive statements made by Admiral Mike Mullen. She must have tried to appease Pakistanis and tried to seek their commitment that they will behave themselves and will not be a spoil sport in this gathering which is primarily focused on the business and political aspect rather than any strategic breakthrough.

  • US have come to the realisation that all their efforts and teasers to bring Taliban and Haqqani network to the talking table are not working as anticipated by the Obama administration in their AF-Pak strategy. They tried, one on one, to persuade Pakistanis to bring Taliban to the talking table but that effort failed miserably. Then the Afghan route was tried but the treacherous killing of Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani closed that door too. Now a committee of nations (as observers) is being arranged to meet in Istanbul  for that same purpose.US wants to take a measure of Taliban’s strength/depth by asking Pakistan to show her cards in public . Bringing Taliban on talking table does not mean that they will be given a share in any future settlement.
  • All this exercise will be focussed on sniffing the Taliban and exposing Pakistan and her patronage to Taliban in front of the whole world. Istanbul and Bonn conferences are the platform where Pakistan will be asked to show what they have got.
  • Hence , a high degree of caution and firefighting from Pakistani side is expected and therefore US will not press them too hard on this one in the first meeting .US is hoping that Pakistan don’t get any opportunity to disrupt this conference and they don’t create any spectacular scene which will divert the attention and derail the whole process.
  • It will be interesting to see what Pakistani establishment have in their mind and how far they are willing to go against the wishes of the US. But it is also a proven fact that Pakistan has this immense urge of seeking attention, stealing the limelight and an irresistible desire to be the star of every show even if they are invited as guests.

Let us wait and see how this spectacle unfolds and what’s in store for all the stakeholders who are eagerly waiting for this event with their fingers crossed.
I will be back on 3rd of November with the reviews, inside stories and expert opinion from ground zero. Till then, chao from this In dweller and curious onlooker!!

Please leave your comments   !!