Obama Presidency

Obama is Foolishly Overlooking China, Iran and Saudi Arabia

| by Parag Khanna

The new
Great Game on the Silk Road is already
underway. Has Team Obama gotten the memo yet?

The
diplomatic and military surge into South-Central Asia
that will define the Obama administration's early years has already begun.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and Centcom head Gen. David
Petraeus have become regular visitors to Islamabad
and Kabul. Vice
President Joe Biden recently came through for huddled conversations, and
veteran Balkan negotiator Richard Holbrooke has just embarked on his first trip
as special envoy to the region. Enough congressional delegations are passing
through that the Pakistani media jokes that there must a "two-for-one"
sale on Pakistan International Airlines.

But
perhaps people in Congress should be looking into ticket prices on China Air
and IranAir as well.

Despite
the flurry of American activity in the region, it's by no means clear
that Washington is any closer to understanding the dynamics in
South-Central Asia -- some that predate 9/11,
and many that are new. On my recent trip to the region, I saw the
incoherency
unfolding for myself. To fix its strategy and hence, Afghanistan, the
Obama
administration will have to go regional -- and, crucially, look beyond
the
usual suspects for help, even if they are not naturally inclined
allies.

We all
know that Pakistan
is a vital piece of the puzzle, but consider for a moment the consequences of a
strategy that lacks a regional element. If the additional 30,000 U.S. troops being deployed in southern and
eastern Afghanistan succeed
at pushing Taliban fighters intro retreat over the border into Pakistan, they could massively destabilize that
country's already volatile Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), which is itself
almost as populous as Iraq.
U.S.
troops would be squeezing a balloon on one end only to inflate it on the other.

On the Pakistan side,
newly armed (with Chinese AK-47s) tribal lashkars (militias) would be unable to
cope with the Taliban influx. Meanwhile, fewer armored carrots from a
pro-democracy Obama administration have diminished the Pakistani military's
willingness to support American priorities, evidenced by a sudden increase in attacks
on NATO convoys in Peshawar and the Khyber Pass.
Centcom is scrambling for new logistics routes through Russia, Uzbekistan,
and Kyrgyzstan.
As was the case under the Musharraf regime, the Army is more interested in
American planes than policies.

But China, Saudi
Arabia, and Iran
are also becoming increasingly important -- not as neighbors of the chaos, like
Pakistan,
but meddlers in it. The United States is already failing to grasp not only the
details of other powers' maneuverings in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but the
extent to which these dealings could eclipse even the most brilliant U.S.
shuttle diplomacy by Holbrooke.

China's
long-term
strategy is clear: It has become the largest investor in Afghanistan,
developing highways to connect Iran and the giant Aynak copper mine
south of Kabul. The Chinese have
likewise financed the deep-water port at Gwadar on Pakistan's
Arabian Sea coast. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is widely
thought to be funnelling unquantified sums to Wahabbi mosques and the
Taliban,
and the country's leadership is brokering the latter's negotiations
with the
Karzai regime. For its part, Iran
is building electricity plants to meet Pakistan's growing shortfall.
More
importantly, the country is renewing efforts to construct an
Iran-Pakistan-India
(IPI) gas pipeline, which both Pakistan
and India
badly need. Power outages in Pakistan
today are on the rise, and they no longer even follow the predictable
hourly
rhythm of the past.

Yes,
cooperation will have its price. The Obama administration may face greater
pressure from both Pakistan
and India to lift U.S. opposition
to the IPI pipeline, to start. So too might the U.S. need to appeal to Iran to
allow access to Afghanistan through the Iranian port of Chabahar and the
Indian-built Zaranj-Delaram highway in western Afghanistan that connects the
country's ring road to Kandahar and Kabul. (Some NATO allies are already
rumored to be in dialogue with Iran
about this option for access.) Building roads and controlling their usage has
for centuries been the foundation of spreading Silk Road
influence, as well as the key to success in the 19th-century Great Game.
Today's struggle for control follows similar rules.

Clearly,
the United States
cannot resolve the "Af-Pak" problem alone. One way to align Afghanistan's
and Pakistan's regional partners would be to follow a regional security model,
much like those already adopted in Europe, East Asia, South America and even
Africa. Such a self-sustaining mechanism in South-Central
Asia must begin with a joint Afghan-Pak force empowered to conduct
operations on both sides of the border, as recently proposed by Afghan Defense
Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak. At the same time, the United States will have to accept
Afghan and Pakistani negotiations with Taliban commanders. If ever these groups
were glorified fringe phenomena of the frontier, today they are rooted in a
deep Punjabi and Pashtun social base that cannot be eradicated anytime soon.

To clear
and hold will require a Pakistani version of the Provincial Reconstruction
Teams (PRTs) that have been deployed to some effect in Afghanistan.
Rather than spending the civilian portion of the $1.5 billion in promised
annual assistance (as foreseen in the Pakistan Enhanced Partnership Act) on
USAID's usual roster of "beltway bandits," Pakistani-led PRTs should
be provided with the cash and supplies to hire thousands of local Pashtun to
build roads, hospitals, and schools, and install power generators. NWFP
policemen, who earn two-thirds their Punjabi counterparts (despite working in
the most dangerous circumstances in the world), should get more pay. This
process can begin from the Khyber Agency outside Peshawar and spread north and west towards
the Afghan border, turning unsettled lawless areas into settled integrated
ones. Rather than spreading weapons in an area already armed to the teeth, PRTs
can run gun-for-work programs.

Here
again, a strategy that reflects the region's changing dynamics is paramount.
The original PRTs in Afghanistan need a sizable boost, and this should come in
the form of Arab, Turkish and especially Chinese participation, under the
auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional security
mechanism that may well soon expand to include Iran, and later, Afghanistan and
Pakistan. Not only would this participation unlock thousands more
stabilization- and reconstruction-oriented soldiers and civilians, but it would
bind NATO's chief rivals for influence in the region into a common project.
These are just some of the tradeoffs necessary to encourage a thaw with Iran, monitor China,
stabilize Afghanistan,
encourage political reform in Pakistan,
and placate insecure India.
If the U.S. cannot negotiate
a modus vivendi among the nations and rivals of South-Central Asia, then
perhaps China
will.

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Parag Khanna is senior
research fellow in the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation
and author of The Second World: How Emerging Powers are Redefining Global
Competition in the Twenty-First Century (New
York: Random House, 2008).

http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=4664

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