The Great (Double) Game
In the case of the Great Game of Central Asia, that’s us.
Best I can tell from the WikiLeaks documents and other sources, we are paying Pakistan’s Army and intelligence service to be two-faced. Otherwise, they would be just one-faced and 100 percent against us. The same could probably be said of Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai. But then everyone out there is wearing a mask — or two.
China supports Pakistan, seeks out mining contracts in Afghanistan and lets America make Afghanistan safe for Chinese companies, all while smiling at the bloody nose America is getting in Kabul because anything that ties down the U.S. military makes China’s military happy. America, meanwhile, sends its soldiers to fight in Afghanistan at the same time that it rejects an energy policy that would begin to reduce our oil consumption, which indirectly helps to fund the very Taliban schools and warriors our soldiers are fighting against.
So why put up with all this duplicity? Is President Obama just foolish?
It is more complicated. This double game goes back to 9/11. That terrorist attack was basically planned, executed and funded by radical Pakistanis and Saudis. And we responded by invading Iraq and Afghanistan. Why? The short answer is because Pakistan has nukes that we fear and Saudi Arabia has oil that we crave.
So we tried to impact them by indirection. We hoped that building a decent democratizing government in Iraq would influence reform in Saudi Arabia and beyond. And after expelling Al Qaeda from Afghanistan, we stayed on to stabilize the place, largely out of fears that instability in Afghanistan could spill into Pakistan and lead to Islamist radicals taking over Islamabad and its nukes.
That strategy has not really worked because Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are built on ruling bargains that are the source of their pathologies and our fears.
Pakistan, 63 years after its founding, still exists not to be India. The Pakistani Army is obsessed with what it says is the threat from India — and keeping that threat alive is what keeps the Pakistani Army in control of the country and its key resources. The absence of either stable democracy in Pakistan or a decent public education system only swells the ranks of the Taliban and other Islamic resistance forces there. Pakistan thinks it must control Afghanistan for “strategic depth” because, if India dominated Afghanistan, Pakistan would be wedged between the two.
Alas, if Pakistan built its identity around its own talented people and saw its strategic depth as the quality of its schools, farms and industry, instead of Afghanistan, it might be able to produce a stable democracy — and we wouldn’t care about Pakistan’s nukes any more than India’s.
Saudi Arabia is built around a ruling bargain between the moderate al-Saud family and the Wahhabi fundamentalist establishment: The al-Sauds get to rule and the Wahhabis get to impose on their society the most puritanical Islam — and export it to mosques and schools across the Muslim world, including to Pakistan, with money earned by selling oil to the West.
So Pakistan’s nukes are a problem for us because of the nature of that regime, and Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth is a problem for us because of the nature of that regime. We have chosen to play a double game with both because we think the alternatives are worse.
So we pay Pakistan to help us in Afghanistan, even though we know some of that money is killing our own soldiers, because we fear that just leaving could lead to Pakistan’s Islamists controlling its bomb. And we send Saudi Arabia money for oil, even though we know that some of it ends up financing the very people we are fighting, because confronting the Saudis over their ideological exports seems too destabilizing. (Addicts never tell the truth to their pushers.)
Is there another a way? Yes. If we can’t just walk away, we should at least reduce our bets. We should limit our presence and goals in Afghanistan to the bare minimum required to make sure that turmoil there doesn’t spill over into Pakistan or allow Al Qaeda to return. And we should diminish our dependence on oil so we are less impacted by what happens in Saudi Arabia, so we shrink the funds going to people who hate us and we make economic and political reform a necessity for them, not a hobby.
Alas, we don’t have the money, manpower or time required to fully transform the most troubled states of this region. It will only happen when they want it to. We do, though, have the technology, necessity and innovators to protect ourselves from them — and to increase the pressure on them to want to change — by developing alternatives to oil. It is time we started that surge. I am tired of being the sucker in this game.