Beyond the horizon

So, Hurricane Gustav wasn't as bad as feared, and oil is down to $105 this morning.  And there's no geopolitical tension on the horizon to shake things up. Of course, beyond the horizon is a rather different matter.

Seeing as Russia has already checkmated one of Washington's grand schemes for transporting energy from Central Asia — demonstrating Moscow can move on the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline in Georgia anytime it wishes — it is now undermining another of Washington's grand schemes, the planned pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.

The Times of London reports Russia is sending a small contingent of security forces to train its counterparts in Afghanistan — a first since the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989.

At a meeting with President Karzai in Tajikistan last week President Medvedev offered to send 225 Russian police officers to help to train the Afghan National Police, according to Afghan officials. Mr Karzai, who met the Russian leader at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, accepted his offer and the details are being discussed, the officials said. . .

The number may be tiny compared with the 70,000 or so troops from Nato, the US and its allies now deployed in Afghanistan, some of whom are already training the ANP, but the agreement highlights Russia's determination to reassert its influence in Central Asia, the Caucasus and other regions that it sees as lying within its strategic "sphere of influence". 

It's worth bearing in mind just who the players are in Afghanistan.  President Karzai is an ethnic Pashtun, who make up a plurality of Afghans, but he has little support among his fellow Pashtun.  The Afghan government installed by Washington in 2001-2002 is an outgrowth of the Northern Alliance, consisting of ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks who fought the Pashtun-dominated Taliban throughout the 1990s with a lot of support from… Russia.

The Geogian conflict, meanwhile, hasn't gone away.  Rhetoric from both sides is still raw, and Toronto Sun columnist Eric Margolis doesn't like where it's all going.

This ugly mess recalls how the great powers blundered into both World War I and II over obscure locales like Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Danzig Corridor. The obvious lesson: act with extreme caution. But few are listening as rhetoric sharpens.

The Bush administration – most likely VP Dick Cheney – almost certainly planned or knew about Georgia’s attack on Russian-backed South Ossetia launched under cover of the Beijing Olympics. Whether the White House was trying to inflict a quick little military victory over Moscow, or whipping up war fever at home to boost John McCain’s prospects, is uncertain…

Things may get worse. The US is pressing Ukraine to join NATO, though half of its 48 million citizens oppose doing so. Ukraine’s constitution mandates a neutral state. Russia allowed Ukraine to decamp from the Soviet Union with the understanding it would never join NATO, and allow Russia’s Black Sea Fleet operate from Crimea.

Russian political expert Sergei Markov rightly notes that Washington and NATO see Ukraine as a rich new source of troops for Iraq and Afghanistan, wars from which he says NATO leaders cannot withdraw their soldiers without committing `political suicide.’

Meanwhile, Washington's ally in Iraq, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, is feeling rather cocky these days, talking of all "foreign" troops being gone by 2011 — including the non-combat forces that Bush, McCain, and Obama all see staying there more or less in perpetuity.  I suspect military "advisers" from Iran — where the leaders of al-Maliki's coalition spent their years in exile during Saddam's reign — might prove an exception.  Then the real fun begins.