Pakistan and Central Asia greet stark 2012 landscape minus U.S. strategic dominance

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Gregory Copley, Global Information System

By the start of 2012, the U.S. had seen a precipitous decline in its real strategic dominance of the Arabian Peninsula, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf, and in its ability to reach and influence Central Asia.

It had taken less than two decades for the U.S. to lose its preeminent position and influence in these regions, and, in the case of Central Asia, it was a position of dominance which it attained and lost within those two decades.

This was not only as a result of what has been termed U.S. “imperial over-reach” in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also as a result of a pivotal trigger event: the demonstrated inability of the U.S. to be able to back up the military mis-steps of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, when he attempted to seize the autonomous areas of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, which he undertook with clear U.S. encouragement.

Former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf speaks during an interview in Dubai, Jan. 8. The exiled former president Musharraf said he would return to Pakistan later this month to lead his recently formed party in campaigning for a parliamentary election, despite the possibility of his arrest and concern over his security. /Jumana El Heloue/Reuters

At that point, the U.S. also demonstrated — as far as the regional governments were concerned — that it could not support Turkey, Azerbaijan, and the Central Asian republics when they came under pressure from Russia.

As well, at that point, then, the success of U.S. endeavors in Iraq, and particularly Afghanistan, became critical in determining whether Washington could retain and expand its influence in Central Asia. What transpired was a chain of events which — as with the Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s — could be construed as “winning all the battles, but losing the war”. There are still those in the U.S. who argue that the U.S. did not “lose the wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the resulting strategic frame-work and the loss of U.S. and Western influence and interests tells a different story.

All of this determines how the global balance into the mid-21st Century will emerge, and particularly with regard to the cohesion of the Central Asian heartland: the creation of a more-or-less interrelated geopolitical and economic framework from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

So it was possible, with the melting away in meaningful terms of U.S. and Coalition forces from their deployments in Afghanistan by 2012, for Pakistan to be seen in a new light. Its history, its geopolitical con-text, and its social and economic frameworks retained their historical importance.
But the context of conflict which surrounded it for the preceding decade had evaporated, showing the sum of Pakistan’s problems and assets in a stark light. Unwritten in this ledger, however, was a new maturity in Pakistani society; something which had eluded the state since its independence in 1947. Indeed, this “maturity” was possibly imperceptible to even its inhabitants by early 2012, challenged as they were by urgent economic, natural, social, and political crises.

It was clear that the society would not, and could not, revert to the factionalized and dysfunctional architecture which had characterized Partition from British India in 1947, and the evolution of essentially Western-style attempts at externally-adjudicated “democracy”. By 2012, Pakistan had begun to take control of its own patterns of governance, largely because others — and particularly the United States of America — had lost their ability to enforce or coerce compliance with their own views as to what should constitute a Pakistani framework.

This was a transitional process fraught with danger, given that there were few elements in Pakistan which could actually be described as truly representing the entire nation, other than its military and security force, its Federal bureaucracy (which was largely invisible in much of the country), its Federal court structures, and its political system. Even the national language, Urdu, adopted in 1947, was — despite being a convenient lingua franca, just as English remains that in the country — not a truly unifying factor. It became associated with “immigrant” Pakistanis: those who had migrated into the territory of West Pakistan in 1947 from India. Urdu-speakers lacked, to some degree, the entrenched communal support bases of historically-entrenched Punjabi-speakers, Sindhi-speakers, Pashto-speakers, Baluch-speakers, and so on.

Building a “new Pakistan” as a nation-state with an overarching identity was, then, the major challenge facing the society by 2012, as the U.S. lost its leverage to coerce the various people to accept the U.S. (and Western) view of what a “democracy” should resemble. Indeed, while the breaking of the post-colonial era of feudalism in Pakistan helped rural Pakistanis to gain new mobility — including their ability to migrate to cities — it was the growth of urban power centers which saw the new sophistry of democracy and free speech. In that respect, Pakistan’s urban areas reflected cultural traits more akin to, say, New York than they did to, say, Waziristan.

Meanwhile, the decade of the U.S.-dominated war in Afghanistan, which so depended on Pakistan as the logistical and political basis and buttress, had broken the delicate and incomplete incubus of the state, which had, since 1947, been comprised of elements historically sustained as separate factions and factors. The Tribal Areas, self-contained for so long — within Pakistan and before that during the era of British India and even earlier — had been fractured, and tribal society had, in the first decade of the century, become a national factor.

Pakistan in early 2012 was a landscape of wreckage and new life. Only the Pakistan Armed Forces, including the military-dominated Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) organization, had a degree of reach and influence into all areas of the society. The political parties and the political structures, designed more for the approval of the international community than for their local roots, merely reflected urban or communal pressure groups.

The “international community”, spearheaded by the United States and the United Kingdom, had pushed strenuously for the last military government, under President Pervez Musharraf, to hand over power to an elected civilian government, but more than that, the “great powers” insisted that politicians from an earlier era be restored.

Pakistan had moved on, but the outside world’s view of Pakistan had not. As a result, under intense pressure, Pakistan attempted to move back to the status quo ante. In the process, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on Dec. 27, 2007, and the new civilian government which emerged did so under strained circumstances.

What has become apparent since that time is the great sense of relief that the military found in being able to step away from national governance, despite a sense of fear by some civilian politicians that the military sought to return to civil office. Despite the military’s reluctance to re-enter the political sphere — even in the face of a virtual disintegration of governance — the urban-based political parties fear that the ability of the military to move against them poses a threat.

As a result, by 2011, key politicians were working to destroy the leadership of the Pakistan Army, even though this would limit the ability of the Army to keep the nation together. The civilian Government, indeed, had done little to relieve the suffering of people caught in the massive flooding of 2010. Only the military was able to respond.

The situation in Pakistan began to resemble, more and more, the stand-off in Turkey between the civilian government and the General Staff. In Turkey, the civilian leadership — relying on U.S. and European Union support — had effectively undermined the cohesiveness of the Turkish General Staff, and had destroyed its ability to return to control of the Government. The price which Turkey began to pay, however, by 2012, was that the Turkish Armed Forces were unable to prosecute regional strategic objectives which the civilian government was articulating, and neither was it able to prosecute the war against the secessionist Kurdish forces of the PKK.

By mid-2012, Pakistan, and all those states who need it for access to Central Asia (including India), will be facing a stark landscape in which real decisions will need to be taken. And by that time, Iran will be able to be seen by Pakistan and the West in a more contextually-important light as well.

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