Whether it’s Israel maybe pre-emptively striking Iran, Afghanistan spiralling into sectarian violence, Libya becoming home base for Al-Qaeda, or Syria continuing to be the site of a government-led genocide, there’s no shortage of potential dirty wars and ominous harbingers in the Middle East and Central Asia. While everyone is focusing on the recent turmoil in Benghazi, a new kind of conflict is rising in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan that could eventually lead to the first water war of the 21st century.

It’s fair to say that when Louise Arbour, the hard-ass former UN prosecutor of war criminal Slobodan Milošević, lists her bets on future wars, the rest of us should take her seriously. In December 2011, writing for Foreign Policy, Arbour predicted Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, two obscure Central Asian countries to most westerners, as potential combatants in a war over quickly depleting water resources. Judging by current tensionsbetween the two, she might be right.

Basically the Tajiks, who are already plagued by an Islamic insurgency, plan to build the Rogun dam on the Vakhsh River. The river is a major tributary to the Amudarya—the main water vein for downstream Uzbekistan. While the hydroelectric power from the proposed dam would make the Tajiks rich, it’ll make the Uzbeks thirsty. This has been a problem for Uzbekistan since Stalin’s failed plan for the Transformation of Nature during the 1940s drained the Aral Sea (Uzbekistan’s main water reserve) to irrigate cotton fields.

Pissing off the Uzbeks, however, may not be what the Tajiks want to do. Besides being geopolitical wildcards, Uzbek President Islam Karimov is widely considered a tyrant, ruling over his country’s oil reserves and national wealth since a questionable 1991 election. He’s also a cheap imitation Saddam. And like any delusional dictator, he’s known for his outlandish behavior: like rewriting history books to make himself the spiritual descendant of the warlord Tamerlaneowning a soccer team in the national league (who are conveniently champions nearly every year), and allegedly ordering the assassination of a political dissident hiding in Sweden. Human Rights Watch even accused his regime of systematic torture, including boiling rebels alive.

One former diplomatic employee of a country in the region, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says the lack of western sanctions on Karimov is no surprise: “There’s the general feeling that Karimov gets off very lightly from the International community because of his violent campaign against Islamic extremists and the war on terror, which is really an excuse for a political crackdown.” Meanwhile, the Karimovs enjoys total rule over the state: “It’s modern tribalism. One family rules the country for two decades, keeping the population poor so they can use them as a cheap labor force under the loose tenants of communism,” the source added.

When or if a war will erupt is unknown. “I don’t want to speculate on the probability of a war breaking out,” says David Trilling of Eurasianet, “but Islam Karimov did up the ante [recently] by suggesting that attempts by Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to build giant hydropower dams upstream could lead to war.”

According to Trilling, tensions have been escalating for years as the Uzbeks pressure the Tajiks by pulling classically dirty diplomatic moves the Russians are known for, like cutting off vital gas deliveries, mining their shared borders, and possibly resorting to covert attacks. “Late last year,” Trilling said, “all rail traffic to southern Tajikistan stopped when a rail bridge in a remote part of Uzbekistan mysteriously blew up. Tashkent blamed terrorists, as it is wont to do, but a visitor to the site described signs of deliberate sabotage.”

Joshua Foust, a Central Asian expert with the American Security Project, isn’t convinced war is inevitable, but says, “the potential is definitely there for that dispute to become violent […] if the Tajiks stopped releasing enough water to feed all of the Uzbek cotton fields, that might push things over the edge.” According to Foust, while internal violence in Central Asia by a state against its people is all too common, state to state violence is pretty rare. Yet he does admit there are ominous signs and the conflict needs to be monitored: “The reason why this hasn’t deteriorated into open violence is because both parties are keenly aware of the potential for violence.”

For NATO countries, another conflict in the ‘Stans might not mean more body bags and beheading videos. When asked to describe an American response to a war, Foust was blunt. “There is definitely not an appetite in Washington for initiating another armed conflict, that’s part of the reason there’s been no response in Syria. What the US would do immediately is focus itself on the humanitarian response. If there were American assets and citizens being targeted you’d see a very sharp response, but I don’t think that would involve troops on the ground.”

Foust also described the disruptive contest between superpowers in the region, as Russia, America, and China jockey for influence. “Although the contest is real, a war won’t happen until one of these outside powers funds their proxies against one another directly.” In other words, each superpower would look to pin down another in an Afghan-Soviet or Vietnam type of war, which among other things spawned the mujahedeen (precursors to Al-Qaeda) and severely taxed the infrastructure of the US Army, respectively. The US interest is simple: these countries are strategic supply routes for the eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan. If they were compromised it would only leave Pakistan as an option, which some see as an extremist hornets’ nest buzzing with anti-American sentiment.

Whether foreign interests are already stirring the pot is the real question. Foust told me that US Special Forces recently trained Kyrgyz soldiers. “They’ve also been training border guards and set up a counterterrorism training center in Tajikistan. But this is mainly to train domestic police forces against internal terrorists and, as far as I’ve heard, they’re not being used to help execute violent espionage […] but if, say, that train blowing up was confirmed to be the work of an intelligence service, that would be a precursor for actual violence.” And Putin’s Russia, or his USSR resurgent, are just as involved: “Russia is negotiating with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan to host military bases, while they have an investment in training Tajik border guards to secure their southern borders. They also have the ultimate goal of a sort of Pan-Eurasian economic union, modeled loosely on the EU.” To confuse things even more, China’s commercial entities have been infiltrating all levels of economies in the area. And like everywhere else in the world, China is winning favor financially: “If they can make money somewhere, they’ll try. They’ve mainly focused on infrastructure building, on a credit to debt basis, especially in Kyrgyzstan.” By all indications, Central Asia is becoming the crossroads of the three global superpowers. If history is any indication, this often leads to death and destruction.

As for the regional players, when Tajikistan fought its civil war in the 90s it claimed an estimated 100,000 victims, proving that when they go to war, they do not fuck around. A full scale armed conflict with Uzbekistan (who is allied with Kazakhstan, another emerging player) would likely drag in the Kyrgyz. The Krygyz have not only battled a bloody internal uprising in 2010 that involved the ethnic cleansing of Uzbeks, but they continue to skirmish with them on their own shared borders. While at the moment it may seem unlikely, a water war could potentially be the spark that would upgrade the region’s brewing geopolitical shit-storm to a full blown shit-hurricane.

Fat Pig of Qatar Spreading More Lies At UN

[Some more of that “non-lethal” aid exploded in Damascus yesterday.]

Qatar’s PM: ‘We have a Plan B for Syria’

By Samuel Burke and Claire Calzonetti

After more than a year of unimaginable violence and a mounting death toll in Syria, the possibility seems lower than ever that real action will be taken to stop the slaughter.

The United Nations had been the only source of hope for a resolution, but back in May the U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, caused a stir when he told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that there was no “Plan B” in Syria. 

But Monday, Qatar’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Al Thani, gave a glimmer of hope by telling Amanpour that there is indeed a “Plan B” for Syria.

“We believe that we can solve it peacefully,” Al Thani said. He is in New York for the yearly United Nations General Assembly, and he says Arab countries are working on a plan of their own.

U.N. focuses on Syria

Qatar is a tiny country, with big money and big power. With its oil and gas riches, Qatar holds real clout in the Arab world.

“You need to make safe haven areas, first of all,” Al Thani says.

That would require a no-fly zone.

“If the Syrians want to break that, that’s another subject. We need somebody to have the teeth to tell them don’t do that, because that will not be allowed.”

While Al Thani wouldn’t offer up specifics about who will participate in this Plan B, he said the support might be wider than expected.
“I believe there are a lot of Arab countries who will participate. And there are also European countries who will participate.”

Nonetheless, he said the region needs the United States to step up.

“We are in an election period, so maybe this isn’t a diplomatic way to say it, but I hope that after the election the American government looks at this matter in different way.”

Al Thani maintains he isn’t looking for military intervention and says Qatar is not providing weapons to the Syrian uprisings, but said his country is providing logistic help – citing humanitarian aide and medicines.
Qatar played a key role in the liberation of Libya as the first Arab nation to recognize the rebels and to support NATO’s mission there.

In fact, Libyans were so thankful they hung the Qatari flag over a Gadhafi compound in Tripoli.

But Al Thani says that was possible through work via NATO and the help of the United States.

Now Qatar’s sights are on Syria.

And Qatar certainly isn’t lacking the money to send weapons to help the rebels.

“Money is not everything.” Al Thani says. “Will is more important than the money. A lot of countries have the money. But they don’t have the will.
President Assad was recently quoted in the Al Hayat newspaper criticizing the tiny, wealth nation, saying, “Qatar uses the power of money and revolves in the orbit of the West to repeat the Libyan scenario.”

Al Thani responded: “Qatar and the others interfere in Syria, because of his failure.”

US Special Forces Still Deployed in Iraq

US Special Forces Deployed in Iraq, Again

Despite the official US military withdrawal last December, American special forces “recently” returned to Iraq on a counter-terrorism mission, according to an American general in charge of weapons sales there. The mission was reported by the New York Times, in the fifteenth paragraph of a story about deepening sectarian divides.

The irony is that the US is protecting a pro-Iran Shiite regime in Baghdad against a Sunni-based insurgency while at the same time supporting a Sunni-led movement against the Iran-backed dictatorship in Syria. The Sunni rebellions are occurring in the vast Sunni region between northwestern Iraq and southern Syria where borders are porous.

During the Iraq War, many Iraqi insurgents from Anbar and Diyala provinces took sanctuary in Sunni areas of Syria. Now they are turning their weapons on two targets, the al-Malaki government in Baghdad and the Assad regime in Damascus.

The US is caught in the contradictions of proxy wars, favoring Iran’s ally in Iraq while trying to displace Iran’s proxy in Syria.

The lethal complication of the US Iraq policy is a military withdrawal that was propelled by political pressure from public opinion in the US even as the war could not be won on the battlefield. Military “redeployment”, as the scenario is described, is a general’s nightmare. In the case of Vietnam, a “decent interval” was supposedly arranged by the Nixon administration to create the appearance of an orderly American withdrawal. During the same “interval”, Nixon massively escalated his bombing campaign to no avail. Two years after the 1973 Paris peace accords, Saigon collapsed.

It is unlikely that the Maliki regime will fall to Sunni insurgents in Iraq, if only because the Sunni population is approximately twenty percent of the population. However, the return of US Special Forces is not likely to restore Iraqi stability, and they may become trapped in crossfire as the sectarian tensions deepen. The real lesson may be for Afghanistan, where another unwinnable, unaffordable war in support of an unpopular regime is stumbling towards 2014.