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U.S. digging its heels in Central Asia
By Karamatullah K. Ghori

Toronto: While the hunt is still on for what the captive U.S. news media describes as the two most wanted men in the world, Bin Laden and Mulla Omar, the U.S. is digging itself in for a long haul in and around Afghanistan.

Lately, however, there is less and less focus on the daily progress reports in the media on the likely whereabouts of the missing quarries. Instead, occasional reports of the hired guns among the Afghans still scouring the landscape for their prey, because of the hefty 25 million dollar prize money on Bin Laden, have now become the norm. Apparently, the urgency has gone from the frantic search for these " most wanted men." And why is it so is also no longer a mystery. 

Finding Bin Laden is not to be rushed. It is no longer a top priority, for understandable tactical reasons. If he is captured alive, or found dead, in Afghanistan, the rationale and the alibi for U.S. continued presence in and around Afghanistan will evaporate in thin air, which is not what Donald Rumsfeld and his generals want. They need time, as much as possible, on their hands in order to complete their long-haul military buildup in and around Afghanistan. Osama's or Omar's capture, or death, have thus become as secondary an issue as Saddam Hussein's removal from Baghdad. The latter has been on the back burner for more than a decade, because his longevity is the perfect excuse for U.S. military presence in the Gulf. Ergo, the manhunt for the two missing Os of the Afghan puzzle may go on , to use George W. Bush's favourite expression, " for as long as it takes." This may be years, if not decades.

For the success of U.S. long term defence buildup it is ineluctable that Bin Laden , in particular, not be found any time soon. His saga, or myth, is now inextricably linked with America's unbridled geo-political and commercial ambitions in and around Afghanistan. A missing Bin Laden would be worth a million times his weight in gold to America's long-term and long-gestation plans in Central Asia, with Afghanistan as its fulcrum.

The first order of priority for the U.S. buildup is to dig in deep, militarily, and sit there looking pretty.

Reminiscent of its Cold War strategy, the U.S. military is moving into overdrive to build military bases in and around Afghanistan as the first order of business on its checklist.

Kandahar, the erstwhile base of the Taliban from where they fanned out and swamped nearly all of Afghanistan , is now the main staging post for military expansion and, if warranted, incursions in the areas around Afghanistan. Since its fall to the American-fed mercenaries on December 7 last year, the Kandahar airport has been completely taken over by the U.S. military and quickly converted as a forward base for Central Asia. The Marines who had been manning this base until recently, have now been replaced by heavily armed soldiers from the 101st airborne Division ; a thousand soldiers are already in place, and many more are to follow. The base is bristling with activity as the launching pad for the heralding of Pax Americana as Imperial Rome-Reincarnate of the 21st century.

To give the world a taste of how this new imperial order will work, and its supreme edict enforced, the Kandahar base is being used with facility to ' ship out' hundreds of Al Qaeda prisoners on U.S. transport aircraft to another forward base of Imperial America at Guantanamo, on the tip of Cuba. Imperial Pax Britannia at its zenith in the 19th century had exiled only one Napoleon Bonaparte to the obscure and remote island of St.Helena in the Indian Ocean. Imperial Americana is replicating that act many times over, and that too to a captured outpost on the sovereign territory of Cuba. Rumsfeld, the principal tribune of the imperial power on this subject, has already declared that these Al Qaeda captives will not be treated as prisoners of war, and will have no privileges under the Geneva Conventions on PoWs. In further evidence of the Roman mode swaying America, the captives are being kept in cages, just as the Romans used to deal with their prisoners. The only thing missing is the hungry lions to whom Roman prisoners were fed.

The motive is to tell the world-especially the Islamic part of the world that does not show inclination to succumb meekly to the new world order-that America does not recognise any frontiers, physical or legal. Treating Cuba's sovereignty with disdain , and transplanting chained and hooded prisoners on its territory, is Washington's way of showing its contempt of Fidel Castro and putting him on notice, too.

But Kandahar is just the first arrow in a quiver which may soon start bulging with too many others. The U.S. military objective seems set on throwing a ring of steel around Central Asia, so that its strategic and commercial interests in the region become impregnable to any challenge from any quarters.

At least three major U.S. military bases are in various stages of development in three neighbouring countries of Afghanistan.

One is at Pakistan's Jacobabad, astride the southern province of Sindh and the western province of Baluchistan. It is proximate to both Iran and Afghanistan. However, the military government of General Musharraf has offered this strategic base to the Americans, obviously without much concern for its security implications to Pakistan itself, and the countries on its periphery. 

General Musharraf is trying to be two of his autocratic military -dictator predecessors in one gambit. He is emulating General Ayub Khan who had allowed the Americans to set up a military base at Badaber, in northwestern corner of Pakistan, very close to Afghanistan, at the beginning of the cold war. It was from there that the notorious U-2 spy plane , shot down over the Soviet Union, had taken off in 1960, and brought Khruschev's wrath on Pakistan. But he is hoping to walk more in the footsteps of General Ziaul Haq who made a bonanza out of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Musharraf is hoping to become a linchpin, like Zia, in the U.S. expansionist plans in the region in order to become indispensable to Washington. His gamble is that with Washington firmly behind him, he would not only lend permanency to his rule but also get away with a sham democracy and a puppet prime minister after the expected elections in October this year.

A second base is coming up rapidly at Khanabad, in Uzbekistan, close to the northern frontier of Afghanistan. The Uzbek President, Islam Karimov, is a tyrant of Stalinist vintage. He rules by brute force, something that used to invite trenchant criticism, until recently, from the U.S. State Department in its annual reports on human rights. But no more of that. There is no mention any longer of Karimov's mid-night raids on suspected Islamists or his cult wagging everything in Uzbekistan. He is now a loyal friend of America and, thus, above any reproach. His iron grip over the Uzbeks is being hailed as a factor of stability and resource in the fight against terrorism.

But the most important, and strategically super-sensitive, base is taking shape in Kyrgyzstan, the neighbour to the north-east of Afghanistan.

Kyrgyzstan may be the poorest of the Central Asian republics but is strategically most important to the long term U.S. defence interests in the region because of its proximity and contiguity to China. Therefore, according to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Meyers, his military is converting 37 acres of land adjacent to Bishkek's Manas international airport into its largest and most modern military base in Central Asia. When finished in the next few months, the Bishkek base will have state-of-the-art facilities to house a full-fledged city of at least 3,000 military servicemen and their families. It will have military stores and hardware to fit out thousands of U.S. troops for any emergency. In short, Bishkek will become what the Clark airbase , outside Manila in the Philippines, used to be before the Filipinos woke up to dismantle it.

There is increasing evidence that the 21st century U.S. strategy of expansion is a rehash of the cold war era in its entirety. George W. Bush is doing exactly what John Foster Dulles did, building alliances and military bases in far corners of the world. As during the cold war, America's partners in this new "crusade" are autocrats, tyrants and military dictators. American cold war strategy thrived on courting rulers without roots among their people. The same alchemy is being applied now to consolidate the U.S. chokehold over what promises to be, according to energy experts, a new Eldorado.

In fact, the power drunk ultra-right mafia that has Bush's ear more than any other lobby in Washington , has become more arrogant and aggressive in the wake of the routing of the Taliban in Afghanistan ( as if it was ever in doubt ). They think the U.S. military superiority will be a formidable tool to fashion the world, especially the poor Third World, in whichever way Washington wants. They have decimated all opposition to Pax Americana for foreseeable future. 

Hence the forward lobby, epitomised by the likes of Rumsfeld-or his hectoring deputy, Paul Wolfowitz-want to throw a ring of steel around the targets zeroed in , and around Afghanistan. The military bases will serve the purpose of keeping any potential, or putative, opposition to the lording of America at a safe distance.

The choice of places to build these bases lets the cat out of the bag.

Jacobabad in Pakistan is ideally located to keep the elements-savoury and unsavoury-in both Pakistan and Iran in check, and guard the oil and gas pipelines, projected to pass nearby to their terminus points on Pakistan's Mekran coast at Gwadar and Pasni.

Khanabad , in northern Afghanistan, will also stand as sentinel at a vantage point not too far from the pipelines route rising in Turkemanistan and Uzbekistan. Putin's Russia has fallen in tow behind U.S. and should cause no problem. But just in case.

Bishkek, on the northeastern extremity of Afghanistan, should lend a bi-focal advantage: keeping an eye on neighbouring Tajikistan, where Islamists have been active until recently, and give a convenient perch to watch over China, a potential adversary and rival contender to super- power status, a decade or two hence.

U.S. strategists have, no doubt, settled on some of the choicest locations to dig their heels in the region. They are hunkering down for a long long haul, because the exploitation of the region's rich mineral and carbon deposits will not be feasible on a short-term basis.

By the same token, the gauntlet has been thrown to all the important regional countries and powers-Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Iran. Some of these countries might feel unconcerned about the U.S. expansionism at this early stage because they , for expediency or short-term advantage, have chosen to hitch themselves to the rolling American band- wagon. But even these countries, too would soon start feeling the heat under their feet, because the U.S. has come to the region for its interest alone and would not mind steamrolling the current 'allies' at any time of its own choosing if so warranted by its interest. Those like Iran and Pakistan which have been bitten badly in the past by their special relationship with Washington should think twice what is implied for them in this 21st century ' Bush Doctrine' in which you are either with Washington ( which means, unquestioning , uncritical 'friends'), or you are against it (if you are not a mute 'friend' ). The end result, in either case, is that you will always be at the receiving end of Pax Americana and its imperial edict. This simplistic strategy is replete, to say the least, with a vast potential of conflict within the region.
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