Date: Tue Jan 20 2009 - 00:06:33 EST
OBAMA ENTERS THE GREAT GAME
By George Friedman
U.S. President-elect Barack Obama will be sworn in on Tuesday as president
the United States. Candidate Obama said much about what he would do as
president; now we will see what President Obama actually does. The most
important issue Obama will face will be the economy, something he did not
anticipate through most of his campaign. The first hundred days of his
presidency thus will revolve around getting a stimulus package passed. But
Obama also is now in the great game of global competition -- and in that
presidents rarely get to set the agenda.
The major challenge he faces is not Gaza; the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is
not one any U.S. president intervenes in unless he wants to experience
we have explained, that is an intractable conflict to which there is no real
solution. Certainly, Obama will fight being drawn into mediating the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict during his first hundred days in office. He
undoubtedly will send the obligatory Middle East envoy, who will spend time
with all the parties, make suitable speeches and extract meaningless
concessions from all sides. This envoy will establish some sort of process
which everyone will cynically commit, knowing it will go nowhere. Such a
mission is not involvement -- it is the alternative to involvement, and the
reason presidents appoint Middle East envoys. Obama can avoid the Gaza
and he will do so.
Obama's Two Unavoidable Crises
The two crises that cannot be avoided are Afghanistan and Russia. First, the
situation in Afghanistan is tenuous for a number of reasons, and it is not a
crisis that Obama can avoid decisions on. Obama has said publicly that he
decrease his commitments in Iraq and increase them in Afghanistan. He thus
have more troops fighting in Afghanistan. The second crisis emerged from a
decision by Russia to cut off natural gas to Ukraine, and the resulting
in natural gas deliveries to Europe. This one obviously does not affect the
United States directly, but even after flows are restored, it affects the
Europeans greatly. Obama therefore comes into office with three interlocking
issues: Afghanistan, Russia and Europe. In one sense, this is a single
and it is not one that will wait.
Obama clearly intends to follow Gen. David Petraeus' lead in Afghanistan.
intention is to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan, thereby
intensifying pressure on the Taliban and opening the door for negotiations
the militant group or one of its factions. Ultimately, this would see the
inclusion of the Taliban or Taliban elements in a coalition government.
Petraeus pursued this strategy in Iraq with Sunni insurgents, and it is the
likely strategy in Afghanistan.
But the situation in Afghanistan has been complicated by the situation in
Pakistan. Roughly three-quarters of U.S. and NATO supplies bound for
Afghanistan are delivered to the Pakistani port of Karachi and trucked over
border to Afghanistan. Most fuel used by Western forces in Afghanistan is
refined in Pakistan and delivered via the same route. There are two crossing
points, one near Afghanistan's Kandahar province at Chaman, Pakistan, and
other through the Khyber Pass. The Taliban have attacked Western supply
and convoys, and Pakistan itself closed the routes for several days, citing
government operations against radical Islamist forces.
Meanwhile, the situation in Pakistan has been complicated by tensions with
India. The Indians have said that the individuals who carried out the Nov.
Mumbai attack were Pakistanis supported by elements in the Pakistani
government. After Mumbai, India made demands of the Pakistanis. While the
situation appears to have calmed, the future of Indo-Pakistani relations
remains far from clear; anything from a change of policy in New Delhi to new
terrorist attacks could see the situation escalate. The Pakistanis have
clear that a heightened threat from India requires them to shift troops away
from the Afghan border and toward the east; a small number of troops already
has been shifted.
Apart from the direct impact this kind of Pakistani troop withdrawal would
on cross-border operations by the Taliban, such a move also would
increase the vulnerability of NATO supply lines through Pakistan. Some
could be shipped in by aircraft, but the vast bulk of supplies -- petroleum,
ammunition, etc. -- must come in via surface transit, either by truck, rail
ship. Western operations in Afghanistan simply cannot be supplied from the
alone. A cutoff of the supply lines across Pakistan would thus leave U.S.
troops in Afghanistan in crisis. Because Washington can't predict or control
the future actions of Pakistan, of India or of terrorists, the United States
must find an alternative to the routes through Pakistan.
When we look at a map, the two routes through Pakistan from Karachi are
the most logical to use. If those were closed -- or even meaningfully
-- the only other viable routes would be through the former Soviet Union.
One route, along which a light load of fuel is currently transported,
the Caspian Sea. Fuel refined in Armenia is ferried across the Caspian to
Turkmenistan (where a small amount of fuel is also refined), then shipped
across Turkmenistan directly to Afghanistan and through a small spit of
Uzbekistan. This route could be expanded to reach either the Black Sea
Georgia or the Mediterranean through Georgia and Turkey (though the
use of Turkey would require a rail gauge switch). It is also not clear that
transports native to the Caspian have sufficient capacity for this.
Another route sidesteps the issues of both transport across the Caspian and
sensitivity of Georgia by crossing Russian territory above the Caspian.
Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan (and likely at least a small corner of Turkmenistan)
would connect the route to Afghanistan. There are options of connecting to
Black Sea or transiting to Europe through either Ukraine or Belarus.
Iran could provide a potential alternative, but relations between Tehran and
Washington would have to improve dramatically before such discussions could
even begin -- and time is short.
Many of the details still need to be worked out. But they are largely
variations on the two main themes of either crossing the Caspian or
Russian territory above it.
Though the first route is already partially established for fuel, it is not
clear how much additional capacity exists. To complicate matters further,
Turkmen acquiescence is unlikely without Russian authorization, and Armenia
remains strongly loyal to Moscow as well. While the current Georgian
might leap at the chance, the issue is obviously an extremely sensitive one
Moscow. (And with Russian forces positioned in Azerbaijan and the Georgian
breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Moscow has troops looming
both sides of the vulnerable route across Georgia.) The second option would
require crossing Russian territory itself, with a number of options -- from
connecting to the Black Sea to transiting either Ukraine or Belarus to
or connecting to the Baltic states.
(click image to enlarge)
Both routes involve countries of importance to Russia where Moscow has
influence, regardless of whether those countries are friendly to it. This
give Russia ample opportunity to scuttle any such supply line at multiple
points for reasons wholly unrelated to Afghanistan.
If the West were to opt for the first route, the Russians almost certainly
would pressure Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan not to cooperate, and Turkey
find itself in a position it doesn't want to be in -- namely, caught between
the United States and Russia. The diplomatic complexities of developing
routes not only involve the individual countries included, they also
lead to the question of U.S.-Russian relations.
Even without crossing Russia, both of these two main options require Russian
cooperation. The United States must develop the option of an alternative
route to Pakistan, and in doing so, it must define its relationship with
Russia. Seeking to work without Russian approval of a route crossing its
abroad" will represent a challenge to Russia. But getting Russian approval
require a U.S. accommodation with the country.
The Russian Natural Gas Connection
One of Obama's core arguments against the Bush administration was that it
unilaterally rather than with allies. Specifically, Obama meant that the
administration alienated the Europeans, therefore failing to build a
sustainable coalition for the war. By this logic, it follows that one of
Obama's first steps should be to reach out to Europe to help influence or
pressure the Russians, given that NATO has troops in Afghanistan and Obama
said he intends to ask the Europeans for more help there.
The problem with this is that the Europeans are passing through a serious
crisis with Russia, and that Germany in particular is involved in trying to
manage that crisis. This problem relates to natural gas. Ukraine is
on Russia for about two-thirds of the natural gas it uses. The Russians
traditionally have provided natural gas at a deep discount to former Soviet
republics, primarily those countries Russia sees as allies, such as Belarus
Armenia. Ukraine had received discounted natural gas, too, until the 2004
Orange Revolution, when a pro-Western government came to power in Kiev. At
point, the Russians began demanding full payment. Given the subsequent
global energy prices, that left Ukraine in a terrible situation -- which of
course is exactly where Moscow wanted it.
The Russians cut off natural gas to Ukraine for a short period in January
and for three weeks in 2009. Apart from leaving Ukraine desperate, the
immediately affected the rest of Europe, because the natural gas that goes
Europe flows through Ukraine. This put the rest of Europe in a dangerous
position, particularly in the face of bitterly cold weather in 2008-2009.
The Russians achieved several goals with this. First, they pressured Ukraine
directly. Second, they forced many European states to deal with Moscow
rather than through the European Union. Third, they created a situation in
which European countries had to choose between supporting Ukraine and
their own homes. And last, they drew Berlin in particular -- since Germany
the most dependent of the major European states on Russian natural gas --
the position of working with the Russians to get Ukraine to agree to their
terms. (Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited Germany last week to
discuss this directly with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.)
The Germans already have made clear their opposition to expanding NATO to
Ukraine and Georgia. Given their dependency on the Russians, the Germans are
not going to be supporting the United States if Washington decides to
Russia over the supply route issue. In fact, the Germans -- and many of the
Europeans -- are in no position to challenge Russia on anything, least of
on Afghanistan. Overall, the Europeans see themselves as having limited
interests in the Afghan war, and many already are planning to reduce or
withdraw troops for budgetary reasons.
It is therefore very difficult to see Obama recruiting the Europeans in any
useful manner for a confrontation with Russia over access for American
to Afghanistan. Yet this is an issue he will have to address immediately.
The Price of Russian Cooperation
The Russians are prepared to help the Americans, however -- and it is clear
what they will want in return.
At minimum, Moscow will want a declaration that Washington will not press
the expansion of NATO to Georgia or Ukraine, or for the deployment of
forces in non-NATO states on the Russian periphery -- specifically, Ukraine
Georgia. At this point, such a declaration would be symbolic, since Germany
other European countries would block expansion anyway.
The Russians might also demand some sort of guarantee that NATO and the
States not place any large military formations or build any major military
facilities in the former Soviet republics (now NATO member states) of
Latvia and Lithuania. (A small rotating squadron of NATO fighters already
patrols the skies over the Baltic states.) Given that there were intense
anti-government riots in Latvia and Lithuania last week, the stability of
countries is in question. The Russians would certainly want to topple the
pro-Western Baltic governments. And anything approaching a formal agreement
between Russia and the United States on the matter could quickly destabilize
the Baltics, in addition to very much weakening the NATO alliance.
Another demand the Russians probably will make -- because they have in the
-- is that the United States guarantee eventual withdrawal from any bases in
Central Asia in return for Russian support for using those bases for the
current Afghan campaign. (At present, the United States runs air logistics
operations out of Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan.) The Russians do not want to
see Central Asia become a U.S. sphere of influence as the result of an
Other demands might relate to the proposed U.S. ballistic missile defense
installations in the Czech Republic and Poland.
We expect the Russians to make variations on all these demands in exchange
cooperation in creating a supply line to Afghanistan. Simply put, the
will demand that the United States acknowledge a Russian sphere of
the former Soviet Union. The Americans will not want to concede this -- or
least will want to make it implicit rather than explicit. But the Russians
want this explicit, because an explicit guarantee will create a crisis of
confidence over U.S. guarantees in the countries that emerged from the
Union, serving as a lever to draw these countries into the Russian orbit.
acquiescence on the point potentially would have ripple effects in the rest
Therefore, regardless of the global financial crisis, Obama has an immediate
problem on his hands in Afghanistan. He has troops fighting there, and they
must be supplied. The Pakistani supply line is no longer a sure thing. The
other options either directly challenge Russia (and ineffectively at that)
require Russian help. Russia's price will be high, particularly because
Washington's European allies will not back a challenge to Russia in Georgia,
and all options require Russian cooperation anyway. Obama's plan to recruit
Europeans on behalf of American initiatives won't work in this case. Obama
not want to start his administration with making a massive concession to
Russia, but he cannot afford to leave U.S. forces in Afghanistan without
supplies. He can hope that nothing happens in Pakistan, but that is up to
Taliban and other Islamist groups more than anyone else -- and betting on
goodwill is not a good idea.
Whatever Obama is planning to do, he will have to deal with this problem
before Afghanistan becomes a crisis. And there are no good solutions. But
unlike with the Israelis and Palestinians, Obama can't solve this by
special envoy who appears to be doing something. He will have to make a very
tough decision. Between the economy and this crisis, we will find out what
of president Obama is.
And we will find out very soon.
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Copyright 2009 Stratfor.
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