Checkmate in the Great Game
On May 15th, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that an important expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) will be on the agenda at its upcoming summit in Astana in Kazakhstan on June 15th. If the expansion is approved, India and Pakistan will join China, Russia and the Central Asian republics as full SCO members, and Afghanistan will join Iran and Mongolia as a new SCO "observer".
The US media seem to have missed this news, but future historians will be unlikely to ignore it as an important turning point in the history of Afghanistan, the United States and the world. The original Shanghai Five (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan), who met in 1996 to sign a "Treaty on Deepening Trust in Border Regions", formed the SCO in 2001 with the addition of Uzbekistan and a commitment to greater cooperation in military and economic affairs.
In 2005, President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan hailed the historic nature of that year's SCO summit, the first time that the original members were joined by India, Pakistan and Iran. He noted that half the human race was now represented around the SCO negotiating table. The SCO combines some of the military aspects of an alliance like NATO with the economic benefits of a community like the European Union or UNASUR in South America. The emergence and growth of the SCO, both as a defensive military alliance and as an economic community, have been driven by the common need of all these countries to respond to U.S. aggression and military expansion as well as by their own region's economic rise. The United States also applied for "observer" status in the SCO in 2005, but its application was rejected.
The Afghans have decided to join the SCO despite long-standing opposition from Washington. Afghan Foreign Minister Rassoul spent four days meeting with Chinese officials in Beijing before Lavrov's announcement on May 15th. This is a significant move in the "great game" in Central Asia, and an indication of where the future lies for Afghanistan after the end of NATO occupation, whenever that occurs.
Retired Indian diplomat M K Bhadrakumar noted in Asia Times that, with this move, China and Russia have succeeded in turning U.S. policy in Central Asia on its head. American policy-makers had hoped to turn Afghanistan into a "hub" from which the US could dominate the strategic space and trade routes between Russia, China, Iran, India and Pakistan. Instead the Russians and Chinese are positioning Afghanistan as the future hub of an overland trade and pipeline network that will bypass the U.S. Navy's control of ocean trade routes and permit all the countries in the region to develop their relations with each other without American interference.
This heralds a new phase in the historical competition between the land-locked empires of Europe and Asia and the maritime European and American empires. Overland trade routes and continental alliances were always critical to Russia, China, Germany, Austria, Turkey and Persia, while Spain, Portugal, Holland, Britain, France and the United States have always based their quest for competitive advantage on naval power and the control of distant colonies or neo-colonies. The strategic weakness in the resurgence of China lies in its dependence on massive imports and exports carried over maritime trade routes. It is committed to providing no conceivable pretext for a naval clash with the United States, but this remains its most critical vulnerability.
China has been working hard to develop alternatives to maritime trade. It has built oil and gas pipelines from Russia and Kazakhstan and improved relations with India and other Asian neighbors - even as it expands its navy to protect its ocean trade routes and builds new port facilities in countries around the Indian Ocean - not least the largest port in the region at Hambantuta on the southern coast of Sri Lanka.
Bhadrakumar sees the expansion of the SCO as a move by China and Russia to build "a rival to NATO as a provider of security for the Central Asian states" and he cites a Russian news agency's description of "tight cooperation" between Russia and China extending to the Middle East and North Africa as well. In 2009, most of the world was prepared to give the Obama administration a year or two to make its intentions clear. The verdict is now in, and NATO's newest bombing campaign against Libya is final confirmation that the "change" ushered in by Obama is only one of tactics and public relations and a very far cry from a U.S. recommitment to peace or international law.
Obama's expansion of "special forces" operations to at least 75 countries and the more active role of NATO in global war-making have only raised the stakes for the whole world. All the current and new members of the SCO now see their best hope for the future in a position of unity and mutual support as they confront a wounded and dangerous military power that shows no sign of scaling back its global military presence or its aggressive and illegal doctrine of military force.
But the failure of the U.S. and NATO's occupation of Afghanistan is an opportunity as well as a problem for its neighbors. In Iraq, since the U.S. wound down the violence of its occupation, it is Iraq's neighbors who are selling Iraqi local governments, homeowners and businesses the goods they need to start rebuilding their country and their lives. The occupation provided a huge but short-lived bonanza for U.S. defense contractors, but the end-result is that nobody in Iraq wants to do business with American firms or buy American products. The bulk of Iraq's imports in 2009 were from Turkey, Iran, Syria, China and the European Union.
A similar pattern can be predicted in Afghanistan. China already operates large mines and safely trucks out iron and copper through the same mountain passes to Pakistan where NATO supply convoys are routinely attacked and burned. But the greatest economic and strategic value of Afghanistan to its neighbors lies not so much in its own resources and domestic economy as in its role as a hub for overland trade between all of them, notably for Iranian oil on its way to China and for Russian oil and gas headed for the ports of Pakistan. As they have done in the past, different ethnic groups in Afghanistan will trade with their natural allies in neighboring countries, Pashtuns with Pakistan, others with Iran and so on. A light-handed central government in Kabul will hopefully balance their interests and those of their foreign partners with a wisdom that earns respect and ensures stability. This is how Afghanistan has found peace in the past, and will surely do so again.
India's application for full membership in the SCO may surprise Americans even more than Afghanistan's decision to seek SCO observer status. For India, the relative benefits of a close relationship with the declining United States have diminished, as the advantages of friendship with China have increased. As India looks ahead, it has every reason to cast its lot more decisively with the SCO. The U.S. has made great efforts to woo India as an ally, exploiting its long-standing tensions with China and Pakistan, but whenever NATO finally packs its bags in Afghanistan, India cannot afford to be left out of the new regional order. So SCO membership has become essential, despite U.S. support for India's nuclear programs and recent negotiations for arms deals.
U.S. officials believed they were on track to win a contract for Boeing and Lockheed Martin to sell India 126 war-planes for $11 billion, but India decided to buy planes from Europe instead. Even as the United States has lost its technological edge in other areas, its arms trade has been an exception in an otherwise bleak picture for American manufacturing and a key component of U.S. foreign policy. Following the First Gulf War in 1991, the superiority of American weapons was hyped by the Pentagon and its partners in the Western media to produce a bonanza for U.S. weapons sales. American pilots were ordered to fly their planes straight from Kuwait to the Paris Air Show without even cleaning them, to show them off to potential customers in all their grime and glory. The post-Cold war period produced record sales for U.S. arms merchants. By 2008, U.S. arms sales accounted for 68% of global arms sales, leading analyst Frida Berrigan to conclude that the "global arms trade" was a misnomer for what had become an American monopoly on the tools of death and destruction.
But not long before he died in 2010, Chalmers Johnson explained in his book Dismantling the Empire that the corrupt U.S. military-industrial complex had squandered the technological edge in weapons production that it had inherited from the Cold War. Cost inflation, bureaucracy, complacency, corruption and cronyism now produce absurdly expensive weapons that are ill-suited to fighting real wars. The F-22 can fly higher and faster than the F-16 (launched in 1976) or the A-10 ($8 million each vs $350 million for the F-22), but it was designed for high altitude dog-fights with imaginary fighters that the Russians had the good sense to never even build, not for flying ground support in real wars. It is "too fast for a pilot to be able to spot tactical targets", and "too delicate and flammable to withstand ground fire." The even newer F-35 was designed to counter a Russian plane that was cancelled in 1991, three years before its own research and development even began.
The real "next generation" fighter-planes are the European Typhoons and Rafales that India chose to buy instead. They outperformed F-16s and F-18s in Indian tests and experts told Al Jazeera that the U.S. planes' technology was "ten years behind the European ones". Despite matching the military spending of the rest of the world combined, the United States makes nothing comparable. In his passionate call to dismantle the U.S. military-industrial complex, Johnson concluded, "...we are destined to go bankrupt in the name of national defense." The supreme irony is that all our money is not even buying effective weapons.
And for this, as Chalmers Johnson made clear, we are paying extraordinary "opportunity costs" - or most of us are. We live in the only industrialized country that denies medical care to millions of its people and the only country that controls an underprivileged minority population by imprisoning millions of its young males and employing millions of its otherwise unemployed rural population to guard them. When we think about Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, we don't judge them on the standard of living that they provided to their privileged middle classes but on the way they treated their enemies and their minorities. If we ever summon the objectivity to look at our own society the way we look at others, we find one that is much closer to Sheldon Wolin's "inverted totalitarianism" than to the self-serving euphemisms of our politicians and propaganda networks.
Pakistan's decision to ally itself with Russia and China is less surprising than India's. Pakistan's role in America's so-called "war on terror" has provided it with funds to build new nuclear weapons and to line the pockets of senior officials like "Mr. Ten Percent", President Zardari. But expanding the U.S. war in Afghanistan into Pakistan is seriously destabilizing the country and turning its people solidly against any present or future partnership with the United States. As I write this, Imran Khan, the widely respected former captain of Pakistan's national cricket team, is leading a sit-in of tens of thousands of people on a highway near Peshawar, blocking NATO military supply convoys to Afghanistan to protest U.S. drone attacks. Khan and his Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) party is probably the brightest hope for the political future of Pakistan, but he won't be a U.S. ally or puppet.
In the 20th century, the United States deftly picked up pieces of Britain's dying empire to stealthily build one of its own. People in ports all over the world have grown used to the sight of American flags and uniforms just as their grandparents got used to seeing British ones. The unanswered question of our time is what flags and uniforms their grandchildren will see. Let's hope the SCO can play a constructive role in a peaceful transition to a world where people will see only the flags and uniforms of their own countries - or none at all...
As Afghan Foreign Minister Rassouf returned from Beijing to meet Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Kabul, President Zardari of Pakistan headed off to meet Russian officials in Moscow. One thing we can be sure they all agreed on is that they want the United States out of Afghanistan, and the rub for the United States is that the SCO and its member states will be waiting in the wings to pick up the pieces whether we get out this year, next year or in ten years' time.
Nicolas J S Davies is the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.