The dog days of August suddenly became the guns of August. In Georgia, the United States and its NATO allies are learning you don't get into a resurgent Russia's space — let alone its face — with impunity.
Russia is back, just as the United States would be back had it lost the Cold War 20 years ago and watched Russia trying to extend its Warsaw Pact security blanket to the Bahamas and Puerto Rico. It was a case of elementary geopolitics, more than it was a matter of democracy vs. authoritarianism.
As Anthony Cordesman, one of the most astute geopolitical experts in the United States, wrote, "The fighting in Georgia [was] not a warning about some new drift into great power confrontation or a new Cold War. It is a reminder that the world is not shaped by democratic values, international law, good intentions, globalism, rational bargains, or the search for dialogue."
The Center for Strategic and International Studies' senior strategic scholar, Cordesman added, "All of these elements do play an important role, but the classic power politics are just as real as ever. Nation states still have the guns and missiles. More powerful states will bend or break the rules when they feel it is in their interest to do so and when there is no opposing power bloc that can pose a convincing threat."
With the United States already engaged in two theaters of war, a third in Georgia against Russia was clearly a non-starter. President Bush pushed too far on Russia's periphery, "at least a country, not just a bridge, too far." For the men in the Kremlin, Bush was Don Quixote and his loyal servant Sancho Panza (Mikheil Saakashvili) who proposes to fight injustice through chivalry.
Far more serious for the United States is Pakistan, one of the world's eight nuclear powers, sans Pervez Musharraf. A key non-NATO ally's pro-American president resigned to avoid impeachment. The country's fourth military ruler in its 60-year history was considered, unfairly, Bush's puppet. Pakistan's four provincial assemblies had voted overwhelmingly for Musharraf's resignation. "Go, Musharraf, go" had become a national refrain as the Federal Assembly and the Senate readied articles of impeachment and the national economy went into free fall with capital flight, inflation at 30 percent, and nationwide food shortages.
In power since 1999, Musharraf, then the army chief, deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and dispatched him to exile in Saudi Arabia, only to see Sharif return late last year — and lead the movement to topple him. After protracted negotiations, Musharraf was hoping to play Sharif off against Benazir Bhutto, the country's most popular political leader, who had been prime minister twice in her career. But she was assassinated and replaced as head of the country's largest party, the Pakistan People's Party, by Asif Zardari, her widower, who had spent 11 1/2 years in prison on a wide variety of corruption charges, none of them leading to conviction.
Zardari is now positioning himself to succeed Musharraf. But he and his partner in the coalition government, Sharif, are barely on speaking terms. There is still no government worth the name. Handpicked by Zardari, the prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, 56, has been presiding over a dysfunctional non-government (in a dispute with Zardari, Sharif's nine ministers declined to show up for work) since last March. Gilani's recent trip to Washington to see Bush and his national security team left his American interlocutors puzzled about his knowledge of world affairs. His encounter with the Council on Foreign Relations raised more questions.
None of this would matter very much if it weren't for the future of NATO, now at stake, not in Georgia, but in Afghanistan, a country the size of France. A resurgent Taliban, based in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, is now surging in widely scattered parts of a narco-state.
Some 60,000 U.S. and NATO forces now in Afghanistan is a deceptive number, as all of NATO's European forces, with the exception of the British and the Dutch, are hamstrung by caveats imposed by their parliaments against offensive operations.
Some 120,000 Pakistani troops (up from 100,000 in recent months) are now stationed in FATA. Strung out in more than 1,000 hilltop outposts overlooking infiltration routes in the valleys below, they complain about U.S.-supplied, obsolete night-vision equipment that is useless by moonlight. Inside the largely lawless FATA, the population is for the most part sympathetic to the jihadist insurgency.
The jihadists also have sympathizers among the Pakistani-trained Frontier Corps, drawn from the local population and officered by Pakistani regulars. There is a widespread belief in the U.S. intelligence community of collusion between Pakistan's intelligence services and the Taliban leadership.
Increasingly, the U.S. command in Afghanistan is launching drones, equipped with precision-guided bombs and missiles, against intelligence-generated targets of Taliban venues. This is seen in Pakistan as violating their sovereignty, but there isn't much they can do about it, given that Taliban-in-Pakistan, a separate command from Taliban-in-Afghanistan, has ordered suicide bombings from the North-West Frontier Province to Sindh province in the south.
The unknown in the Pakistani imbroglio is Nawaz Sharif and Saudi Arabia, where he spent seven years in exile after being deposed by Musharraf's 1999 army coup. U.S. influence in Pakistan is waning while the Saudis' is waxing. The kingdom's Wahhabi clergy have been funding many of Pakistan's 12,000 madrassas since long before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Libya and the United Arab Emirates also have kicked in sizable sums for these one-discipline Koranic schools. Prior to Sept. 11, only three countries, Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., and Pakistan, recognized the Taliban's tyrannical theocracy in Kabul.
A Pakistani source just back from the Khyber Agency in FATA told this reporter Monday that posters of Nawaz Sharif were much in evidence. The people he spoke with were "extremely happy that Musharraf and the U.S. are leaving the scene." Roadside stores were selling all types of arms (including rocket launchers) and ammo. Taliban in black turbans were roaming joyously in stolen vehicles.
In Islamabad, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani, the army chief, told a visitor he was determined to keep the army out of politics. Rapidly unfolding events and a seriously ailing body politic may force a "rethink."
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