Friday, January 18, 2008

Signs of Growing Power Struggle in Asia

There are more signs of a growing but still murky Euro-US power struggle centered on Asia (for the background to which see earlier post on Anglo-Saxon Empire). Items:
  • President Bush on a tour of the Middle East made nice with a series of Arab tyrants. In Saudi Arabia he brandished a ceremonial sword and walked hand-in-hand with the Crown Prince. The New York Times reported that in Egypt Bush "lavished praise on President Hosni Mubarak ... emphasizing the country's role in regional security while publicly avoiding mention of the government's actions in jailing or exiling opposition leaders and its severe restrictions on opposition political activities." Other stops on Bush's tour were in Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates.
  • President Sarkozy of France has just signed an agreement with the United Arab Emirates to establish a permanent French military base there. It will have about 500 air, naval and ground personnel. They will gather intelligence and provide "security," ostensibly against threats from Iran. In Saudi Arabia Sarkozy lauded the country for its strong religious foundation. In oddly uncharacteristic remarks for an icon of middle-age gallic libido and sophistication, Sarkozy spoke of God "who does not enslave man, but liberates him, God who is the rampart against unbridled pride and folly of men." He too left with a Saudi sword.
  • In Afghanistan, British politician Paddy Ashdown is set to take over as the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative AND political head of the multinational NATO operation in the country. (Although Afghan President Hamid Karzai has reservations on the appointment, it is expected to be announced shortly.) This is the first time the UN and NATO will field a joint head of mission. It is especially significant, coming on the heels of the expulsion from Afghanistan of a senior British political officer for having unauthorized negotiations with the Taliban.
  • Ashdown will have under him a newly appointed commander of the 40,000-strong NATO force in Afghanistan: General David McKiernan, currently commander of US forces in Europe. In 2003 McKiernan oversaw ground operations in Iraq when a US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.
  • The US, which has 14,000 of its troops serving under the NATO flag and another 12,000 separately, has been critical of the performance of the European troops in Afghanistan. Earlier this week US Defense Secretary Robert Gates drew the ire of the Dutch government by saying that its troops in the country were not trained for counter-insurgency operations. The NATO troops in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban are resurgent, are mainly Dutch and British.
In some ways the situation in Asia is reminiscent of the early days of colonialism, when various European Powers contended for influence by establishing bases and alliances with local regimes. It also harks back to the time towards the end of World War II when President Franklin Roosevelt began to pressure the Europeans to get out of Asia. In the two decades after that war European colonial rule in the region was effectively ended; the US became the dominant extra-regional Power, relying on the British to provide on-the-ground know-how and contacts. Pakistan's Directorate of Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), which the British established in 1947 during their management of the first "India-Pakistan war" over Kashmir, had a key role in that scenario. It helped organize the shock troops -- the Mujaheddin of Afghanistan -- to fight the continuing "Great Game" to contain Russian power; it helped manipulate the oil-rich Muslim world through the Organization of Islamic States; and it helped destabilize Non-Aligned India. In the process it parented the South Asian variant of "Islamic terrorism," and became the God-Father of the drug trade out of Afghanistan. The multi-billion proceeds of the drug trade made the ISI and the terrorist movementsit supported independent of all of Pakistan's governmental structures, setting the scene for the current scene of turmoil in the region.

The power struggle now shaping up marks the end of the era of Europe's unquestioned acceptance of US supremacy. With India, China and Russia as new power factors in Asia, with the ISI as a wild card, the Europeans are making a bid to reassert their independence. Buckle your seat-belts.

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