Checkmate In The Great Game

The June 15-16 summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Astana, Kazakhstan completed the negotiations for a historic expansion. India and Pakistan are preparing to join China, Russia, and the Central Asian republics as full SCO members, while Afghanistan will join Iran and Mongolia as SCO “observers.” The U.S. media has largely ignored this news, but future historians will likely see it as an important turning point. The original Shanghai Five (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan) who met in 1996 to sign a Treaty on Deepening Trust in Border Regions, formed the SCO in 2001 with the addition of Uzbekistan and a commitment to greater cooperation in military and economic affairs.


In 2005, President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan hailed the historic nature of that year’s SCO summit, the first time that the original members were joined by India, Pakistan, and Iran. He noted that half the human race was now represented around the SCO negotiating table. SCO combines some of the military aspects of an alliance like NATO with the benefits of an economic community like the European Union or UNASUR in South America. But its public statements are careful to play down the military component. Xinhua’s report on this year’s summit expressed the contradiction with classic Chinese tact, “The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is not and will not develop into a military alliance. However, maintaining regional security has been one of its important missions.”


SCO held its first meeting of military chiefs in Shanghai in April. The addition of India and Pakistan raised the hopeful prospect of their military leaders sitting together at the next such meeting. The emergence and growth of the SCO, both as a “security” grouping and as an economic community, has been driven by the common need of all these countries to respond to U.S. aggression and military expansion, as well as by their own region’s economic rise. Without directly challenging the U.S. and NATO, SCO has the potential to make them irrelevant in much of the world, as retired Indian diplomat M. K. Bhadrakumar wrote in the Asia Times after the summit. The United States also applied for “observer” status in SCO in 2005, but its application was rejected.


The Afghans have decided to join the SCO, despite long-standing opposition from Washington. Afghan Foreign Minister Rassoul spent four days meeting with Chinese officials in Beijing before Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov announced the planned expansion on May 15. This is a significant move in the “great game” in Central Asia and an indication of where the future lies for Afghanistan after the end of NATO’s occupation, regardless of when that occurs.


As the summit opened on June 15, the Moscow Times published an op-ed by summit chair President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan that underlined the importance of Afghanistan to SCO: “We believe that the prosperity of Central Asia and the surrounding states can only be achieved through a strong, independent, and stable Afghanistan…. It is possible that the SCO will assume responsibility for many issues in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of coalition forces in 2014.”


M. K. Bhadrakumar noted that, with this move, China and Russia have succeeded in turning U.S. policy in Central Asia on its head. U.S. policymakers had hoped to turn Afghanistan into a “hub” from which the U.S. could dominate the strategic space and trade routes between Russia, China, Iran, India, and Pakistan. Instead, the Russians and Chinese are positioning Afghanistan as the future hub of an overland trade and pipeline network that will bypass the U.S. Navy’s control of ocean trade routes and permit all the countries in the region to develop their mutual relations without U.S. interference. This heralds a new phase in the historical competition between the land-locked empires of Eurasia and the maritime European and U.S. empires. Overland trade routes and continental alliances were always critical to Russia, China, Germany, Austria, Turkey, and Persia, while Spain, Portugal, Holland, Britain, France, and the United States based their quest for competitive advantage on naval power and the control of distant colonies or neo-colonies. The strategic weakness in the resurgence of China lies in its dependence on massive imports and exports carried over maritime trade routes. It is committed to providing no conceivable pretext for a naval clash with the United States, but this remains its most critical vulnerability.


China is working hard to develop alternatives to maritime trade and to expand its Navy. It has built oil and gas pipelines from Russia and Kazakhstan and new port facilities in countries around the Indian Ocean—including the largest port in the region at Hambantuta on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, which is a “dialogue partner” to SCO.


Bhadrakumar cites a Russian news agency’s description of “tight cooperation” between Russia and China extending to the Middle East and North Africa. In 2009, most of the world was prepared to give the Obama administration a year or two to make its intentions clear. The verdict is now in and NATO’s newest bombing campaign against Libya is final confirmation that the “change” ushered in by Obama is only one of tactics and public relations and a far cry from a U.S. recommitment to peace or international law.


Obama’s expansion of “special forces” operations to at least 75 countries and the more active role of NATO in global war-making has only raised the stakes for the whole world. All the current and new members of SCO now see their best hope for the future in a position of unity and mutual support as they confront a wounded and dangerous military power that shows no sign of scaling back its global military ambitions or its aggressive and illegal doctrine of military force.


The Astana summit issued a strong statement on U.S. efforts to surround Russia and China with anti-missile batteries, not least in Afghanistan. “The unilateral and unlimited build-up of missile defense by a single state or by a narrow group of states could damage strategic stability and international security,” the SCO statement declared. But the failure of the U.S. and NATO’s occupation of Afghanistan is an opportunity as well as a problem for its neighbors. In Iraq, since the U.S. wound down the violence of its occupation, it is Iraq’s neighbors who are selling Iraqi local governments, homeowners, and businesses the goods they need to start rebuilding their country and their lives. The occupation provided a huge but short-lived bonanza for U.S. defense contractors. The end result is that nobody in Iraq wants to do business with U.S. firms or buy U.S. products. The bulk of Iraq’s imports in 2009 were from Turkey, Iran, Syria, China, and the European Union.


A similar pattern can be predicted in Afghanistan. China already operates large mines and safely trucks out iron and copper through the same mountain passes to Pakistan where NATO supply convoys are routinely attacked and burned. But the greatest economic and strategic value of Afghanistan to its neighbors lies not so much in its own resources and domestic economy as in its future role as a hub for overland trade between all of them, notably for Iranian oil on its way to China and for Russian and Caspian oil and gas headed for Pakistan and India. As they have always done, different ethnic groups in Afghanistan will trade with their natural allies in neighboring countries, Pashtuns with Pakistan, Tajiks and Hazaras with Iran, and so on. A light-handed central government in Kabul will opefully balance their interests and those of their foreign partners with a wisdom that earns respect and ensures stability. This is how Afghanistan has found peace in the past and will surely do so again.


India’s application for full membership in the SCO may surprise Americans even more than Afghanistan’s decision to seek SCO observer status. But Foreign Minister Krishna told the summit that India shares SCO’s goal of a more “democratic international system,” which is consistent with its long-standing role as a leader of the non-aligned movement. The expansion of the SCO opens up favorable access to new sources of energy that India badly needs, giving it every reason to cast its lot more decisively with the SCO. The U.S. has tried to woo India, exploiting its long-standing tensions with China and Pakistan, but whenever NATO finally packs its bags in Afghanistan, India cannot afford to be left out of the new regional order. So SCO membership has become essential, despite U.S. support for India’s nuclear programs and recent negotiations for arms deals.


U.S. officials believed they were on track to win a contract for Boeing and Lockheed Martin to sell India 126 war planes for $11 billion, but India decided to buy planes from Europe instead. As the United States lost its leadership in other industries, its arms trade was an exception in a bleak picture for American manufacturing as well as a key component of U.S. foreign policy. Following the first Gulf War in 1991, the superiority of U.S. weapons was hyped by the Pentagon and its partners in the Western media, resulting in a bonanza for U.S. weapons sales. U.S. pilots were ordered to fly their planes straight from Kuwait to the Paris Air Show to show them off to potential customers in all their grime and glory. The post-Cold war period produced record sales for U.S. arms merchants. By 2008, American weapons accounted for 68 percent of global arms sales, leading analyst Frida Berrigan to conclude that the “global arms trade” was a misnomer for what had become a U.S. monopoly on the tools of death and destruction.


Now, the real “next generation” fighter planes are the European Typhoons and Rafales that India chose to buy instead. As Chalmers Johnson made clear, we are paying extraordinary “opportunity costs.” We live in the only industrialized country that denies medical care to millions of its people and the only country that controls an impoverished minority population by imprisoning millions of its young males and employing millions of its otherwise unemployed rural population to guard them.


Pakistan’s decision to ally itself with Russia and China is less of a surprise than India’s. Pakistan’s role in America’s so-called “war on terror” has provided it with funds to build nuclear weapons and to line the pockets of senior officials like “Mr. Ten Percent,” President Zardari. But expanding the U.S. war in Afghanistan into Pakistan has seriously destabilized an already unstable country and turned its people solidly against any present or future partnership with the United States. As I write this, Imran Khan, the widely respected former captain of Pakistan’s national cricket team, is leading a sit-in of tens of thousands of people on a highway near Peshawar, blocking NATO military supply convoys to Afghanistan to protest U.S. drone attacks.


In the 20th century, the United States deftly picked up pieces of Britain’s dying empire to stealthily build one of its own. People in ports all over the world have grown used to the sight of American flags and uniforms just as their grandparents got used to seeing British ones. The unanswered question of our time is what flags and uniforms their grandchildren will see. Let’s hope the SCO can play a constructive role in a peaceful transition to a world where people will see only the flags and uniforms of their own countries—or none at all.


President Karzai returned from the SCO summit in Asana to continue negotiations with the United States on the status of U.S. forces in his country. In a nationally televised speech, an increasingly independent Karzai condemned the NATO war in Libya and was blunter than ever about the unpopular NATO forces occupying his own country. “They are here for their own purposes, for their own goals, and they are using our soil for that,” he told his people. Karzai now plans to submit any Status of Forces Agreement with the U.S. to a loya jirga, a grand tribal council instead of to the Afghan Parliament as the U.S. was counting on, ensuring that any plan for a long-term U.S. military presence will be rejected. On the same day, Karzai welcomed Iran’s Defense Minister, Ahmad Vahidi, “to explore ways for the further expansion of ties between the two neighboring states.” Vahidi publicly told Karzai, “Ensuring regional stability will be possible only by the collective efforts of regional countries and the withdrawal of foreign forces.”


The members of SCO are united in wanting the United States out of Afghanistan. The rub for the United States is that the SCO and its members will be waiting in the wings to pick up the pieces whether we get out in 2011, in 2014, or in 2024. 



Nicolas J.S. Davies is the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.