Argument

Does China Want to Dominate Afghanistan?

If only.

In northern Afghanistan, a potentially rich, U.S.-backed oil and gas tender is under way this week. Central to hopes for a face-saving force withdrawal in two years, the competition is part of a U.S. strategy of initiating a vibrant, self-sustaining industrial base in Afghanistan that can bring jobs and stability over the long term. What the tender's Pentagon advisers hope will not happen: another Chinese triumph in Afghanistan's nascent oil and mining sector. Why? As a Pentagon official told me, the United States fears that China will end up "dominating Afghanistan."

From two decades of watching and covering the country, I feel confident saying that China will not end up "dominating Afghanistan," because the Afghans are too astute to let that happen. They do not require foreigners to inform them of the downside risks of falling under the sway of an outside power. Yet how astute are we?

By appearances, not very. We seem to have determined that because China is a great rival in many sectors, it is by definition a danger everywhere. But the logic does not hold in Central and South Asia, where a robust Chinese economic role -- a Pax Sinica, if you will -- may be what stands between the success and failure of primary U.S. and Western strategic objectives. "Without China's assistance, almost nothing of sustainable consequence will happen in South or Central Asia -- in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, or elsewhere," Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Gen. Colin Powell, told me.

For two decades, the United States has sought to fashion Central Asia -- and, since 9/11, Afghanistan -- into a bastion of free-market democracy that respects human and civil rights. In the 1990s, the policy centered on reducing Russian influence in Central Asia through the construction of independent oil and gas pipelines. After 9/11, the policy shifted to creating a support base for the war in Afghanistan, eventually becoming what is known as the Northern Distribution Network. Now, NATO troops have plans to withdraw in 2014, and the United States is attempting to erect the foundation of a sustainable economic base on its way out. But the hour is late, and the plan runs the risk of Potemkinism -- a nice try aesthetically, but lacking substance. The Chinese themselves are highly unlikely to explicitly come to America's aid. But the United States could achieve some of its aims -- a more stable Afghanistan, and a more economically independent Central Asia -- with China's implicit help by embracing some of its objectives.

The Afghan tender is for six exploratory blocks of land ranging in size from 1,200 to 2,200 square miles in and around the north-central Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif. According to a report last year by the U.S. Geological Service, the blocks contain an estimated 1 billion barrels of oil. If the estimate proves out, it is sufficient to attract attention from relatively large multinational oil companies. We won't know who the bidders are until Saturday, when they must file an "expression of interest" with Afghanistan's Ministry of Mines. (Complete offers are due in October, and the winner is to be announced by the end of the year.) But a Chinese company such as the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) is expected to bid. If that Chinese company goes on to win, it will be the country's second big hydrocarbon triumph in Afghanistan in as many years. It will also escalate an already loud fracas in the West.

In a series of policy journal articles, most recently in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, former U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and his son, Alexander Benard, have protested last year's first-round oil tender victory by CNPC. Khalilzad, who served as ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq during the George W. Bush presidency, now runs Gryphon Partners along with his son. The firm helps companies seeking business in the two nations and elsewhere by, among other things, introducing them to senior officials there. In Afghanistan, Gryphon has represented Britain-based Tethys Petroleum, which CNPC beat out in the first oil tender. The father-and-son pair has targeted the tender's Pentagon advisers for criticism, arguing that CNPC's triumph was a mockery of fair competition, and that the Pentagon should have carried out a policy of favoring U.S. companies. The argument becomes a bit overheated -- Benard's Foreign Affairs essay suggests that the good old days were when U.S. Marines were dispatched to straighten out countries that flouted the entreaties of American businessmen. But we do come to understand that the father and son unhappily believe that they and other American businessmen need better advantages abroad to win.

But that's not how business actually gets done in this era of globalization. In Russia, for example, President Vladimir Putin has recently let three contracts for the prized Arctic go to ExxonMobil, Italy's ENI, and Norway's Statoil. In Africa, the hottest new play is the eastern coastline states of Kenya, Mozambique, and Tanzania, but the boom is led by American, British, and Italian companies. In other words, you do not have to be Chinese to win big. And there do not have to be gunboats.

In the case of Afghanistan, the Chinese are highly unlikely to win the latest tender, primarily because the Afghans will want to mix things up. But if they do win, it will not be a disaster. On the contrary, "the more economically invested China is, the more it's a status quo actor and willing to support the future stability of the country," Andrew Small, a scholar at the German Marshall Fund, told me.

We are not talking about a Chinese security role. In terms of foreign adventurism, Beijing has no record of exercising its military might abroad apart from in Tibet and the South China Sea. Perhaps its territorial notions will expand over time, but I found no one who suggested that China wishes to play a security role in Afghanistan or Central Asia.

China's role as a serious economic player in the region goes back a decade and a half. Starting in the mid-1990s, it began to seek and obtain oil and gas fields in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. In 2006, CNPC became the only company to obtain prized rights to an onshore natural gas field in Turkmenistan, in large part by pledging to quickly monetize the field with a pipeline into China. The 1,100-mile pipeline was completed three years later.

In contrast, the West has failed to build any pipeline connecting Central Asia to the outside despite some 17 years of trying. The West's sorry pipeline story goes back to the 1991 Soviet breakup, when increasing numbers of American oil companies began to seek deals in Central Asia. The Clinton administration got behind the construction of new oil and gas pipelines as a way both to export the companies' hydrocarbons and to reduce Russian influence in the region. One idea was to build a gas pipeline across the Caspian Sea connecting Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan, and on to Turkey and then Europe. In recent years, the line took on the name Nabucco.

The policy continues today, but has morphed into a truncated line known as "Nabucco West" that leaves out Turkmenistan and starts in Azerbaijan, namely because the Turkmen have refused to commit to the idea. The Obama administration has also resurrected a line promoted in the 1990s by Unocal connecting Turkmenistan to the Indian subcontinent via Afghanistan. Today it is known by the acronym TAPI.

Both lines -- Nabucco and TAPI -- have confronted serious obstacles since neither is very practical from a commercial standpoint. Yet what about turning the axis of both proposed lines east? Rather than shipping Azeri gas to the west, what about exporting it east, into the existing Turkmenistan-China line? The result would be the same -- the Caucasus in this case would have another economic outlet independent of Russia. And in the case of Afghan gas, a Chinese dogleg would also accomplish the same ultimate goal: monetizing Afghanistan's natural wealth. A parallel oil line could be built as well.

Then there is the talk of a "new Silk Road," embraced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the U.S. military's Central Command. The idea is a massive Afghan economic development program, with new roads, railroads, electric lines, and energy pipelines connecting the borders of Europe with the ports of the Arabian Sea and India, with Afghanistan as a hub in the economic center. I am told that although the plan is still being discussed, it shows no signs of materializing. There are many reasons for that, including its grandiosity. But I would raise another reason -- that it has been honchoed from Washington. According to interviews, China not only is excluded as a partner; its role appears not even to have been seriously contemplated. "There are lots of China bashers who don't like the idea of China being involved at all," said a U.S. official with knowledge of the process. The omission makes this already far-fetched plan less realistic.

As it happens, the Chinese are themselves erecting a new Silk Road, though they eschew that moniker, from which both Afghanistan and the United States could find themselves outsiders. But if the United States shakes off the cobwebs and includes China in its thinking, perhaps the Washington-led plan would seem more feasible. A centrist rationale for getting together with China to achieve such U.S. aims is not new. In the Washington Quarterly last year, Evan Feigenbaum, a former deputy assistant secretary of state and now an advisor to Mitt Romney, described the Chinese-led outlines of an evolving new Asia. "The United States and China don't need joint approaches to pursue strategic cooperation, just mutually beneficial ones," Feigenbaum wrote. "And in Central Asia, where Russia has had a near-hammerlock on the region's oil and gas, China's new assertiveness comes primarily at Russia's expense."

The Pentagon itself is not monolithic on the subject. Small, of the German Marshall Fund, suggests that a sizable number of thinkers in the Pentagon favor a more fully engaged Chinese presence in Afghanistan. Indeed, he is among the few I spoke with who think that such geopolitical logic will carry the day in U.S. policy in Central Asia. "I do actually think it's going to be one of the few areas of Chinese foreign policy where what they're doing will be seen in relatively positive terms," he said.

Ultimately, the Chinese themselves, and not just the Afghans, are likely to be restrained. The Chinese will be cautious about overstepping when the United States shifts to a civilian presence in 2014, analysts told me. In addition, CNPC and other Chinese companies have their own, limited appetite for risk and will "be hesitant about being overexposed and overcommitted," Small said. It is only left to a more nimble United States to recognize the opportunity to succeed through Chinese means.

MARK RALSTON/AFP/GettyImages

Argument

Tweet With Caution

The government is watching.

Michele Grasso is a Sicilian drug dealer -- a fugitive who had evaded arrest since 2010. He had seemingly mastered the art of flying under police radar, until he made a simple mistake: He posted pictures of himself on his Facebook page, grinning in front of a wax model of U.S. President Barack Obama at London's famous Madame Tussauds museum. He also helpfully included the name and a photograph of the pizzeria where he was working, leading him to be snagged by British police this year. Grasso is now back in Italy, in prison.

Social media is profoundly affecting the work of security and law enforcement, even more than the invention of the telephone over a century ago. As more of us transfer details of our lives -- our whereabouts, interests, political views, friends, and so on -- online, it inevitably involves and interests the agencies tasked with keeping us safe. Facebook has been used to try to hire hit men, groom targets of pedophiles, violate protective orders, and steal identities. Al Qaeda's Somali affiliate, al-Shabab, runs a Twitter account while pirates operating in the Gulf of Aden use blogs, Twitter, and Facebook to plan and coordinate their attacks. In late 2010, British police reportedly received more than 7,000 calls from the public concerned with crimes linked to Facebook.

British law enforcement agencies are also developing more powerful methods to patrol this area of cyberspace. Some police forces are believed to be testing various types of automated social media collection and analysis tools to help criminal investigations and gauge the "temperature" -- the background levels of resentment and grievance -- of communities they work with. London's Metropolitan Police now has a social media hub to spot early signs of riots or demonstrations during this summer's Olympics. The United States is getting in on the game as well: This year, the FBI was seeking companies to help it build up social media monitoring apps for much the same purpose. Dozens of crimes -- most more complex than Grasso's indiscretions -- have already been solved by accessing social networks.

But law enforcement's involvement in the communications revolution carries risks as well as rewards. A number of ethical, legal, and operational challenges have yet to be resolved, and they threaten to derail the whole affair. In "#Intelligence," a recent paper for the British think tank Demos, we describe two conditions that must be met before law enforcement extends its work into the world of social media. Unfortunately, the laws and norms to satisfy these conditions remain embryonic even as monitoring technologies grow more pervasive.

Take condition one: There should be a broadly proportionate relationship between the degree of intrusion into someone's private life, and the necessity and authorization for that intrusion. But both Britain's Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and the U.S. Patriot Act are more than a decade old -- signed into law before the existence of Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter. These pieces of legislation recognize citizens' fundamental but qualified right to privacy, and they define the occasions when and process by which this right can be transgressed.

The problem is that the meaning of "private," in the world of social media, is less obvious than a decade ago -- more a series of shifting shades of gray. This leads to obvious operational problems. Is entering a Facebook group covertly the same sort of intrusion as infiltrating an offline group? Is collecting tweets similar to listening and recording a person shouting in public? What are the mechanisms by which these steps can be accomplished, and when do they represent a violation of citizens' privacy? In truth, no one really knows.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision (United States v. Jones) carries significant ramifications on these questions. The court decided that the use of GPS tracking devices without a warrant breached the Fourth Amendment, which bars unreasonable searches and seizures. A car on a public highway is not necessarily private -- anyone can see it and potentially follow it -- but the court determined that Jones would reasonably have expected his movements to be private and not subject to government monitoring. This "expectation of privacy" test was a complex enough question in Jones's case, and it is only more contentious when it comes to social media, where public expectations of privacy are varied, confused, and constantly in flux.

The Jones decision is also important because of the potential of mass surveillance that technology now allows. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted in her concurring opinion on the Jones ruling, "[B]ecause GPS monitoring is cheap in comparison to conventional surveillance techniques and, by design, proceeds surreptitiously, it evades the ordinary checks that constrain abusive law enforcement practices: 'limited police resources and community hostility.'" But GPS monitoring is nothing compared with what law enforcement can learn from social media -- in fact, it is labor intensive next to what an individual police officer can learn about someone by spending a few minutes online. In Britain, a fairly senior police officer is required to authorize directed surveillance. None is required for Googling suspects.

Then there's condition two: Intelligence collected must make a decisive difference to public safety. This condition is also under strain. The standards of evidence required when making decisions relating to people's liberty are, rightly, very high. Turning social media data into something a police or intelligence agency would feel comfortable acting upon is not easy. Data collected from profile pages, chat rooms, or blogs -- especially when using automated programs -- is prone to numerous and serious weaknesses. Social media data collection is barely past its infancy and lacks the rigor of other statistical disciplines.

If you were reading Twitter during last August's riots in England, for instance, you might be forgiven for thinking a tiger was on the loose, that the London Eye (a famous landmark) was set on fire, and that the British Army had been deployed on the streets. Each of these (untrue) rumors spread like wildfire, and without a rigorous way to establish authenticity, it was hard to tell the factual from the fantastical.

More sinister traps await too. Rumors, lies, distortions, and intentional misinformation are ubiquitous on social media, and sifting the wheat from the chaff is extremely difficult. A leaked cache of emails allegedly belonging to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad indicated that an Assad supporter posted pro-regime commentary under an assumed Facebook identity that was mistaken as genuine and given international coverage by CNN. True, misinformation has always been a problem -- think German Funkspiel in World War II -- but the spread of technical know-how and free software makes it far more likely, and again, very difficult to spot.

The United States and Britain must start addressing these issues now, before their capabilities to monitor social media get too far out ahead of the norms that limit their use. A useful starting point is to draw a distinction between open-source and closed-source intelligence. Open-source, non-intrusive work is accessing information that is in the public domain, but is not used to identify individuals guilty of a crime or as a means of criminal investigation, and should not puncture the privacy wishes of any user. This would include activity such as openly crowdsourcing information through Twitter or Facebook to gain situational awareness in the event of public disorder or gauging general levels of community tension by analyzing online conversations. This ought to be conducted on a basis similar to actions of nonstate actors, such as universities and commercial companies.

Closed-source work is quite different: It uses data in ways that are not covered by the reasonable expectation or implied consent of the user. In other words, when someone is investigated in the course of a criminal investigation and her privacy settings are broken -- reading the person's private Facebook messages, say -- she has lost "data control." This breach of her privacy is termed intrusive surveillance.

The use of such techniques must be publicly argued and understood, taking into account other public goods, especially privacy, and informed by the principles of reasonable cause, necessity, authorization, and oversight. It is likely that this debate will initially be driven by a series of case-law examples, but ultimately the political authorities will have to respond by creating a legislative framework, just as they did with wiretap devices.

This will also require new categories of authorization because on social media it is very easy to identify individuals unintentionally. For example, creating profiles of individuals based on publicly available information about them on social media, even if easy, should probably not proceed unless at least some reasonable cause is demonstrated. True, it would probably require an exceptionally low-level authorization, resulting in a bit of extra paperwork, but that would be a price worth paying for public confidence.

At the same time, social media intelligence needs to become a new class of intelligence, something we call "SOCMINT." Just like human and signals intelligence, it needs its own experts, formula, and evolving techniques. This means new partnerships among academia, government, and technical experts; new training for analysts and law enforcement agencies on the norms of online behavior; and the development of techniques to sift through large data sets and spot misinformation.

The result will not be perfect. As technology continues to evolve, so will the ethical and operational challenges. It has ever been thus, but the speed of change is quickening. This all matters because, in the future, intelligence and law enforcement agencies will have to use social media to discharge their duty of public safety. But unless citizens stand up now and establish checks and balances to ensure what those agencies do is proportionate, necessary, effective, and limited with due oversight, it won't wash. The way ahead is to remain firm to our fundamental principles: Governments will sometimes need to invade citizens' space to ensure their safety, but when, why, and how that is done ultimately rests on our consent. Social media may be new, but the old rules are built to last.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images