The new Great Game

Published: April 30, 2010

The writer is a former ambassador to Afghanistan

With so many powers in contention for dominance in our region, the contest has assumed new dimensions. Oil, gas and untapped mineral wealth have galvanised regional powers to seek ever greater shares in investments in a world which is destined to run out of natural energy resources in the next half century. In this perspective of economic rivalry, Afghanistan figures prominently.

The three major powers – US, Russia and China – have major, often conflicting, goals in Central Asia and Afghanistan. Russia, the erstwhile ruler of central Asia, is wary of a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan whilst China would not want to see the restive Sinkiang province used by militants who have roots in Afghanistan.

It is in their interest that the US prevents extremist forces from gaining power in their respective areas of interest. However, they would show serious concern if there were any signs of permanent Nato presence in these areas once the combat phase is over. The policy of reconciliation and reintegration being pursued vigorously in Afghanistan is also viewed from different perspectives. President Hamid Karzai is trying to reach out to the estranged militants in order to persuade them to get into the mainstreamed political process.

His holding of a grand assembly of elders in Kabul next month is a step in that direction. But distances are growing between him and the Americans. The US goal is to achieve some semblance of military victory before the November 2010 congressional elections. But they have little inclination towards long, drawn-out negotiations with diehard fundamentalists who are now battling the coalition forces. Thus, when Karzai invited the Iranian president to Kabul, the US was annoyed.

When Pakistan decided to detain Mullah Baradar, a senior Taliban leader, the Afghan government expressed displeasure because it felt this would sabotage negotiations they were illegally having with certain Taliban leaders. India is concerned about Pakistan patronising a Taliban government, if one was to emerge after the withdrawal of coalition forces. While all these countries are pushing forward conflicting agendas, little is being done to end the conflict that has caused such devastation.

Pakistan’s policy contours are inexplicable at best. It is not making the emergence of an independent and stable Afghanistan a top priority, even though this is in its best interests. An India-centric approach takes the focus away from fundamental problems that need to be resolved. And in recent weeks it has declared that a withdrawal of coalition forces would be a grave error.

If Pakistan, which is supposed to have the best insight into the dynamics of this conflict, shows a total lack of understanding about the factors that continue to fuel the insurgency, it must be a sorry state of affairs. Pakistan, bogged down in trivialities, is not emphasising on seeking a durable solution to the conflict. Any convergence of US and Pakistan objectives would be deemed to be clashing with India’s interest. Any act that brings Iran and Afghanistan together would be viewed with suspicion in Washington.

Any notion of permanent US presence in the country would raise deep concerns in Beijing and Moscow. Any talk of reconciliation with the Taliban would be opposed by Iran, Russia and India. This has added to the immense complexity of the new Great Game. For Pakistan to steer past this awfully complicated situation would require vision, foresight and statesmanship of the highest degree.

Reader Comments (5)

  • May 1, 2010 - 12:07PM

    Instability in Afghanistan will remain serious threat to normalcy and prospects of development in Pakistan. On the other hand , USA is restive to pull out with minimum humiliation thanks to its domestic economic and social crisis and world economic kaleidoscope. USA is in great trouble at home and possibility of reclaiming its pre-2008 position is remote one. Here is an opportunity both for Pakistan and India. Regional stability is badly required for meaningful and inclusive growth and development for all regional forces. Science and Technology as an objective force is offering unimaginable opportunities to defeat poverty, hunger and backwardness and to tread on path of great successes. Choice is very clear, only mindset requires a big jolt in favour of positive outcome.Recommend

  • Faris R
    May 1, 2010 - 9:32PM

    Stability in Afghanistan is in every body’s interest but Pakistan military will never let that happen as it will make them irrelevant essentially in the eyes of USA. By stirring militancy in their back-yard and exporting it in all directions not only guarantees Army’s very own survival but also help in continued flow of arms and money from the west. How long this game can last depends on how hard the US push is; in current scenario Obama definately wants to bring troops home. As far as regional resources are concerned that shouldn’t be our concern as concessions are already dealt with among players. Once Iran issue is dealt with, US will be out of the region and this area belongs to China anyways and the Middle-east to USA and Europe. In hindsight “new great game” is just a “figment of imagination” of our bureaucracy and military. Recommend

  • May 17, 2010 - 1:12PM

    Pakistan is on the decline from its creation. Every power has used it as a puppet.has no leadership who is or was devote to this country.Afghan policy has 2 part one is Punjab Sindhi prospective who don’t know about how to deal with, other is pakhtoons who knows but has no power to implement.Even Durand line ts not the boundary with Afghanistan.a book by chief of Indian survey wrote in his book that Durand line is the line of influence, not boundary.the more we relay on other to support give help will remain us under their influence.game ofter game of our disintegration be coming for ever till be realize the reality.Recommend

  • Malik Shahzad
    May 27, 2010 - 11:33AM

    What Pakistan is faced with at the moment is the ill-conceived policies of our security establishment. It would be unjustified to blame Afghanistan for our problems. We have always used Afghanistan as proxy for our vested interest. Taliban who remained successful in restoring peace and stability in war ravage Country, Afghanistan were brutally ousted by Pakistani Establishment after conspiring with US.
    This is need of the hour to revise our domestic and foreign policies as soon as possible, before it get too late. Rustam Shah Mohmand has excellently presented the prevailing political and strategic developments. But I see no role of Pakistan in these major happenings. Once again it will be used as tissue paper.Recommend

  • Anonymous
    Oct 28, 2010 - 7:47PM

    My take is that India will not get involved in the great game and just continue loading up oil tankers from the gulf as usual. It’s between the US and China that the great game will play out both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Given the history of China’s stealth entry into Tibet followed by outright annexation half a century ago, Pakistan should worry more about China more than the US. The Chinese played the “all weather friend” game with India back then and fooled the Indians. Shaksgam Valley is another example. The US is geographically isolated from the region to have other interests more than simply pushing back China. Note that the PLA has a track record of not leaving occupied lands once they put their feet on it. So let’s be careful and worried, lest we want to end up caught by surprise as being another Xinjiang puppet in the hands of China. The vision and foresight you call for on the part of Pakistan is to come to terms with a basic fact that a return of Taliban is not in the best long-term interests of Pakistan. It is in the best interests of China. Let’s be on the same page with the US, Iran, Russia and India on this. The great game has become complex because we have unnecessarily made it so. It doesn’t have to be. The key is choosing what’s right for Pakistan as opposed to harping on directives of Chinese think tanks.Recommend

More in Opinion