THE GREAT GAME :America's Strategy in Central & South Asia


Lt. Gen. Eric A. Vas


In the early 19th Century, when Russian troops started penetrating into Central Asia, the British saw this as a threat to Afghanistan and India.Over the next 100 years British and Russian officers, explorers and military forces took part in a "Great Game", confronting one another over the vast mountainous chessboard of high Asia.The ultimate prize, or so it then seemed in London, was British India. Today, the USA is once again involved in the Great Game in the same region.It does not face any formal military opponent but is fighting Islamic terrorism.This time the prize is not territorial but economic gain: the oil and gas resources of Central Asia.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the six states of Central Asia became independent republics.The Russians, being well established in the area, were the first to purchase exploration concessions wherever they wanted.They were followed by US, European, Japanese, Chinese and Indian aspirants, who acquired concessions in various states and are now exploring for oil. Today, the only oil pipelines from Central Asia run via the Caspian Sea to Turkey and Russia. .[The Russian firm Gazporon is planning to lay a similar type of gas pipeline between Iran and India through the shallow waters of Pakistan.].It is unlikely that a major oil discovery in Central Asia could threaten Arab monopoly of the oil market but it would certainly lower the capacity of the Arabs to call the tune in price fixing and export quotas.

Unlike oil, gas is readily available in Turkmenistan.The problem is to deliver it to likely markets. A gas pipeline has to have facilities at the delivery point either to compress the gas [CNG] or liquefy it [LPG] for export in special ships or by road transport. This add to the price. India has gas fields in Gujarat and off-shore Mumbai but the output is not sufficient to warrant the installation of a CNG plant.†† Northeastern India has viable gas fields but these are not being exploited because there is no demand for this in the northeast, and piping this to the west would make it too expensive.Bangladesh is considering a gas pipeline to deliver 300 trillion cubic feet gas daily to West Bengal.

Currently, India has entered into an agreement with Quatar [in the Gulf] for the supply of CNG by sea to a port in Gujarat.Delivery has been delayed because the off-handling facilities at Gujarat are not yet fully developed.This is likely to open very shortly.Quatar CNG will then be moved by road and rail to retail CNG outlets which are being developed all over India.†††

Iran already has a direct gas pipeline to Central Asia.It is reluctant to exploit this for two reasons.First, it faces competition from existing piped gas from Turkmenistan via the Caspian to Turkey and from there to Europe, where CNG and LPG is sold at a cheaper rate than Iran could deliver.Second, Iran is keen to develop it own gas resources.China has begun laying oil and gas pipelines across its northern region to the Pacific.

The US is determined not to be left behind in the race for this potential wealth of Central Asia.Relying on its technological superiority and economic resources, it hopes to be the dominant oil and gas power in the region.††† Months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, America's UNICOL was negotiating with Afghanistan's infamous Taliban Government for its gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan. The US-lead attack on terrorists in Afghanistan delayed UNICOL's plans. But once the Taliban was uprooted and Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda dispersed, the laying of the pipeline is taking place at full speed.†† Pakistan has its own viable gas fields and does not need UNICOL gas for the present. It must therefore be assumed that this pipeline is being constructed to eventually deliver CNG or LPG from a port in Sind or to be piped as gas, by agreement to India.It is evident that this pipeline can never function until there is stability in Afghanistan and peaceful relations are established between India and Pakistan

The US in its on-going war against terrorism in Afghanistan, therefore, has to tread a thin line between India and Pakistan and maintain friendly relations with both.India has no quarrel with US commercial aims in the region.But it refuses to accept General Musharraf's double standards of claiming to fight international terrorism and at the same time giving shelter to local hard-line jehadis and the remnants of al-Qaeda terrorists, whilst supporting cross border terrorist attacks into J&K.America refuses to brand Pakistan a terrorist state but .it has told General Musharraf that militants operating in J&K cannot be termed as freedom fighters.The General has promised that he will close down terrorist camps in Pak Occupied Kashmir [POK] and stop cross border infiltration.

The US has divided the area of military operations in Asia into two clearly separate zones.Its Central Command deals with operations in the Middle East and Central Asia [the area between Turkey and Pakistan].†† Its Pacific Command deals with South East Asia and the Far East, [area east of Pakistan, from India to Japan].†† When the US opened military relations with India, its army began carrying out joint exercises with the Indian army at Agra and Indian and US naval ships undertook joint escort duties in the Straits of Malacca. The US has made it evident that it intends to treat Pakistan and India even-handedly.It has re-established military ties with Pakistan.Recently, it sold six Hercules C-130 transport aircraft to Pakistan and is preparing to resume military supplies to it. The Bush Administration turned down India's request to hold joint naval exercises in the Persian Gulf; instead, plans are afoot to hold these with the Pakistani navy. America has made it clear that it wants India to confine its military attention to the Pacific Command's zone.

Meanwhile the US Central Command's war against terrorism seems to have reached a stalemate.US planes continue to attack targets along the boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan, dropping bombs on caves and tunnels.Military forces are then flown in to search the area.So far, coalition forces have little to show for their effort besides uncovering weapon caches.India has said that Osama and other top terrorist leaders are being given shelter in Pakistan by the Pakistan's Inter Service Intelligence [ISI] either with or without the knowledge of General Mujsharraf.†† The situation may become tense if the US tries to live up to its declared determination "to smoke out every terrorist" and tackle those located within the territorial heart of Pakistan especially as election time draws close.

General Musharraf believes that the only way to safeguard democracy in Pakistan is to enshrine the army in politics.He has proposed sweeping constitutional amendments which, if accepted, would transform Pakistan's prime-ministerial system into a presidential one, and empower him to lord over the country for many years to come. Among the powers that the General covets are the right to appoint anyone from Parliament as prime minister regardless of whether he commands a majority at the time; the right to fire a prime minister and/or the cabinet and parliament.He also demands the right to nominate provincial governors with the powers similar to the President in relation to elected chief ministers and provincial parliaments. He also wants the chairmanship of a ten-member National Security Council comprising himself, the prime minister, the four provincial chief ministers, the three service chiefs, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

A series of new laws have been promulgated to ensure that the October elections yield a pliant pro-Musharraf parliament, which will accept all its amendments with the required two-third majority.These new laws are aimed at the three most popular party leaders ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto [of the Pakistan Peoples Party or PPP], ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif [Muslim League] and Mr Altaf Hussain who leads the Muttahida Qaumi Movement [MQM], which has its stronghold in Karachi and parts of Sind.All these three leaders live outside Pakistan.

The opposition is not taking the General's plans lying down.Ms Bhutto threatens to return from exile and act as a focus for the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy.Petitions are being filed almost every day before courts challenging the proposed constitutional amendments and new laws.The Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that General Musharraf could amend the constitution only in order to govern until the election but could not change its basic structure.This is why he desperately needs a pliable parliament.

Even if the General gets his way, there is no assurance his system will be sustainable.Pakistanis note a growing similarities between General Musharraf's plans and General Zia ul Haq's of almost 20 years ago.General Zia attempted a similar constitutional upheaval in 1985, held elections, which were boycotted by the PPP.He nominated a pliant Prime Minister.Three years later, however, the system broke down when the supposedly loyal parliament and prime minister turned against him and he responded with absolute rule.

Such pessimistic observations donít seem to worry the General.He is convinced that the vast majority of Pakistanis values the group more than the individual, order more than argument, authority more than liberty, solidarity more than freedom.He considers Western-style democratic standards impractical for his country. He believes that his form of government will strike a proper balance between autocracy and freedom, and will be better suited for Pakistan than a corrupt democratic mockery, such as prevails in India. He is confident that he can avoid the mistakes made by General Zia.††

The Bush Administration utters the occasional homily to Pakistan on the need for democracy.However, hardheaded and pragmatic Americans agree with Musharraf that the test of a sound political and social institution is not democracy or authoritarianism, but whether it can function adequately without demanding that people rise above the levels of their competence.So, for the present, American eyes no longer appear to be focused on democracy or even on the search for Osama bin Laden.The first priority appears to be the Great Game: oil exploration in Central Asia and the gas pipeline to Pakistan. India is watching the scene closely and has announced that until the September elections in J&K and the Pakistani elections in October are over, its armed forces will continue to remain at high alert.



Pervez Musharraf studied at St Patrick's High School in Karachi. Mr. L.K. Advani and I martriculated from the same school, which imparts a sound basic education and projects balanced humane values. Pervez spent his adolescent years in Turkey where his father served as a diplomat.Pervez was fascinated by visible evidence of how Kemal Attaturk had been able to modernize and secularize Turkey's administration and political structure without uprooting its Islamic character.

After he joined the army, Pervez passed successive professional examinations with high grades. He displayed outstanding courage and leadership qualities whilst leading his troops in several battles against India, firstly as a young officer and later as a colonel and a brigadier. This earned him the respect and unswerving loyalty of those who served under him and his reputation grew.†† Throughout this period he watched the senior officers and politicians with whom he came in contact.He was convinced that General Zia ul Haq's attempts to Isalamicise the armed forces and civil society, in order to strengthen his hold on the country, was a wrong and shortsighted policy that would rebound on the nation.It was probably at this time that he had made up his mind that should he ever reach the top-most seat of power, he would become the Kemal Attaturk of Pakistan and undo what President Zia had done.

Pervezshared his dream with a few of his chosen Pakistani and American friends.[A factor overlooked by most Indians is that many Pakistani and American military and civilian officers, through fifty years of professional interaction, have built up very close and genuine relationships with one another.]†† Musharraf knew that like Attaturk, he would have to make the Army his base.After being appointed Chief of the Army, he felt that the best way to enhance his popularity with the armed forces was to win a major battle against India.He evolved a plan for the intrusion into Kargil.It was a clever plan, which caught India napping.But when the Indian armed forces stood fast and demanded that the sanctity of the Line of Control be honoured, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came under severe pressure from the US.The PM ordered Musharraf to withdraw.Many Pakistanis accept Musharraf's claim that Kargil was a great victory and that the operations were only called off because weak politicians could not stand up to international pressure.

The Pakastani PM, who was probably never fully aware of what was actually happening on the border, was now conscious of his Army Chief's ambitions.When General Musharraf, who had been visiting Sri Lanka, was returning in an aircraft from Colombo, the PM ordered the captain of the plane to fly to Dubai, off-load the General and return to Karachi.Musharraf took over control of the plane, contacted Karachi airport and said that he was landing anyway.Before this could happen, the Vice-chief of the Army in Islamabad arrested the Prime Minster and declared a military coup. ††Musharraf is a mohajir [a refugee] from India with no ethnic roots in any of the four Pakistani provinces.That a coup could take place in his name, in his absence, while he was airborne, in a predominantly Punjabi army, indicates the tremendous popularity of the General.

When General Musharraf,saircraft landed at Karachi, he took over the mantle of President.In due course he had the Prime Minister tried on charges of attempted murder and hi-jacking, and had him pronounced guilty.I happened to be in Washington in April 2000, visiting the State Department on the day that sentence was to be passed on Nawaz Sharif.American officials who I met were confident that Nawaz would not be harmed.They kept advising me that that General Musharraf was Pakistan's best bet.If he left the scene he would be replaced "by a bearded general and that would be disastrous for Pakistan and South Asia." As predicted by the Americans, the General did not follow the bloody example of his predecessor.He banished the Sharif family to Saudi Arabia for a period of ten years.

In his first TV address to the nation, the General proclaimed that he wants to be the Kemal Attaturk of Pakistan and make it a modern Islamic state. Musharraf recruited, armed, trained and organised the Taliban guerrilla forces, and later the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Taliban guerrillas, assisted by USA and Pakistan, forced the Soviet Army to withdraw.The Taliban then ruled 95 percent of Afghanistan; only a small north-eastern pocket continued to be controlled by the Northern Alliance. This was more than one year before the 9/11 terrorist attacks took place in America.The General's reputation in US professional circles and in his army was very high.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the American oil firm, UNICOL began planning a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan, through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India.UNICOL's agent in Afghanistan was Hamid Karzami. America's security aim is to ensure that there are two strong pro-American states, Turkey and Pakistan, on either flank of the turbulent Islamic Middle East. Its economic aim is to establish a dominating presence over Central Asia's rich oil and gas resources.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the USA, President Bush declared an all-out war against international terrorism and vowed to crush the Taliban and al-Qaeda.Pervez, the flexible tactician, knew that American support was vital to his main aim of building a modern state; all other considerations were peripheral.He warned Taliban leaders and Osama bin Laden to escape, and they infiltrated into the western borders of Pakistan.He also ordered the withdrawal of Pakistani troops serving in Afghanistan. Taliban guerrillas dispersed into the countryside.However a group of about 4000 foreign mercenaries, Arabs and others, including some Pakistanis, were trapped and surrounded by Northern Alliance forces at Konduz, north of Kabul.The US had complete air supremacy over Afghanistan.Pervez, the loyalist, insisted that Pakistani helicopters be permitted to fly into Konduz garrison..The Americans agreed and all Pakistani soldiers were evacuated before the garrison surrendered. Pervez's reputation rose further in the eyes of his Army.

Having defeated the Taliban Government, the Americans appointed Hamid Karzami as the President of Afghanistan and began the reorganisation and rehabilitation of the country and the construction of the UNICOL pipeline.India has no quarrel with US strategic and commercial plans in the region, but refused to accept Pakistan's double standards of claiming that it is fighting international terrorism and at the same time supporting cross border terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir [J&K].President Bush, whilst refusing to declare Pakistan a terrorist state, advised Musharraf to close down all jehadi camps and stop referring to jehadis as freedom fighters.Pervez the flexible tactician agreed. The question of fighting a proxy war in J&K was a peripheral consideration to his principal aim of building a modern state with American assistance.

Pervez accepts that Pakistan cannot prosper without freedom and democracy.He believes that each country must evolve its own form of democracy.Britain, USA, Germany, France and other free countries each have their own brand of democracy to suit the psyche of their respective people. India's attempt to copy the Westminster system has been a total failure and has resulted in a hollow sham. The Lok Sabha keeps throwing up ugly scenes of shouting, gesticulating and walking into the well of the house, holding up proceedings and necessitating daily adjournments each costing the nation Rs 75 lakhs. Eminent Indians have declared that after 55 years of Independence, extreme rot has set into the political system.A stink envelopes the entire nation. Misdeeds and corruption of politicians are causing revulsion and apprehension that the country is not progressing. All admit that this is not a reflection on individuals but on the system

Pervez want to have nothing to do with such a system. He is amused when Indian leaders say that he, a military dictator, has no right to lecture to anyone about democracy. In the early years of independence, India was proud of flaunting itself as the world's largest democracy.But with the passage of time, the boast has begun to lose its gloss as the nation slides into futility.He is convinced that Pakistan needs a Turkish-type political system.

Undoubtedly Pervez will face many obstacles while leading his country on its path to modernisation. . [This aspect demands a separate and subsequent article.]Presently he faces grave threats to his life from his many opponents.But he is a brave man and we should have no doubt that he means business. So, he will win the coming elections by hook or by crook.Then, while maintaining the strength of the armed forces, Pervez is confident that in due course of time Pakistan will emerge as a strong modern state.This, and not cross border terrorism, is the ultimate challenge being posed by the General.This challenge cannot be met by deploying our armed forces on the border. Indian democracy is well suited to its pluralist society and its ancient traditions.But it would be rash for our corrupt politicians to underestimate the General's popular appeal and the challenge he poses. Indian politicians, bureaucrats and the judiciary must get their house in order and improve governance at all levels.