Karzai's Great Game Gamble
Gawdat Bahgat and Bob Sharp
Peter Hopkirk’s famous book: “The Great Game,” building on Rudyard Kiplings Great Game concept in his novel “Kim”, charts the imperial wrestling match for power in Central Asia, the graveyard battlefield of Empires that is Afghanistan, and access to riches in India and the East. The players back then were England and Russia. If the struggle continues, as many say it does, do the players today seek the same gains as before or is there a new prize? What is the impact of Afghan President Karzai’s resistance in signing the Bi-Lateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US? What is Karzai’s Great Game Gamble?
Some agree with Lutz Kleveman’s thesis in his book: “The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia” within which he posits a view that the riches sought today are not so much about geographic control of the region as it was before, but today more about the power struggle of petroleum politics. For Lutz, the prize is still wealth but in this modern variant it is all about pipelines, tanker routes and contracts. England and Russia have been replaced as Great Game Players by super groups and the new Great Game is played out to dominate the resources of the wider Caspian region in what some call the Pentagon five seas region. On this battlefield, the US Group including the UK and NATO is pitched against the Eastern Group of Russia and China.
The US Indian Ocean rebalancing, or Pivot, is directly although not obviously linked to this new Great Game. It is well known that the US is striving to reduce its dependency on Middle East oil, currently about 20%. The so-called shale gas revolution has substantially improved the U.S. energy outlook. According to the latest projections by the International Energy Agency, the Energy Information Administration and the British Petroleum, among others, the United States will become an oil and gas exporter in the coming few years. Despite the projected increase in US oil self-reliance, Washington will necessarily wish to maintain a watchful eye on the Indian Ocean that was so aptly described as a global economic interstate by Robert Kaplan in his book “Monsoon.” As rising India and China draw ever-increasing amounts of oil from the Middle East, the Indian Ocean as a “tragedy of the global commons” presents a largely ungoverned maritime space the US can ill afford to ignore.
Instability glues the US into the Middle East, not oil. As the sole superpower, as the Pivot suggests, the US wants to rebalance to achieve oversight across the Indian Ocean region as China’s and India’s economies rise as they both pull ever increasing oil resources from the Middle East to feed their swelling populations. As the Atlantic is now relatively quiet, a shift, a pivot, a re-balance from the Middle East to the Indian Ocean region, makes sense and is indeed a necessity.
If the Pivot - therefore - is the maritime battle, the land battle is the new Great Game in Central Asia described earlier. The US wants influence in both battles to provide it with options for resources as it continues to reduce imports of Arab oil, and also to support global security, particularly Middle East stability. If the US allows Afghanistan to slip from its grasp, it opens the door in classic Great Game theory to other powers. The pivot to the Indian Ocean and the new Great Game in Central Asia are that closely related. The prize is thus enormous and arguably fundamental to retaining US sole superpower status.
The US has learned the lessons of the British and Russian occupation of Afghanistan. A BSA makes sense because it is a request from the Afghans and not a US-imposed solution. Recent discussion centers around the need for President Karzai to act quickly or the US will take their ball home and/or play with somebody else. President Karzai has likely done the regional power math and concluded that he can negotiate a stronger position by stalling with the BSA. He knows that the US will stay interested but he also knows that he runs the risk that a US exit means “one out, all out” as international partner support for Afghanistan will falter rapidly as the US departs. Also, as Secretary Hagel has stated recently, time is getting short as it takes many months to re-deploy an Army that has been in Afghanistan since 2001.
President Karzai seems to want to outsource the BSA decision either as an April 2014 election debate issue or until after Afghanistan has transitioned power, hopefully peacefully. In so doing, he will secure his legacy. As Ambassador Neuman has recently suggested, the US should invest in the country and not the man meaning the US should just wait. Although waiting is not included in the vocabulary of planners burning the midnight oil in the Pentagon, if we consider the wider ramifications of the new Great Game and Pivot to the Indian Ocean, we clearly have no better option than just to wait.