The US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations has recently released a report on the need for a policy in regards to Sri Lanka. The report, “Sri Lanka: Recharting US Strategy After the War,” indicates that the island nation is key to US strategic interests in the region.
“As Western countries became increasingly critical of the Sri Lankan Government’s handling of the war and human rights record, the Rajapaksa leadership cultivated ties with such countries as Burma, China, Iran, and Libya. The Chinese have invested billions of dollars in Sri Lanka through military loans, infrastructure loans, and port development, with none of the strings attached by Western nations. While the United States shares with the Indians and the Chinese a common interest in securing maritime trade routes through the Indian Ocean, the U.S. Government has invested relatively little in the economy or the security sector in Sri Lanka, instead focusing more on IDPs [Internally Displaced Persons] and civil society. As a result, Sri Lanka has grown politically and economically isolated from the West,” states the US Senate report.
The report’s writers make a case for a shift in US policy by emphasizing the geostrategic importance of the island: “Sri Lanka is located at the nexus of crucial maritime trading routes in the Indian Ocean connecting Europe and the Middle East to China and the rest of Asia.
“[…]A more multifaceted U.S. strategy would capitalize on the economic, trade, and security aspects of the relationship. This approach in turn could catalyze much-needed political reforms that will ultimately help secure longer term U.S. strategic interests in the Indian Ocean. U.S. strategy should also invest in Sinhalese parts of the country, instead of just focusing aid on the Tamil-dominated North and East.”
About 80 percent of China’s oil passes through the waterways near Sri Lanka, most of India’s imports of oil pass through the Indian Ocean, and “three-quarters of all Japan’s oil needs pass through [the Straight of Hormuz],” one of the chokepoints into the region’s open seas.
Robert D. Kaplan has written a noted article in the Foreign Affairs journal indicating that “India’s and China’s great-power aspirations, as well as their quests for energy security, have compelled the two countries ‘to redirect their gazes from land to the seas,’ according to James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, associate professors of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College. And the very fact that they are focusing on their sea power indicates how much more self-confident they feel on land. And so a map of the Indian Ocean exposes the contours of power politics in the twenty-first century.” Furthermore, “Already the world’s preeminent energy and trade interstate seaway, the Indian Ocean will matter even more in the future. One reason is that India and China, major trading partners locked in an uncomfortable embrace, are entering into a dynamic great-power rivalry in these waters—a competition that the United States, although now a declining hegemon, can keep in check by using its navy to act as a sea-based balancer.”
India continues to secure its naval presence by increasing its surveillance capability. A new listening post has reportedly begun to operate in Madagascar, linked with two other similar listening posts off of India’s west coast. The system will allow for surveillance of navies in large swaths of ocean from Africa’s east coast to India’s west coast. New Delhi considers the security of these lanes as vital to its economic health. Asia Times reports that “most of India’s trade is by sea,” and that, “nearly 89% of India’s oil imports arrive by sea.”
Another report released by the US, this one by Naval Intelligence, reviews Iran’s naval history and strategy: “Iran uses its naval forces for political ends such as naval diplomacy and strategic messaging. Most of all, Iranian naval forces are equipped to defend against perceived external threats. Public statements by Iranian leaders indicate that they would consider closing or controlling the Strait of Hormuz if provoked, thereby cutting off almost 30 percent of the world’s oil supply.” The document is titled ‘Iran’s Naval Forces‘.
The growing importance of the Asia-Pacific region: video talk by former head of the US Pacific Command
Retired admiral Timothy J. Keating, former head of the US Pacific Command (from 26 March 2007 to 19 October 2009) outlines the US alliance with Japan, the Republic of Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India, and the Philippines in maintaining its strategic interest in what he identifies as an increasingly important region to the US and to the world: the Asia-Pacific region. The US has over US$1 trillion of trade with the region annually, and the Asia-Pacific contains 15 of the 20 largest ports globally, 9 of which are in China. Admiral Keating also outlines the importance of US troops stationed in Japan (about 50,000), South Korea (about 28,000), and the Philippines (about 600 special operations forces).
The war in Afghanistan has become the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, sometimes termed the Afpak war by the US administration. This expansion into Pakistan reveals much about the nature of the war in the region, is a response to the origin story of the Taliban, and reflects the practice of the rights of the dominant international subjects to intervene throughout the world in the name of global order.
The current US administration, under president Barack Obama, has refocused its attention on Central and South Asia after its predecessor had shifted the greater part of its international policy resources to the war in Iraq. President Obama has increasingly articulated a US and NATO policy that has been a growing reality since the tail end of the US presidential election campaign: de-emphasis on Iraq and emphasis and resurgence of international political-military activity in and around Afghanistan.
In this regard, the US will in the short term be sending some 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and it will be sending a great number more civilian experts to train and handle Afghan bureaucrats and politicians.
Taliban Sans Frontiere
The Taliban’s presence is today strongest in southern Afghanistan and north western Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the North-West Frontier Province (read my article on the Taliban presence in FATA for more information). These areas constitute the majority of the Pashtun people’s territories. The Taliban has its roots in Pashtun culture. Almost all Taliban leaders are of Pashtun origin, and they are currently the primary power bloc within these highly tribal influenced people. In fact the Taliban’s rules and codes, as they enforce them in territories they effectively govern, are a synthesis of a particular Sunni school of religious conduct (originally from India’s Deobandi school) and the Pashtun tribal rules known as Pashtunwali.
To provide some background on past and future posts on Central Asia, I’ve included a demographic map of Central Asia below. Click on it to zoom in.
The Taliban, on Wednesday 13 August, killed 3 female aid workers plus their driver. Some of the women had dual citizenship and bore passports from Britain, Canada, the US, and Trinidad. Their driver was from Kabul.
The aid workers represented the International Rescue Committee. This is the second such attack the organization has suffered in a little over a year. The IRC has announced it is suspending its activities in Afghanistan, after 20 years of presence in the country. For an organization that had previously succeeded to work under the Taliban regime to withdraw is sign of the growing insecurity in the country. The attack took place close to the capital, Kabul, in a region considered relatively safe.
Western aid agencies in Afghanistan have increasingly restricted the scope of their projects, have been pulling out of the most dangerous areas in the south of the country, and are cutting staff. Agencies are reportedly considering limiting their activity in the area that the IRC workers were recently killed. That NGOs would consider pulling out of a region about only 100 km distance from the capital is proof of rampant chaos and insecurity.
The targeting of aid workers is a strategy that has benefited the Taliban.
As aid workers pull out of large regions of Afghanistan there is reduced open source intelligence in those regions, as the aid workers are not present to report on how people are fairing there or relay what may be the dimensions of insecurity and militant activity in the most dangerous parts of the country.
As more and more NGOs pull out or restrict their activity, and as western civilians are killed, it becomes more evident that violence has not reduced despite NATO and US attempts and claims otherwise. These sensational deaths underscore the growing strength of the Taliban, and ensures that this expansion is reported in international media, making it increasingly difficult for NATO/US and the Afghan government to claim success.
As less services and aid reach large regions of the country, it is not often the Taliban that bears the brunt of the blame in the local’s eyes. When people have decreasing access to to health care, water, and other core state services the West and the Afghan government is increasingly being seen as culpable.
Even though it is the Taliban that targets those who can deliver life saving services, local people often blame the presence of Western military in the region as a catalyst in a conflict that is increasingly threatening citizens’ daily lives. This war, after all, is only heating up and security is decreasing despite extended Western military presence. Meanwhile, the lack of infrastructure and social services undermines the legitimacy of the Afghan government. It becomes difficult to claim the right to be a national government when you cannot deliver national services. This undermines NATO/US efforts, as popular frustration and anger with Western military presence escalates and the Afghan government is seen as powerless.
So, while the conflict is in full heat, the less aid and social services reach people from the West or from the Afghan government, the better for the Taliban. Not surprising then that the Taliban would want to target aid workers.
The latest successful militant attacks in or near Kabul help underscore the weakness of both NATO and the Afghanistan’s government. Kabul, the capital, is supposed to be secure; it’s the symbol of government power and the heart of its influence. If the capital is insecure then the Afghan people cannot help but be aware that the Taliban is not a force to be trifled with, and that its opponents have been highly ineffective, are weak or are not really serious about getting things right.
The recent armed conflict between Russia and Geogia is a symptom and consequence of regional tensions, and of NATO-Russian maneuvering for influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Georgia claims South Ossetia and Abkhazia as its own though these two regions have effectively been independent for some time.
South Ossetia declared independence in the early 1990s, though this is not recognized internationally. Its people are ethnically distinct from Georgians, and speak a language derived from Persian. Today, the majority of its citizens bear Russian passports.
Abkhazia also declared its independence in the early 1990s, and, like South Ossetia, its independence is not internationally recognized.
Tensions between Georgia and Russia turned hot after Georgia responded to a cross-border artillery barrage by South Ossetia. Georgia’s response was out of proportion with South Ossetia’s goading, and out of proportion with its capacity to commit to military action that would result in a winning outcome. Georgia went on a full offensive, moving troops in and occupying South Ossitia’s capital, Tskhinvali.
Georgia’s president, Saakashvili, was emboldened by NATO assurances of common security interest, especially by US efforts to convince NATO to accept Georgia as a full member of the alliance, despite strong German and French resistance. Many average Georgian’s believed that the West would provide military support in case of Russian military response. This misleading environment encouraged reckless military escalation by Saakashvili, who appears to have greatly misjudged the situation.
It is possible that the US, and president Bush, will use the conflict to goad other NATO members to accept Georgia’s membership, further tightening the strategic noose around Russia. Former Soviet block nations Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Poland and Slovenia are already members, putting Russia on edge. “The people of these … nations were captives to an empire,” Bush said, adding they “endured bitter tyranny. They struggled for independence.”
The same conflict may push other NATO members, mainly Germany and France who are familiar to war with Russia and are wary of cold and hot wars in their backyard, to grow more resistant to the idea of Georgian membership since it would require all of NATO to respond militarily should Georgia enter into a future war.
Word is that Georgia’s military has seriously damaged, even razed, Tskhinvali during its short occupation. Russia claims that over 2,000 civilians were killed during this push, though this has not been independently verified.
Russia responded to the assault by mobilizing its own nearby forces. Infantry and armour moved into South Ossetia and soon Russia was in control of Tskhinvali. They followed through with the attack, pushing deep into Georgia, with air support.
Soon after, Abkhazia declared immediate combat action against Georgian forces. Georgia’s position in the Kodori Gorge came under attack. The Gorge is the only significant strategic point in Abkhazia still under Georgian control.
Within days of the conflict starting Russia occupied the key cities of Gori and Poti. The occupation of Gori cut Georgia in half. The only major east-west highway runs through Gori. Poti is by far the most important port. Poti seems to have suffered air assaults targeting its port facilities, and Russia has been accused of using its occupying forces to sink ships belonging to the coast guard. Simultaneously, Russia’s Black Sea fleet has blockaded the Georgian coast, cutting off all trade and supplies.
There is now a formal cease fire though both countries seem regularly to be breaking the agreement while jostling for better strategic positions.
Georgia currently provides the only alternative energy corridor siphoning Central Asian oil and gas to Europe. All other pipelines run through Russia at some point. Georgia has three small yet significant lines running through it: the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, the Baku-Tblisi-Erzerum (BTE) pipeline, and the Baku-Supsa pipeline.
The first two end in Turkey and run near to Gori. Russia has shown that it can rapidly and easily shut down these lines. This has the effect of making this route a lot less inviting to potential investors, especially after the infrastructure damage that Georgia seems to have suffered.
The BTC pipeline was already shut down, pending repairs, after Kurdish fighters in eastern Turkey attacked it. This latest conflict may have delayed repairs. Furthermore, the BTE line was shut down as a cautionary measure during this conflict.
The much older Baku-Supsa route feeds onto tankers in the Black Sea and is from there transported to Europe by sea. The Russian blockade has essentially halted this line as well. Furthermore, if true that Russia has been destroying port infrastructure in Georgia’s main port, Poti, then this line may be compromised and greatly reduced in capacity.
It remains to be seen how US, NATO, and Russian struggles for regional supremacy play out in this war. Georgia’s abysmal handling of the situation has further weakened its claims on South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Once the fever of patriotic solidarity dissipates from Georgia, president Saakashvili may well find himself in a tough spot keeping power. The gross error of invading South Ossetia and promising direct Western support to citizens could feed strong opposition to his remaining in office.
BOOK REVIEW : Asia’s awesome threesome – Rivals by Bill Emmott. Any friendship between China, India, and Japan is a facade, argues Bill Emmott in his new book on the inter-state rivalry and its consequences for the world. Asia’s “Big Three” are prone to suspicions and jealousies due to their highly competitive and strategic environment and this has led to a complex “new Asian drama”. Emmott’s yen for futurology yields interesting speculations but his premise of a is illogical and bypasses the impact of Russo-American tensions. (Sreeram Chaulia, Asia Times)
India’s perch ruffles China’s feathers. After 43 years, India has re-opened an airfield, the highest-altitude air base in the world, that overlooks China’s Xinjiang province and the Karakoram Highway to Pakistan. Delhi says the move is in response to Chinese incursions, and should be seen as a clear sign that it is fed up with being bullied on the Sino-Indian border. (Sudha Ramachandran, Asia Times)
Japan Seeks to Outbid China in Quest for African Support. Two reports follow on the vast, and vastly expensive, Tokyo International Conference on African Development designed to showcase Japan’s aid to Africa. The conference, held in Yokohama with the presence of 51 of 53 African nations, was attended by 40 Presidents of African nations. The first report by Ramesh Jaura concentrates on the proposed Japanese aid package, as Japan proposes to double both trade and investment in Africa within five years. The second report by the Yomiuri Shimbun’s Kawakami Osamu highlights the real stakes for Japan: the effort to outbid China whose burgeoning trade, investment and presence in Africa is a cause of Japanese, and the continued pursuit of the chimera of a Japanese UN security council seat. Neither report mentions either oil and energy or military strategic issues. (Ramesh Jaura and Kawakami Osamu, Japan Focus)
China’s Thirst for Oil. China’s need for energy is growing faster than any other country’s. Record economic growth results in demand that outstrips domestic supply, leading Beijing to look outward to ensure growth and stability. Concerns about the global oil market have led state firms to buy stakes around the world, often in countries shunned by Western firms. The investments are an important factor in Beijing’s foreign policy. They also drive concerns that China’s actions fuel or exacerbate conflict in the developing world and cause tensions with other major oil-importing countries as it locks up energy resources. (International Crisis Group)