Up for Grabs

A region little-known to the West—Central Asia—has suddenly leapt into the news. What is its significance, and where will it fit into the emerging new world order?

Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan—where are these countries, and what is their significance to the restructuring of international alliances taking place in this 21st century?

One of these countries of Central Asia, Afghanistan, has featured prominently in the news since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York last year.

Poor, benighted Afghanistan. An Islamic state which gained independence from Britain in 1919, this nation of close to 27 million has been riven with turmoil since the overthrow of its government by the extremist Islamic Taliban movement in 1996. Before September 11, resistance to this takeover came mainly from a loose group called the Northern Alliance. Since September 11, the American administration has pummeled parts of Afghanistan into dust in its quest for the demonized leader of the al-Qaeda Islamic terrorist group, Osama bin Laden.

Now, with the overthrow of the Taliban, the West has manipulated a new government into place in Afghanistan under leader Hamid Karzai. However, early indications are that factionalism within the various tribal groupings in Afghanistan will not permit any long period of stability in this Third World country unless it is imposed by force.

With its population comprising four main ethnic groups—Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek—competition among various warlords within these groups poses a continuous threat to the success of the interim government. The West is caught facing the prospect of mounting yet another “peacekeeping” force on foreign soil with no guarantee of an effective schedule for withdrawal. The British are keen to relinquish the job of leading the peacekeeping force at the earliest opportunity. The U.S. does not want the job, and the Germans are not keen to get the blame when things go wrong. So it looks like the Turks will get the job after the British pull out.

But why bother? Why not let the Afghans fight it out themselves? Why is Afghanistan so important to the West? To answer that question, we need to take a brief look at the other “stan” countries in this Central Asian region.

Asian Crossroads

Apart from Afghanistan, all other countries in Central Asia were once part of the old Soviet Union, essentially forming Russia’s old bulwark against the incursion of Islam from the south. The northernmost of these countries, Kazakhstan, is by far the largest, comprising 1.1 million square miles. With a population of some 16 million, it is the least Islamicized of the Central Asian countries, with a 47 percent Muslim populace balanced by 44 percent Orthodox and 9 percent Protestant and other religions. Whereas Kazakhstan holds the line against Islam’s northward push, all of the other Central Asian countries lying to its south are by far significantly Islamic.

Apart from Russia’s interest in containing the northward thrust of Islam, two issues of significance have brought Central Asia into the limelight in recent years: the balance of power affecting the region (including those other major international powers who are players in the region) and energy resources.

Balance of Power

The sudden, orderly withdrawal of the Taliban from the battle fronts in Afghanistan created a dangerous vacuum in the country. Democratic countries led the charge against the Taliban. Leading democratic countries now face the obligation to stabilize a country that has no tradition of democracy. Added to this, neither of the two principal leading democracies, the U.S. and Britain, is welcome to remain in Afghanistan. While they do remain, they will be forced to come to terms, politically, with the major powers bordering Central Asia—China, Russia, India, Pakistan and Iran.

Strategically, the U.S., as the coalition leader, is faced with a real headache. It has forced the Afghans into submission and implanted a new government, thus avoiding a long ground war with the high risk of politically unpopular U.S. casualties. But the U.S. has now declared victory with no ability to control the territory over which it is victor!

Large swaths of Afghanistan are still in the hands of pro-Taliban forces. Various warlords are opposed to the new government. Increasingly, differing factions are at each other’s throats. The U.S. is thus at the behest of neighboring countries and must seek a political accommodation with them. To be sure, each of these neighboring countries will seek its pound of flesh in any compromise reached with the U.S. to enable, or force, stability within Afghanistan.

Although Washington may see a unique opportunity here to play one Eurasian country against another, there is no doubt that this scenario presents an ideal situation for Russia, China, India and Pakistan to improve their bilateral ties, with the intent of diminishing America’s role in the region. Each of these neighboring countries has a singular common interest—to check the threat of Islamic extremism that disrupts the economic order and could penetrate the geopolitical black holes that are extant in Central Asia.

Russia’s Interest

Russia has dismissed President Bush’s recent labeling of Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an “axis of evil.” It is making overtures to strengthen its old Asian ties, particularly with India and Iran, to counterbalance U.S. clout in Central Asia. Russia provides Iran with conventional weapons. Despite clear-cut evidence that Tehran is the major sponsor of world terrorism, Russia has stated that it will not cut its military ties with Iran.

Russia has also long nurtured ties with Iraq. Recently, Russian Premier Vladimir Putin warned President Bush not to attack Iraq. The Iraqi leadership is “ready to become Russia-oriented,” according to Ramazan Abdulatipov, the head of a recent Russian delegation to Iraq (Asia Times, Feb. 7).

Iraq owes Russia a huge debt, estimated to be about us$10 billion. This fact, combined with the keenness of Russian oil companies to tap into Iraq’s lucrative oil reserves, underwrites the reason for Putin warning off Bush from Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime.

In addition to these factors, the sight of U.S. military bases in Central Asia has moved public opinion in Russia against the U.S., not to mention what Russia’s official ria news agency termed the “agitation if not a scandal among Russia’s politicians” over increasing U.S. influence in Central Asia. The ria observed that the U.S. military presence in the region is viewed as a “tragic event, signifying the demise of the cis [Commonwealth of Independent States] and end of centuries-long Russian influence in Central Asia” (ibid.).

The strategic dimension to what Russia views as a “seizure” by the U.S. of Central Asia is reinforced by the Russians’ fear of a possible deployment of U.S. anti-missile systems at Khanabad base in Uzbekistan.

Being a traditional ally of India, and that country’s largest supplier of arms (including warships, jetfighters and tanks), Russia is also in the process of boosting its relationship with India with new arms deal packages. In response, India is offering military support to Tajikistan.

This all bears on which way Pakistan will swing when its present convenient flirtation with the U.S. runs out of steam.

King of the South

Meanwhile, the biblical “king of the south” (Dan. 11:5-6), Iran, plays a false game with the U.S. Belying the reality of its primacy as patron of world terror, Iran’s snide response to President Bush’s naming them as part of an “axis of evil” was to declare, “We are making our utmost effort, but the reality is that it is not possible to control this long border completely” (bbc News, Feb. 5). The Iranian foreign minister then shot off a long letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, denouncing “unfounded allegations and threats of force against Iran by the Americans” (ibid.).

Revealing the true nature of Iran’s intentions, he went on to state that “Israel had succeeded in hijacking the American war against terrorism and turning it into unconditional U.S. support for its own occupation and brutal suppression of the Palestinians” (ibid.). The same day, Arutz Sheva, an Israeli news service, claimed that Jordan’s King Hussein had presented proof to President Bush of the Jordanians’ prevention of no less than 17 attempted attacks on Israel by Iranian-sponsored Hamas and Hezbollah Islamic jihad terrorists.

Iran is using the alliance’s war on terrorism to establish and strengthen ties with the EU, Russia, Pakistan and even its old enemy Iraq. They want the U.S. out of Central Asia.

The Rising Beast

It is with particular interest that we turn to the increasingly overt involvement in Central Asia by the European Union—prophetically identified as the “beast” power (Rev. 17:12-13) and the resurrecting old Holy Roman Empire—and, most especially, its leading nation, Germany—biblical Assyria in modern garb.

Germany has made it quite clear that it does not support the U.S. president’s inclusion of Iran in his “axis of evil.” In fact, opinion in Germany is that references to Iran in that context will do more harm than good.

The extent to which EU and U.S. policies differ dangerously on Iran are seen in recent statements from a diplomatic source in Brussels. “‘Bush can say what he likes, and we listen to him. But we’ve seen in the past how Washington’s policy of containment with regard to Iran and Iraq has led nowhere,’ said a senior EU diplomat. ‘We have our own foreign-policy interests as much as the U.S. has its own,’ he added. Indeed, if Spain, holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, has its way, it will persuade the 14 other member states to allow the European Commission to negotiate a Trade and Co-operation Agreement (tca) with Tehran” (EUObserver.com, Feb. 5).

Such publicly expressed views do not auger well for future cohesion between the U.S. and EU on foreign policy within Central Asia and the Middle East.

Foreign Policy Divisions

Added to this is the prospect of not the U.S., not Britain or any one of their traditional allies, but Germany being considered to take over leadership of the “peacekeeping” initiatives in Afghanistan. It is the EU’s, and most especially Germany’s, diplomatic initiatives in Central Asia and the Middle East that the U.S. and Britain should be most mindful of at this time.

Just as the EU—inspired by initiatives such as those of Germany’s foreign affairs minister, Joschka Fischer—has moved powerfully to take over the Middle East peace process, it is, even now, manipulating to cement relationships with Russia, Iran and Pakistan to end up pulling the strings in Afghanistan. This will ultimately hurt both Britain and America!

The war on terror is presenting unprecedented opportunity for Germany to burst out of the foreign-policy and military cocoon which encased it for over half a century since World War ii.

How the wheel turns! Germany—ace developers, through the massive enterprise of ig Farben, of biological and chemical means of destruction of human life—has just sent 250 Bundeswehr troops, specialists in atomic, biological and chemical defense, to Kuwait. German news service Deutsche Welle stated that “their exact mission remains under wraps.” But it was, apparently, attached to the U.S. anti-terror operation, “Enduring Freedom” (Feb. 6).

These exercises, initiated and encouraged by the U.S., are training German troops for combat readiness as part of the coming combined European defense force. Numbering in excess of 2 million personnel, this force will be organized and able to meet incursions, or mount attacks, on two fronts simultaneously. Europe will not be caught in the policy trap of downgrading its military force to the extent that the U.S. has, with current U.S. military overseers reducing force levels from the traditional capability to engage in war on two fronts, to stretching to cover just one! Germany’s preparedness, and the U.S. lack thereof, poses a looming danger not yet apparent to Washington.

EU-Pakistan Flirtation

Mindful that Pakistan is a crucial piece in the Central Asian jigsaw, Germany, as we have reported previously, is intent on strengthening its economic, political and military alliances with Islamabad. Swift to move in with offers of substantial aid to woo Pakistan into the EU camp following the U.S.-led alliance’s attacks on Afghanistan, Germany has followed up with diplomatic moves to consolidate its Pakistani alliance.

Recently, Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar of Pakistan stated that Pakistan would welcome German assistance in diffusing its present crisis with India. Pointing to Germany’s role as host of the conference in Bonn which was instrumental in forming the alliance against terrorism, Sattar stated that “Pakistan was glad that Germany had joined other countries to strengthen security and process of reconstruction in Afghanistan. He expressed the hope that Germany would continue to support this effort” (www.dawn.com, Feb. 7).

During Foreign Minister Sattar’s whistle-stop tour of key EU capitals in February, EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten described what he termed a “rejuvenation” in Pakistani-EU relations. Pakistani newspaper Dawn described Pakistan as enjoying a “move from backstage to spotlight on Europe’s foreign-policy stage” (ibid., Feb. 6).

The U.S. has been caught napping in following through on commitments made to Pakistan to curry its support following the September 11 attacks.

“Diplomats in Brussels are also quick to point out that, unlike the United States, the EU is moving fast to fulfill its post-September 11 promises to upgrade relations with Pakistan. Recent moves include the signature of a new trade and cooperation pact, increased aid and quick agreement on a textiles package designed to increase Pakistan’s exports to Europe. The focus now has to be on what Sattar insisted was a further intensification of Pakistan-EU relations, including in the political and diplomatic sphere” (ibid.).

The EU has been clever enough to seize the initiative in its relations with Pakistan, realizing that this is essential to cementing an ongoing role in Central Asia.

Energy Politics

Although the strategic balance of power between the Middle East, Central Asia, Russia and Southern Asia is the main reason for the “stan” countries leaping into focus in foreign relations, most crucial to the deals being done by the diplomats are the oil and gas deposits of the region. Competition between the U.S., China and Iran to run oil and gas pipelines tapping Central Asian sources is hot.

Exploitation of Central Asian and Caspian reserves has been a long-held American dream. Caspian oil exports have a potential of 3.2 million barrels per day. Gas exports could rise to 4,850 billion cubic feet per year by 2010. But the key to developing oil and gas distribution networks has been stabilizing Afghanistan. The U.S. project, CentGas, plans gas and oil pipelines from Turkmenistan to Pakistan, with both gas and oil lines passing through Afghanistan. This project also involves hooking up oil fields in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

The prospect of a stabilized Afghanistan has sparked China’s interest in constructing its own pipeline similar to the CentGas project. With deep concerns about the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics, China is intent on outmaneuvering the U.S. by having Turkmenistan and Pakistan join its own pipeline project before Western companies have a chance to reenter the market.

Iran has also reentered the pipeline equation by seeking to revive the Economic Cooperation Organization, involving Pakistan, Turkey, Afghanistan, Iran and the Central Asian states. To enhance its efforts in this direction, Tehran has approached Pakistan to form a joint strategy for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. In February, Iran also commenced negotiations with Pakistan for a proposed $5 billion Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project. Iran is further hoping to negotiate to lay pipelines from Central Asia to Iran for reexport to the EU and to South Asia.

The race is on to see which of these players will win both the lion’s share of the oil and gas distribution market in the region and the strategic power to turn the resultant flow of energy on or off, depending on the volatility of international relations and alliances in these crucial times.

Pivotal Role

The control of Central Asia is pivotal to events now playing out in the Middle East, Europe, Russia and Asia. Watch for a cementing of alliances for control and influence in this region which will eventually force the U.S. and Britain out as, increasingly, they become the pariahs in this age of the Gentiles (Luke 21:24). Watch for the EU to continue courting Russia, Iran and Pakistan. Keep watching for the EU to emerge with the whip-hand in Central Asia to draw energy from that region for Europe’s developing military machine. That mighty power will initiate the third, most brutal, but briefest world war in history.

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