Review: Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia

3 Star, Country/Regional
Amazon Page
Amazon Page

Alexander Cooley

3.0 out of 5 stars Neither the Book Nor the Other Reviews are Serious, September 16, 2013

I am in Afghanistan, where I spend my time thinking about all external and internal factors bearing on 2014, and I was greatly looking forward to reading this book. It arrived, I read it, and I am hugely disappointed. Judging by the long list of grants and stipends that the author names in the front of the book, I have to ask myself, how on earth did he ever arrive at such a sadly simplistic rendering of what is in essence the center of the world?

This book gets three stars from me because it fails across virtually every significant point of analysis — not that the facts are wrong — journeymen argue about facts, masters debate models and assumptions. I gave this book the benefit of my “first class” read, which is to say, I started with the index, the bibliography, and the notes. Here are reasons this book does not rise about the three star level:

01 No strategic model, no intelligence in the sense of decision support. Visit Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog to learn everything that academics and think tanks have absolutely no clue about in relation to the evolving discipline of intelligence.

02 Afghanistan is a side show, not really included in the book in any substantive sense, nor is the author at all cognizant with the major tribes that bleed over the borders, the key personalities, etcetera. This is an anticeptic book that could easily have been written from an air-conditioned cubicle in the USA.

03 India gets 10 mentions, Iran 6, Pakistan 13, Turkey 5, and Saudi Arabia 3. Granted, the author is focusing his article in a hard cover (I have written longer monographs) on Russia, China, and the USA in relation to the ‘stans less Afghanistan — but this alone is grounds for disqualifying the book from any serious collection. The book is largely devoid of historical knowledge of the great game, and it is laughably empty when it comes to itemizing and explaining the local rules.

04 The bibliography is severely dated and lacking in sources from other countries. The author has moved about in his little bubble, comfortably funded by the Open Source Foundation and others, and evidently never actually talked to anyone that matters, inclusive of those in the gutter. Across the entire bibliography, the foolowing caught my attention:

Clan Politics and Regime Transition in Central Asia
The New Central Asia: The Regional Impact of International Actors
Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War (Problems of International Politics)
Afghanistan Beyond the Fog of Nation Building: Giving Economic Strategy a Chance (Silk Road Paper)

On balance I would recommend the first two books, sight unseen, over this one.

Now for my notes, elements of the book that merited my attention and recollection (I give all my books away now, so my reviews are also my notes).

01 Great Game metaphor is blinding. Conquering is not an option; international privileges and opportunities buffer these third world states from being dominated or even manipulated; counter-terrorism was use to justify a complete moral vacuum (especially in the USA) and end all momentum on human rights; and NGOs have been framed as agents of the west, in part [I add this bit] because CIA has been caught using them too often.

02 Russia, China, and USA all have different goals in the region, among which I would have to label the USA's both the stupidest (the pretend war on terror) and the last thoughtful (what we should be doing is helping Afghanistan become the Switzerland of the East for everyone's benefit). The author sees this as potentially a win-win, while finding that China has clearly emerged the winner from the past 12 years.

03 “Local Rules” for someone who was raised on Morganthau, Banks & Textor, Gurr-Johnson-et al on revolution– are pathetic. Worse than sophmoric. This is CNN authorship at its worst. This is not to say that the rules, all three of them (THREE — (3)) are wrong, just that they are about as empty as any I have seen. Don't hold your breath, here they are, all three THREE (3) of them:

— RULE #1. Regime survival is coincident with state security
— RULE #2. State resouorces are for private gain
— RULE #3. Elites are brokers and gatekeepers.

Got all that? You now know everything the author knows about Central Asia, go find some other book to read.

04 Useful insight: US gutted its potential in Central Asia by limiting itself to security programs. This is not a surprise, we are doing the same thing in Africa and have done the same thing in Asia. What this really boils down to, not something the author spends time on, is the fact that we do not HAVE a Whole of Government approach to anything. OMB does not manage, the President does not lead, Congress does not think, the media does not analyze, and academics — judging by this book — never get their hands dirty in the field.

05 Useful insight that tracks with my own experience: secret agreements and secret acceptance of deep corruption surrounding every aspect of the US entry and sustainment in Central Asia gutted its strategic coherence and potential.

06 The chapters on Russia and China are as shallow as those on the USA. In the Russian chapter I do learn that Putin created a special office for Central Asia, and that he had found a new strategy, “unite and rule” to be more difficult to design and implement than “divide and rule.” The chapter on China is slightly better, highlights China's avoidance of all interference in domestic matters, and concludes with the observation that China's soft power investments across highways, railroads, and airports are stellar, with its $10 billion Shanghai Cooperative Organization (SCO) infrastructure fund substantially exceeding all other Western trickles of money. I would add, for the reader's interest, that China is also in the lead in having created replacements — honest alternatives — to the IMF, WB, WTO, and SWIFT — when the USA used SWIFT against Iran, they lost it completely and China was ready. The US taxpayer has no idea just how reckless and irresponsible the US Government has been, and it will get worse –the Chinese have brains, we have Larry Summers being considered for the Federal Reserve, the prat boy for Wall Street.

07 The book disappoints on achieving any form of coherence on regional issues demanding hybrid governance. Energy — something Michael Klare covered over a decade ago, is the primary thrust, perhaps because the data was easily available. Water is much more important. Today, as I write this, Iran, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan are developing a water plan that does not include Pakistan or any other regional stakeholder — indeed, the Minister of Energy and Water is enriching himself by GIVING AWAY Afghanistan's water, and no one in the US Government appears to have noticed, nor do they care.

08 The issues chapter (these are all really short “papers,” less than 15 pages each) observes that the US obsession with counter-terrorism allowed these inherently authoritarian governments to clamp down on NGOs; that the US gave up all pretense of talking to opposition members and civil society (this has been typical of our shallow Department of State and pretentious CIA, Ambassador Bob Oakley, among others, has done stellar work in documenting how little we know about anywhere from our bunkers staffed by children afraid of their own shadow — and now CIA is training its case offices (spies) to operate with teams of bodyguard, guys with ink that stand out stupid and obvious — I do not make this stuff up. All so very sad. This chapter also notes, in passing, without appreciating the immense gravity of the observation, that parliamentarism seems to be taking hold in those regimes that have complex tribal structures and need to accommodate a vast diversity of views and interests.

09 The chapter on corruption has two useful observations: first, that the locals in Central Asia are skilled at playing multiple stakeholders against one another — this is not news, in Latin America they call the US officials “tontos utiles” or useful idiots — and second, that the elites — and the state corporations used by the elites to loot the public treasury — have all gone offshore, with the happy complicity of the governments of the US, Russia, and China.

10 The chapter on the shadow region yields the useful observation that Central Asia is suffering from the Soviet model of development focused on shipping stuff back to Russia, and from the severe degradation of all previously installed Soviet infrastructure.

QUOTE (152) “Persistent external calls for greater cooperation over regional resources have not produced a new standing body or supranational authority, or even a routinized set of rules to govern these contentious issues, which every year become more acute and now have the potential to trigger a regional skirmish or even a conflict.”

Duh. See long ago:

Zones of conflict: An atlas of future wars
Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum (American Empire Project)

I learn that Chinese rail guages are similar to those of Europe and different from those of Russia.

The author touches on borders as toll booths, shuttle trade (perhaps a form of System D economy), and the regional drug trade. I continue to recommend William Shawcross' Deliver Us from Evil: Peacekeepers, Warlords and a World of Endless Conflict, the fact is that drugs and war enrich the few and curse the many, and until we can all come together to confront evil with public intelligence in the public interest, this will remain the norm.

As the book moves toward a close I cannot but feel dismay that the author has missed the Chinese-Pakistani versus Russian-Indian competition, and totally overlooked the roles being played by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran behind the scenes and very effectively so.

11 The conclusion is mundane, the one reflection remaining with me is that the West may have declined, but it will always be a choice. The author ends with a sentence that I completely agree with, but one that is totally unrelated to the entire book, to wit, having lost our credibility globally, what we do at home will be central to the restoration of our credibility in the future. I guess he did not get the memo on the Grand Illusion: The Myth of Voter Choice in a Two-Party Tyranny that supports all his think tank benefactors, the Open Source Foundation prominent among them.

Among various books related to Afghanistan that I have reviewed, two in particular merit consideration by readers of this review:

Surrender to Kindness: One Man's Epic Journey for Love and Peace
The Thistle and the Drone: How America's War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam

At Phi Beta Iota under Special Interest items, one can find #Afghanistan Insights + RECAP and read online various articles by Milt Bearden and Ioannis Koskina, two minds I consider particularly well-equipped to get it right as we go forward.

Best wishes to all,
Robert David STEELE Vivas
INTELLIGENCE for EARTH: Clarity, Diversity, Integrity, & Sustainability

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