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Afghanistan: ‘A Decent Interval’

There is movement towards peace in Afghanistan – or at least towards an end to the American military ordeal there, which has lasted for almost eighteen years.

US officials and representatives of the Taliban insurgents have held seven rounds of direct talks in the tiny Gulf state of Qatar since last October, and they are getting close to a deal. During a visit to Afghanistan last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Trump administration hoped for “a peace deal before September 1st.”

This prospect is not getting much attention because everybody is worried that Trump is about to blunder his way into a new and much bigger war with next-door Iran, but it really could happen. American troops could all be gone from Afghanistan eighteen months from now.

The real question is: how long after that will it be before the Taliban are back in power?

When a great power loses a war with a much weaker enemy in a very much poorer country, it can’t actually admit defeat. That’s just too humiliating. So the local victors often have to let the great-power loser save face by giving it a “decent interval” (in Henry Kissinger’s deathless phrase) after the great power’s troops pull out before they collect their winnings.

How long is a ‘decent interval’? Generally around three years. That’s how long North Vietnam waited after US troops left South Vietnam (1972) before overrunning the South (1975). It’s how long it took after Russian troops left Afghanistan (1989) before their puppet government in Kabul was destroyed (1992) – although a civil war between rival Islamist groups prevented the Taliban from occupying the capital until four years later.

And it’s probably about how long the Taliban will have to wait after US troops leave Afghanistan this time (say late 2020, just before the US election), before they are formally back in power in Kabul (2023?).

There’s still a lot of killing going on in Afghanistan – around twenty civilians killed or wounded on the average day, at least twice that number of government troops, and large numbers of Taliban too – but the Taliban have won.

Even with huge US air support, the more-or-less elected government that the United States created in Kabul has lost control of one-third of Afghanistan since American and other Western troops pulled out of ground combat roles in 2014. Another third of the country is government-controlled by day, Taliban-run at night.

If the remaining 14,000 US troops and their associated air power leave, it’s game over for President Ashraf Ghani’s ‘puppet’ government (as the Taliban call it). The US implicity recognises this reality, because it’s only American diplomats, not official Afghan government representatives, who are negotiating with the Taliban in Qatar.

A few Afghan officials were allowed to be present at the last round of the Qatar peace talks ‘in a personal capacity’, but they weren’t negotiating anything. Ghani’s government will have to accept whatever deal the United States makes, knowing perfectly well that they are being abandoned. After that they will have no options left except to steal as much as they can, and then get out before the roof falls in.

And how will the White House justify selling out its Afghan allies and dependants to itself? Without any great difficulty, if the ‘Nixon Tapes’ are any guide.

The key conversation between President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, in August 1972, when they were deciding to rat on South Vietnam, was recorded on the White House system and subsequently made public during the ‘Watergate’ scandal.

Nixon: “Can we have a viable foreign policy if a year from now or two years from now, North Vietnam gobbles up South Vietnam? That’s the real question.”

Kissinger: “(Yes), if it looks as if it’s the result of South Vietnamese incompetence. If we now sell out in such a way that, say, within a three- to four-month period, we have pushed (them) over the brink…it won’t help us all that much.

“So we’ve got to find some formula that holds the thing together a year or two… after which—after a year, Mr. President, Vietnam will be a backwater. If we settle it, say, this October, by January ’74 no one will give a damn.”

It worked for Nixon and Kissinger, and it can work for Trump and Pompeo too. They may not be as clever or as cunning, but they are just as ruthless. The pull-out won’t come back to bite them politically, either, because the Taliban were never interested in attacking the United States. (That was al-Qaeda.)

The only losers in the settlement will be the Afghans, who have to live under Taliban rule again. But that was always going to happen in the end.
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“This…now”; and “A few…falls in”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Communist Takeover in Nepal

The Communists are taking over in Nepal, and nobody cares. Thirty years ago it would have caused a grave international crisis; fifty years ago there would even have been talk of foreign military intervention. Today – nothing. Outside Nepal, it has barely made the news at all.

In the grand old Marxist tradition, Nepal’s Communists have split and split again over fine points of doctrine and strategy. Recently, however, the Communist Party of Nepal – Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) managed to form an electoral alliance that swept the recent national elections, the first since 1999.

Various Communist leaders have held office in the revolving-door coalitions, none lasting much more than a year, that have governed Nepal since it began its democratic transition a dozen years ago, but you couldn’t truthfully have said that ‘the Communists are in power.’

Now you really can say it. The CPN-UML and the CPN (Maoist Centre) ran a single joint candidate in every constituency in Nepal, and won two-thirds of the seats (174 out of 275). The two parties are pledged to unite within six months, and they will form a government without non-Communist members that will rule Nepal, if all goes well, for the next five years.

They are real Communists, too, unlike the namby-pamby ‘Eurocommunists’ who sought popular support in Western Europe by disavowing violent revolution in the final decade before the collapse of Communist power in Eastern Europe in 1989-91. Nepal’s Communists fought a ten-year ‘revolutionary’ guerilla war that killed 17,000 people before a ceasefire was signed in 2006 and the democratic transition began.

Nepal is not some tiny, irrelevant backwater. It is a country with more people than Australia (although much less land or money), and it takes up half of the Himalayan border between China and India. In the self-serving definition of the world’s think-tanks and ‘strategic studies institutes’, it is important strategic territory. Yet Washington doesn’t really care that the Communists are taking over, and neither does Moscow.

New Delhi and Beijing care a little bit, because of their inevitable rivalry as Asia’s and the world’s two biggest countries (1.3 billion people each). Both see their relations with Nepal as a zero-sum game, and India’s traditionally dominant influence there (all Nepalis live on the Indian side of the Himalayas) is threatened by the presumed preference of Nepalese Communists for fellow Communists in China.

But the lights are not burning late either in South Block or in Chaoyang. The fact of the matter is that Communists coming to power in Nepal in 2018 makes no more difference to the rest of the world than Communists coming to power in South Vietnam did in 1975.

Well, you knew where I was going with this, didn’t you? South Vietnam had about the same number of people in 1975 as Nepal does now, and it was just as ‘strategic’ – which is to say, not very strategic at all.

When the Communists won in the South and reunified Vietnam, it may even have changed the lives of most South Vietnamese for the better, although that depends on what you mean by ‘better’. It certainly didn’t change anybody’s domestic policies elsewhere in Southeast Asia, or change the calculations of the major powers in any way.

You can’t even blame the Cambodian genocide on the Communist victory in South Vietnam. Cambodia, like Vietnam, was likely to end up under Communist rule anyway, because it had also been part of French Indo-China and it was the Communists who led the anti-colonial resistance.

But it was Henry Kissinger’s savage and illegal bombing campaign in Cambodia, not the war in Vietnam, that turned the Khmer Rouge into genocidal monsters. And it was the Vietnamese Communists who finally invaded Cambodia in 1978 and put an end to the genocide.

The whole Vietnam War, which killed 55,000 American soldiers and about three million Vietnamese, was founded on the delusion that there was a monolithic Communist bloc that threatened ‘freedom’ all over the world. (‘If we lose in Vietnam, California will be next’.)

Certainly there were Communist fanatics who dreamed of spreading their ideology (which prioritised equality over freedom) all over the world, but the reality was geopolitics as usual. The Soviet Union and Communist China fought a border war in 1969 to demonstrate that fact, and for slow learners Communist China and Communist Vietnam fought their own border war in 1979 to drive the lesson home.

Now, mercifully, the ‘domino theory’ is dead (or at least dormant), and the arrival of Communists in power in Nepal through entirely legal and democratic means is causing no panic whatever. Whether their new government will serve the Nepalese well remains to be seen, but Nepal’s Communists are publicly committed to respecting the rules of parliamentary democracy, and a majority of Nepalese clearly believe them.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“You…genocide”)

Trouble in the South China Sea

If you were running China, and you wanted to distract your own population from economic woes at home by pushing one of your many territorial disputes with your neighbours into open conflict, which one would you choose?

Not Japan, even though most Chinese people really dislike and distrust Japan: it’s allied to the United States, and China is not yet ready for a military confrontation with the US Navy. Not the Philippines, either, for the same reason. But Vietnam, a Communist state, is all alone with no allies. It’s perfect for the role, and it will play its part well.

Early this month, China moved its Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil-drilling rig into a part of the South China Sea where Vietnam also claims the seabed rights. Vietnam sent ships to protest the move, China sent more ships to protect the rig – Hanoi accuses accused China of massing 80 vessels in the area, including warships – and the fun and games began: rammings, battles with water cannon, and a great deal of self-righteous indignation on both sides.

The Vietnamese regime has never been afraid to defy China: it even fought a border war with its giant neighbour to the north in 1979. This year, for the first time, Hanoi publicly commemorated a 1974 clash in which Chinese forces seized the Paracel Islands and killed forty sailors of the old South Vietnamese navy. By last week, there were anti-Chinese demonstrations in Hanoi and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).

Those were undoubtedly authorised by the Vietnamese regime, which keeps a tight hold on its population. What happened in Binh Duong province in southern Vietnam on Tuesday was probably not. Official reports speak of three factories housing Chinese-owned businesses being set on fire on an industrial estate, but local reports talk of 19,000 workers rampaging through the estate and burning fifteen factories.

Hanoi doesn’t want this sort of thing to happen, of course – it scares off much-needed foreign investment – but when you press on the nationalist button, you can never be sure what will come out. Beijing should also be wary of this, if indeed it is really using its border disputes to stoke nationalist fervour in China. Nationalism is not a precision tool.

We can’t be sure that this is Beijing’s main motive, of course. Maybe it’s just a premature outburst of great-power arrogance that is driving China to push so hard on all its territorial disputes this year. But it’s certainly doing it.

Since January China has declared an “Air Defence Identification Zone” over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands which are also claimed by Japan. It has outraged the Philippines by starting to build an airstrip and/or naval base on Johnson Reef (ownership also in dispute) in the Spratly Islands. It has even provoked Indonesia into openly challenging Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea for the first time.

It is talking about establishing a similar Air Defence Identification Zone over almost all of the South China Sea, a maritime thoroughfare for more than half of the world’s merchant trade. Since the beginning of this year it has been requiring that foreign fishing vessels ask permission to enter the area it claims as its exclusive economic zone – again, almost all of the South China Sea – although it has not yet tried to enforce this rule very vigorously.

The area China claims, on the basis of its alleged sovereignty over the many uninhabited islands, islets, shoals and reefs scattered across the South China Sea, extends more than 750 km from its south coast. According to the “nine-dash line” drawn on Chinese maps which is the only graphic (but very imprecise) guide to Beijing’s claim, its control extends to around 50-75 km of the coasts of all the other littoral states.

This huge U-shaped claim, taking in more than 90 percent of the whole South China Sea, is as unsustainable in fact as it is hard to defend in international law. Nor does China seek to prove it by legal means. Last month, when the Philippines submitted a 4,000-page “memorial” to the judicial  body that arbitrates maritime disputes under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, China refused to file a counter-claim or respond in any way.

China’s position would appear to be that you don’t need to prove your claim in the courts if you can enforce it on the ground (or rather, on the water). And indeed, the sheer number and range of unilateral Chinese initiatives in recent months suggest  that the policy of the new ruling team in Beijing (which will be in power for the next ten years) is driven by full-spectrum bloody-mindedness.

However, the desirability of a foreign confrontation to distract the Chinese population from the recession that will probably soon hit the country’s economy cannot be far from the minds of the regime either. In either case, if there is shooting, it will probably start off the Vietnamese coast, simply because Vietnam has no defence treaty with the United States.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 11. (“It…vigorously”; and “This huge…way”)