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August 24, 2008

A Really Bad Couple of Weeks for Pax Americana

by Jim Lobe

Whatever hopes the George W. Bush administration may have had for using its post-9/11 "war on terror'' to impose a new Pax Americana on Eurasia, and particularly in the unruly areas between the Caucasus and the Khyber Pass, appear to have gone up in flames – in some cases, literally – over the past two weeks.

Not only has Russia reasserted its influence in the most emphatic way possible by invading and occupying substantial parts of Georgia after Washington's favorite Caucasian, President Mikhail Saakashvili, launched an ill-fated offensive against secessionist South Ossetians.

But bloody attacks in Afghanistan, and Pakistan, about 620 miles to the east also underlined the seriousness of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban insurgencies in both countries and the threats they pose to their increasingly beleaguered and befuddled U.S.-backed governments.

And while U.S. negotiators appear to have made progress in hammering out details of a bilateral military agreement that will permit U.S. combat forces to remain in Iraq at least for another year and a half, signs that the Shi'a-dominated government of President Nouri al-Maliki may be preparing to move forcefully against the U.S.-backed, predominantly Sunni ''Awakening'' movement has raised the specter of renewed sectarian civil war.

Meanwhile, any hope of concluding a framework for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority by the time Bush leaves office less than five months from now appears to have vanished, while efforts at mobilizing greater international diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran to freeze its uranium enrichment program – the administration's top priority before the Georgia crisis – have stalled indefinitely, overwhelmed by the tidal wave of bad news from its neighborhood.

''The list of foreign policy failures this week is breathtaking,'' noted a statement released Friday by the National Security Network (NSN), a mainstream group of former high-ranking officials critical of the Bush administration's more-aggressive policies. And a prominent New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman, argued that the Russian move on Georgia, in particular, signaled ''the end of the Pax Americana – the era in which the United States more or less maintained a monopoly on the use of military force.''

Indeed, Russia's intervention in what it used to call its ''near abroad'' was clearly the most spectacular of the fortnight's developments, both because of its unprecedented use of overwhelming military force against a U.S. ally heavily promoted by Washington for membership in NATO and because of the geo-strategic implications of its move for the increasingly-troubled Atlantic alliance and U.S. hopes that Caspian and Central Asian energy resources could be safely transported to the West without transiting either Russia or Iran.

While Russia did not seize control of the Baku-Tbili-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline or approach the area proposed for the Nabucco pipeline further south, its intervention made it abundantly clear that it could have done so if it had wished, a message that is certain to reverberate across gas-hungry Europe. Indeed, investors now may prove considerably less enthusiastic about financing the Nabucco project than before, dealing yet another blow to Washington's regional ambitions.

Russia's move also raised new questions about its willingness to tolerate the continued use by the U.S. and other NATO countries of key air bases and other military facilities in the southern part of the former Soviet Union, notably Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, over which Moscow maintains substantial influence.

As with Georgia, where the U.S. significantly escalated its military presence by sending over Russian protests 200 Special Forces troops in early 2002, Washington first acquired access to these bases under the pretext of its post-9/11 ''global war on terrorism''. But, while clearly important to its subsequent operations on Afghanistan, they were also seen as key building blocks – or ''lily pads'' – in the construction of a permanent military infrastructure that could both contain a resurgent Russia or an emergent China and help establish U.S. hegemony over the energy resources of Central Asia and the Caspian region in what its architects hoped would be a ''New American Century.''

As suggested by former Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani this week, Washington and, to some extent, NATO behind it, ''has intruded into the geopolitical spaces of other dormant countries. They are no longer dormant...''

Indeed, still badly bogged down in Iraq where, despite the much-reduced level of sectarian violence, political reconciliation remains elusive, to say the least, the U.S. and its overly deferential NATO allies now face unprecedented challenges in Afghanistan not entirely unfamiliar to the Soviets 20 years ago.

''The news out of Afghanistan is truly alarming,'' warned Thursday's lead editorial in the New York Times, which noted the killings of 10 French paratroopers near Kabul in an ambush earlier in the week – the single worst combat death toll for NATO forces in the war there – as well as the coordinated assault by suicide bombers on one of the biggest U.S. military bases there as indications of an increasingly dire situation. In the last three months, more U.S. soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan than in Iraq.

''Afghanistan badly needs reinforcements. Badly,'' wrote ret. Col. Pat Lang, a former top Middle East and South Asia expert at the Defense Intelligence Agency on his blog this week. ''Afghanistan badly needs a serious infrastructure and economic development program. Badly.''

Of course, the Taliban's resurgence has in no small part been due to the safe haven it has been provided next door in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) where Pakistan's own Taliban, which also hosts a rejuvenating al Qaeda, has not only tightened its hold on the region in recent months but extended it into the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Last week, it retaliated in spectacular fashion to airborne attacks on its forces by the U.S.-backed military in Bajaur close to the Khyber Pass – the most important supply route for NATO forces in Afghanistan – by carrying out suicide bombings at a heavily guarded munitions factory that killed nearly 70 people near Islamabad.

Analysts here are especially worried that, having achieved the resignation last week of U.S.-backed former President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the new civilian government will likely tear itself apart over the succession and the growing economic crisis and thus prove completely ineffective in dealing with Washington's top priority – confronting and defeating the Taliban in a major counter-insurgency effort for which the army, long focused on the conventional threat posed by India, has shown no interest at all.

Indeed, the current leadership vacuum in Islamabad has greatly compounded concern here that the army's intelligence service ISI, which Washington believes played a role in last month's deadly Taliban attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul, could broaden its anti-Indian efforts. This is especially so now that Indian Kashmir is once again hotting up, ensuring a sharp escalation in the two nuclear-armed countries' decades-long rivalry and threatening in yet another way the post-Cold War Pax Americana.


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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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