Archive for the ‘Geopolitics’ Category
Tbilisi, Georgia- I’ve just completed a mostly sleepless journey from Ezrurum, a dull, cold city in eastern Turkey, to the lush, rolling hills of temperate Tbilisi. At the border at 1am, I joined an already rolling bus from Trabzon and was seated next to a beautiful Armenian girl who was traveling from Istanbul to Yerevan with a few friends. I have been coming to this region since 1998 and for as long as I can remember, the border between Turkey and Armenia (whose endonym is acutally Hayastan) has been a frozen zone of Soviet-esque guard towers (on the Armenian side) since Turkey shunned its neighbor during the Karabagh war in 1993. This stunted diplomacy greatly benefitted Georgia (whose endonym is actually Sakartvelo) because Georgia acted as a trade go-between for Turks and Armenians for the last sixteen years. For products and people to reach Armenia from Turkey, they have had to transit Georgia. While Georgia itself was barely holding together much of this time with three separatist republics of its own to contend with, it acted as a sort of neutral transit corridor which helped keep the landlocked Armenian economy afloat. Armenia’s only other non-hostile border is that with a heavily sanctioned Iran. The Los Angeles-based Armenian diaspora help to keep their ethnic kin up and running while they maintained bullets battles with the Azeris and semantic and historical battles with the Turks over the events of the Great War and the dying days of the Ottoman (whose endonym is actually Osman-Ottoman is a corruption of the name Osman-the first Pasha) Empire. The ultimate geopolitical expression of this scenario was the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline connecting the Caspian off shore oil fields to the shores of the Mediterranean via Transcaucasia.
Both Armenia (and Iran for fairly obvious reasons) were out of the loop on the new post-Soviet energy economy. Much of Georgia’s importance for people like Senator John McCain was that Georgia was now crucial to US interests by accident of its geography. Georgia has nothing to offer in terms of resources itself particularly, but would grow to become a valued strategic client within Washington and the EU’s cooperate power structure. Mikhail Saakashvilli’s Rose Revolution with its promise of reforms and progress in a troubled democratic space was music to the West’s ears. But now as Ankara and Yerevan make a serious attempt to normalize relations, which would be a remarkable advent for peace in the region by itself, Georgia and Azerbaijan may be left out in the cold. Both nations stood by Turkey and the US, not to mention the BP-led oil consortium, and now the mood in the region may be shifting. Russia’s invasion of both sovereign Georgia and the movement of many more troops into Abkhazia and South Ossetia in August of 2008 has again altered the strategic calculus in this quintessential “Shatter Belt.” Turkey is caught somewhere in between the feigned solidarity of pan-Turkism and its ethnic-Caucasian domestic constituents.
Coming in from the Turkish border, I sat amongst Armenians who were having to take this preposterously long, politicized bus route. I said to the girl seated next to meet as we creaked toward the Georgian capital in the wee hours of the morning that perhaps very soon this bus ride would not be such a long one not realizing that the two bitter neighbors were hours away from signing a deal in Zurich to normalize ties. If both parliaments in Turkey and Armenia ratify the new diplomatic protocols, Georgia may wake up to find itself suddenly strategically devalued by its Western sponsors making it all the more vulnerable to its northern neighbor.
I was shocked back into geopolitics today (thank god!) with another cheery call from London. I appeared on the BBC World Service today in the wake of President Obama’s trip to Moscow to ink a new nuclear disarmament deal with Russian President (and some might say Putin puppet) Dmitry Medvedyev. I particularly love when I’m jarred out of sleep or some other do-nothing activity and forced to turn my brain on at warp speed. It seems the times I’m most often asked to appear are the odd moments when I have yet to scan the days news which forces me to put my foreign policy hat on with little or in today’s case, no, perparation. I was mortified when I listened to the podcast that I flubbed Putin’s name in place of poor old Boris Yeltsin. Oh well, I’ll have to be more en pointe next time around. Keep those calls coming Beeb producers! I thoroughly enjoy the challenge.
Here is the podcast. I come in at the very beginning. Forgive my mistake with the name flub. Oh the humanity! Who among us is without fault?
As Israeli tanks and soldiers pound their way through the Mediterranean’s most destitute outpost, let’s think about how we arrived at this point.
During the 2006 war between the Israeli state and Hezbollah, the Middle East raged with hell fire once again. Israel has been battling the Shia milita cum political party for decades most notably in the unsuccessful offensives of 1993 and 1996. The Israelis have tried to “dislodge” and “cleanse” the Party of God from southern Lebanon with both airstrikes and a failed twenty-two year military occupation. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have never been able to accomplish their goal of neutralizing their northern enemies much less quell internal and external Palestinian dissident factions. In July and August of 2006, the IDF and the Israeli Air Force (IAF), attempted to achieve the same goals with an unyielding strategy of occupation and collective punishment. However, there has been a drastic paradigm shift in the power dynamic of the Middle East, and Israel’s political and military leadership hasn’t altered policy or their grand designs accordingly. Today the IDF and IAF are reigning down terrifying technology on their southern Sunni enemies, Hamas in Gaza. In contrast, Iran’s clerics appear relatively comfortable and unfazed.
In the recent past Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has publicly stated a sort of “let’s not be more Catholic than the Pope” policy regarding Iran’s patronage of Palestinian resistance movements. Though the Iranian government has said that if the Palestinians come to a lasting accord with Israel regarding their future that Iran would be forced to accept such an outcome, the Iranian establishment is only too pleased when tensions between Israel and its Palestinian and Lebanese neighbors become physically acrimonious. When Sunni Arab Hamas acts out its agenda in a violent form, it doubles as a fitting proxy for Iran’s schizophrenic dreams of regional hegemony. In a clever dichotomy, Iran is both Persian and Shia (de facto anti-Arab/Sunni) on one hand while striving to appear broadly Islamic and anti-Western on the other. The Nasserite dinosaurs in Egypt and Syria appear pathetic in comparison. The Iranians, being enshrined as pariahs since the end of the Carter administration, are perhaps the only power in the region that feels no compunction whatsoever to acquiesce to any international status quo since the demise of Iraq and Afghanistan as fellow black sheep states following their respective Anglo-American overthrows. In short, Hamas is backed by a power with which the United States has essentially no leverage. With Israel, in the eyes of America’s critics, the U.S. does not posses enough leverage to reign in its undisciplined client. American diplomacy is faltering either way.
While fearing and antagonizing Iran, Western powers and Israel failed to recognize its ascendency in the region and in the context Asia as a whole. While the Op-Ed pages of major American newspapers are constantly touting the “Rise of India” and the “Rise of China”, they seem to missing a third and vital player: the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran. While more as an Asian regional power than a world power, it is likely due to our bias and consistently backfiring, think tank-inspired policy that leads Americans to readily ignore this almost passé sea change. Pundits often decry Iran as a power in persistent decline and as a volatile “petro-authoritarian” clerical fiefdom ready to implode at any moment in some unwieldy demographic time bomb. None of these things have happened. Iran has been consistently gaining strength and has only been encouraged by rudderless American leadership for the last eight years.
Just as the Chinese are asserting themselves in the Pacific theater by vastly increasing their naval capabilities and the Indians are opening up consulates in Afghanistan, the Iranians are firming up their doctrinaire military proxies in the Middle East and Central Asia. Foremost among Iran’s proxies are Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Hezbollah are part indigenous resistance movement and part creation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps. Hezbollah was formed in the early 1980’s to resist the military occupation of Lebanon by foreign forces; those consisted of an invading Israel from the south and American, French, Italian and British troops landing in the country under the guise of peacekeeping.
Today Hezbollah is an extraordinarily powerful political force in the Lebanese polity holding ministerial positions in the country’s cabinet and multiple seats in parliament. Hezbollah demonstrated its heightened state of popularity within Lebanon when the group’s leader Secretary General Seyyid Hassan Nasrallah held a vast rally in which several hundred thousand (perhaps half a million) supporters turned out in a nation of just 4 million. Nasrallah defiantly declared a “Divine Victory” over Israeli forces and claimed that his party’s strength had not only remained undiminished, but rather the opposite had happened. Hezbollah had increased in strength and even formed an alliance with former rival General Michel Aoun’s Maronite Chrisitian “Free Patriotic Movement”. In a bizarre alliance achievable perhaps nowhere else but the Byzantine corridors of Lebanese politics, a secular Christian General once allied to Iraqi Sunni President Saddam Hussein can form a partnership with an audacious Shi’ite leader allied to the Iranian clerical establishment in Qom.
Though much of neo-conservative doctrine is viewed as bankrupt, the world is still forced to sift through its ideological rubble. Their talk of a “Greater Middle East” (read: Greater Israel) lives in intellectual isolation from reality. Sheikh Nasrallah’s sheer defiance and emboldened stance are in large part the product of Iran’s strengthening hand across its sphere of influence which now stretches from the Mediterranean Sea (Gaza) to the China’s western frontier (Persian-speaking Tajikistan).
Since the last gasps of the Carter years, American policy has been to isolate Iran politically, economically and when possible, militarily, in retaliation for being tossed out along with the Shah in the turmoil of 1979 when embassy staff were humiliatingly taken hostage and paraded on the world stage. Four years later, the Cold Warriors in the Reagan administration were routed out of Lebanon after the Marine barracks and US embassy bombings in Beirut, both of which were later ascribed to Hezbollah (albeit inconclusively). Israeli foreign policy has coincided, at some points converged with, and at other points, overridden America’s stated policy of post-revolutionary Iran as a sworn enemy to be thwarted at every turn. Today however, the notion of exporting sweeping eschatological revolution is now largely seen as defunct, and the only glowering a long dead Ayatollah Khomeni does these days are from billboards in Tehran and faded posters in Beirut’s southern suburbs.
The American military inadvertently elevated Tehran greatly in its response to the Wahabbi-inspired Sunnist suicide attacks against the United States in the fall of 2001. American commanders struck out by demolishing the minimal infrastructure of the militantly anti-Shia Taleban government in Afghanistan. Well less than two years later, the US eviscerated the authoritarianism of a vehemently anti-Persian Ba’ath party in Baghdad. By smashing the vitriolic Sunni regimes on either side of the modern Iranian state, itself a truncated core of the millennia-old Persian empire, Iran could now vastly expand it’s influence among it’s destabilized neighbors across their broken borders.
American foreign policy had performed an awkward u-turn after being attacked not by oft loathed millenarian Shi’ites, but rather by radical young men who were the sons of several outwardly pro-American Sunni states. For decades, the United States was closely allied with regimes that were both majority and minority ruled by Sunni governments unsympathetic to the generally poor, pious Shia populace in their midst. Desperately trying to ignore Iran for years and trying to undermine Hezbollah while Lebanon festered in civil war and occupation were seen as appropriate measures of inaction that fit squarely into a long outdated Arabist, pro-Sunni paradigm.
In the post-9/11 environment, the US quietly proclaimed a transparent victory for human rights in Afghanistan in the name of the Hazara, an embattled pro-Iranian Turkic Shia minority in the nation’s center. Shortly after Americas’ perceived Afghan triumph, key players in Washington and London wasted no time courting at motley parade of long exiled Iraqi Shia dissidents who could be brought in from abroad and placed in power in a simplistic Pentagon plan in the coming aftermath of toppling the dreadful President Hussein. For a brief but crucial period, American and Iranian interests dovetailed rather neatly. Suddenly, Shi’ites, once thought as a bloc of anti-American firebrands in the broad Western political psyche, now seemed a reasonable alternative to some of these odious regimes. This scenario would suit both Iran and our own neoconservative demagogues quite well. The romance between the U.S. and Iran after 9/11 was short lived. It ended in a bitter break-up once American troops occupied Iraq. Iran insisted on muscling its way into Afghanistan and Iraq during periods of heightened vulnerability the way it had done previously in Palestine and Lebanon. Previously, the Iranians could inflict pain on America indirectly by antagonizing the Israelis whereas now they have been able to clandestinely battle the “Great Satan” itself.
The significance of those 34 days of destruction in the Levant in 2006 may have seemed inconsequential when compared to the ongoing fitna, or intra-Islamic sectarian warfare, in Iraq. But one should realize the “Iraq Effect” (my quotes) in the context of the Lebanon war and the ongoing violence in Gaza. Iran has not been isolated further by being flanked by US troops on both its’ eastern and western frontiers as Pentagon planners would have dreamed. It has been fortified by such actions. As Israel risks treasure and futility in Gaza repeating many of its failures in Lebanon, Iran will undoubtedly feel victorious by default no matter who the tactical victor. As well as the industrial rise of China and the intellectual rise of India, a third power has risen in Asia and it is the Lion of Persia. Unlike the latter, this has certainly not been to everyone’s liking.
I was sitting with my family in an Indian restaurant in Queens, New York at our annual pre-Thanksgiving dinner as my eye occasionally darted up to the screen overhead with images of Mumbai’s Taj Hotel smoldering on a Hindi-language satellite channel. I thought to myself “This has got to be a Lashkar operation” as the casualty numbers mounted. Then when a local ABC news crew began to interview the Indian family at the next table, I knew the militants had really awoken the somewhat slumbering global media in a way their last foray in India did not. In December of 2001, members of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and another Pakistani group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), jointly attacked the Indian Parliament in New Delhi. However, the world was largely focused on the war in Afghanistan and the ensuing Bonn conference at the time. Lashkar-e-Taiba is known and feared throughout South Asia as a brutal terrorist network composed primarily of Kashmiri irredentists and unreconstructed pan-Islamists. Their agenda has morphed over the last two decades since the group’s inception in the 1980’s with a focused agenda wresting the Indian administered portion of Kashmir from Indian forces to attacks on India’s political and financial institutions.
To explain how groups such as LeT and JeM operate openly in Pakistan is to try to understand Pakistan’s dysfunctional political discourse. I attended a rally earlier this year set up by several of the country’s “big tent” Islamist parties who opposed Musharraf’s rule for not being sufficiently strident toward India and the United States. After shooting photos at the all day affair, a Pakistani friend and I went over the images on my laptop later that evening. He began to comb over the photos tooth-and-nail to show me what I was not nuanced enough to realize earlier. Amid the crowds of demonstrators and on-lookers mixed members of some of Pakistan’s most feared militant outfits. Members of Jaish-e-Mohammed, like LeT, a supposedly banned formation, mingled around in their distinctive headdresses consisting of a very specifically embroidered prayer cap wrapped in a stylized turban. “How could it be” I asked my friend “that these terrorists are walking around central Lahore openly and in front of the press, even standing next to Punjab police officers?” This rally was not being held by a group of nameless malcontents either. Some of the most prominent members of the political establishment were speaking including cricket world champion-turned-pundit Imran Khan and the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, one of Pakistan’s oldest Islamic parties.
Traditional militancy in Pakistan is in fact a viable part of the political culture. Most of the militant groups operate not against the government but rather in the government’s interest of fomenting violence by proxy throughout the region. Militant groups that are genuinely against the government such as the once Marxist-leaning ethnic Balochi nationalists are painted by Islamabad to be pawns of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the Indian CIA. However, among opposition politicians operating nationally in Pakistan, there seem to be certain red lines which, when crossed by the central government, can be used to stir up rage against the leadership. Qazi Hussein Ahmad, the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami extolled his followers to never forgive the Musharraf regime for assassinating Nawab Akbar Bugti in the context of a military operation in 2006. Bugti, in life was anything but an Islamist in the fashion of Mr Hussein. Nawab Akbar Bugti was an ardent Baloch ethnic-nationalist. Essentially, Baloch dissidents want to secede and therefore partly dismantle the Pakistani state while Jamaat players seek to further consolidate Pakistan’s Islamization which they believe has not quite gone far enough. In comparison, there is virtually no synergy between the two groups. The province of Balochistan is a population poor, resource rich backwater long neglected for most of Pakistan’s independence. Walking down The Mall, Lahore’s trendy shopping street, there are signs advertising “Pay Your Sui Gas Bill Online”. The Sui natural gas field is in the Dera Bugti district of Balochistan and is precisely what the elderly Nawab Akbar Bugti was fighting over. Most of the gas produced in the Sui field is fed to Lahore and Karachi while Balochistan seethes largely devoid of infrastructure.
While the chanting of “Bugti, Bugti” by the mostly Punjabi (and entirely male) crowd was likely solely for propaganda purposes and obliviously ironic seeing as Nawab Akbar Bugti struggled much of his adult life against the Punjabi domination of Pakistan’s military and bureaucracy, the very fact that his name was being roused in Lahore demonstrates the fluidity of non state and terrorist alliances within such a fractured country. Jaish militants yelling “Bugti Zindaband” or “Long live Bugti” are actually voting against their interests since the Nawab’s narrow goals of Balochi liberation were diametrically opposed to their broader narrative of religious violence. Such are what passes for politics in Pakistan.
While Lashkar-e-Taiba’s primary aims are launching attacks across the Line of Control toward the Indian military in Jammu & Kashmir, their stated agenda has become much broader. Like Jaish-e-Mohammed, LeT has been partly co-opted into a wider global jihadist milieu. In the evolution of the ideological basis of Kashmiri separatism, these groups have stated their interest in attacking the architecture of the Indian state itself. Beyond that, they have resorted deploring Hinduism in the fashion of anti-Zionist Arab and Iranian groups decrying Judaism as an apostasy that stands in the way of their territorial aspirations. In the most unoriginal way they have equated India, whose destruction has become their raison d’etre, with Israel as part of an archipelago of anti-Muslim neo-colonial powers asserting themselves to destroy the global (although highly fissiparous) Islamic community.
LeT and JeM might sound almost like an exotic, murderous cults to those not familiar with Pakistan, but when I visited the southern city of Bahawalapur as a wandering college student less than a year before 9/11, Jaish-e-Mohammed was running their head office in the city, loud and proud with a corresponding set of charity offices and religious institutions all over Pakistan. Pakistan has border disputes with both Afghanistan and India and its militant groups can be used to irritate both and can easily provoke the Indian military to shift hundreds of thousands of soldiers with an inexpensive, coordinated suicide attack carried out by just a handful of cadres. For Pakistan, these armed formations with clerical justification are relatively easy to foster or deny depending on the current levels of Indo-Pakistani tension. The attack on Mumbai by a group like Lashkar can have one of two effects: India and Pakistan can move their forces along the border in a tired and expensive show of force as in 2002 or Pakistan and India’s respective civilian leadership can forge new ties in the name of counterterrorism and intergovernmental integration and work together, perhaps even with Kabul as a peripheral partner, to deescalate regional conflict. Let the international community encourage the latter.
Creating dramatic headlines on India’s west coast is an immense distraction from the reinvigorated interest in the war in eastern Afghanistan. It also helps to highlight the fact that the American strategy of dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan in isolation from Indo-Pakistani relations and their hot and cold war over Kashmir is a strategy that contains built-in obsolescence. Rather than the keep the Kashmir dispute simmering on the foreign policy back burner, it is in fact Palestine writ large.
I came to Indian-occupied Kashmir in the context of a larger trip around South Asia to document the fraying edges of the much-hyped Indian ascendancy that I’d been hearing about ad nauseam in the American media over that last few years. Kashmir status has been in political limbo since the day India and Pakistan parted ways in 1947. Its been in state of violent upheaval since a nationalist uprising began in 1989. Kashmir had been looming in my imagination since visiting the Pakistani side of the story as a wandering university student. It’s rare for Kashmir to make it in the headlines these days outside of talk about a peace deal between South Asia’s fratricidal nuclear rivals. To many, it has become a geopolitical afterthought.
After networking in Srinagar for a few days, I was befriended by a group of local photojournalists who let me into their lives for an all too brief two-week stay. In the heart of the city’s “new” district lay the press colony where every morning photographers gather to disseminate information on events related to the conflict, have a tea, or talk politics of the American-led “war on terror” with a random American in their midst. Aside from the 2005 earthquake, Kashmir has largely fallen into the abyss in the US in the shadow of the media’s obsessive Iraq coverage. But there is one international figure who hasn’t forgotten the plight of the Kashmiris. Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, described as al-Qaeda’s #2 man, still mentions the Himalayan conflict in his taped messages regularly airing on al-Jazeera. Kashmir was but one struggle as part of a broader theme in the Muslim world against occupation by non-Muslim powers like India in the worldview of pan-Islamic terrorists. I wanted to get a small window in the struggle that’s been burning in the Kashmir Valley for eighteen years.
My opportunity came knocking loudly one day on what became my routine stop by the press colony. There were going to be especially violent protests outside the main mosque in the Old City when Friday prayers let out into the streets. There had been exaggerated stories circulating in Srinagar that the Israeli government was preparing to demolish Jerusalem’s fabled al-Aqsa mosque in an attempt to devastate Islam’s presence in the holy city. What disturbed me was not that a bunch of stone throwing boys would be enraged by these stories but rather that many of the local journalists, who had never traveled out of their own region, also believed this to be the case. This put me on the spot ethically as I was the only non-local journalist with international experience. I tried, perhaps in vein, to spread the idea that what was being told in the mosques was not accurate and feared people could be killed as a result. It was as if what I was trying to convey was far too nuanced for a situation already in a state of hyper volatility. I was screaming at a wall.
But it was too late for any of that. I jumped in a rickshaw and throttled across town to the doorway of the massive Jamia Masjid in the old city’s Nowhatta neighborhood. I could feel the imam’s sermon pulsing with rage and tried to mentally prepare myself that trouble would break out at any moment. Indian police milled about at the entrance to the mosque grounds almost as if to invite trouble. A police commander approached a German journalist I had run into and politely asked the two of us to leave the area. It was “no longer safe for tourists”. The German scoffed while I questioned the legality of an Indian officer’s authority in this brutally disputed territory. Then stones, bricks and anything else that could be hurled began to reign down en masse onto the poorly equipped security forces. The police, whose line I was well advised to stay behind, fired teargas shells at a very heated crowd of teenage boys. When that didn’t have the desired effect, they began to lob shock grenades across the no-man’s land between the two groups. What could have been a protest was essentially an orchestrated riot. The security forces appeared at once fearful and cruelly childish. I ran up the street, darting from side to side hiding behind oil drums, lampposts and turbaned Sikh policemen. Rather than acting in concert by clearing and holding ground and being otherwise professional in any respect, the officers began to angrily throw debris back at the crowd. The basic tenets of crowd control were lost here. With most of them lacking proper protective equipment, they would make the occasional surge across the line getting just close enough to give the rioters a good scare. One side yelled slogans of “long live Pakistan” while the other just simply yelled and I was in the middle in every conceivable way. One of the local photographers named Tariq had taken a blow to his skull from a piece of red brick and has disappeared from my field of view.
I ran into an alleyway across from the mosque where I huddled with a group of cowering policeman. It appeared they had lost whatever ground they held and we could hear the youths closing in. Rocks began to ricochet into the alley. Our brief safe quarter was about to be breached and I gestured to the men in the shadows that they’d better confront the most aggressive or we would all be smashed. Each constable grabbed a rock and made a mad dash toward the opposite side. I ran behind them trying photograph and was hit by teargas that had been thrown back toward the police. I sprinted down another alley and into the courtyard of a home adjacent the mosque. A Kashmiri man came out from the doorway and turned on a spigot for me to wash my eyes. I graciously thanked him and took a moment to breathe. After about three hours of non-stop chaos, I decided I’d had enough.
When the smoke cleared, I encountered a young Kashmiri man named Hilal who had just returned from exile in Australia to lend his help to the nationalist resistance and to work in human rights. I asked Hilal how often this type of civil violence occurred in Srinagar. “Every week” he said. “But this week, especially bad”.