A two part Pepe Escobar report on the China, Pakistan and the new Great Game

December 30, 2018

A two part Pepe Escobar report on the China, Pakistan and the new Great Game

by Pepe Escobar (cross-posted with The Asia Times – here and here – by special agreement with the author)

The new Great Game on the Roof of the World

On top of the graceful Baltit Fort, overlooking the Hunza Valley’s Shangri-La-style splendor, it’s impossible not to feel dizzy at the view: an overwhelming collision of millennia of geology and centuries of history.

We are at the heart of Gilgit-Baltistan, in Pakistan’s Northern Areas, or – as legend rules, the Roof of the World. This is an area about 70,000 square kilometers (27,000 square miles) crammed with spectacular mountain ranges and amidst them, secluded pristine valleys and the largest glaciers outside of the Polar region.

The location feels like vertigo. To the north, beyond the Batura Glacier, is the tiny northeast arm of Afghanistan, the legendary Wakhan corridor. A crest of the Hindu Kush separates Wakhan from the regional capital Gilgit. Xinjiang starts on Wakhan’s uppermost tip. Via the upgraded Karakoram highway, it’s only 240 km from Gilgit to the Khunjerab Pass, 4,934 meters high on the official China-Pakistan border.

What used to be called the Russian Pamir, now in Tajikistan, can be seen with naked eyes from one of the peaks of the Karakoram. To the east, past Skardu and an arduous trek that may last almost a month, lies K2, the second highest peak in the world, among a mighty group north of the Batura Glacier (also known as Baltoro), which is 63km long.

Receding Hopper Glacier

The receding Hopper Glacier in northern Pakistan. Photo: Asia Times

To the south lies Azad (“Free”) Kashmir and slightly to the southeast what locals define as Indian-occupied Kashmir. The former King of Kashmir agreed to be part of India after Partition in 1947 but troops were airlifted to the northern state and after a year of fighting, India went to the UN. A temporary ceasefire line was established in 1948 and runs down from the Karakoram towards the Nanga Parbat – the killer mountain, dividing Kashmir into two virtually sealed halves.

Massive mountain ranges

Driving across the Karakoram Highway (see part 2 of this report) we were face to face with three massive mountain ranges running in different directions. The Karakoram roughly starts where the Hindu Kush ends and then sweeps eastward – a watershed between Central Asian drainage and streams flowing into the Indian Ocean.

original Silk Road, parallel to K’koram hwy

The ancient Silk Road is seen above the Karakoram Highway. Photo: Asia Times

Driving across the Karakoram Highway (see part 2 of this report) we were face to face with three massive mountain ranges running in different directions. The Karakoram roughly starts where the Hindu Kush ends and then sweeps eastward – a watershed between Central Asian drainage and streams flowing into the Indian Ocean.

The Himalayas start in Gilgit and then run southeast through a cluster of high peaks, including the Nanga Parbat, directly on the Islamabad-Gilgit air route (flights by turboprop only take off if weather around the Nanga Parbat allows).

Strategically, this is one of the top spots on the planet, a protagonist of the original Great Game between imperial Britain and Russia. So it’s more than appropriate that here is exactly where a protagonist of the New Great Game, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship project of the New Silk Roads, or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), actually starts, linking western China’s Xinjiang to the Northern Areas across the Khunjerab Pass.

Karakoram politics

CPEC is the supreme jewel in the Belt and Road crown, the largest foreign development or investment program in modern China’s history, loaded with way more funds than years of US military aid to Islamabad.

And we are indeed in Ancient Silk Road territory. Looking at the millenary trail parallel to the Karakoram, lovingly restored by the Aga Khan Development Foundation, it’s easy to picture the great Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsang traversing these heights in the 7th Century, and naming them Polo-le. The Tang dynasty called it Great Polu. When Marco Polo trekked in the 14th Century, he called it Bolor.

Early last month, I was privileged to drive on the upgraded Karakoram Highway along CPEC all the way from Gilgit to the Khunjerab, and back, with multiple incursions to valleys such as lush, pine-forested Naltar, Shimshal (manufacturers of sublime yak wool shawls), Kutwal and receding glaciers, such as Hopper and Bualtar.

The Karakoram Highway was originally conceived in the 1970s as an ambitious political-strategic project able to influence the geopolitical balance in the subcontinent, by expanding Islamabad’s reach into previously inaccessible frontiers.

Now it’s at the heart of a trade and energy corridor from the China-Pak border all the way south to Gwadar, the port in Balochistan in the Arabian Sea a stone’s throw from the Persian Gulf. Gwadar looks likely to be a crucial springboard to China becoming a naval power – active from the Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf and on to the Mediterranean, while CPEC, slowly but surely, aims to change the social and economic structure of Pakistan.

Previous Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the controversial “Lion of the Punjab”, was an avid CPEC supporter after he won the 2013 elections. At the time current Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, winner of elections held in July, had already polled second nationwide and rose to power in the strategic Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province – straddling the area between Islamabad and the tribal belt.

Sharif, in June 2013, when he was about to enter negotiations with the Chinese, was lauding what would become CPEC as an infrastructure scheme that “will change the fate of Pakistan”. So far that has translated mostly into new hydroelectric dams, coal-fired power stations, and civil-nuclear power. The China National Nuclear Corporation is building two 1,100 MW reactors near Karachi for nearly $10 billion, 65% financed by Chinese loans. This is the first time that the Chinese nuclear industry has built something of this scale outside of their country.

More than a dozen CPEC projects involve power generation – Pakistan is no longer woefully energy-deprived. These projects may not be as sexy as high-speed rail and pipelines, which could arrive much later; after all CPEC in its planned entirety runs to 2030.

Of course, monumental business decisions will have to be addressed; the staggering cost – and state of the art engineering – involved in building a railway parallel to the Karakoram; and the fact that oil pumped via a pipeline from Gwadar to Xinjiang might cost five times more than via the usual sea lanes all the way to Shanghai.

A map shows the route of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Wanishahrukh

A map shows the route of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Wanishahrukh

What Imran wants

Imran Khan is way more cautious than Sharif, who had a “China cell” inside his office and commanded the Pakistani Army to set up a 10,000-strong security force to protect China’s CPEC investments.

But Khan knows well about the firepower behind CPEC: the Silk Road Fund, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), CITIC, Bank of China, EXIM, China Development Bank. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) projects that BRI could mobilize as much as $6 trillion in the next few years. What Khan wants is to negotiate better terms for Pakistan.

China’s ambassador to Pakistan, Yao Jing, never tires to stress that Pakistan’s serious debt problem relates to the initial phase of CPEC, due to the massive import of heavy machinery, industrial raw materials and services.

As I learned in Islamabad in various discussions with Pakistani analysts, Khan actually wants to expand CPEC and prevent it from leading Islamabad towards an unsustainable debt trap. That would mean tweaking CPEC’s focus away from too much infrastructure development to technology transfer and market access for Pakistani products. Financing for agriculture projects, for instance, could come via CPEC’s Long Term Plan, which unlike the so-called Early Harvest Plan does not come with a price tag attached and can be negotiated freely between Islamabad and Beijing.

According to a 2016 IMF report, $28 billion in projects included in Early Harvest will be completed by 2020: $10 billion to develop road, rail and port infrastructure, and $18 billion in energy projects via Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), with Chinese firms using commercial loans borrowing from Chinese banks.

CPEC though is an extremely long-term endeavor. Other CPEC investments in energy and transportation infrastructure financed by China will be finished only by 2030.

A new CPEC emphasis on industrialization via technology transfer would allow Pakistan to produce some of what China imports. That would imply reneg otiating the Pakistan-China Free-Trade Agreement (FTA), getting to the level of preferential treatment that China offers to ASEAN. Essentially, this is what Imran Khan is aiming at.

Hail the Ismailis

Gilgit-Baltistan is the safest place in the whole of Pakistan. Here, there’s no “terror threat” by the Pakistani Taliban or dodgy al-Qaeda or ISIS spin-offs. Major spoken languages are Shina and Burushaski, not Urdu. The population is overwhelmingly composed of Ismaili Shi’ites – like Karim Shah, an encyclopedia of Central and South Asian history and culture reigning over a cave of wonders in Gilgit where anything from authentic heads of Gandhara Bodhisattvas to 18th Century silk Qom carpets from a Persian royal family can be found.

Karim Shah and his cave of wonders in Gilgit. Photo: Asia Times

Karim Shah and his cave of wonders in Gilgit. Photo: Asia Times

We spent hours talking about Khorasan, the original Kipling-esque Great Game, Col. Durand (who drew the Durand Line separating Pashtuns on both sides of an artificial border), the Kashmir question, the astonishingly complex geo-eco-historical system of the Northern Areas, and of course, China.

Shah imparted the impression – confirmed by other traders – that the local population may see some tangible CPEC-related benefits, but does not know exactly what Beijing wants. Chinese visitors – engineers, bureaucrats – are remote; tourism has not picked up yet, as in the case of the Japanese, who have been Northern Areas enthusiasts for decades. Thus, an improvement in Xi Jinping’s “people-to-people exchange”, a key component of BRI, seems to be in order.

Legend rules that Hunzakuts, the inhabitants of the glorious Hunza Valley, are descendants of three soldiers of Alexander the Great who married beautiful Persian women of high aristocracy. While Alexander campaigned along the Oxus, the three couples traveled across the Wakhan corridor, discovered the marvelous valley, and settled down.

The tolerant Islam they came to practice centuries later is impervious to Gulf proselytizing. When I crossed an austere village by the Karakoram, visibly out of place, my Ismaili driver Akbar noted that these were “Sunni Wahhabis”.

Finding Gandhara art in Gilgit made perfect sense. Gandhara historically formed a sort of fertile and irrigated triangle between the Iranian plateau, the Hindu Kush and the first peaks of the Himalayas. Between the 6th Century BC and the Islamic invasions, it was the crossroads of three cultures: India, China and Iran. And it was here that an extremely original Greco-Buddhist art and culture flourished, way after Greek power had waned.

Gandhara Bodhisattva head, Gilgit cave of wonders

A Gandhara Bodhisattva head in Karim’s shop in Gilgit. Photo: Asia Times

The Kashmir question

As a new 21st Century crossroads, CPEC faces stern challenges – from geology (constant landslides and floods in Gilgit-Baltistan) to wobbly security in Balochistan, threatened by a combination of separatist and religiously or politically manipulated movements. I was not able to visit Gwadar and the south of CPEC even though contacts in Islamabad supplied military sources with an application for a NOC (No Object Certificate, as it is known on Pakistan) weeks in advance. The military response: too “sensitive”, as in dangerous, for a lone Western journalist, especially in the aftermath of the Aasia Bibi case.

China will need to find a way – perhaps via negotiations inside the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – to mollify India on CPEC’s route straddling Kashmir.

In 1936 the British made a deal with the Maharaja of Kashmir, getting Gilgit on lease for 60 years. But then came Partition. At the time the Kuomintang – in power in China, before Mao’s victory – was engaged in secret negotiations to restore Hunza’s fabled independence as a new state allied with China. But the Mir of Hunza finally decided to join the newborn Pakistani nation.

Few may remember that, during the 1950s, way before the India-China border war in 1962, there was trouble on the China-Pakistan border, when Beijing seized 3,400 square miles of Kashmir, including parts of old Hunza, whose Mirs always recognized Chinese suzerainty. When the British had first seized Hunza in 1891, the Mir actually fled to China.

Zhou EnLai visits Baltit Fort in early 60s

This puts into perspective some fabulous documents preserved at Baltit Fort, like China-Baltistan trade agreements and a picture of Zhou EnLai visiting the fort in the early 1960s.

It’s also fascinating to remember that at the time Zhou Enlai already thought about Karachi – no Gwadar at that time – connecting to an “ancient trade route, lost to modern times, not only for trade but for strategic purposes as well”. Xi Jinping has definitely read his Zhou EnLai thoroughly.

China Baltistan trade agreements

Historic trade agreements between China and Baltistan. Photo: Asia Times

Nowadays, the President of Azad (Free) Jammu and Kashmir, Sardar Masood Khan, always stresses that “unlike Indian propaganda”, the Pakistani side is “thriving politically and economically”, and CPEC could also be beneficial for Indian Kashmir. As it stands, this remains a red line for New Delhi.

Once in a lifetime chance

At the National Defense University in Islamabad, I was shown a paper by Li Xiaolu, from the Institute of Strategic Studies at the National Defense University of the PLA detailing how Beijing hopes that “by opening China’s west to Central and South Asia, building better transportation infrastructure, and by encouraging trade with South and Central Asian countries, the development of manufacturing, processing and industrial capacities in Western China can be promoted”.

Now compare it with road and rail infrastructure improved across Pakistan being able to turn the whole nation into an actual trade corridor, while the Pakistani Navy improves its defense in deep-sea waters with Gwadar positioned as a third naval base and offering support for Chinese ships across sea lanes close to the Middle East and Northern Africa.

No wonder Chinese analysts share a virtual consensus about traditional Chinese wisdom favoring unity for prosperity – a key plank of CPEC and BRI – and prevailing over containment and confrontation.

For CPEC to work, Beijing needs three things: a political solution for Afghanistan, which is already being worked out inside the SCO, with China, Russia, India, Pakistan and Iran (as an observer) directly involved; stable relations between India and Pakistan; and certified security across Pakistan.

Beijing is actively encouraging closer connectivity between Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the Quetta-Kandahar railway and the Kabul-Peshawar highway. CPEC is actually expanding from the Karakoram to the Khyber Pass, trespassing the artificial Durand line along the way.

In contrast, multiple factions in Washington continue to twist all possible faultlines to thwart these projects, with a propaganda campaign designed to portray BRI as a swamp of corruption, incompetence, a “debt trap” and “malign” Chinese behavior.

Yet among all BRI corridors, material progress across CPEC is more than self-evident. I saw every village in the Northern Areas with electricity and most of them linked by fiber optics, a stark contrast to when I traveled a severely dilapidated Karakoram, twice, two decades ago.

Pakistan now has a once in a lifetime chance to harness its geographical location – with borders intertwining centuries of history and culture with Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Middle East – to set itself up as a key bridge between the Middle East and both the Mediterranean and Western China.

Rumors abounded in Islamabad that Imran Khan is aiming for an international standard university in the capital, positioned as a center of study and research tracking the new mosaic of an emerging multipolar world. Young people power will be more than available, like Jamila Shah, currently at the National Defense University, doing a masters in Peace and Conflict Studies, and working with an NGO, the International Rescue Committee. Jamila, from Hunza, in Gilgit-Baltistan, is the face of Pakistan’s future.

Jamila Shah

Jamila Shah. Photo: Asia Times

Still hostage to a corrupt oligarchy, cartelized industries, falling exports (60% of which are textiles), and with almost half of their youths aged from five to 16 out of school, Pakistan faces a Sisyphean task.

Economist Ishrat Husain has correctly noted that Pakistan’s model of “elitist growth” must be replaced by “shared growth”. Enter a modified CPEC opening the path ahead, hopefully like those cargo trucks defying the slippery, snowy Khunjerab full blast.

CPEC trade Pak style

Trade on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. Photo: Asia Times

Up next: On the road in the Karakoram 

On the road in the Karakoram

On the Pakistani side, a wooden house serves as a small customs office fronted by “the highest ATM in the world” – though you try a foreign credit card at your peril. The Chinese side boasts an intimidating, metal-plated James Bond-esque structure with no humans in sight.

This is ground zero of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the point where the revamped, upgraded Karakoram Highway – “the eighth wonder of the world” – snakes away from China’s Xinjiang all the way to Pakistan’s Northern Areas and further south to Islamabad and Gwadar, on the Arabian Sea.

From here it’s 420 kilometers to Kashgar and a hefty 1,890 km to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. But going south is where the fun really begins.

highest ATM in the world

World’s highest ATM. Photo: Asia Times

Traveling the Karakoram from Gilgit, the capital of the Northern Areas, to the Khunjerab and back is an exhilarating road trip along CPEC and its spin-offs. And it’s a crazy carousel.

Psychedelic Pakistani trucks, Chinese container road warriors – some trying to subdue the Khunjerab without chains on their tires – packed minivans plying the Hunza-Xinjiang route, Silk Road motels, the smell of curry interfacing with the best apricot juice in the world, roadside butchers, shacks advertising themselves as “Silk Road Investment & Credit Society Ltd,” many a Pak China Gateway Hotel, checkpoints consisting of a roadside table and a bunch of papers kept from flying away by pebbles, stashes of yuan crisscrossing rupees and dollars and messy, multi-level “people to people exchanges.”

Chinese container truck up the Khunjerab with no chains on tires

A Chinese container truck ploughs over the snow without chains on its tires. Photo: Asia Times

It’s one of the greatest road trips on earth. And in geopolitical terms, it may be the greatest.

Mind the yaks

Karakoram North starts at the environmentally protected Khunjerab National Park, where yaks roam freely on the road and ibex and marmots are easily spotted nearby. But there are no Marco Polo sheep, much less snow leopards. (Though local Ismailis insist a few dozen reside in the park.)

The Yak and Sheep Highway

Yak and sheep roam the highway. Photo: Asia Times

The first serious pit-stop in the Karakoram is Sost, which used to be the Pakistani border in the old days – as when I traveled the road, twice, 20 years ago by jeep from Kashgar. Now, the bustling trade entrepot is the HQ of the Silk Road Dry Port Sost. Chinese lorries unload their cargo and Pakistani trucks take up the relay to transport the merchandise all across the nation. It appears modern and well-organized. Everything proceeds smoothly.

entrance to the dry port at Sost

Entrance to the dry port at Sost. Photo: Asia Times

Snaking south, we pass right under the spectacularly receding Passu Glacier. In a nearby village, a funeral is in progress, with the crowd taking over the road alongside yaks and buffalos and interrupting traffic at will.

The receding Passu glacier by the Karakoram

The receding Passu Glacier by the Karakoram. Photo: Asia Times

The upgraded Karakoram is an apotheosis of Pak-China Friendship Tunnels – all exhibiting the obligatory commemorative billboard extolling a geopolitical friendship soaring “higher than the highest mountain.”

One of many Pak-China tunnels

One of the many Pak-China tunnels. Photo: Asia Times

This is CPEC in effect. It is astonishing when compared to the recent past. Between the Hunza and Gilgit rivers flowing parallel to impeccable asphalt worthy of an autobahn, a fiber optic cable runs all across the Northern Areas.

Chinese engineering has performed miracles. Around 160km south of the Khunjerab we drive around Attabad Lake, which totally submerged the road after a landslide in January 2010. For over five years there was simply no China-Pakistan overland trade, although some went via Kashgar-Gilgit flights. The solution by the China Road and Bridge Corporation had to be a tunnel – completed in 2015.

Attabad lake, now negotiated via a tunnel

Attabad Lake, now negotiated via tunnel. Photo: Asia Times

Trade along the Karakoram is bound to pick up – after years at less than 10% of total China-Pak trade, which tends to flow especially from Guangdong and Zhejiang provinces, not Xinjiang. Some stretches of the highway remain prone to constant landslides, rockslides or floods, which require a number of 24/7 rescue and maintenance teams. These are Pakistani, while the SUVs of the police in the Northern Areas have been supplied by China.

The heart of the New Silk Roads, or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure projects are road and railway lines. These do not cost a fortune per se; the expense is in the construction costs for bridges and tunnels. Russia spent over $4 billion on its Kerch Strait bridge to the Crimea. New Silk Road costs will be exponentially higher. Tunnels can be way more expensive than bridges.

Where the Himalayas rise

From the Karakoram it’s sometimes possible to catch a glimpse of the formidable Nanga Parbat – Kashmiri for “Naked Mountain,” later nicknamed the “Killer Mountain.” It has never been climbed in winter, and is actually a series of ridges which anchors the western Himalaya range, culminating in an ice crest at 8,126 meters above sea level. That is the ninth highest peak in the world and the second in Pakistan after K2.

Glimpse of the mighty Nanga Parbat

Heading into the mighty Nanga Parbat (on the right). Photo: Asia Times

As we approach Gilgit, the road signs – in English, Mandarin and Russian – say 468 km to Abbottabad (site of the Osama bin Laden endgame) and 583 km to Islamabad. Way down south, in less mountainous terrain, I’m told the odd rockslide gives way to occasional floods.

South of Gilgit, the Chinese once again are in frantic building mode, attacking the road starting from the Karakoram to the strategic Mecca Skardu. The road, according to local Ismailis, should be ready before 2020.

meeting of the Karakoram, the Hindu Kush and Himalayas

Where the Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Himalayas meet. Photo: Asia Times

And then, on a bend of the revamped highway, the intersection of the Karakoram, the Hindu Kush and the Himalayan mountain ranges – bordering the confluence of the Gilgit River with the Indus, now flowing south all the way to the Arabian Sea – spreads before us. Nearly 85% of the Indus discharge happens between May and September, out of snow and glacial melt, propelling the monsoons. Abdul, the painter of the Karakoram, is applying the finishing touches to a white-clad viewing point.

Abdul, painter of the Karakoram

Abdul: Painter of the Karakoram Highway. Photo: Asia Times

The China-Pak embrace

The building of the original Karakoram – an engineering tour de force – took no less than 27 years and claimed the lives of over 1,000 Chinese and Pakistani workers.

The Karakoram Highway is much more than a road; it’s a rolling, graphic emblem of the China-Pakistan geopolitical embrace, surmounting all manner of economic, cultural, geological and security barriers over decades to the benefit of a strategic objective. And the strategic objective now is CPEC as the flagship BRI project.

At the recent opening ceremony of the China International Import Expo in Shanghai, where he was guest of honor, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan described CPEC, including the Karakoram highway, as a “vital link” for China and Pakistan with the Middle East and Central Asia. “CPEC is a mechanism to connect China, the Middle East and Central Asia that also opens ways for fresh investment and paves the way for new markets,” he said.

Khan also reassured his hosts – as well as domestic public opinion – that his new government is engaged in deep, meaningful reforms to ensure transparency and accountability; virtual ghosts as far as Pakistani business is usually concerned.

“Pakistan has an array of resources, minerals and renewables amidst the most diverse landscape,” Khan said, adding that his country is a leading exporter of sports goods, medical instruments and IT products, and has promising, 100 million-strong human resources under the age of 35. So, the potential is immense.

Islamabad is all in on completing CPEC up to 2030, with projections of up to 3% added to annual GDP growth, as industrial output is bound to rise with more electricity courtesy of CPEC investments and more production coming from Chinese-style Special Economic Zones.

CPEC’s Long-Term Plan (2017-2030), released one year ago, defines four priorities in Pakistan: Gwadar Port; energy projects; transport infrastructure (as in upgrading of the Karakoram); and industrial cooperation. Imran Khan’s government (see Part 1 of this report) is aiming for Pakistan to position itself, via CPEC, as the key hub uniting the overland Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road.

The big plan

This implies, geopolitically and economically, an even stronger, trans-regional, China-Pakistan alliance in contraposition to India and Washington. The US reaction to BRI in 2018 was to unleash a whispering campaign to try to discredit it. Beijing, for its part, expects India and Pakistan to at least discuss their political differences inside the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

From now on, China’s far west and south – Xinjiang and Yunnan – have to become the top drivers of the Chinese economy. Upgrading their road, rail and energy infrastructure and closely linking them to South Asia and Southeast Asia is essential for China to keep growing – all that boosted by crucial energy connectivity via a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan, an oil pipeline from the Caspian in Kazakhstan, further massive gas shipments from Siberia, and, further down the road, a possible gas pipeline from Gwadar port to Xinjiang parallel to the Karakoram.

Will it work? The Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Himalayas have seen it all come and all go over multiple millennia. So why not? The upgrading of the greatest geological and geopolitical road trip on earth is a start.

Karakoram checkpoint

Karakoram Highway checkpoint. Photo: Asia Times.

Advertisements

Russia, Ukraine and the Minsk agreement fiction (Exclusive!)

Russia, Ukraine and the Minsk agreement fiction (Exclusive!)

December 18, 2018

by Pepe Escobar exclusive for The Saker Blog

Rostislav Ishchenko is arguably the leading international analyst focused on the extraordinarily turbulent Russia-Ukraine relations. He posts regularly on Ukraina.ru, with frequent English translations here.

In contrast to the 24/7 “Russian aggression” demonization campaign effective on all corners of the Beltway and spreading towards selected European capitals, Ishchenko’s analysis, for instance of the information war deployed on all fronts of the Russia-Ukraine saga comes as a breath of fresh air.

Although we were not able to meet in person during my recent visit to Moscow, due to conflicting schedules (the meeting will take place later in the winter), Ishchenko graciously accepted to answer my most pressing questions regarding what could happen next on the Russia-Ukraine front, with translation by Scott Humor.

Ishchenko’s answers on the situation in Donbass should also be expanded to Crimea, after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov revealed he had information about Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko planning an armed provocation on the border with Crimea in the last ten days of December.

Considering the terrain in winter is usually propitious for tank advance, would Poroshenko, in desperation, go for a major provocation in the Donbass, perhaps between Christmas and New Year’s Eve? 

First of all, this winter is too warm and the area is not yet favorable for an offensive. Second, even if frost strikes and an attack becomes possible, it is too big of a risk for Poroshenko. He does not have enough military power to defeat the DPR/LPR forces, without even mentioning that surprises are still possible as it happened in August 2008 in South Ossetia. After all, the Minsk peace agreement has not been canceled yet, and it is unlikely that the West will be able to stand against Russia in a consolidated manner at the moment when Russia is conducting a peace coercion of the confectioner, who is out of his mind with fear, and whom the West has already written off. The West requires a mandatory holding of elections, and any war would mean a cancellation of elections. If the war is facilitated by Poroshenko, he will be blamed for the cancellation of the elections and there will be no need to protect him.

Is there any possibility of the Minsk agreements being fulfilled in case of a slightly less anti-Russian government in place in Kiev after the next elections? 

No, it’s not possible. Kiev is unable to implement the Minsk agreements because this would imply the federalization of Ukraine, while the Kiev elites are able to rule only within the rigid vertical of the unitary state. They basically do not imagine a different system of relationships. Since 2014, the internal resources which could satisfy appetites of oligarchic groups were exhausted, and there is no material basis for compromise. Therefore, they are doomed to fight among themselves for the dominance. Even if Russia, Crimea, Donbass and the whole world would suddenly vanish, the civil war in Ukraine, no longer restrained from the outside, would only intensify.

Is Kiev aware that in case of a military attack on Donbass, the Russian response would be devastating? And that in Brussels, as I confirmed with many diplomatic sources, nobody really cares about Poroshenko’s fate anymore? 

I think that he knows this very well. That’s exactly why he organized his provocations in the Kerch Strait and also in Kiev (attacking the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate), but not in Donbass.

 

How the New Silk Roads are merging into Greater Eurasia

December 13, 2018How the New Silk Roads are merging into Greater Eurasia

Russia is keen to push economic integration with parts of Asia and this fits in with China’s Belt and Road Initiative

by Pepe Escobar (cross-posted with The Asia Times by special agreement with the author)

The concept of Greater Eurasia has been discussed at the highest levels of Russian academia and policy-making for some time. This week the policy was presented at the Council of Ministers and looks set to be enshrined, without fanfare, as the main guideline of Russian foreign policy for the foreseeable future.

President Putin is unconditionally engaged to make it a success. Already at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum in 2016, Putin referred to an emerging “Eurasian partnership”.

I was privileged over the past week to engage in excellent discussions in Moscow with some of the top Russian analysts and policymakers involved in advancing Greater Eurasia.

Three particularly stand out: Yaroslav Lissovolik, program director of the Valdai Discussion Club and an expert on the politics and economics of the Global South; Glenn Diesen, author of the seminal Russia’s Geoeconomic Strategy for a Greater Eurasia; and the legendary Professor Sergey Karaganov, dean of the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs at the National Research University Higher School of Economics and honorary chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, who received me in his office for an off-the-record conversation.

The framework for Great Eurasia has been dissected in detail by the indispensable Valdai Discussion Club, particularly on Rediscovering the Identity, the sixth part of a series called Toward the Great Ocean, published last September, and authored by an academic who’s who on the Russian Far East, led by Leonid Blyakher of the Pacific National University in Khabarovsk and coordinated by Karaganov, director of the project.

The conceptual heart of Greater Eurasia is Russia’s Turn to the East, or pivot to Asia, home of the economic and technological markets of the future. This implies Greater Eurasia proceeding in symbiosis with China’s New Silk Roads, or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). And yet this advanced stage of the Russia-China strategic partnership does not mean Moscow will neglect its myriad close ties to Europe.

Russian Far East experts are very much aware of the “Eurocentrism of a considerable portion of Russian elites.” They know how almost the entire economic, demographic and ideological environment in Russia has been closely intertwined with Europe for three centuries. They recognize that Russia has borrowed Europe’s high culture and its system of military organization. But now, they argue, it’s time, as a great Eurasian power, to profit from “an original and self-sustained fusion of many civilizations”; Russia not just as a trade or connectivity point, but as a “civilizational bridge”.

Legacy of Genghis Khan 

What my conversations, especially with Lissovolik, Diesen and Karaganov, have revealed is something absolutely groundbreaking – and virtually ignored across the West; Russia is aiming to establish a new paradigm not only in geopolitics and geoeconomics, but also on a cultural and ideological level.

Conditions are certainly ripe for it. Northeast Asia is immersed in a power vacuum. The Trump administration’s priority – as well as the US National Security Strategy’s – is containment of China. Both Japan and South Korea, slowly but surely, are getting closer to Russia.

Culturally, retracing Russia’s past, Greater Eurasia analysts may puzzle misinformed Western eyes. ‘Towards the Great Ocean’, the Valdai report supervised by Karaganov, notes the influence of Byzantium, which “preserved classical culture and made it embrace the best of the Orient culture at a time when Europe was sinking into the Dark Ages.” Byzantium inspired Russia to adopt Orthodox Christianity.

It also stresses the role of the Mongols over Russia’s political system. “The political traditions of most Asian countries are based on the legacy of the Mongols. Arguably, both Russia and China are rooted in Genghis Khan’s empire,” it says.

If the current Russian political system may be deemed authoritarian – or, as claimed in Paris and Berlin, an exponent of “illiberalism” – top Russian academics argue that a market economy protected by lean, mean military power performs way more efficiently than crisis-ridden Western liberal democracy.

As China heads West in myriad forms, Greater Eurasia and the Belt and Road Initiative are bound to merge. Eurasia is crisscrossed by mighty mountain ranges such as the Pamirs and deserts like the Taklamakan and the Karakum. The best ground route runs via Russia or via Kazakhstan to Russia. In crucial soft power terms, Russian remains the lingua franca in Mongolia, Central Asia and the Caucasus.

And that leads us to the utmost importance of an upgraded Trans-Siberian railway – Eurasia’s current connectivity core. In parallel, the transportation systems of the Central Asian “stans” are closely integrated with the Russian network of roads; all that is bound to be enhanced in the near future by Chinese-built high-speed rail.

Iran and Turkey are conducting their own versions of a pivot to Asia. A free-trade agreement between Iran and the Eurasia Economic Union (EAEU) was approved in early December. Iran and India are also bound to strike a free-trade agreement. Iran is a big player in the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), which is essential in driving closer economic integration between Russia and India.

The Caspian Sea, after a recent deal between its five littoral states, is re-emerging as a major trading post in Central Eurasia. Russia and Iran are involved in a joint project to build a gas pipeline to India.

Kazakhstan shows how Greater Eurasia and BRI are complementary; Astana is both a member of BRI and the EAEU. The same applies to gateway Vladivostok, Eurasia’s entry point for both South Korea and Japan, as well as Russia’s entry point to Northeast Asia.

Ultimately, Russia’s regional aim is to connect China’s northern provinces with Eurasia via the Trans-Siberian and the Chinese Eastern Railway – with Chita in China and Khabarovsk in Russia totally inter-connected.

And all across the spectrum, Moscow aims at maximizing return on the crown jewels of the Russian Far East; agriculture, water resources, minerals, lumber, oil and gas. Construction of liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants in Yamal vastly benefits China, Japan and South Korea.

Community spirit

Eurasianism, as initially conceptualized in the early 20th century by the geographer PN Savitsky, the geopolitician GV Vernadsky and the cultural historian VN Ilyn, among others, regarded Russian culture as a unique, complex combination of East and West, and the Russian people as belonging to “a fully original Eurasian community”.

That certainly still applies. But as Valdai Club analysts argue, the upgraded concept of Greater Eurasia “is not targeted against Europe or the West”; it aims to include at least a significant part of the EU.

The Chinese leadership describes BRI not only as connectivity corridors, but also as a “community”. Russians use a similar term applied to Greater Eurasia; sobornost (“community spirit”).

As Alexander Lukin of the Higher School of Economics and an expert on the SCO has constantly stressed, including in his book China and Russia: The New Rapprochement, this is all about the interconnection of Greater Eurasia, BRI, EAEU, SCO, INSTC, BRICS, BRICS Plus and ASEAN.

The cream of the crop of Russian intellectuals – at the Valdai Club and the Higher School of Economics – as well as top Chinese analysts, are in sync. Karaganov himself constantly reiterates that the concept of Greater Eurasia was arrived at, “jointly and officially”, by the Russia-China partnership; “a common space for economic, logistic and information cooperation, peace and security from Shanghai to Lisbon and New Delhi to Murmansk”.

The concept of Greater Eurasia is, of course, a work in progress. What my conversations in Moscow revealed is its extraordinary ambition; positioning Russia as a key geoeconomic and geopolitical crossroads linking the economic systems of North Eurasia, Central and Southwest Asia.

As Diesen notes, Russia and China have become inevitable allies because of their “shared objective of restructuring global value-chains and developing a multipolar world”. It’s no wonder Beijing’s drive to develop state-of-the-art national technological platforms is provoking so much anger in Washington. And in terms of the big picture, it makes perfect sense for BRI to be harmonized with Russia’s economic connectivity drive for Greater Eurasia.

That’s irreversible. The dogs of demonization, containment, sanctions and even war may bark all they want, but the Eurasia integration caravan keeps moving along.

Erdogan, MBS, Islamic leadership and the price of silence

November 21, 2018

The House of Saud’s ties to the Khashoggi slaying are being milked by the Turkish President for maximum benefit amid debate on leadership of the Islamic world and how the crisis may affect US and Saudi strategy in the Middle East

Erdogan, MBS, Islamic leadership and the price of silence

by Pepe Escobar (cross-posted with The Asia Times by special agreement with the author)

It was packaged as a stark, graphic message, echoing across Eurasia: Presidents Erdogan and Putin, in a packed hall in Istanbul on Monday, surrounded by notables, celebrating completion of the 930 kilometer-long offshore section of the TurkStream gas pipeline across the bottom of the Black Sea.

This is no less than a key landmark in that fraught terrain I named ‘Pipelineistan’ in the early 2000s. It was built by Gazprom in only two and a half years despite facing massive pressure from Washington, which had already managed to derail TurkStream’s predecessor, South Stream.

TurkStream is projected as two lines, each capable of delivering 15.75 billion cubic meters of gas a year. The first will supply the Turkish market. The second will run 180 km to Turkey’s western borderlands and supply south and southeast Europe, with first deliveries expected by the end of next year. Potential customers include Greece, Italy, Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary.

Call it the Gazprom double down. Nord Stream 1 and 2 supply northern Europe while TurkStream supplies southern Europe. Pipelines are steel umbilical cords. They represent liquid connectivity at its best while conclusively decreasing risks of geopolitical friction.

Turkey is already being supplied by Russian gas via Blue Stream and the Trans-Balkan pipeline. Significantly, Turkey is Gazprom’s second largest export market after China.

Erdogan’s speech, strenuously emphasizing the benefits of Turkey’s energy security, was played and replayed all across a rainy, ultra-congested Istanbul. To witness this geopolitical and geoeconomic breakthrough was particularly enlightening, as I was deep into discussing Turkish geopolitics with members of the progressive Turkish Left.

Even the opposition to what in Europe is routinely defined as Erdogan’s brand of “Asian illiberalism” concedes Turkey-Russia trade connectivity – in energy, in the military domain via the sale of the S-400 missile system, in the building of nuclear power plants – has been conducted with consummate skill by Erdogan, who is always careful to send direct and indirect messages to Washington that Turkish national interests will not be compromised.

The big prize: leading Islam

Now juxtapose this developing entente cordiale between the Bear and the (aspiring) Sultan with the gripping drama in Istanbul. Ibrahim Karagul – never afraid to apply a Rabelais touch – is always useful as a mirror reflecting the state of play of AKP circles around Erdogan.

For this political elite, a breakthrough in the Erdogan-conducted “Death By a Thousand Leaks” is imminent, allegedly proving that Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) directly gave the order for the killing and slaying of Jamal Khashoggi.

The consensus among the AKP leadership – confirmed by independent Left academics – is that the US-Israel-House of Saud-UAE axis is deep in negotiations to extricate MBS from any culpability.

That includes key items in the hefty Erdogan “package” dangled to the axis to essentially buy Ankara’s silence – an end of the Saudi blockade on Qatar and the extradition of Fetullah Gulen, described across the Turkish political spectrum as the leader of FETO (the Fetullah Terrorist Organization).

The Kremlin and the Russian Foreign Ministry are very much aware that the high-stakes game goes way beyond ‘Pulp Fiction’ in Istanbul and the Astana peace process on Syria – carefully micro-managed by both Putin and Erdogan alongside Iran’s Rouhani. The big prize is no less than the leadership of the Islamic world.

There is nowhere better than a few stops in select landmarks of Ottoman imperial power, or a lively conversation at Istanbul’s Old Book Bazaar, to be reminded that this was the seat of the Islamic Umma for centuries – a role usurped by those Arabian desert upstarts.

Alastair Cooke has captured with perfection the House of Saud’s close involvement in the slaying of Khashoggi and how this raises questions about Saudi Arabia’s status as “no more than an inept Custodian of Mecca and Medina”. This is indeed splashed all over the – Erdogan-aligned – Turkish media. And Cooke notes how this status “would strip the Gulf of much of its significance and value to Washington”.

My ongoing conversations with progressive, Kemalist Turkish academics – yes, they are a minority – have unveiled a fascinating process. The Erdogan machine has sensed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to simultaneously bury the House of Saud’s shaky Islamic credibility while solidifying Turkish neo-Ottomanism, but with an Ikhwan framework.

And that’s the rationale behind Erdogan and Turkish media relentlessly denouncing what is interpreted as a plot concocted by MBZ (MBS’s puppet master), Tel Aviv and the Trump administration.

No one can possibly advance the endgame. But that carries the strong possibility of a dominant, Erdogan-led Turkey all across the lands of Islam, allied with Qatar and also with Iran. Plus all of the above enjoying very close geopolitical and economic relations with Russia. Expect major fireworks ahead.

Decoding the hypersonic Putin on a day of remembrance

Image result for end of World War I, Putin and Trump
November 14, 2018Decoding the hypersonic Putin on a day of remembrance

Sitting alongside French President Macron during the 100th anniversary to commemorate the end of World War I, Putin and Trump stole the show in Paris

by Pepe Escobar (cross-posted with The Asia Times by special agreement with the author)

The Elysee Palace protocol was implacable. Nobody in Paris would be allowed to steal the spotlight away from the host, President Emmanuel Macron, during the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day marking the end of World War I.

After all, Macron was investing all his political capital as he visited multiple World War I battlefields while warning against the rise of nationalism and a surge in right-wing populism across the West. He was careful to always place the emphasis on praising “patriotism.”

A battle of ideas now rages across Europe, epitomized by the clash between the globalist Macron and populism icon Matteo Salvini, the Italian interior minister. Salvini abhors the Brussels system. Macron is stepping up his defense of a “sovereign Europe.”

And much to the horror of the US establishment, Macron proposes a real “European army” capable of autonomous self-defense side by side with a “real security dialogue with Russia.”

Yet all these “strategic autonomy” ideals collapse when you must share the stage, live, with the undisputed stars of the global show: President Donald  Trump and President Vladimir Putin.

So the optics in Paris were not exactly of a Yalta 2.0 conference. There were no holds barred to keep Trump and Putin apart. Seating arrangements featured, from left to right, Trump, Chancellor Angela Merkel, Macron, his wife Brigitte and Putin. Neither Trump nor Putin, for different reasons, took part in a “walking in the rain” stunt evoking peace.

And yet they connected. Sir Peter Cosgrove, the governor general of Australia, confirmed that Trump and Putin, at a working lunch, had a “lively and friendly” conversation for at least half an hour.

No one better than Putin himself to reveal, even indirectly, what they really talked about. Three themes are absolutely key.

On the Macron-proposed, non-NATO European army: “Europe is … a powerful economic union and it is only natural that they want to be independent and … sovereign in the field of defense and security.”

On the consequences of such an army: It would be “a positive process” that would “strengthen the multipolar world.” On top of it, Russia’s position “is aligned with that of France.”

On relations with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Washington: “It is not us who are going to withdraw from the INF Treaty. It is the Americans who plan to do that.” Putin added that Moscow has not scheduled military drills near NATO borders as an attempt to appease an already tense situation. Yet Russia has “no issue with” NATO drills and expects at least a measure of dialogue in the near future.

Enter the Avangard

Vast sectors of the US Deep State are in denial, but Putin may have been able to impress on Trump the necessity of serious dialogue due to an absolutely key vector: the Avangard.

The Avangard is a Russian hypersonic glide vehicle capable of flying over Mach 20 –  24,700km/h, or 4 miles per second – and one of the game-changing Russian weapons Putin announced at his ground-breaking March 1 speech.

The Avangard has been in the production assembly line since the summer of 2018, and is due to become operational in the southern Urals by the end of next year or early 2019.

In the near future, the Avangard may be launched by the formidable  Sarmat RS-28 intercontinental ballistic missile and reach Washington in a mere 15 minutes, flying in a cloud of plasma “like a meteorite” – even if the launch is from Russian territory. Serial production of Sarmat ICBMs starts in 2021.

The Avangard simply cannot be intercepted by any existing system on the planet – and the US knows it. Here is General John Hyten, head of US Strategic Command:  “We don’t have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us.”

Iran as the new Serbia?

I wish I had been in Paris – my home in Europe – to follow these concentric World War I–related plots live. But it was no less fascinating to follow them from Islamabad, where I am now, back from the northern part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The British Empire used 1.5 million to 2 million Indian colonial subjects to fight, and die, for empire in that war. Quite a few were Punjabis, from what is now Pakistan.

As for the future, Trump is certainly aware of Russia’s hypersonic breakthroughs. Trump and Putin also talked about Syria, and might have touched on Iran, although no one at the working lunch leaked anything about it.

Assuming the dialogue continues at the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires at the end of November, Putin might be able to impress on Trump that just as Serbia catalyzed a chain of events that led great powers to sleepwalk into World War I, the same could happen with Iran leading to the terrifying prospect of World War III.

Team Trump’s obsession on strangling Iran into economic submission is a no-go, even for the Macron-Merkel-led European Union. On top of it, the Russia-China strategic partnership simply won’t allow any funny – reckless – games to be played against a crucial node of Eurasia integration.

Putin won’t even need to go hypersonic to make his case to Trump.

Under the Pakistani volcano

Image result for geopolitical chessboard,

Via The Saker

November 04, 2018Under the Pakistani volcano

While Khan plays on a complex geopolitical chessboard, Chinese aid could be a financial lifeline as Islamabad faces off against deadly religious extremism

by Pepe Escobar (cross-posted with The Asia Times by special agreement with the author)

It has been a breathless week, huddled in the shadow of the simmering, bubbling, politico-religious volcano that is Imran Khan’s Pakistan.

And this week’s multi-faceted developments may just signal seismic shifts in Pakistan’s internal and external relations for the foreseeable future.

Before moving on to bloodier matters, let’s start with the “Mr. Khan Goes to China” episode – essential for reviewing all aspects of what is enthusiastically described by both sides as the “all-weather strategic cooperative partnership”.

Xi’s financial lifeline for Khan?

Prime Minister Khan, leading a fresh government elected in July and facing a range colossal challenges, set the tone from the start. He did not mince words.

“Countries go in cycles, they have their high points, they have their low points,” he said. “Unfortunately, our country is going through a low point at the moment with two very big deficits, a fiscal deficit and a current account deficit. And so we, as I’ve said, have come to learn.”

Arguably few teachers beat Chinese President Xi Jinping, praised by Khan as a role model. “China’s phenomenal achievements are worth emulating,” Khan said. “No other country has tackled poverty and corruption the way China has tackled it.”

The lynchpin of the strategic partnership is inevitably the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship project of the New Silk Road, or Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI). Before his stint as guest of honor of the First China International Import Expo in Shanghai, Khan met a crucial player in Beijing for CPEC financing: Jin Liquan, president of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

Right from the start, Pakistan’s new Planning Minister Makhdoom Bukhtiar was confident that Islamabad would not need to reschedule around $2.7 billion in Chinese loans due for repayment in 2018. Instead, what’s in the cards is an improved economic package centered on taking CPEC to the next level.

A financially stable Pakistan is absolutely crucial for the success of BRI. A Pakistani audit of projects approved by the previous Nawaz Sharif administration called for streamlining CPEC, not curtailing it. Now, Team Khan does not subscribe to the notion of CPEC as a debt trap.

With Saudi Arabia and China stepping in with cash, Islamabad may avoid becoming further indebted to the IMF and its trademark “strategic adjustments”- widely dreaded across the Global South for producing a toxic mix of austerity and inflation.

Pakistan juggles China, Iran, Saudi, Turkey

Pakistan is all about its prime geopolitical location, the crossroads of South Asia, Central Asia and West Asia.

For Beijing, Pakistan as a key BRI node mirrors its new role as a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). As Khan has clearly identified, this interconnection can only turbo-charge Pakistan’s geo-economic position – under the institutional framework of SCO. The Xi-Khan partnership may actually center around an economic win-win for Pakistan and the SCO.

Of course, myriad challenges lie ahead.

Take for instance Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesman Lu Kang having to clarify that “all the cooperation between China and Pakistan has nothing to do with territorial disputes.”

Kang was referring to the hoopla surrounding the fact that a Pakistani company launched a bus service from Lahore to Kashgar via Islamabad; essentially the northern CPEC route via the Karakoram Highway, which skirts Kashmir. China does not want any interference whatsoever in the ultra-volatile Kashmir dossier.

Saudi Arabia is also making some not-too-subtle moves. Islamabad’s official position is that Riyadh’s recent financial offer came with no strings attached. That’s unlikely to be the case; Saudi traditionally casts a long shadow over all matters Pakistani. “No strings” means Islamabad should keep closer to Riyadh, not Tehran.

The House of Saud – paralyzed by the fallout of the bloody Istanbul fiasco – will go no-holds-barred to prevent Islamabad from getting closer to Tehran. (Or Ankara, for that matter). A possibly emergent, long-term, game-changing Turkey-Iran-Pakistan alliance was the talk of the town – at least during the first part of this week of weeks.

That brings us to the crucial visitor Khan received in Islamabad before his trip to China: Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Last month, 14 Iranian border guards were kidnapped by the Pakistan-based Jaish al-Adl Salafi-jihadi fanatics. Pakistan security forces have been helpless so far.

Khan and Zarif talked about that – but also talked about Khan’s offer to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia in trying to find a solution for the tragedy in Yemen. The fact is, a Tehran-Islamabad rapprochement is already a work in progress.

That is the sophisticated geo-political game Khan must play. Meanwhile at home, he has to get down and dirty as he gets to grips with violent domestic religious turmoil.

‘Go legal – or else…’

I’ve been in Islamabad since Monday – right on the lip of the volcano, and enjoying the privilege of being part of one of the most extraordinary geopolitical conferences in recent times, something that in the current polarizing dynamic could only happen in Asia, not the West. But that’s another story.

While I was parsing elaborate analyses of this geopolitical chessboard, reality intervened.

Or – perhaps – it was a graphic intimation that Pakistan may just be changing for the better.

Street blockades paralyzed key nodes of the nation because Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman laborer, in jail for nine years, was finally acquitted by the Supreme Court of spurious charges of blasphemy. There are less than 4 million Christians in Pakistan out of a total population of 197 million.

I was with a small group on the motorway to Peshawar, prior to taking a detour to Taxila – Alexander-the-Great land, where I planned further research on ancient Silk Roads – when suddenly we were halted.

A mullah was blaring his hate through a loudspeaker. A couple of his minions blocked all circulation.

Why the police would not dislodge this small group is the matter of all matters in Khan’s arguably new Pakistan. The highway standoff embodies the high-stakes grapple underway between the state and religion.

Back in Islamabad, as he led me around the campus of the National Defense University, Timoor Shah, a bright young man at the Center for Policy Studies, gave me a crash course on the nuances.

What a global audience should understand is this. On one side stand the state, the military and the judiciary. (Accusations continue to be hurled that Khan was privileged in the July elections by the military – the top institution in Pakistan – and an activist judiciary.) On the other side, stand fringe religious nuts and an opportunistic, discredited opposition.

The Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), a minor extremist political party whose only platform is to punish blasphemy, has issued death threats against the three Supreme Court judges. Pakistan could do worse than import a strangle/bone-saw/dissolve-in-acid Saudi execution squad to deal with such groups.

It’s instructive to consider what the director general of the PR arm of the powerful intelligence service, ISI, Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor had to say: This is a legal matter and the Pakistan Army should not be dragged into it. Ghafoor also stressed, “We are close to winning the war against terrorism and our attention should not be diverted.”

Ghafoor told politico-religious parties protesting against the Supreme Court judgment – quite a few of which were firmly on the lunatic fringe – to go legal or else. Amid this, TLP chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi swears that that the Army has threatened to “destroy” his party.

The military sent a delegation, including ISI officials, to talk to the religious protesters. Ghafoor was careful to stress that the ISI is an intelligence department that reports to the prime minister.

In the end, the government caved in. Despite knowing that Aasia Bibi faces fundamentalist wrath and her only path to safety would be a one-way ticket out, they agreed to put her on something called the “Exit Control List.” Even that did not prevent TLP fanatics from threatening “a war if they sent Aasia Bibi out of the country.”

‘Taliban Godfather’ killed

As if all this were not toxic enough, on Friday evening Maulana Samiul Haq – the fabled “Godfather of the Taliban” – was stabbed to death in his house in Rawalpindi, Islamabad’s twin city.

Haq led the sprawling Darul Uloom Haqqania, a madrassa, or religious school, in Akhora Khattak, near Peshawar, founded in 1988. The madrassa graduated none other than Mullah Omar, as well as other Taliban notables.

Haq embodies a torrent of turbulence in modern Pakistani history – including his stints as senator during the Zia ul Haq and Nawaz Sharif administrations. He also tabled a notorious Sharia bill during Sharif’s last term.

But for me, the story was personal. In a tortuous way, Samiul Haq saved my life – courtesy of a letter of introduction he had signed after I visited his madrassa to follow a Talibanesque indoctrination in progress.

When, along with my photographer Jason Florio, we were arrested by the Taliban at a military base in Ghazni in the summer of 2000, we were only released from waiting six months to be tried as “spies” because of Samiul Haq’s letter.

This obviously pales when compared to the high-profile, principled move by the Pakistani Supreme Court to save Aasia Bibi from a death sentence.

But it could be the first salvo in a Khan-era Pakistani war against religious fundamentalism.

Welcome to the Jungle

October 31, 2018

by Pepe Escobar (cross-posted with Consortium News by special agreement with the author)

A troubling new era has begun in Brazil with the election on Sunday of the far-right Jair Bolsonaro as president, writes Pepe Escobar.

It’s darkness at the break of (tropical) high noon.

Jean Baudrillard once defined Brazil as “the chlorophyll of our planet”. And yet a land vastly associated worldwide with the soft power of creative joie de vivre has elected a fascist for president.

Brazil is a land torn apart. Former paratrooper Jair Bolsonaro was elected with 55.63 percent of votes. Yet a record 31 million votes were ruled absent or null and void. No less than 46 million Brazilians voted for the Workers’ Party’s candidate, Fernando Haddad; a professor and former mayor of Sao Paulo, one of the crucial megalopolises of the Global South. The key startling fact is that over 76 million Brazilians did not vote for Bolsonaro.

His first speech as president exuded the feeling of a trashy jihad by a fundamentalist sect laced with omnipresent vulgarity and the exhortation of a God-given dictatorship as the path towards a new Brazilian Golden Age.

French-Brazilian sociologist Michael Lowy has described the Bolsonaro phenomenon as “pathological politics on a large scale”.

His ascension was facilitated by an unprecedented conjunction of toxic factors such as the massive social impact of crime in Brazil, leading to a widespread belief in violent repression as the only solution; the concerted rejection of the Workers’ Party, catalyzed by financial capital, rentiers, agribusiness and oligarchic interests; an evangelical tsunami; a “justice” system historically favoring the upper classes and embedded in State Department-funded “training” of judges and prosecutors, including the notorious Sergio Moro, whose single-minded goal during the alleged anti-corruption Car Wash investigation was to send Lula to prison; and the absolute aversion to democracy by vast sectors of the Brazilian ruling classes.

That is about to coalesce into a radically anti-popular, God-given, rolling neoliberal shock; paraphrasing Lenin, a case of fascism as the highest stage of neoliberalism. After all, when a fascist sells a “free market” agenda, all his sins are forgiven.

 

Bolsonaro: Leader of trashy jihad.

The Reign of BBBB

It’s impossible to understand the rise of Bolsonarism without the background of the extremely sophisticated Hybrid War unleashed on Brazil by the usual suspects. NSA spying – ranging from the Petrobras energy giant all the way to then President Dilma Rousseff’s mobile phone – was known since mid-2013 after Edward Snowden showed how Brazil was the most spied upon Latin American nation in the 2000’s.

The Pentagon-supplicant Superior War College in Rio has always been in favor of a gradual – but surefire – militarization of Brazilian politics aligned with U.S. national security interests. The curriculum of top U.S. military academies was uncritically adopted by the Superior War College.

The managers of Brazil’s industrial-military-technological complex largely survived the 1964-1985 dictatorship. They learned everything about psyops from the French in Algeria and the Americans in Vietnam. Over the years they evolved their conception of the enemy within; not only the proverbial “communists”, but also the Left as a whole as well as the vast masses of dispossessed Brazilians.

This led to the recent situation of generals threatening judges if they ever set Lula free. Bolsonaro’s running mate, the crude Generalito Hamilton Mourao, even threatened a military coup if the ticket did not win. Bolsonaro himself said he would never “accept” defeat.

This evolving militarization of politics perfectly meshed with the cartoonish BBBB (Bullet, Beef, Bible, Bank) Brazilian Congress.

Congress is virtually controlled by military, police and paramilitary forces; the powerful agribusiness and mining lobby, with their supreme goal of totally plundering the Amazon rainforest; evangelical factions; and banking/financial capital. Compare it with the fact that more than half of senators and one third of Congress are facing criminal investigations.

The Bolsonaro campaign used every trick in the book to flee any possibility of a TV debate, faithful to the notion that political dialogue is for suckers, especially when there’s nothing to debate.

After all, Bolsonaro’s top economic advisor, Chicago Boy Paulo Guedes – currently under investigation for securities fraud – had already promised to “cure” Brazil by bearing the usual gifts: privatize everything; destroy social spending; get rid of all labor laws as well as the minimum wage; let the beef lobby plunder the Amazon; and increase the weaponizing of all citizens to uber-NRA levels.

No wonder The Wall Street Journal normalized Bolsonaro as a “conservative populist” and the “Brazilian swamp-drainer”; this fact-free endorsement ignores that Bolsonaro is a lowly politico who has only passed two pieces of legislation in his 27 lackluster years in Congress.

WhatsApp Me to the Promised Land

Even as large misinformed masses progressively became aware of the massive Bolsonaro campaign manipulative scams on WhatsApp – a tropical post-Cambridge Analytica saga; and even as Bolsonaro pledged, on the record, that opponents would have only two options after Sunday’s elections, jail or exile, that was still not enough to arrest Brazil from inexorably slouching towards a dystopian, militarized BET (Banana Evangelical Theocracy).

In any mature democracy a bunch of businessmen – via black accounting – financing a multi-tentacle fake news campaign on WhatsApp against the Workers’ Party and Lula’s candidate Haddad would qualify as a major scandal.

WhatsApp is wildly popular in Brazil, much more than Facebook; so it had to be properly instrumentalized in this Brazilian remix of Cambridge Analytica-style Hybrid War.

The tactics were absolutely illegal because they qualified as undeclared campaign donations as well as corporate donations (forbidden by the Brazilian Supreme Court since 2015). The Brazilian Federal Police started an investigation that now is bound to head the same way of the Saudis investigating themselves on the Pulp Fiction fiasco in Istanbul.

The fake news tsunami was managed by the so-called Bolsominions. They are a hyper-loyal volunteer army, which purges anyone who dares to question the “Myth” (as the leader is referred to), while manipulating content 24/7 into memes, viral fake videos and assorted displays of “Bolso-swarm” ire.

Consider Washington’s outrage at Russians that may have interfered in U.S. elections allegedly using the same tactics the U.S. and its comprador elites used in Brazil.

Smashing the BRICS

Crushing the BRICS (Russian presidency)

 

On foreign policy, as far as Washington is concerned, Reichskommissar Bolsonaro may be very useful on three fronts.

The first one is geo-economic: to get the lion’s share of the vast pre-salt reserves for U.S. energy giants.

That would be the requisite follow-up to the coup de grace against Dilma Rousseff in 2013, when she approved a law orienting 75 percent of oil wealth royalties towards education and 25 percent to health care; a significant U.S.$ 122 billion over 10 years.

The other two fronts are geopolitical: blowing up the BRICS from the inside, and getting Brazil to do the dirty work in a Venezuela regime change ops, thus fulfilling the Beltway obsession on smashing the Venezuela-Cuba axis.

Using the pretext of mass immigration from Venezuela to the Brazilian stretch of the Amazon, Colombia – elevated to the status of key NATO partner, and egged on by Washington – is bound to count on Brazilian military support for regime change.

And then there’s the crucial China story.

China and Brazil are close BRICS partners. BRICS by now essentially means RC (Russia and China), much to the disgust of Moscow and Beijing, which counted on Haddad following in the footsteps of Lula, who was instrumental in enhancing BRICS geopolitical clout.

That brings us to a key point of inflexion in the rolling Hybrid War coup, when the Brazilian military became convinced that Rousseff’s cabinet was infiltrated by agents of Chinese intel.

Still, China remains Brazil’s top trade partner – ahead of the U.S., with bilateral trade reaching $75 billion last year. In parallel to being an avid consumer of Brazilian commodities, Beijing has already invested $124 billion in Brazilian companies and infrastructure projects since 2003.

Chicago Boy Guedes has recently met with Chinese diplomats. Bolsonaro is bound to receive a top Chinese delegation right at the start of his mandate. On the campaign trail, he hammered that “China is not buying in Brazil, China is buying Brazil”. Bolsonaro might attempt to pull a mini-Trump sanction overdrive on China. Yet he must be aware that the powerful agribusiness lobby has been profiting immensely from the U.S.-China trade war.

A mighty cliffhanger is guaranteed to come at the 2019 BRICS summit, which will take place in Brazil: picture tough guy Bolsonaro face to face with the real boss, Xi Jinping.

So what is the Brazilian military really up to? Answer: the Brazilian “Dependency Doctrine” – which is a true neocolonial mongrel.

On one level, the Brazilian military leadership is developmentalist, geared towards territorial integration, well-patrolled borders and fully disciplined, internal, social and economic “order.” At the same time they believe this should all be carried out under the supervision of the “indispensable nation.”

The military leaders reason that their own country is not knowledgeable enough to fight organized crime, cyber-security, bio-security, and, on the economy, to fully master a minimal state coupled with fiscal reform and austerity. For the bulk of the military elite, private foreign capital is always benign.

An inevitable consequence is to see Latin American and African nations as untermenschen; a reaction against Lula’s and Dilma’s emphasis on the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and closer energy and logistical integration with Africa.

Can’t Rule Out Military Coup

Despite this there is internal military dissent – which could even open a possible way towards the removal of Bolsonaro, a mere puppet, to the benefit of the real thing: a general.

When the Workers’ Party was in power, the Navy and the Air Force were quite pleased by strategic projects such as a nuclear submarine, a supersonic fighter jet and satellites launched by Made in Brazil rockets. Their reaction remains to be seen in the event Bolsonaro ditches these techno-breakthroughs for good.

The key question may be whether there is a direct connection between the cream of the crop of Brazilian military academies; the “dependency generals” and their psyops techniques; different evangelical factions; and the post-Cambridge Analytica tactics deployed by the Bolsonaro campaign. Would it be a nebula congregating all these cells, or is it a loose network?

Arguably the best answer is provided by war anthropologist Piero Leirner, who conducted deep research in the Brazilian Armed Forces and told me, “there’s no previous connection. Bolsonaro is a post-fact. The only possible connection is between certain campaign traits and psyops.” Leirner stresses, “Cambridge Analytica and Bannon represent the infrastructure, but the quality of information, to send contradictory signals and then an order resolution coming as a third way, this is military strategy from CIA psyop manuals.”

Brazilian Military: Keeping an eye on Bolsonaro. (Wikimedia Commons)

There are cracks though. Leirner sees the arch of disparate forces supporting Bolsonaro as a “bricolage” which sooner or later will disintegrate. What next? A sub-Pinochet General?

Why Bolsonaro is not Trump

In The Road to Somewhere; The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, David Goodhart shows that the driving force behind populism is not the fascist love of an ultra-nation. It’s anomie – that feeling of a vague existential threat posed by modernity. That applies to all forms of Right populism in the West.

Thus we have the opposition between “Somewheres” and “Anywheres”. We have “Somewheres” that want their nations’ democracy to be enjoyed only by the “home” ethnicity, with the national culture not contaminated by “foreign” influences.

And we have “Anywheres” who inhabit the roootless postmodern vortex of multiculturalism and foreign travel for business. These are a demographic minority – but a majority within political, economic, educational and professional elites.

This leads Goodhart to make a crucial distinction between populism and fascism – ideologically and psychologically.

The standard legal distinction can be found in German constitutional law. Right populism is “radical” – thus legal. Fascism is “extreme,” thus illegal.

Trump being labeled a “fascist” is false. Bolsonaro in the West has been labeled “The Tropical Trump.” The fact is Trump is a Right populist – who happens to deploy a few policies that could even be characterized as Old Left.

The record reveals Bolsonaro as a racist, misogynist, homophobic, weaponizing thug, favoring a white, patriarchal, hierarchical, hetero-normative and “homogenous” Brazil; an absurdity in a deeply unequal society still ravaged by the effects of slavery and where the majority of the population is mixed race. Besides, historically, fascism is a radical bourgeois Final Solution about total annihilation of the working class. That makes Bolsonaro an outright fascist.

Trump is even mode moderate than Bolsonaro. He does not incite supporters to literally exterminate his opponents. After all, Trump has to respect the framework of a republic with long-standing, even if flawed, democratic institutions.

That was never the case in the young Brazilian democracy – where a president may now behave as if human rights are a communist, and UN, plot. The Brazilian working classes, intellectual elites, social movements and all minorities have plenty of reasons to fear the New Order; in Bolsonaro’s own words, “they will be banned from our motherland.” The criminalization/dehumanization of any opposition means, literally, that tens of millions of Brazilians are worthless.

Talk to Nietzsche

The sophisticated Hybrid War rolling coup in Brazil that started in 2014, had a point of inflexion in 2016 and culminating in 2018 with impeaching a president; jailing another; smashing the Right and the Center-Right; and in a post-politics-on-steroids manner, opening the path to neo-fascism.

Bolsonaro though is a – mediocre – black void cipher. He does not have the political structure, the knowledge, not to mention the intelligence to have come so far, our of the blue, without a hyper-complex, state of the art, cross-border intel support system. No wonder he’s a Steve Bannon darling.

In contrast, the Left – as in Europe – once again was stuck in analog mode. No way any progressive front, especially in this case as it was constituted at the eleventh hour, could possibly combat the toxic tsunami of cultural war, identity politics and micro-targeted fake news.

They lost a major battle. At least they now know this is hardcore, all-out war. To destroy Lula – the world’s foremost political prisoner – the Brazilian elites had to destroy Brazil. Still, Nietzsche always prevails; whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The vanguard of global resistance against neo-fascism as the higher stage of neoliberalism has now moved south of the Equator. No pasarán.

Pepe Escobar, a veteran Brazilian journalist, is the correspondent-at-large for Hong Kong-based Asia Times. His latest book is 2030. Follow him on Facebook.

If you enjoyed this original article please consider making a donation to Consortium News so we can bring you more stories like this one.

%d bloggers like this: