Friday, February 06, 2009

America: Riding Through Asia on that Hellbound Train

As America is preoccupied with the global economic crisis and the Obama transition, the State Department can worry that the world’s headlong transition to a post-Bush order has torn events from America’s control and we are unwilling passengers on a runaway train barreling through the Middle East and South Asia.

The security, diplomatic, and logistic infrastructure that supports the United States' adventure in Afghanistan appears to be crumbling, with Iran poised to compel a realignment of regional power away from America's traditional clients and proxies in the Middle East toward Iran as the price for allowing the Obama administration to extract itself from its deepening quagmire with a semblance of honor.

But first—badminton!

A moue of disappointment crossed the visage of the Obama administration’s foreign policy apparatus as the Iranian government declined to visa a U.S. team of badminton players, who had been invited (by Iran’s badminton federation) to compete in a tournament in Tehran marking the 30th anniversary of the Iranian revolution.

Acting State Department spokesman Robert Wood had this to say in his February 4 press briefing:

Apparently… the Iranian Consulate in Dubai did not provide – did not issue visas to the American team in time to participate in the tournament that I believe is scheduled February 5 through 8. The team is returning tonight. …My understanding from reports is that the U.S. Badminton Federation has been in touch with the Iranian Badminton Federation. And in fact, I think the Iranian Badminton Federation was – expressed their disappointment that the visas were not granted.

My understanding is that all of the paperwork and – was supplied in time. We had – they had everything that was required, but again, the visas were not issued. So this is a very unfortunate situation, and that’s where we are.

Meanwhile, the Iranian media also reported the rebuff, with the Iranian foreign ministry blaming technical issues for the non-issuance of the visas.

Via Fars:

The process for issuing visa for American nationals is a long-lasting one as that of the US for Iranian nationals and should go through certain stages, [Foreign Ministry spokesman] Qashqavi said.

The time needed for issuing visa did not make it possible for the team to take part in the international tournaments in Iran, the Iranian students news agency quoted him as saying.

Maybe some tit-for-tat here. AFP reported:

Ghashghavi [same guy; different spelling] recalled that members of an Iranian delegation did not receive US visa for the UN General Assembly in New York last year.

There are other ways to parse this issue, including divisions inside Iran’s leadership on how to respond to the Obama administration’s conciliatory overtures.

The Iranian government may also have wanted to send the message that it will unclench its fist of defiance only if the U.S. government, in addition to extending its open hand of friendship, also desists from kicking Iran in the behind with the steel-toed boot of sanctions, particularly on the matter of the Treasury Department’s continued efforts to blockade Iran and cut it off from the international banking system.

But the travails of the U.S. badminton team may be a harbinger of something bigger than jockeying for leverage between the world’s only superpower and a regional power interested in reaching an accommodation on the most favorable terms possible.

It may be an indication of Iran’s perception that the time may be ripe to for a fundamental realignment: to not only to compel the Washington to abandon its policy of confrontation with the Tehran, but also to gain legitimacy for Iran’s de facto position as a core regional power that is not a proxy or ally of the United States.

The Iranian government is in a very good position to demand concessions from the U.S. in return for granting the Great Satan’s badminton team the privilege of swatting the shuttlecock in Tehran.

It’s not just because of Iraq, where Iranian forbearance probably has a lot to do with the downswing of violence.

It has to do with the snowballing crisis in Afghanistan.

Perhaps one of the greatest foreign policy/military blunders in American history is now playing out in South Asia.

The United States’ strategic tunnel vision focused on Afghanistan, disregarded the need for an integrated approach to Pashtun militancy on both sides of the Durand Line, and ignored the political and military dangers inherent in displacing the Taliban from Kabul.

The U.S. adopted a policy of malign neglect towards Pakistan’s equivocal and incompetent efforts to suppress the flow of Taliban and al Qaeda elements into its western tribal areas until it was too late, and then actively sabotaged Pakistan’s increasingly desperate efforts to decouple from the Afghan battle and reach a separate accommodation with the militants. Instead, we pelted the tribal areas with drone-fired munitions and, using our diplomatic and financial leverage, pushed Pakistan’s army into ambitious counter-insurgency operations that it lacked the will and ability to execute.

As a result, much of Pakistan’s tribal belt and the North West Frontier Province have fallen under Taliban control. What’s more, the focus of the battle between NATO forces and the Taliban have shifted to western Pakistan—very favorable ground for the Taliban.

The Khyber Pass route—the key supply channel for the NATO force in Afghanistan, including 80% of its fuel—has been temporarily cut with the Taliban’s destruction of a key bridge. NATO trucks are torched as they sit in the NWFP’s capital, Peshawar, waiting to move into Afghanistan.

That’s not all.

The U.S. was almost completely blindsides as Kyrgyzstan—wooed by a promise of $330 million in aid, $2 billion in loans, and who knows what else from Moscow—announced that U.S. forces could no longer use the airbase at Manas.

AFP tells us:

The U.S. military base at Manas - used by coalition forces to support tens of thousands of troops in neighboring Afghanistan - is considered vital and U.S. reaction to the closure has been decidedly negative.

The Manas base, operated by about 1,000 troops including small French and Spanish contingents, was set up to support coalition forces fighting to oust the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

The closure of the base would strain U.S. supply lines at a time when U.S. President Barack Obama is preparing to nearly double the 36,000-strong force in the country.

So, the same week that the Khyber Pass is blocked, the major route for airlifted personnel into Afghanistan (15,000 troops per month, according to AP; considering there are only 53,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, that’s a lot of traffic) and also for 500 tpm of supplies goes pffft.

And the United States, all of a sudden, has to think seriously about expensive and roundabout rail arteries through central Asia—which means talking to our not very good friend, the brutal dictator of Uzbekistan who threw the U.S. out on its ear in 2005—and inviting the United Arab Emirates to host another large U.S. military facility, in this case an air base to support a war against the Arabs’ Sunni Pashtun Taliban brethren.

The U.S. also finds itself with very good and pressing reasons to make nice with Iran—which has a nice new port at Chabahar that links to landlocked Afghanistan’s eastern border crossing of Zaranj—and from there to Afghanistan’s national highway system via a road link that was built by India and ceremonially handed over to the Afghan government on January 22 of this year.

I have a feeling that Russia and Iran were exchanging high fives at what might turn out to be a brilliant coup—using the supply plight of NATO forces in Afghanistan as a hostage to force Washington to engage with Tehran.

The United States will get an opportunity to show Iran the sincerity of its desire for rapprochement at the Munich Security Conference.

Syed Saleem Shahzad writes in the Asia Times:

The annual Munich Security Conference, which brings together a dozen world leaders and about 50 top diplomats and defense officials, starts on Friday for the 45th time with one item paramount on its agenda: the United States-led world order, given the troubles in Afghanistan and Iraq and the ongoing impasse with Iran.

The US has sent a high-ranking delegation led by Vice President Joe Biden and the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrook. They are expected to seek informal dialogue with Iran, represented by Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and parliament speaker Ali Larijani.

This contact on the event's sidelines will likely focus on the Iranian role in Iraq and the need for Tehran's cooperation over Afghanistan, especially in allowing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO's) non-military supply lines to pass through the Iranian port of Chabahar on the way to Afghanistan.

In anticipation of its worst year in Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, it is possible that the Americans will abdicate much of their interest in Iraq in favor of the Iranians, and in return, Tehran will allow passage to NATO's non-military supplies through Chabahar port.

Direct U.S. dealmaking with Iran (in effect, giving a higher priority to America’s own strategic interests a la Walt-Mearsheimer at the expense of unequivocal support of Israel’s priorities and preferences) is Israel’s greatest fear, so any thawing of relations between Washington and Tehran will have to run the multiple gauntlets of opposition, resistance, provocation, and sabotage thrown down by the Israeli government (soon, apparently, to be run by the hard-right Benjamin Netanyahu) and its allies in the United States.

Not to mention Iranian intransigence and suspicion, a traditional American distaste for dealing with rivals instead of allies and clients—and the genuine perils of assisting the rise to regional preeminence of a power hostile to our main regional assets, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

So it may be a while before the shuttlecocks fly in Tehran.

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