THE NEW GREAT GAME
“Now I shall go far and far into the north, playing the Great Game….”
—Rudyard Kipling (Kim, 1901)
THE EPITHET OF the Great Game attaches itself far too easily to Central Asia and Afghanistan, evoking lazy 19th century images of powerful empires jostling for influence among the Khanates. Unfortunately, it is not a game, great or otherwise, that is unfolding in Afghanistan, but the next act of an unending tragedy, the impact of which will again be borne by the Afghan people.
"Even as Iran emerges as a possible interlocutor with the Taliban, opinion is still divided within the country on this rapprochement with a group once regarded as a mortal enemy."
Like during the last four decades: thousands of innocent lives lost, thousands of childhoods cut cruelly short, countless other lives wasted away in the shadow of mindless conflict. The rugged landscape littered with unexploded ammunition, and the streets full of fighters with lethal weapons in their hands and the fundamentalist’s zeal in their eyes. A curtain falling over peace, development, education, women rights, shutting out the uncertain light that shone dimly for a few years. Ahead, only a night without end.
The tragedy is all the more acute since it is not entirely of Afghan making. One external power or the other has sought to use the country for its own ends and it is little comfort to the Afghan people that external powers do not succeed. They get bogged down, they suffer attrition, they leave; the chaos is left behind for another generation of Afghans to suffer.
History, always angry with those who do not heed its lessons, will judge harshly the United States, the last in the line of such external powers. For landing forces in a distant country to keep its own mainland safe, and then forgetting why it was there. For not ensuring that its presence did not weaken, corrupt, and divide its host. For looking away as criminal corruption hollowed out the Afghan government and security forces. For its cynical ambivalence towards a duplicitous Pakistan. For ignoring culture and tribal traditions and loyalties, and becoming the uncaring infidel, an image readily exploited by the Taliban. For cutting and running when fatigue set in. For making a selfish deal that not only pumped up the Taliban but will give a fillip to global jihadist forces. For misreading or worse, ignoring Taliban intentions and capability. For telling Afghans to fight their own battles after 20 years of meddling. For disparaging Afghan blood that had been spilled in America’s support. For not knowing that houses made of cards fall down. For the inept, hasty, arrogant manner of leaving. For abandoning a nation to chaos.
The counter-narrative has already begun: Kabul is not Saigon. And like after Saigon, the ignominy of Kabul will be overcome by inherent US technological, economic and institutional superiorities. Exiting Afghanistan will refocus America’s strategic priorities to counter its true geopolitical rivals, China and Russia. Abandoning Afghanistan does not mean that the US is in decline, or giving up global leadership; rather, the US will now be free to strengthen transatlantic and Indo-Pacific alliances and partnerships. Be that it may, the truth is that America’s credibility as a global leader and trusted partner is badly dented. No amount of squinting at teleprompters by the US leadership, in an attempt to convey sincerity, is going to change that.
Besides Pakistan, there are three other countries—China, Russia and Iran—deriving obvious joy from seeing the back of GI Joe. For a gloating China, the chaotic exit is an announcement of America’s terminal decline and it has swaggered fast into the power vacuum, cheque book in hand, holding out the carrots of recognition and economic support.
China’s first motive is to ensure that armed Uighur groups, chiefly the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, do not find sanctuary or support in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan or infiltrate Xinjiang. The Taliban’s initial response has been positive. They are in dire need of a financier. International aid, which formed over half the governmental budget, will cease to flow; foreign reserves of $9.5 billion have been frozen and IMF funding cut off.
China views post-US Afghanistan as an opportunity to extend its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) into Central Asia. Given the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and China’s considerable investment in infrastructure projects in Iran, linkages through Afghanistan, including the Peshawar-Kabul motorway, could be critical. The trillion dollar worth mineral reserves buried deep in Afghan soil, including rare earths, lithium, and copper—the essentials for future industry—are already glinting in China’s eyes.
But none of this is a given. That the Taliban is not a monolith is already a cliché; the real extent of internal divergences will play out once the initial flush of victory over an invading infidel has faded. Add to that the ISIS-K, restive warlords, pockets of armed resistance, a protesting populace, the easy availability of modern weaponry and freelancing ex-soldiers, and you have a potent recipe for chaos. In these circumstances, Chinese money could only add to the corruption and division.
China may find it difficult, even with Pakistani help, to ensure that the Taliban keeps it promises regarding the Uighurs, or is able to provide the requisite security and regulatory framework for building projects and exploiting mineral resources; China’s investment in the massive Mes Aynak copper mining project is still languishing after a decade. Chinese workers, it bears recalling, were killed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. If things go south, China is unlikely to relish the idea of bankrolling a militant-ridden Afghanistan-Pakistan combine, shunned by the world and dependant on a jihadist drug trade; it does not need this millstone on its way to global leadership. Given all this, Chinese glee over the ignominious American departure may be short-lived; the brush with Afghan reality may last longer.
Russia’s smug satisfaction at the departure of US forces is also not unalloyed. Post 2001, in order to keep its own underbelly secure against terrorism and drug-trafficking, Russia had cooperated with the US in the war in Afghanistan, including by consenting to bases in Central Asia. It could watch the US bleed away its resources while it licked the scars of its own disastrous ten-year imbroglio (1979-89) in Afghanistan.
Now, like China, it fears the rise of jihadist forces in Central Asia encouraged by the Taliban’s victory, besides waves of refugees and increased drug-trafficking. The memory of Soviet tanks withdrawing across the Friendship Bridge into Uzbekistan is fresher than Saigon; already stretched in Syria, Crimea, Ukraine and the Arctic, Russia would rather not become the region’s chief security provider.
On balance, Afghanistan today spells a liability, not a victory for Russia. While it may not be an immediate security threat, a volatile Afghanistan could destabilise Russia’s periphery, with increased US interest in Central Asia and erosion of Russian political influence in favour of an expanding China being complicating concerns.
Russian outreach towards the Taliban has been more nuanced than China’s. The parallel intra-Afghan dialogue conducted by Russia has enabled it to develop a working relationship with the group, even though it still appears on its list of terrorists. In its cautious engagement now, Russia, while signalling that it sees Taliban 2.0 as less radical, has hinged its recognition of the Taliban government on its actual conduct. Putin has been working the telephones to build a broad front to handle a potential refugee crisis and in favour of a broad-based government in Kabul. Simultaneously, Russia has conducted limited military exercises in August with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as a symbolic show of strength.
For Iran, sitting on Afghanistan’s western border, the developments have a more direct bearing in security, sectarian and economic terms. Tehran’s relations with the Taliban have never been friendly, and nearly broke into war in 1998 after the massacre of Shia Hazaras and the killing of several Iranian diplomats by the Taliban in Mazar-i-Sharif. Iran’s crucial support to the Northern Alliance hastened the overthrow of Taliban 1.0.
But in recent years, in a show of pragmatism, and to make common cause against the US, Iran has toned down its criticism of the Taliban; the Taliban, for its part, has made gestures to the Shia community, allowing the celebration of Ashura in Mazar and condemning attacks on Shia mosques by the local chapter of the Islamic State. Even as Iran emerges as a possible interlocutor with the Taliban, opinion is still divided within the country on this rapprochement with a group once regarded as a mortal enemy. Much may depend on what happens on the ground. For the moment, Iran’s embassy in Kabul and consulate in Herat are functioning. Oil exports from Iran have resumed. Afghanistan also receives US $2 billion worth of annual Iranian non-oil exports providing valuable hard currency to a heavily sanctioned Islamic Republic; these aspects will now be under threat of inflationary pressures and international financial cuts.
Meanwhile, the withdrawal deadline for foreign forces has passed. President Joe Biden has received 13 flag-draped coffins of US servicemen killed at Kabul airport. He and the American spin machinery may convince themselves that a “forever war” has ended. But that will be self-delusion. Wars, especially with jihadis in Afghanistan, do not just end: they are won or lost and the US lost this one.
But another war, the one for civilised survival, may just be beginning for the people of Afghanistan.