Incessant high-intensity violence in Iraq and Afghanistan dominates media coverage and public awareness of warfare today. Behind both conflict theaters, the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) appears to be the common denominator (at least according to the Bush Administration) - even though the average conscious person is probably confused about exactly where else on the globe the GWOT is being fought, besides in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Further in the background, hidden within a web of illusions spun for public consumption, Great Power states (especially the United States, Russia and China) might well be playing out the GWOT on their Grand Chessboard - trying to determine or at least manipulate events in the foreground, in relation to one another. “Might” is the operant word. Who really knows the meaning of the GWOT charade, given that it serves all Great Powers equally (and many other states, as well)? Is it possible that the GWOT is really about who controls what Middle Eastern and Central Asian oil and other resources, and who controls what strategic choke points, and therefore which Great Power will find itself dominant or subordinate, twenty years from now?
Think about it. Other wars that were incomprehensible in their time have been fought behind elaborate ruses, in the past. Consider the many proxy battlefields of the Cold War era, including Israel, Vietnam, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Somalia, Angola, and El Salvador. These all had Great Power dimensions. Consider the imperial contests of the 16th to 20th centuries, including both World Wars, which found theaters throughout the colonized world. Or the Iran-Iraq War, or the CIA’s Islamist jihad against Soviet occupation in Afghanistan (which featured Osama bin Laden, playing the role of American agent), or the Contra War in Nicaragua – all of which involved Great Power conflict that went unexplained until years later. Much of that history may never be explained.
If past is prologue, then it is quite possible that Great Powers today are using the GWOT as the cover story for their hidden conflicts with one another. Just think, for example, of what it would (will) mean for China and Russia, if (when) the United States proves unable to hold the middle of the board which it seized through military force, in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But that question is rarely asked, much less answered. It’s easier to talk GWOT, regardless of its numerous distortions.
Perhaps the biggest of all illusions is that the GWOT actually defines the current era of global violence. It doesn’t. Most global violence today falls in the broad category of insurgencies, not terrorism, and most insurgencies today are based on indigenous liberation movements – which are commonly spun falsely as “terrorist” enterprises. Some of the many conflicts can be labeled civil wars, but most are about the same type of struggle for independence that has characterized world politics since the American Revolution (or perhaps the Israelite Exodus from ancient Egypt).
Do these movements affect Great Powers and their relations? You bet they do. But the GWOT does not explain them.
The Joker and the Domino Theory
In the game of Poker, the Joker is a variable card that has inconsistent and unmeasurable value. Its use is situational, dependent upon the needs of the player who might randomly be dealt it into his or her hand.
In international politics, the Joker serves as an analogy for a non-state nation, which may or may not be recognized by any given state, particularly the Great Power states that have the most to gain or lose from doing so. Non-state nations that are seeking independence (or “secession” – an inexact concept) have the power to fragment existing states, greatly diminishing their power, by destroying territorial integrity and alienating resources, populations and strategic assets – usually with far-reaching implications for the Great Powers.
Whether or not to recognize the legitimate aspirations of non-state nations, then, is a power shared by all existing states, though few ever choose to employ that power. To do so could draw an equivalent response from another player. Throwing the Joker in one round does not guarantee winning the next. What goes around comes around, or so they say.
Moreover, once one non-state nation wins independence, there’s simply no way to predict the effects of the power of example. Other independence movements might find strength in that power, and before long, a chain of “dominoes” could start to fall, and the entire international system of states could be transformed (probably quite violently) through a major population boom. The net result would be increased systemic disorder and chaos, which would serve Great Power interests in no way guaranteed to be positive.
Most states are fearful of falling dominoes and therefore reluctant to recognize non-state nations, and refer to them instead as “terrorists,” even though few of them share the impossible objectives of al-Qaeda or any similar network (like converting the world to Islam, or creating a new international theocratic caliphate, for instance). Meantime, non-state nations usually just want independence, pure and simple – the same thing that created the United States as a “free” country (free from alien rule, remember?), and the same thing that created most presently existing states, especially those in the Third World.
Struggles for Liberation and Independence in 2007
Space precludes a detailed analysis of each case in point. So instead, here’s an abbreviated list that enumerates today’s fourteen leading dominoes, in some hypothetical order of adjacent succession. The list features salient factors, including: present levels of violence or incendiary potential, GWOT connection, Great Power (GP) states suspected of playing Jokers against other states (in reality, this is the realm of “classified information” and “state secrets,” so conjecture is the best one can get, until somebody tells the true story), and obvious Great Power (GP) interests.
1. Kosovo versus Serbia. Highly incendiary. Pre-GWOT, and no direct connection. Playing the Joker: the United States against Russia. GP interests: US political invasion of Russia’s sphere of influence (following a succession of other political invasions since 1991, including most countries of Eastern Europe, the Black Sea, the Caucasus, the Caspian Sea, and Central Asia).
2. Abkhazia and South Ossetia versus Georgia. Highly incendiary. Pre-GWOT and no direct connection. Playing the Joker: Russia against the United States and European countries. GP interests: US political invasion of Black Sea and Caucasus is blocked; threats to Russian control of Georgia’s oil pipelines and manganese deposits removed.
3. Chechnya and Northern Caucasus (includes Ingushetia, Kabardino Balkaria, and Dagestan, etc.) versus Russia. Highly incendiary, with continuous violence throughout the region. Pre-GWOT, and possibly some present connection. Playing the Joker: the United States against Russia. GP interests: US policy to weaken Russia, even if playing Islamist jihadis as pawns; Russia has oil pipelines and tungsten resources at stake.
4. Kurds versus Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Highly incendiary and presently increasing violence by Turkish and Iranian military strikes inside Iraq and also within both Turkey and Iran. Pre-GWOT and no present connection. Playing the Joker: unclear (United States loses in Iraq and Turkey, but wi
ns in Iran and Syria). GP interests: US war plan depends on Kurdish submission to state control in all four countries; therefore, the US must sell out the Kurds for the fourth time (1923, 1975, 1991 are prior instances).
5. Ahwaz and Baloch versus Iran. Highly incendiary and presently increasing violence. Pre-GWOT and inverse connection (if Iran is actually a “sponsor” of terrorism). Playing the Joker: the United States against Iran, China, Russia, and possibly India. GP interests: China has access to Iran’s oil and potential access to Iraq’s oil; Russia has nuclear and weapons trade with Iran; India has oil and gas interests in Iran; every state is affected by control over Strait of Hormuz, Arabian Sea, and north shore of the Arabian/Persian Gulf.
6. Baloch, Sindh and Pashtun versus Pakistan. Highly incendiary with present high-intensity violence in Balochistan and Pashtun territories (Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Northwest Frontier Territories), and low-intensity violence in Sindh. Pre-GWOT, with present connection (Taliban/al Qaeda elements) distorting fundamental conflict between Punjabi-dominated state and anti-Punjabi resistance. Playing the Joker: India (and possibly the United States) against Pakistan and China. GP interests: China supplies Pakistan with nuclear technology and military weapons; Pakistan builds ports and transit lines for China.
7. Kashmir, Adivasis, and Northeast India (includes at least 30 movements in Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Assam, and Nagaland) versus India. Highly incendiary and continuous low-intensity warfare since 1947. Also, three majors wars between India and Pakistan, and current nuclear arms race. Pre-GWOT and little connection, except perhaps in Kashmir. Playing the Joker: China and Pakistan against India. GP interests: control of Indian Ocean shipping lanes and weakening the Indian state.
8. Tamils versus Sri Lanka. Present high-intensity warfare. Pre-GWOT, and Hindu/Buddhist struggle has no direct connection with Islamist jihadis. Playing the Joker: India against China. GP interests: Indian Ocean shipping lanes.
9. Southern Muslim Malays versus Thailand. Continuous violence. Pre-GWOT, and little connection. Playing the Joker: unclear. GP interests: control of Malacca Strait choke point and Indian Ocean/South China Sea shipping lanes.
10. Mindanao and Sulu Muslims versus the Philippines. Continuous violence, sometimes high-level warfare. Pre-GWOT and some present connections. Playing the Joker: unclear. GP interests: control of East China Sea choke points and shipping lanes.
11. Somaliland versus Somalia. Highly incendiary. Pre-GWOT and no present connection. Playing the Joker: unclear (possibly Ethiopia and United States). GP interests: US control of Bab-el-Mandeb choke point and Red Sea/Indian Ocean shipping lanes (controls oil transit from Sudan to China).
12. Oromos and Ogadenis versus Ethiopia. Continuous violence, sometimes high-level warfare. Pre-GWOT and no present connections. Playing the Joker: unclear (possibly Eritrea). Great Power interests: US control of Horn of Africa and Red Sea/Indian Ocean shipping lanes, Bab-el-Mandeb choke point, with power base in Djibouti.
13. Darfur and Southern Sudan versus Sudan. Continuous violence and sometimes high-level warfare in Darfur; highly incendiary in Southern Sudan. Playing the Joker: the United States versus China. GP interests: Sudan is China’s second leading source of oil imports, after Iran.
14. Xinjiang Uyghurs, Tibetans, Inner Mongolians, and Taiwanese versus China. Highly incendiary. Pre-GWOT and no connection. Playing the Joker: the United States against China. GP interests: the US perceives China as its most likely emerging threat; China perceives the US as its most apparent present threat. “All options are on the table.
(Dr. Marc Sills is a Center for World Indigenous Studies Associate Scholar, a professor of international relations and formerly a Senior Instructor at Colorado University-Denver.)
(c) 2007 Center for World Indigenous Studies
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