The risks of overplaying a hand

With the snow blanketing Washington, it is time for a post on the things I haven’t recently discussed.  Two in particular have been gnawing:

1.  Afghanistan

President Karzai has negotiated a long-term security agreement with the United States and convened a loya jirga (grand council) to approve it.  Now he is hesitating to sign it, demanding that the US clear all raids with his government and release Afghan prisoners from Guantanamo.

The explanations for this behavior are many and various (and more):

  • madness
  • money
  • maintaining his leverage over the US as his mandate ends (next spring)
  • gaining popularity with Afghans for standing up to the US
  • influencing the outcome of the presidential campaign
  • getting the US to pressure Pakistan to support a negotiated settlement with at least some Taliban
  • improving prospects for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban
  • not really wanting the deal
  • protecting his legacy
  • some combination of the above

I’ve seen Karzai up close, albeit in public.  He seemed eminently rational to me.  Flying off the handle, as he does from time to time, is not uncommon in heads of state under a lot of pressure.

I think at the very least he is trying to improve prospects for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban.  His two demands:  an end to unilateral US raids and release of Afghans from Guantanamo point in that direction.  That however does not preclude many of the other motives, which may well also be in play.  Karzai has to be worried about his personal survival after leaving office, which will require a good deal of money as well as a positive relationship with his successor.  He has long wanted more US pressure on Pakistan.  Defying the US certainly improves his legacy with at least some Afghans.

If I understand correctly, the US has given Karzai until December 31 to sign.  Waiting past that, they say, will make it impossible to get the US troops out before the end of 2014.  American Afghanistan-watchers are divided on what to do, but the faction advocating complete withdrawal is increasing.  There are precious few left who think staying in Iraq would have been a good idea, despite the deterioration in security conditions there.  Better that the Iraqis deal with it.  The same thinking may hold for Afghanistan:  we’ve done our part, let them sink or swim.  It would not be pretty if the Americans withdraw completely.  Afghan women in particular will suffer serious setbacks.  But it may not be pretty with only 7-9000 troops on isolated bases and limited in what they are allowed to do.

Nor is it likely that the Taliban will be enticed to a deal.  They have not had a banner year on the battlefield, but they can hope for better if the Americans withdraw.  Karzai may be overplaying his hand.

2.  Northeast Asia

China, Japan and South Korea have all declared overlapping “air defense identification zones” (ADIZs) over the East China Sea.  This is one more wrinkle in the many territorial disputes that are now plaguing the Asian Pacific.  The jockeying is not really about air space.  It is about the rise of China, which is seeking to ensure itself freedom of navigation and access to undersea resources, of which there appear to be ample quantities.

North Korea is not, to my knowledge, directly involved in the ADIZ issue, but Kim Jong-un’s increasing self-confidence is a part of the broader Asian picture.  Last week he deposed an uncle who was thought to be second only to the young leader in the North Korean hierarchy.  The uncle played a key liaison role with China, which has become increasingly concerned about Kim’s behavior.  He seems determined to continue to strengthen Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.  This puts him at odds not only with the US, Russia, Japan and South Korea but also with China.

East Asia has been remarkably peaceful for decades.  The Chinese shelling of Nationalist-controlled Quemoy and Matsu went on throughout the 1950s and 1960s.  The Vietnam war (the Vietnamese refer to it as the American war) dominated the late 1960s and early 1970s.  There followed Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and its war with China.  In the 35 years since then, interstate war in East Asia has been rare to nonexistent.  Economic development and democratic transition have been more common, with worldwide benefits.

All it would take to end that happy state of affairs is for one state or another–anyone really–to overplay its hand.  Most would bet on North Korea as the provocateur, but the many small conflicts it has generated with South Korea have proven containable, so far.  If and when Kim starts to brandish his nuclear weapons, things might look different.  Far more worrying for the moment is the possibility that growing xenophobia or historical resentments would arouse China, South Korea or Japan to act rashly, provoking escalation by one or more rivals and generating a scenario in which the US is obligated to intervene.

There is no reason why conflicts over resources and navigation need to be settled by force.  Both lend themselves to solutions:  dividing the pie and ensuring freedom for everyone.  East Asia needs a serious effort to reduce the risk of someone overplaying his hand.

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