The New Cold War
WHEN the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, US President George H. W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker promised Moscow that Nato would not be moved closer to Russia’s new borders. That promise was broken some years later by the Bill Clinton administration when the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland were incorporated into Nato, followed soon after by Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, previously part of the Soviet Union itself.
George Kennan, the famous ‘X’ who anonymously penned the 1947 Foreign Affairs article that provided the blueprint for America’s successful containment of the Soviet Union, was quoted by Tom Friedman (New York Times, May 2, 1998), as saying: “I think it (Nato expansion) is the beginning of a new cold war. ...the Russians will gradually react ... it is a tragic mistake”.
The Russians did react, as Kennan predicted, after Vladimir Putin had consolidated power. When the attempt was made to bring Georgia into Nato, Moscow sliced off two statelets from Georgia. When the pro-Russian president of Ukraine was ousted in a ‘political coup’, Putin took over Crimea and supported the ethnic Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Although the US is no longer the global hegemon, it continues to behave as if it is.
Today, Russia is again a first-rate military power. Its actions in Georgia and Ukraine will not be reversed. Moscow’s forces robustly patrol its western land, air and sea frontiers. The forthcoming large military manoeuvres across Belarus will illustrate Nato’s vulnerability. Russia has also reasserted its political, military and diplomatic role in the world’s ‘hot spots’.
The cerebral president Barack Obama displayed surprising strategic naiveté by simultaneously provoking Russia and announcing his vaunted ‘pivot to Asia’ to contain a rising China.
Despite America’s formidable naval power in the Pacific and its alliances with Japan, India and Australia, the US will be unable to oblige China to relinquish any of the territories or islands it claims unless it resorts to a full-blown war. China’s growing military and economic power also implies that the US will be unable to build reliable alliances to encircle China or block its sea routes.
In the new Cold War, America is pitted against two great powers which, between them, are likely to control the Eurasian ‘heartland’ and thus, if Halford McKinder’s thesis is right, also ‘control the world’. The US, meanwhile, is mired in the self-created quagmires of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
Although Donald Trump is a geopolitical novice, realisation of his desire to normalise relations with Russia (whatever his personal motives) would have reduced America’s great power adversaries from two to one. The US Congress has scuttled this option by imposing the new sanctions against Russia.
Trump’s effort to secure China’s cooperation on North Korea was also sensible. The attempt proved infructuous because the US demand that China apply extreme pressure on Pyongyang to unilaterally give up its nuclear and missile capabilities was exorbitant and unrealistic. Trump’s tweeted rants against China after the latest North Korean missile tests, US weapons sales to Taiwan, and renewed ‘freedom of navigation’ forays in the South China Sea have soured the prospects of Sino-US cooperation.
The early years of the first Cold War, when the US and the Soviet Union sought to consolidate their respective spheres of influence and resorted to brinkmanship, were the most dangerous. It was only after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis that both awoke to the danger of a nuclear Armageddon and instituted measures to regulate their competition, including nuclear arms control. Thereafter, the Cold War was fought either in the shadowy world of espionage and sabotage or through proxies.
The second cold war is in an early and dangerous phase and will be difficult to ‘manage’.
First, unlike the first Cold War, it is a trilateral, not bilateral, power struggle. Crisis management will become even more complicated once other militarily significant states align themselves with or against the major powers. Indeed, as at the outbreak of the First World War, international peace and security could be disrupted by the actions of any one of several state and non-state actors.
Second, the US appears to be seriously overestimating its power. Although the US is no longer the global hegemon, it continues to behave as if it is. Coercion and force seem to be Washington’s preferred option to address almost every challenge it confronts. Unless such belligerence is moderated, a great power conflict could erupt in Eastern Europe or the South China Sea; and the US could end up in shooting wars with North Korea and Iran. Some have even advocated US counterterrorist intervention in Pakistan without calculating the consequences.
Third, the potential for catastrophe has been magnified because, unlike the 1950s, now there are not two but nine nuclear weapon states. A conventional conflict in Korea or South Asia could rapidly escalate to the nuclear level.
Fourth, today’s conflicts are mostly ‘hybrid’ wars, encompassing special operations, sabotage and cyber warfare. As Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine, Syria, Libya and Yemen have illustrated, it is easy to start such ‘complex’ wars but extremely difficult to prevent their escalation and expansion.
The most tragic consequence of the new cold war will be the erosion of the collective efforts required to address the emerging existential and global threats: poverty and hunger, climate change, nuclear war, mass migration, communicable diseases. Nor will it be possible to collectively exploit the vast opportunities for human progress and wellbeing that technology and innovation now promise.
In the article mentioned, George Kennan added that what bothered him was “how superficial and ill informed the whole US Senate debate was’ (on Nato expansion). The same can be said about recent debates in the US Congress on Russia, Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, Pakistan and a host of other issues.
The world’s destiny cannot be left to be determined by militarists, political pygmies, or partisan interests. It is imperative that political leaders who possess a global vision of a shared human future forge a new ‘Westphalian’ consensus to circumvent a second cold war, effectively prohibit the resort to force, control armaments and promote active international cooperation to address the common challenges that confront mankind.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.
Published in Dawn, August 6th, 2017
America’s new Afghan war
GIVEN US President Trump’s initial opposition to continuing the Afghan war, his new policy — to escalate the US military campaign in Afghanistan and blame Pakistan for the stalemate and threaten it with penalties — represents a serious political setback for Islamabad. After its anticipated angry response, Pakistan’s senior diplomats have rightly advocated a continued effort to engage the US and simultaneously develop a regional response to the new US policy.
Islamabad and other regional capitals no doubt realise that America is embarking on a ‘new’ war in Afghanistan, after its initial ‘war of revenge’ (2001-2004); ‘nation building’ ( 2005-2009) and Obama’s various combinations of a ‘fight, talk, pacify and withdraw’ policy. Trump’s new policy can be described as ‘stay and fight’.
The immediate US goal in Afghanistan is to prop up the pliant Kabul regime militarily and prevent its overthrow by the Afghan Taliban. The US generals, who are driving this policy, know that neither complete victory nor an acceptable political settlement is likely.
The US is no longer interested in a political settlement unless the Afghan Taliban accept America’s terms.
The strategic purpose of staying on indefinitely in Afghanistan is not to pacify it but to use it as a base for the promotion of America’s broader objectives in the region: one, to impose a ‘Pax Indo-Americana’ in South Asia, including by securing Pakistan’s acceptance of the status quo in Kashmir and severe restraints on Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence capability; two, to reverse Iran’s ascendancy in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq and neutralise its perceived threat to Israel; and, three, to limit the influence of China and Russia in Afghanistan and its neighbourhood and impede China’s ambitious One Belt, One Road initiative including the CPEC project.
The US is clearly no longer interested in a political settlement in Afghanistan unless the Afghan Taliban accepts America’s terms. Washington is not asking Pakistan to persuade the Afghan Taliban to agree to talks. It is demanding that Pakistan fight the Afghan Taliban itself and thus make it ‘easier’ for the US to prevent a Taliban victory and ‘stay on’ in Afghanistan.
The Americans know full well that almost all the Afghan Taliban fighters are in Afghanistan. Some may try at times to hide in border valleys and forests. Some Taliban leaders cross over to the large refugee camps and Afghan ‘neighbourhoods’ in and around Pakistani cities. Their periodic presence there has been used in the past by all parties, including the Americans, to facilitate inter-Afghan contacts and dialogue.
If Pakistan were to capture or kill the Afghan Taliban leadership, they are likely to forge an alliance with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and other militants who are attacking Pakistan. This will severely exacerbate Pakistan’s security challenges, including from the India- and Kabul-sponsored TTP and Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) militants.
Second, with the elimination of the Afghan Taliban leadership, negotiating an Afghan peace settlement will become virtually impossible. US generals may not mind a never-ending war; but the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan deserve a strategy that leads to peace, not perpetual war.
Third, eliminating the Afghan Taliban, whose political agenda is limited to Afghanistan, will strengthen the extra-territorial terrorist groups in Afghanistan: the militant Islamic State (IS) group (against whom the Afghan Taliban are fighting); Al Qaeda, with whom the Afghan Taliban have renounced past links; and Al Qaeda associates TTP, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (Etim) which are mainly threatening Afghanistan’s neighbours Pakistan, Russia, China and Central Asia. It is for these reasons that these neighbours have opened channels of contact with the Afghan Taliban.
Pakistan’s energetic new prime minister has offered intensified counterterrorism cooperation and joint border patrols to the US and Kabul. Pakistan’s ongoing programme to fence and closely monitor the border can be effective in preventing cross-border attacks. The US should convince Kabul to support it. Pakistan’s cooperation would encompass joint action against IS, Al Qaeda and their associates. Islamabad can undertake further steps to promote dialogue between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban. Naturally, Pakistan would expect reciprocal US and Afghan action against the TTP and BLA safe havens in Afghanistan.
Even if Pakistan were to accommodate the US on Afghanistan, it would not be satisfied. Its demands include calls for action against the pro-Kashmiri groups (Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad) and for acceptance of one-sided constraints on Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence capabilities.
Under US pressure, previous Pakistani governments agreed to put the LeT and JeM on the Security Council’s ‘terrorism’ list. Islamabad has outlawed them and seized their assets. The US and India want Pakistan to eliminate the iterations of these organisations and incarcerate their leaders. It would be unwise for Pakistan to accept the onus for putting its ‘house in order’ and enable India to subvert the legitimate Kashmiri struggle for self-determination and continue its brutal repression in occupied Kashmir.
Pakistan is also unlikely to entertain American demands to halt the development and deployment of short- and long-range nuclear-capable missiles, especially when the US is promoting Indian armament, not disarmament, and is known to have formulated plans to neutralise Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence capabilities in a crisis.
Consequently, the proffered engagement with the US is likely to prove infructuous. Pakistan should prepare itself to bear the ‘pain’ of the threatened US sanctions. It should draw its own ‘red lines’. Any sign of weakness will intensify, not ameliorate, US coercion.
The Pakistani foreign minister’s consultations with China, Turkey, Iran and Russia will hopefully yield a regional consensus that would be valuable in resisting America’s new and aggressive posture. Such a regional consensus could: one, accord highest priority to eliminating IS, Al Qaeda and ‘associated’ militants TTP, Jamaatul Ahrar, Etim, IMU; two, extend support for a negotiated settlement between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban; three, endorse Pakistan’s plan to fence and closely monitor the Pak-Afghan border; and, four, demand strict respect by all, including the US-Nato forces, for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Pakistan and other regional states.
Ultimately, as history attests, an external military solution cannot be imposed on the Afghans. Like others, the US will leave the ‘graveyard of empires’ in ignominy if it does not depart in dignity.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.
Published in Dawn, September 17th, 2017