Friday, April 30, 2010

The Scorpion and the Fox

The Boob Tube

A few years ago, I gave up TV. I can’t remember why precisely; maybe I thought it would be good for my brain or perhaps I couldn’t afford to pay the cable bill. Whatever the reason, I know it was a very good thing to do. I was actually amazed at how much extra time and “cognitive surplus” I gained as a result. It seem I was able to do considerably more in the run of a ‘post TV’ day and I actually felt smarter somehow.

I can honestly say that I do not miss TV or cable programming for the most part, but occasionally I have an urge to watch the History, Discovery or Space channel. Lucky for me, I have access to a TV not far from my home when I need a fix, and last night I broke down and decided to watch a rerun of Star Trek Voyager (named after the starship which is central to the show).

Readers of my blog will see a pattern with my posts or emails. Namely that I always find an excuse to include a description of some movie or particular film scene I have recently watched, which I then use as a clever literary device to convey some important insight that occurred to me while watching it. This may seem a little predictable or dull to some, but my inner muse seems to come out of hibernation whenever I watch a decent show, and I rarely come up with any ideas outside of this method. This is probably a huge limitation as a writer, but since this is an obscure blog and I’m not a paid professional, I hope to get away with it.

At any rate, I enjoyed the Voyager episode and there was an interesting scene with some good lines between Captain Janeway and Commander Chakotay that inspired me.

Warning: those unfamiliar with Star Trek might want to skip ahead.

A Deal with the Devil

The Voyager crew was trying to find their way out of the Delta quadrant, which they have been trying to do since the first episode after they ended up a zillion light years away from earth due to some weird space phenomenon (if I remember correctly), and as they were traveling along, they came across Borg space. In order to continue the long journey home, they needed to cross thousands of solar systems occupied by the half machine - half humanoid type hybrids known as the Borg, who are quickly assimilating (into its collective mind) any species it comes across, including humans.

There motto is, “Resistance is Futile”.

As the crew scurries around to avoid the Borg, they quickly discover that another species, some organic based life form with skin impervious to phaser fire or tractor beams, referred to as 8472, is at war with the Borg and they are winning. The only problem is, this new species is not only more dangerous than the Borg, but they are intent on killing everything in their path as well.

Their motto goes something like, “The weak shall perish”.

Honestly, were do they come up with this stuff?

As you can guess, these galactic insects are real charmers and since they have the capability to destroy the Borg, they pose an even greater threat to Voyager. Somehow, the ships Doctor (an artificially intelligent emergency medical holographic program) finds a way to kill the insects on a microscopic level, and in a move that would make the political leaders of our day proud, Captain Janeway decides to make a deal with the devil by offering to give the Borg access to this lethal technology in exchange for safe passage out of Borg space.

Commander Chakotay, a former “Maquis” resistance fighter, is understandably reluctant about this collaboration, and a very impassioned debate ensues between the two characters. In his attempt to convince Janeway that she is making a big mistake in trusting the Borg, Chakotay shares with her a story he heard as a child.

The story goes like this,

A scorpion was wandering along the bank of the river, wondering how to get to the other side. Suddenly he saw a fox. He asked the fox to take him on his back across the river.

The fox said, “No. If I do that, you’ll sting me and I’ll drown.”

The scorpion assured him, “If I did that, we’d both drown.”

So the fox thought about it and finally agreed. So the scorpion climbed up on his back and the fox began to swim. But halfway across the river, the scorpion stung him.

As the poison filled his veins, the fox turned to the scorpion and said, “Why did you do that? Now you’ll drown too.”

“I couldn’t help it,” said the scorpion. “It’s my nature.”

Now, it’s probably a little scary that a starships first officer would be debating the fate of solar systems by reciting a fairy tale, but in this case I think he was on to something.

The allegory of that parable could apply to many contemporary issues and topics, but for me it speaks volumes about the importance of values and the role they play in deciding the fate of our own starship, the organic based vessel known as Earth, vis a vis the limited intellect of our global leaders and the human species in general.

A Question of Tactics

I recently had an interesting email exchange with an author who is highly regarded and respected by many, including myself. I don’t want to be accused of name dropping, so I won’t refer to his real name, so I’ll call him M for short.

M was an elite soldier turned explorer who stopped serving the military and is now fighting for Mother Earth. His advocacy has involved writing and speaking about issues related to our environment, among other activities, and he has championed the virtues of adopting a more sustainable lifestyle and attitude towards nature.

During our exchange, he emphasized the importance of values and insisted that people, as a whole, needed to abandon the current ones so prevalent in our global culture before any meaningful shift could take place in human affairs, the worst of which has introduced the industrial age and capitalism; the two chief architects of anthropogenic global warming and the ecological crisis threatening all life.

My response centered around a belief that people could not be forced to adopt values that may be alien to them without sufficient education, which in reality amounts to winning a propaganda war for world opinion, and that it was not realistic to think enough people could be recruited and convinced to create the critical mass needed to change the status quo within the short window of time humans have left before AGW and the ecological crisis reaches a “tipping point”, beyond which we lose the ability to stop the “positive feedback's” from accelerating the climate change/ecological disaster process beyond our control.

It seemed obvious to me that the biggest priority was to combine as many efforts as possible in order to stop AGW and the destruction of our ecosphere, regardless of the points of view or expressed values of the participants. We need all hands on deck for this fight, so demanding that everyone share the same values before any collective action or unity occurred seamed counterproductive, if not ultimately fatal.

In a pragmatic sense, I still feel that way, but I admit to being conflicted over the value question.

The Greed Creed

If I can invent a rather silly but instructive allegory from the Star Trek show, lets assume that the Voyager crew represents the Green movement. All they want to do is find their way back home and then save it. The Borg can represent the capitalist class, ready to assimilate all markets and enrich the shareholder collective, while species 8472 can be the Tea Party movement on steroids. Just for fun lets say they went viral and created a global epidemic of revisionist history right wingers who refuse to pay taxes or believe in human caused climate change.

Of the two choices of enemy, one being the status quo corporate elite with their huge stockpiles of transnational capital, and the other representing a global federation of angry musketeers with funny hats, I would probably stick with the devil I know, rather the one I don’t. That would save us from the Fourth Reich but what about the capitalist class? Can they be trusted to save us from Armageddon?

Is it really possible that our elite's can stop AGW from reaching another 2 degrees and preserve the environment, while at the same time maintain and profit from an economic system based on infinite growth and exploitation of a finite planet coupled with increasing extraction of nonrenewable resources, the wasteful consumption and burning of which is threatening to destroy the very life-support system they purport to be protecting?

And even if they did bow to public pressure and stopped CO2 emissions (and/or deployed Geo-engineering techniques) before the tipping point and retooled our resource based economic system to be “less” harmful to the environment, do we really want to continue living in a society who’s core values of Egotism, Selfishness and Greed remain in place?

Does a "green" Walmart really satisfy the soul and meet all of our social needs?

Corporations are legally compelled to maximize short term gain for the shareholders while externalizing the costs of doing business; the private corporate tyrannies have no mandate to enrich the stakeholders (that’s us) or to protect the integrity of our global commons. Even though these powerful folks and their families stand to lose like everyone else from the looming environmental catastrophe (immense wealth, fortress style enclaves and gated communities won’t save them from the inevitable) the system forbids them to act in any other way and after a lifetime of internalizing the capitalist doctrine, they are hardwired to act in accordance with the corporate creed, while ignoring abstract externalities like climate change, pollution, deforestation, species extinction, poverty, etc.

They can’t help it, being greedy and self-destructive is in their nature.

The system and the institutional values it advocates have become the scorpion to our fox. Maybe it’s better to part company with the scorpion now before taking the chance it will sting us later when we are halfway across the river of no return.

M insisted that we needed to abolish capitalism and it’s values or “we’re all dead meat”, irrespective of any other environmentally friendly action we may take.

Was he right? I just don’t know for sure, but the scary version of my opinion suggests Mother Nature will answer that question for us.

In that case, I hope resistance isn’t futile.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Imperialist Point of View

"This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR"

Three Points of View: The United States, Pakistan and India

April 28, 2010 | 0857 GMT

By Peter Zeihan

In recent weeks, STRATFOR has explored how the U.S. government has been seeing its interests in the Middle East and South Asia shift. When it comes down to it, the United States is interested in stability at the highest level — a sort of cold equilibrium among the region’s major players that prevents any one of them, or a coalition of them — from overpowering the others and projecting power outward.

One of al Qaeda’s goals when it attacked the United States in 2001 was bringing about exactly what the United States most wants to avoid. The group hoped to provoke Washington into blundering into the region, enraging populations living under what al Qaeda saw as Western puppet regimes to the extent that they would rise up and unite into a single, continent-spanning Islamic power. The United States so blundered, but the people did not so rise. A transcontinental Islamic caliphate simply was never realistic, no matter how bad the U.S. provocation.

Subsequent military campaigns have since gutted al Qaeda’s ability to plot extraregional attacks. Al Qaeda’s franchises remain dangerous, but the core group is not particularly threatening beyond its hideouts in the Afghan-Pakistani border region.

As for the region, nine years of war have left it much disrupted. When the United States launched its military at the region, there were three balances of power that kept the place stable (or at least self-contained) from the American point of view. All these balances are now faltering. We have already addressed the Iran-Iraq balance of power, which was completely destroyed following the American invasion in 2003. We will address the Israeli-Arab balance of power in the future. This week, we shall dive into the region’s third balance, one that closely borders what will soon be the single largest contingent of U.S. military forces overseas: the Indo-Pakistani balance of power.

Pakistan and the Evolution of U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan

U.S. strategy in Afghanistan has changed dramatically since 2001. The war began in the early morning hours — Pakistan time — after the Sept. 11 attacks. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called up then-Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to inform him that he would be assisting the United States against al Qaeda, and if necessary, the Taliban. The key word there is “inform.” The White House had already spoken with — and obtained buy-in from — the leaders of Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, Israel and, most notably, India. Musharraf was not given a choice in the matter. It was made clear that if he refused assistance, the Americans would consider Pakistan part of the problem rather than part of the solution — all with the blessings of the international community.

Islamabad was terrified — and with good reason; comply or refuse, the demise of Pakistan was an all-too-real potential outcome. The geography of Pakistan is extremely hostile. It is a desert country. What rain the country benefits from falls in the northern Indo-Pakistani border region, where the Himalayas wring moisture out of the monsoons. Those rains form the five rivers of the Greater Indus Valley, and irrigation works from those rivers turn dry areas green.

Accordingly, Pakistan is geographically and geopolitically doomed to perpetual struggle with poverty, instability and authoritarianism.

This is because irrigated agriculture is far more expensive and labor-intensive than rain-fed agriculture. Irrigation drains the Indus’ tributaries such that the river is not navigable above Hyderabad, near the coast — drastically raising transport costs and inhibiting economic development. Reasonably well-watered mountains in the northwest guarantee an ethnically distinct population in those regions (the Pashtun), a resilient people prone to resisting the political power of the Punjabis in the Indus Basin. This, combined with the overpowering Indian military, results in a country with remarkably few options for generating capital even as it has remarkably high capital demands.

Islamabad’s one means of acquiring breathing room has involved co-opting the Pashtun population living in the mountainous northwestern periphery of the country. Governments before Musharraf had used Islamism to forge a common identity for these people, which not only included them as part of the Pakistani state (and so reduced their likelihood of rebellion) but also employed many of them as tools of foreign and military policy.

Indeed, managing relationships with these disparate and peripheral ethnic populations allowed Pakistan to stabilize its own peripheral territory and to become the dominant outside power in Afghanistan as the Taliban (trained and equipped by Pakistan) took power after the Soviet withdrawal.

Thus, the Americans were ordering the Pakistanis on Sept. 12, 2001, to throw out the one strategy that allowed Pakistan to function. Pakistan complied not just out of fears of the Americans, but also out of fears of a potentially devastating U.S.-Indian alignment against Pakistan over the issue of Islamist terrorism in the wake of the Kashmiri militant attacks on the Indian parliament that almost led India and Pakistan to war in mid-2002. The Musharraf government hence complied, but only as much as it dared, given its own delicate position.

From the Pakistani point of view, things went downhill from there. Musharraf faced mounting opposition to his relationship with the Americans from the Pakistani public at large, from the army and intelligence staff who had forged relations with the militants and, of course, from the militants themselves. Pakistan’s halfhearted assistance to the Americans meant militants of all stripes — Afghan, Pakistani, Arab and others — were able to seek succor on the Pakistani side of the border, and then launch attacks against U.S. forces on the Afghan side of the border. The result was even more intense American political pressure on Pakistan to police its own militants and foreign militants seeking shelter there. Meanwhile, what assistance Pakistan did provide to the Americans led to the rise of a new batch of homegrown militants — the Pakistani Taliban — who sought to wreck the U.S.-Pakistani relationship by bringing down the government in Islamabad.

The Indian Perspective

The period between the Soviet collapse and the rise of the Taliban — the 1990s — saw India at a historical ebb in the power balance with Pakistan. The American reaction to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks changed all that. The U.S. military had eliminated Pakistan’s proxy government in Afghanistan, and ongoing American pressure was buckling the support structures that allowed Pakistan to function. So long as matters continued on this trajectory, New Delhi saw itself on track for a historically unprecedented dominance of the subcontinent.

But the American commitment to Afghanistan is not without its limits, and American pressure was not sustainable. At its heart, Afghanistan is a landlocked knot of arid mountains without the sort of sheltered, arable geography that is likely to give rise to a stable — much less economically viable — state. Any military reality that the Americans imposed would last only so long as U.S. forces remained in the country.

The alternative now being pursued is the current effort at Vietnamization of the conflict as a means of facilitating a full U.S. withdrawal. In order to keep the country from returning to the sort of anarchy that gave rise to al Qaeda, the United States needed a local power to oversee matters in Afghanistan. The only viable alternative — though the Americans had been berating it for years — was Pakistan.

If U.S. and Pakistan interests could be aligned, matters could fall into place rather quickly — and so they did once Islamabad realized the breadth and dangerous implications of its domestic insurgency. The five-year, $7.5 billion U.S. aid package to Pakistan approved in 2009 not only helped secure the arrangement, it likely reflects it. An unprecedented counterinsurgency and counterterrorism campaign conducted by the Pakistani military continues in the country’s tribal belt. While it has not focused on all the individuals and entities Washington might like, it has created real pressure on the Pakistani side of the border that has facilitated efforts on the Afghan side. For example, Islamabad has found a dramatic increase in American unmanned aerial vehicle strikes tolerable because at least some of those strikes are hitting Pakistani Taliban targets, as opposed to Afghan Taliban targets. The message is that certain rules cannot be broken without consequences.

Ultimately, with long experience bleeding the Soviets in Afghanistan, the United States was inherently wary of becoming involved in Afghanistan. In recent years, it has become all too clear how distant the prospect of a stable Afghanistan is. A tribal-ethnic balance of power overseen by Pakistan is another matter entirely, however. The great irony is that such a success could make the region look remarkably like it did on Sept. 10, 2001.

This would represent a reversal of India’s recent fortunes. In 10 years, India has gone from a historic low in the power balance with Pakistan to a historic high, watching U.S. support for Pakistan shift to pressure on Islamabad to do the kinds of things (if not the precise actions) India had long clamored for.

But now, U.S. and Pakistani interests not only appear aligned again, the two countries appear to be laying groundwork for the incorporation of elements of the Taliban into the Afghan state. The Indians are concerned that with American underwriting, the Pakistanis not only may be about to re-emerge as a major check on Indian ambitions, but in a form eerily familiar to the sort of state-militant partnership that so effectively limited Indian power in the past. They are right. The Indians also are concerned that Pakistani promises to the Americans about what sort of behavior militants in Afghanistan will be allowed to engage in will not sufficiently limit the militants’ activities — and in any event will do little to nothing to address the Kashmiri militant issue. Here, too, the Indians are probably right. The Americans want to leave — and if the price of departure is leaving behind an emboldened Pakistan supporting a militant structure that can target India, the Americans seem fine with making India pay that price.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Burdens of Empire

"This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR"

Baghdad Politics and the U.S.-Iranian Balance

April 20, 2010 | 0854 GMT

By George Friedman

The status of Iraq has always framed the strategic challenge of Iran. Until 2003, regional stability — such as it was — was based on the Iran-Iraq balance of power. The United States invaded Iraq on the assumption that it could quickly defeat and dismantle the Iraqi government and armed forces and replace them with a cohesive and effective pro-American government and armed forces, thereby restoring the balance of power. When that expectation proved faulty, the United States was forced into two missions. The first was stabilizing Iraq. The second was providing the force for countering Iran.

The United States and Iran both wanted to destroy Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, and they collaborated to some extent during the invasion. But from there, their goals diverged. The Iranians hoped to establish a Shiite regime in Baghdad that would be under Tehran’s influence. The United States wanted to establish a regime that would block the Iranians.

The U.S. Challenge in Iraq

In retrospect, U.S. strategy in Iraq was incoherent at base. On one hand, the American debaathification program drove the Sunni community into opposition and insurgency. Convinced that they faced catastrophe from the Americans on the one side and the pro-Iranian government forming in Baghdad on the other, the Iraqi Sunni Baathists united in resistance with foreign jihadists. At the same time the Americans were signaling hostility toward the Sunnis, they also moved to prevent the formation of a pro-Iranian government. This created a war between three factions (the Americans, the Shia and the Sunnis) that plunged Iraq into chaos, shattered the balance of power with Iran and made the United States the only counterweight to the Iranians.

All of this turned what was intended to be a short-term operation into an extended war from which the United States could not extract itself. The United States could not leave because it had created a situation in which the Iranian military was the most powerful force in the Persian Gulf region. Absent the United States, the Iranians would dominate Iraq. They would not actually have to invade (Iran’s military has a limited ability to project force far from its borders in any case) to extract massive political and economic concessions from both Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula.

An unchecked Iran, quite apart from its not-yet-extant nuclear capability, represents a profound strategic threat to the balance of power in the Persian Gulf. Assuming the nuclear issue was settled tomorrow either diplomatically or through attacks, the strategic problem would remain unchanged, as the central problem is conventional, not nuclear.

The United States is set to complete the withdrawal of its combat forces from Iraq this summer, leaving behind a residual force of about 50,000 support personnel. This drawdown is according to a plan former U.S. President George W. Bush laid down in 2008, and that U.S. President Barack Obama has sped up only by a few months. Therefore, this is not a political issue but one on which there has been consensus. The reason for the withdrawal is that U.S. forces are needed in Afghanistan. Even more important, the United States has no strategic reserve for its ground forces. It has fought a two-theater, multidivisional war for seven years. The Army is stretched to the limit, and should another crisis develop elsewhere in the world, the United States would lack the land power to respond decisively.

Avoiding this potential situation requires drawing down U.S. forces from Iraq. But simply abandoning the Persian Gulf to Iranian military and political power also represents a dangerous situation for the Americans. Therefore, the United States must balance two unacceptable realities.

The only hope the United States has of attaining this balance would be to achieve some semblance of its expectations of 2003. This would mean creating a cohesive Iraqi government with sufficient military and security capabilities to enforce its will internally and to deter an attack by an Iranian force. At the very least, the Iraqis would have to be able to hold off an Iranian attack long enough to allow the United States to rush forces back into Iraq and to suppress insurgent elements from all Iraqi communities, both Sunni and Shiite. If Iraq could do the former, the Iranians likely would refrain from an attack. Iranian rhetoric may be extreme, but the Iranians are risk-averse in their actions. If Iraq could do the latter, then they eliminate Iran’s preferred mode of operations, which is covert subversion through proxies.

The issue therefore boils down to how the United States answers this question: Can the Iraqis form a coherent government in Baghdad capable of making decisions and a force capable of achieving the goals laid out above? Both the government and the force have to exist; if either one is lacking, the other is meaningless. But alongside this question are others. Does Iraq have any strategic consensus whatsoever? If so, does it parallel American strategic interests? Assuming the Iraqis create a government and build a significant force, will they act as the Americans want them to?

State vs. Faction

The United States is a country that believes in training. It has devoted enormous efforts to building an Iraqi military and police force able to control Iraq. The Americans have tried to imbue Iraq’s security forces with “professionalism,” which in the U.S. context means a force fully capable of carrying out its mission and prepared to do so if its civilian masters issue the orders. As professionals, they are the technicians of warfare and policing.

But perhaps the fundamental question of any military force, one that comes before training, is loyalty. In some militaries, the primary loyalty is to oneself. In such militaries, one joins to make a living, steal what one can and simply survive. In other militaries, the primary loyalty is not to the state, but some faction of the country, be it religious, ethnic or geographical. No one is going to give his life defending a state to which he is indifferent or even hostile, no matter how carefully trained in handling his weapon or how well-lectured he is on the question of professional responsibility. Neither of these conditions allows for a successful military in the end. A man in it for himself is not going to go into harm’s way if he can help it. A man in the military to protect his clan is not going to die to protect those to whom he has no loyalty.

The U.S. Army has trained tens of thousands of Iraqis. And Americans are great trainers. But the problem isn’t training, it is loyalty. Professionalism doesn’t imbue anyone with self-sacrifice to something alien to him.

And this is the challenge the United States faces in the Iraqi government, which like most governments, consists of many factions with diverging interests. In viable states, however, fundamental values shared by the overwhelming majority lie beneath the competing interests, be they a myth of country or of the moral principles of a constitution. It is simply not apparent that Iraqi factions have a core understanding of what Iraq should be, however, nor is it clear whether they owe their primary loyalty to the state or to some faction of Iraq.

Saddam Hussein held the state together by a complex of benefits and terror. He became the center of Iraq, and in a sense became Iraq. Once he was destroyed, Iraq’s factions went to war with each other and with the United States, pursuing goals inimical to a united Iraq. Therefore Iraq’s reconstituted military and security forces, however intermixed or homogenized they may be, still owe their individual loyalties to their factions, which will call on them to serve their people, a subset of Iraq.

The United States plans to withdraw its combat forces by the summer. Leaving aside how well-protected the remaining 50,000 noncombat troops will be, the question persists on who will hold the country together. The Iranians certainly are not eager to see the Iraqi situation resolved in favor of a government that can block Iran’s ambitions. The Iranians have longstanding relations with any number of Iraqi Shiite groups, and even with some Kurdish and Sunni groups. Iran would have every reason to do what it can to destabilize Iraq above and beyond any indigenous destabilization of Iraq in order to help shape a government it can dominate. In our view, Tehran has the tools to do this effectively.

The American leadership is certainly aware of this. It may hope or even believe that a stable Iraqi government will emerge, and it will certainly not say anything publicly that would decrease confidence in the process. But at the same time, the American leadership must privately know that the probability of a cohesive Iraqi government commanding a capable and loyal security force is far from a slam dunk.

In Search of a Plan B

Therefore, logic tells us that the United States must have a Plan B. This could be a plan to halt withdrawals. The problem with that plan is that there is no assurance that in three months or a year the core divisions of Iraq could be solved. The United States could be left without forces for a strategic reserve without any guarantee that time would solve the problem. A strategy of delay calls for some clear idea of what delay would bring.

Or the United States could complete the withdrawal on the assumption that the Iranians would not dare attack Iraq directly while the residual U.S. force remained. The problem with this strategy is that it is built on an assumption. This assumption is not unreasonable, but it is still an assumption, not a certainty. Moreover, Iran could covertly destabilize Iraq, putting U.S. forces without sufficient combat capability in harm’s way from Iranian-supplied forces. Finally, Iran’s major audience consists of the oil powers of the Arabian Peninsula. Tehran wants to show the Gulf Arabs that the United States will withdraw from Iraq regardless of potential consequences to them, reducing their confidence in the United States and forcing them to contemplate an accommodation with Iran.

Halting the withdrawal therefore poses substantial challenges, and completing the withdrawal poses even more. This is particularly the case if the United States completes the withdrawal without reaching some accommodation with Iran. But negotiating with the Iranians from a position of weakness is not an attractive option. The Iranians’ price would be higher than the United States wants to pay. Therefore, the United States would have to make some show of power to the Iranians that will convince the Iranians that they are at risk. Bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities could fit the bill, but it has two drawbacks. First, the attacks might fail. Second, even if they succeeded, they would not have addressed the conventional problem.

Washington’s way forward depends upon what the American government believes the probabilities are at this point for a viable Iraqi government and security force able to suppress insurgencies, including those fomented by Iran. If the Americans believe a viable Iraqi government is a possibility, they should roll the dice and withdraw. But it is not clear from our point of view what Washington is seeing. If it believes the probability is low, the United States not only will have to halt the withdrawal, it will have to reverse it to convince the Iranians that the Americans are hypercommitted to Iraq. This might cause Tehran to recalculate, opening the door for discussion.

It is now April, meaning we are four months from the deadline for the completion of the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq. In the balance is not only Iraq, but also the Iranian situation. What happens next all comes down to whether the mass of parties in Baghdad share a common foundation on which to build a nation — and whether the police and military would be loyal enough to this government to die for it. If not, then the entire edifice of U.S. policy in the region — going back to the surge — is not merely at risk, but untenable. If it is untenable, then the United States must craft a new strategy in the region, redefining relationships radically — beginning with Iran.

As with many things in life, it is not a matter of what the United States might want, or what it might think to be fair. Power is like money — you either have it or you don’t. And if you don’t, you can’t afford to indulge your appetites. If things in Baghdad work themselves out, all of this is moot. If things don’t work out, the Obama administration will be forced to make its first truly difficult foreign policy decisions.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Kyrgyzstan and the Russian Resurgence

"This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR"

April 13, 2010 | 0854 GMT

By Lauren Goodrich

This past week saw another key success in Russia’s resurgence in former Soviet territory when pro-Russian forces took control of Kyrgyzstan.

The Kyrgyz revolution was quick and intense. Within 24 hours, protests that had been simmering for months spun into countrywide riots as the president fled and a replacement government took control. The manner in which every piece necessary to exchange one government for another fell into place in such a short period discredits arguments that this was a spontaneous uprising of the people in response to unsatisfactory economic conditions. Instead, this revolution appears prearranged.

A Prearranged Revolution

Opposition forces in Kyrgyzstan have long held protests, especially since the Tulip Revolution in 2005 that brought recently ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to power. But various opposition groupings never were capable of pulling off such a full revolution — until Russia became involved.

In the weeks before the revolution, select Kyrgyz opposition members visited Moscow to meet with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. STRATFOR sources in Kyrgyzstan reported the pervasive, noticeable presence of Russia’s Federal Security Service on the ground during the crisis, and Moscow readied 150 elite Russian paratroopers the day after the revolution to fly into Russian bases in Kyrgyzstan. As the dust began to settle, Russia endorsed the still-coalescing government.

There are quite a few reasons why Russia would target a country nearly 600 miles from its borders (and nearly 1,900 miles from capital to capital), though Kyrgyzstan itself is not much of a prize. The country has no economy or strategic resources to speak of and is highly dependent on all its neighbors for foodstuffs and energy. But it does have a valuable geographic location.

Central Asia largely comprises a massive steppe of more than a million square miles, making the region easy to invade.

The one major geographic feature other than the steppe are the Tien Shan mountains, a range that divides Central Asia from South Asia and China. Nestled within these mountains is the Fergana Valley, home to most of Central Asia’s population due to its arable land and the protection afforded by the mountains. The Fergana Valley is the core of Central Asia.

To prevent this core from consolidating into the power center of the region, the Soviets sliced up the Fergana Valley between three countries. Uzbekistan holds the valley floor, Tajikistan the entrance to the valley and Kyrgyzstan the highlands surrounding the valley. Kyrgyzstan lacks the economically valuable parts of the valley, but it does benefit from encircling it. Control of Kyrgyzstan equals control of the valley, and hence of Central Asia’s core.

Moreover, the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek is only 120 miles from Kazakhstan’s largest city (and historic and economic capital), Almaty. The Kyrgyz location in the Tien Shan also gives Kyrgyzstan the ability to monitor Chinese moves in the region. And its highlands also overlook China’s Tarim Basin, part of the contentious Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

Given its strategic location, control of Kyrgyzstan offers the ability to pressure Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China. Kyrgyzstan is thus a critical piece in Russia’s overall plan to resurge into its former Soviet sphere.

The Russian Resurgence

Russia’s resurgence is a function of its extreme geographic vulnerability. Russia lacks definable geographic barriers between it and other regional powers. The Russian core is the swath of land from Moscow down into the breadbasket of the Volga region. In medieval days, this area was known as Muscovy. It has no rivers, oceans or mountains demarcating its borders. Its only real domestic defenses are its inhospitable weather and dense forests. This led to a history of endless invasions, including depredations by everyone from Mongol hordes to Teutonic knights to the Nazis.

To counter this inherent indefensibility, Russia historically has adopted the principle of expansion. Russia thus has continually sought to expand far enough to anchor its power in a definable geographic barrier — like a mountain chain — or to expand far enough to create a buffer between itself and other regional powers. This objective of expansion has been the key to Russia’s national security and its ability to survive. Each Russian leader has understood this. Ivan the Terrible expanded southwest into the Ukrainian marshlands, Catherine the Great into the Central Asian steppe and the Tien Shan and the Soviet Union into much of Eastern and Central Europe.

Russia’s expansion has been in four strategic directions. The first is to the north and northeast to hold the protection offered by the Ural Mountains. This strategy is more of a “just-in-case” expansion. Thus, in the event Moscow should ever fall, Russia can take refuge in the Urals and prepare for a future resurgence. Stalin used this strategy in World War II when he relocated many of Russia’s industrial towns to Ural territory to protect them from the Nazi invasion.

The second is to the west toward the Carpathians and across the North European Plain. Holding the land up to the Carpathians — traditionally including Ukraine, Moldova and parts of Romania — creates an anchor in Europe with which to protect Russia from the southwest. Meanwhile, the North European Plain is the one of the most indefensible routes into Russia, offering Russia no buffer. Russia’s objective has been to penetrate as deep into the plain as possible, making the sheer distance needed to travel across it toward Russia a challenge for potential invaders.

The third direction is south to the Caucasus. This involves holding both the Greater and Lesser Caucasus mountain ranges, creating a tough geographic barrier between Russia and regional powers Turkey and Iran. It also means controlling Russia’s Muslim regions (like Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan), as well as Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The fourth is to the east and southeast into Siberia and Central Asia. The Tien Shan mountains are the only geographic barrier between the Russian core and Asia; the Central Asian steppe is, as its name implies, flat until it hits Kyrgyzstan’s mountains.

With the exception of the North European Plain, Russia’s expansion strategy focuses on the importance of mountains — the Carpathians, the Caucasus and Tien Shan — as geographic barriers. Holding the land up to these definable barriers is part of Russia’s greater strategy, without which Russia is vulnerable and weak.

The Russia of the Soviet era attained these goals. It held the lands up to these mountain barriers and controlled the North European Plain all the way to the West German border. But its hold on these anchors faltered with the fall of the Soviet Union. This collapse began when Moscow lost control over the fourteen other states of the Soviet Union. The Soviet disintegration did not guarantee, of course, that Russia would not re-emerge in another form. The West — and the United States in particular — thus saw the end of the Cold War as an opportunity to ensure that Russia would never re-emerge as the great Eurasian hegemon.

To do this, the United States began poaching among the states between Russia and its geographic barriers, taking them out of the Russian sphere in a process that ultimately would see Russian influence contained inside the borders of Russia proper. To this end, Washington sought to expand its influence in the countries surrounding Russia. This began with the expansion of the U.S. military club, NATO, into the Baltic states in 2004. This literally put the West on Russia’s doorstep (at their nearest point, the Baltics are less than 100 miles from St. Petersburg) on one of Russia’s weakest points on the North European Plain.

Washington next encouraged pro-American and pro-Western democratic movements in the former Soviet republics. These were the so-called “color revolutions,” which began in Georgia in 2003 and moved on to Ukraine in 2004 and Kyrgyzstan in 2005. This amputated Russia’s three mountain anchors.

The Orange Revolution in Ukraine proved a breaking point in U.S.-Russian relations, however. At that point, Moscow recognized that the United States was seeking to cripple Russia permanently. After Ukraine turned orange, Russia began to organize a response.

The Window of Opportunity

Russia received a golden opportunity to push back on U.S. influence in the former Soviet republics and redefine the region thanks to the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the crisis with Iran. Its focus on the Islamic world has left Washington with a limited ability to continue picking away at the former Soviet space or to counter any Russian responses to Western influence. Moscow knows Washington won’t stay fixated on the Islamic world for much longer, which is why Russia has accelerated its efforts to reverse Western influence in the former Soviet sphere and guarantee Russian national security.

In the past few years, Russia has worked to roll back Western influence in the former Soviet sphere country by country. Moscow has scored a number of major successes in 2010. In January, Moscow signed a customs union agreement to economically reintegrate Russia with Kazakhstan and Belarus. Also in January, a pro-Russian government was elected in Ukraine. And now, a pro-Russian government has taken power in Kyrgyzstan.

The last of these countries is an important milestone for Moscow, given that Russia does not even border Kyrgyzstan. This indicates Moscow must be secure in its control of territory from the Russian core across the Central Asian Steppe.

As it seeks to roll back Western influence, Russia has tested a handful of tools in each of the former Soviet republics. These have included political pressure, social instability, economic weight, energy connections, security services and direct military intervention. Thus far, the pressure brought on by its energy connections — as seen in Ukraine and Lithuania — has proved most useful. Russia has used the cutoffs of supplies to hurt the countries and garner a reaction from Europe against these states.

The use of direct military intervention — as seen in Georgia — also has proved successful, with Russia now holding a third of that country’s land. Political pressure in Belarus and Kazakhstan has pushed the countries into signing the aforementioned customs union. And now with Kyrgyzstan, Russia has proved willing to take a page from the U.S. playbook and spark a revolution along the lines of the pro-Western color revolutions. Russian strategy has been tailor-made for each country, taking into account their differences to put them into Moscow’s pocket — or at least make them more pragmatic toward Russia.

Thus far, Russia has nearly returned to its mountain anchors on each side, though it has yet to sew up the North European Plain. And this leaves a much stronger Russia for the United States to contend with when Washington does return its gaze to Eurasia.


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