Building a Central Asian Confederation: The Grand Strategy of Pushtunistan for the Pushtunis

Dr. Robert D. Crane

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Building a Central Asian Confederation: The Grand Strategy of Pushtunistan for the Pushtunis

A Grand Strategy for Central Asian Peace

by Dr. Robert D. Crane

I.  The Regional Background

  Before the British left South Asia, the largest nation in the region was not India or China or the Soviet Union, because all three were rival empires, not nations.  The largest nation, defined as a people with a shared sense of their own history, common values for the present, and common hopes for the future, was Pushtunistan.  Half of it went to the new country of Afghanistan and half to the new country of Pakistan.  Pushtunistan was so large that it occupied half of each of these two countries.  The half of the Pushtunis in Afghanistan make Afghanistan larger in both area and population than the Middle Eastern country of Iraq, which is another of the artificial countries created by the European colonialists before they bugged out. 

  The major error of American policy in Afghanistan is the insistence that Pushtunistan must be split in two, which was also America’s greatest error in Vietnam, where the power of the Vietnamese nationalist commitment to unite both north and south eventually drove out the American occupiers.  Whereas the decision to split Germany after World War II was overcome peacefully, the decision to split Pushtunistan between two new countries and to include Baluchistan, another large nation just south of Pushtunistan, in the newly created Pakistan has led to constant guerrilla warfare aggravated by foreign efforts to pacify the insurgents.

  The stage has now been reached where all the separatist insurgents have joined de facto in a single revolutionary movement and are even willing to work with Al Qa’ida terrorists in a common cause of local liberation, even though Al Qa’ida is really interested only in global aggrandizement and therefore poses a threat not only to America but to everyone in Central Asia.

II.  The Perspective of Grand Strategy

  As detailed in my article, “Gaza and Afghanistan:  A Grand Strategic Perspective,” published on January 10, 2009, in, when one is overwhelmed by the current details of world affairs on the ground, it sometimes is good to fly up above the clouds for a different perspective.  This is one of the functions of what the British called “grand strategy.”

  There are various theories of grand strategy.  One might be called “power from the periphery.” Sea-powers, like Great Britain and America, based on islands, America being a rather large island, tend to view superior power as something that one can project from the world’s oceans onto the large landmasses, like Asia and Africa.  This has been the governing paradigm of Anglo-American colonialism and at one time of Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and even Italy. 

  Another theory might be called the Power of Isthmus, which can refer to control of a strip of land between two large landmasses, like Panama between North and South America or the Suez between Africa and Asia, or to a strip of water between such landmasses, such as the Bosphorus between Europe and Asia or the Gulf between Southwest Asia and the Arabian Peninsula.

  Still another paradigm or framework of thought in grand strategy is the power of the center of a landmass, which is the opposite of power from the periphery.  In Afghanistan and Pakistan, America is following a strategy of power from the periphery.  This poses a geopolitical clash of power.  According to the third theory, America and its closest allies are bound to lose in the end.

  This possibility was raised by a briefing on January 9th by one of the world’s most knowledgeable and experienced experts on the Middle East and Afghanistan to some diplomats and U.S. general officers from the Navy, Army, and Air Force.  In a brilliant talk, entitled “Comparing Iraq and Afghanistan,” this expert detailed why Iraq may turn out to have been merely a dry-run for a much more difficult challenge in Central Asia.  He developed in great detail a dozen ways in which Afghanistan is an incomparably more difficult challenge to American policy than Iraq ever was.

  One member of the small audience dared to ask why we should even be interested in Afghanistan.  The only answer, an immediate one, was “9/11”.  Next question.

  This superficial answer would have shocked all the grand strategists from Sun Tsu a few thousand years ago to Ibn Khaldun at the time of the Mongol Conquest and Klausewitz in the modern era.  It would also have shocked the great strategists of the British Empire a hundred years ago, who argued heatedly on the basis of the three geopolitical theories of the periphery, isthmus, and center.  And it would have shocked me and the other three co-founding principals, Admiral Arleigh Burke, Dave Abshire, and Dick Allen, on September 4th, 1962, when we laid the ground rules for the new Center for Strategic and International Studies, then more properly known simply as the Center for Strategic Studies, whereby all human activities are strategic.

  No-one at the briefing on January 9th, 2009, seemed to be aware of Mackinder’s Heartland Theory that whoever controls the center of a continent shapes its entire future.  This has been a basis of British, Russian, and Chinese global strategy for centuries.  John MacKinder co-founded the London School of Economics in the 1890s and headed it for several years a decade later leading up to the First World War.  He warned against Russian Bolshevism and later of Chinese Communism as major powers in Asia extending outward to its peripheries, and was prescient in expecting the rebirth of Persia as a power. 

  This is all very relevant to American ambitions in Afghanistan and perhaps even in Gaza today.  In 1947, Owen Lattimore wrote a book, Pivot of Asia, which applied the Mackinder theory to Afghanistan about the time that Mackinder died in March 1947.  I practically memorized Lattimore’s book that March on board a ship to China, where I planned to explore Outer Mongolia (the Red Army took it over at that very time and halted this adventure).  Lattimore was attacked as a Communist by Senator McCarthy three years later for warning that America’s future in East Asia would suffer the same defeat that the Byzantine Empire did in West Asia a few centuries earlier.

  When I spent a year in 1948-49 as the first American student at a German university after World War II, I also studied the Mackinder Heartland Theory as applied by Karl Haushofer, who was Hitler’s global theoretician, because I was writing a book on the intellectual and spiritual dynamics of resistance against totalitarian ideologies, hence my life-long interest in the NeoCons.

  The NeoCon theoreticians have not advocated Mackinder’s school of geopolitics, perhaps because it argues against the “power from the periphery” theory of global politics led by America.  Nevertheless, subliminally they have applied the Mackinder theory to justify U.S. policy toward Central Asia by almost reversing it to read that a global power can and must control Afghanistan even if this power is not based in the Asian heartland. 

  They also have insisted that occupation is the secret to countering terrorism. There are enough cases in the human history of foreign occupiers to suggest that the NeoCons were insane, where insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again without effect.  Recent scholars, such as Ilan Pappe, who left the University of Haifa in 2007 to research and teach the history of ethnopolitics at the University of Exeter, have examined statistics to show that 80% of all terrorist incidents worldwide are in response to foreign occupation and not to any aggrandizing ideologies, such as Osama bin Ladens apparent obsession with imposing a global “Islamic Caliphate.”

III.  The Model of Swat

  The recent reality check on America’s goals and strategy in Central Asia was highlighted at the recent international security conference in Munich, Germany, by the new head of the U.S. Central Command, General David Petraeus, who warned on February 8th, 2009, that, “Afghanistan has been known over the years as the graveyard of empires.  We cannot take that history lightly.”  Others have said more graphically in reference to the former British Northwest Frontier Agency that, “Afghanistan is history’s black hole.” 

  This is true, however, only from the perspective of people who have tried to conquer it.  The Pushtuns in this region are similar to other mountain peoples, like the Nagas in the former British Northeast Frontier Agency near the junction of Burma and Tibet, and the Chechens in the Caucasus, who occasionally have been subjugated but in the past two thousand years have never been defeated.

  A more realistic approach than foreign control has now been tried by the Pakistanis in arranging a conditional truce with the Taliban in the Swat Valley, which is fifty miles east of Afghanistan and eighty miles west of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, in a scenic part of the Northwest Frontier Agency in northern Pushtunistan just east of the northern tip of FATA, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.  On February 16, 2009, under the auspices of the non-violent leader, Sufi Muhammad, who is similar to the great Badshah Ghaffar Khan and is the father-in-law of the head of the Taliban in Swat, Maulana Fazlullah, the government of Pakistan and the Taliban agreed to a truce on condition that foreign secular laws would no longer supplant Islamic law as a means to bring peace and prosperity.  The Pakistani hope is that the gradual radicalization of the Taliban from their more moderate roots in the Deobandi Movement against British colonialism in India can be reversed by accepting the legitimacy of their opposition to foreign cultural invasion. 

  One of the most astute grand strategists against global terrorism, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, considers that this truce may provide a model for the rest of the Pushtun area in both Afghanistan and Baluchistan.  Secretary Gates commented on February 18th that, “We would be very open to a Swat-like deal for Afghanistan.”

  In my position paper, “Counter-Terrorism 101: Grand Strategy: The Missing Dimension of Foreign Policy,” Policy Paper No. 8, published in September, 1998, by the United Association for Studies and Research, I quoted Gates’ article in the August 16th, 1998, New York Times in which he warned against the apocalyptic mentality that threatened to and indeed did lead four days later to the bombing of the only pharmaceutical factory in Sudan in response to the totally unrelated bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania as a means to do something, anything, to show that a superpower cannot be belittled without retaliation.

  Secretary Gates is one of the most experienced strategists in modern warfare, dating from his 26 years in the CIA, which culminated in his appointment as Director of Central Intelligence under the elder President Bush.  Secretary Gates’ wisdom from a lifetime of experience bears repeating today.  In his August, 1998, New York Times piece he wrote:

  “The war [against terrorism] is the quintessential ‘long, twilight struggle’ with limited casualties on the terrorists’ side, occasional appalling casualties on our side, and countless victims caught in between, as we have seen in Africa.  The painful question facing the American people and the American government today - as in the mid-80’s - is whether to make a war against terrorism our highest priority in foreign policy; a war in which broader American political, economic, and security interests would be sacrificed to our own jihad, or holy war, against terrorists.

  “This, then, brings us to the final reality of how Americans must respond to terrorist acts as we have seen in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, and Tanzania.  We will never prevent all - or even most - such acts.  In the world of real choices, we can protect ourselves better.  We can bring some terrorists to justice.  But, above all, we can pursue policies and strategies that in the long run weaken terrorism’s roots [emphasis added].

  “We can pursue a peace in the Middle East that does not kowtow to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s obstructionism and betrayal of Yitzhak Rabin’s legacy.  We can carefully pursue a nascent dialogue with President Muhammad Khatemi of Iran and not play into the hands of his militant domestic adversaries (who may see terrorism against us as hitting two birds with one stone).

  “And we can promote human rights and political freedom in the Middle East as we did in the Soviet Union and try to do now in Asia. ... This mix of force and diplomacy, this reliance on patience and planning, the painful realization of more casualties to come, is not satisfying emotionally. ... In reality, though, its is the only sustainable course.  But even this approach to dealing with terrorism cannot be sustained absent a broader American strategy for dealing with the world beyond our borders.”

IV.  Let the Taliban Solve Afghanistan’s Problems?

  We may end up supporting the “good guy” Taliban against the “bad-guy” Taliban and leave it for the winner to get rid of al Qa’ida, which most of the Taliban hate as foreign interlopers even though they do share a hatred of foreign occupiers.  We supported the Taliban, perhaps mistakenly against all the other contenders, as the only power strong enough to provide stability after the Soviets left, but we decided that the Taliban were no-goodniks after they agreed to turn Osama bin Laden over to a neutral country for trial rather than to us.  Bush said he was going to get Osama “dead or alive,” but the Taliban, who were quite glad to get rid of him as a guest who had overstayed his welcome, felt an obligation to oppose foreign intimidation.  We responded by including the Taliban in the axis of evil, which turned them into local heroes, and the rest is history.

  The Taliban headquarters are in Baluchistan’s capital Quetta and no-one dares go after the Taliban there, because the Baluchis are a semi-sovereign nation, nominally within Pakistan, with enormous resources of natural gas which Pakistan is sharing with the Baluchis.  The Baluchis, however, want more of the take and so have de facto declared war on the Pakistani government.  Everyone is treating the Baluchis with kid gloves, even though some of Obama’s advisers say that we should expand the war by bombing them into submission, the way we tried it in Vietnam. 

  The Taliban are not popular in Pushtunistan, which is the largest nation in this part of the world, but they share the Pushtun hatred of all foreigners, so the Taliban are tolerated and even supported in the common cause.  There is no way that the Punjabis, who run the Pakistani military, are going to wage a war against the Pushtuns, because the entire country of Pakistan would disintegrate overnight, especially because the Taliban are the link between the Pushtuns and Baluchis and really call the tune over there.

  The State Department somehow thinks that there are two countries in this part of Central Asia and so has two desks, one for Afghanistan and one for Pakistan, and they do not talk with each other because they are rivals for clout in the State Department.  Our diplomats want to create a Western democracy in both countries and have hired expert ex-pats from each country to tell us how important this is.

  General Petreaous seems to know what is going on and thinks the State Department experts are idiots, but State thinks that the U.S. military is idiotic for trying to stabilize Central Asia militarily before it can be saved by economic development, humanitarian aid, democratic elections.  Petreaous says there never have been and never will be democratic elections in this part of the world, so forget about the American concept of “freedom” imposed at the point of a gun.

  May we dare to simply let the Taliban solve Afghanistan’s problems?  The Pakistani government has already concluded that this is the only solution, even though Zardari and the Punjabis may continue to talk a good line in order to blackmail America into giving them huge economic and military stimulus payments as a reward for sweet talk. 

  The Pakistanis are really more concerned about America’s favorite ally, India, so they simply cannot focus on America’s determination to bring everlasting peace to Central Asia.  Russia’s Putin is willing to provide an alternative to the southern overland route for American military supplies, but resupply through Russia and the Near Abroad will only be enough to bargain for U.S. abandonment of a missile “defense” shield in Eastern Europe and for American agreement to keep NATO out of the Caucasus.  Putin bribed Kyrgyzistan last week to cut off air supply from the north, so Putin has America by the proverbial balls, and it seems that so does everyone else in the world.

  There is one policy that American strategists have never tried.  This is to unite diverse peoples in a federation or confederation rather than force them into a survival battle against each other like scorpions in a bottle.  This would be particularly effective if such a political federation were based on the economic democracy of individual market-based capital ownership.  This could be accomplished by demonopolizing central ownership of their major natural resources through the issuance of equal shares of voting and inalienable stock to every resident of the federation or confederation.  This, in turn, could provide the real assets to back the issuance of interest-free money designed to avoid the economic dead end of socialist envy and the financial devastation of unrestrained capitalist greed.

  Unfortunately, there appears to be no place on earth where the grand strategy of group rights, as proposed by Woodrow Wilson in the early 20th century, or the grand strategy of broadened capital ownership, as first proposed in the mid-20th century by Grand Mufti Ibn Ashur of Tunisia and by Louis Kelso and by Norman Kurland’s Center for Economic and Social Justice (, are taken seriously.  The reason for this lack of grand strategic thinking is that truly creative thought designed for the 21st century conflicts with the utopia of imposing a New World Order through unilateral preemption under the cover of freedom and democracy but at the expense of all the underlying human values rooted in transcendent justice.

  We can start with revolutionary slogans, such as “Pushtunistan for the Pushtunis,” “Own or Be Owned,” and “Close the Wealth Gap,” but these must represent a commitment to paradigmatic transformation.