EUROPE has been too preoccupied with its economic woes to really notice what’s going on in Asia, but that’s nothing new, writes George Kerevan
THE world takes on a very different perspective from the middle of Asia. I’m here in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, a sliver of country the size of England and Wales that is sandwiched between the two rising (and rival) powers of China and India.
To get here I had to fly over a civil war in Syria, the fractious and fragile polity that is Iraq, and teetering Pakistan – meanwhile skirting bellicose Iran and the quagmire that is Afghanistan. Little wonder the papers here have scant time for rich Europe’s economic tantrums.
Nepal is a good place to ponder the mess the West has made of its relations with Asia over the past 20 years – especially as North Korea and America start rattling nuclear sabres at each other. No matter how comical the North Koreans seem, or how statesmanlike US President Barack Obama appears, just remember than no-one thought a World War would occur in the summer of 1914, because a minor Austrian archduke had been shot in the Balkans.
Just down the road from Nepal is another mountain country, Afghanistan. It should serve as a lesson in the ignorance, short-sightedness and stupidity of Western involvement in Asia. America and Britain are planning to withdraw their military from Afghanistan. We are told by Mr Obama and David Cameron that Afghanistan’s security is being entrusted to a new, well-trained Afghan National Army which you, dear taxpayer, are funding. We are told our own soldiers died in Afghanistan to protect us from terrorism and ensure Afghan girls receive an education.
Don’t believe a word of it.
Whatever merits there were in overthrowing the Taleban regime back in 2001, the West instantly squandered any advantage gained. First, we tried to impose – overnight – a form of democracy it took Britain and America 300 years to evolve. We did this in the middle of a civil war in Afghanistan that had been going on for a generation. Then we helped into power Hamid Karzai, an émigré with no popular base.
He preferred the safety of the presidential palace in Kabul so the country remained in the hands of regional warlords and the Taleban. That’s not quite true: Karzai handed control of Kandahar Province to his half-brother Ahmed Wali, who had previously run a restaurant in Chicago. Ahmed Wali proceeded to amass a fortune, allegedly from drugs, protected by his sibling.
Meanwhile, president Karzai, having lost all credibility, proceeded to use the Afghan military and police to steal the next election. That’s what our boys are really dying for.
Why did no one in the White House appreciate this? But they did. However, they needed an ally in Kabul to justify the intervention, the billions invested and the dead Allied soldiers. So Karzai had to be supported, even when he started double-dealing and taking bribes from the Iranians. And did this have anything to do with fighting al-Qaeda? No, they are in Pakistan.
Enter President Obama. Everyone in Europe is in thrall to Obama – charismatic, handsome, clearly intelligent, and (above all) not George Bush. Here’s what Europeans don’t get about Obama: he is a machine Chicago politician interested largely in domestic US politics. Obama has decided to get out of Afghanistan as fast as possible while declaring victory. He doesn’t care about the mess that’s left behind – which explains why, for the past three years, America has been re-arming the Afghan warlords to fight the Taleban, presaging a return to civil war.
Forget the Afghan National Army, which is neither an army nor national. It is a series of tribal militia who will defect to the warlords or the Taleban the moment the Americans leave.
Actually, I think we should leave. Western intervention has only made matters worse in poor Afghanistan. The various local interests will either have to fight themselves to an exhausted standstill or negotiate a pragmatic accommodation in the Asian fashion. Karzai is already talking to the Taleban.
The true lesson of Afghanistan is that the West is ignorant about Asia and how Asian politics works. Washington is about to repeat these mistakes on the Korean peninsula.
Obama is an orator rather than a leader, despite what his European admirers think. He plays to the domestic gallery and wants to be agreed with too much. Above all, he is an intellectual who thinks everything can be reasoned out beforehand, risks evaluated and situations contained. But the world is not like that, as European’s diplomats found out in 1914.
Obama claims to be “pivoting” US foreign and military policy towards Asia in an express bid to “contain” China. Holding major war games in South Korea – the very thing that has sent the batty North Korean regime even dafter – was aimed at China’s military, not Pyongyang. But the result has been to spark a needless crisis involving the two Koreas.
This week Obama has also sent a naval task force to Singapore, while simultaneously holding talks at the White House with Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, about closer defence ties. Again, the message is aimed at China. Ditto the huge US-Japan war games held in February.
Europe has been too preoccupied with its own economic problems to notice the negative impact all this is having in China, where nationalist passions are being inflamed. Equally, cool Mr Obama is blind to the dangerous line he is treading. The White House is playing to domestic US opinion. Blue collar Democratic voters see China as a threat to their jobs and back the President “standing up to Beijing”.
But China’s leaders – even though many are technocrats educated in America’s leading universities – are just as much beholden to domestic opinion as President Obama. Washington and Beijing have entered a gigantic game of diplomatic bluff.
The danger – as in 1914 – lies in each expecting the other to blink first. A nuclear miscalculation may not come over Korea. But it could come sometime in the next couple of decades, for all that. And over something entirely trivial.