Afghan Buzkashi and the Great Powers

Afghan Flag
Credit: U.S. Department of Defense

The word ‘boz or buz’ means the goat in Dari, and snatching the carcass of a dead headless goat by mounted horse riders is the national game of Afghanistan. The buzkashi is scary to watch for most Indians as the animal is torn into pieces of flesh and skin by the end of the game. The game marks the history of civilisation in Afghanistan, exposing the brutality of the invaders who kept disturbing the socio-political framework of the peoples. The scholars have turned the hourglass upside down to picture the country as the graveyard of empires. Afghanistan remains a graveyard of countless dreams of young Afghan boys and girls who want to aspire and achieve something, which people consider ordinary and mundane in their daily lives. The empires come and go, but the generations of Afghans keep losing faith in changing their destiny. The people try to rally behind every invader in the hope of getting salvation. Still, in the end, they return empty-handed, demoralised and heartbroken with numerous agonies of losing their dear ones. 

President Ashraf Ghani left the country with a shocker to all. Even the Taliban found getting into Kabul surprisingly easy. That has been the history; it is easy to get into Afghanistan but immensely painful and difficult to get out of it. And, Ghani has thrown the Afghan state like a ‘boz’, in the ring with a perfect sense of timing for numerous power factions to contest for it. The troika of Russia, China and the US have been thrown off guard like skittles by this Ghani act. And, Pakistan feels jittery as never before, with geopolitical space too wide open for it to control to secure its geoeconomic objectives. The US reduced to almost 2500 troops had to suddenly rush in another 6000 troops, increasing its adequate strength again back to the Trump era of 10,000 soldiers. So the first lesson of the Afghan conflict remains intact that it is easy to get in, but like the cave of Aladin, the mouth shuts down. China should consider this proposition as it plans to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor into Afghanistan. The US has been trying ugly things both in the Middle East and in Afghanistan. It rushed into Iraq in 2003 after abandoning Afghanistan and now realises that it neither has a secure foothold in Iraq nor Afghanistan. It has encouraged the rise of counter-state factions as a practitioner of the scorched earth policy, which has resulted in the expansion of ISIS and DAESH in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively. The drone warfare in these parts has made geopolitics trans-scalar phenomena, where non-state actors can inflict unpredictable damage. The world is more unsafe as it may invoke an unexpected reaction from the affected state and the margin of miscalculation gets increasingly more extensive. The second lesson of Afghan conflict remains intact too in Rudyard Kipling’s couplet that a two thousand pound education dropped by a ten-rupee jezail. The financial cost of controlling the war in Afghanistan keeps increasing.

The Taliban have announced the implementation of Shariah, which has motivated Tehrik-I Taliban Pakistan to extend the same in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The pan-Shariatisation of Af-Pak effectively threatens the sovereignty of Pakistan. It gives a boost to the Kashmir insurgent groups lodged in the Punjab and Kashmir regions of Pakistan. This Frankenstein can serve Pakistan’s jingoistic ambitions over Kashmir, but then all rosy designs of the Bazwa doctrine to shift Pakistan’s strategy from geopolitics to geoeconomics would fall flat. The third lesson of the Afghan conflict remains intact; the politicisation of Islam is like having a snake that will bite that hand that feeds. Afghanistan has been a land of spiritual Islam, and Afghans, in general, hate the political use of religion. Their spiritual context of Islam has given birth to many Sufi ideas that have found significant followings in the Indian mainland. A Wahabi-Salafi eccentrics espoused by the Taliban is not going to work in Afghanistan. Afghans are very clever in their contextualisation of Islam. Their Islam is like a walnut kernel nicely shelved in the different tribal and ethnic coverings with varying patterns of socio-cultural ontology. If the ethnic and tribal mobilisation of people takes place, that is not a call to safeguard religion per se. Still, it is their generic ethno-tribalized Islam that is a priority to defend. The tribal and ethnic linkages have securitized the Afghan ingenuity of Islam over the centuries, unlike the homogenous bigotry of Shia versus Sunni in the Middle East. This only points to another historic lesson of the Afghan conflict, albeit the fourth one. Deoband Islam, rooted in mainland India has competed with Sufi Islam, which is rooted in Afghanistan. And, it represented an accepted diversity within the religion that could be the foundation for any lasting peace. Therefore, intra-religious diversity is the essence of a stable and peaceful Afghanistan.

These four lessons become the foundation for the game that we see in the coming months and years. Pakistan’s ownership of the Taliban gets increasingly securitized into its geopolitical realities. The sophisticated weaponry and ammunition left by the US forces provide a strong temptation to the Kashmir insurgent groups like Lashkar and Hizbul to approach the Haqqani network. And, quite similarly, the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISIL-K aka DAESH) would like to extend its footprint across the Af-Pak space. The situation again is back to square one where the Taliban might be busy staving off other terror groups who would like to challenge the monopoly of Taliban rule across Afghanistan.

South Asia faces an uncertain geopolitical future even as the US, Russia and China poise for newer engagements with the Taliban. Financial aid shall be crucial for the Taliban government, and its actions would matter more than the media platitudes served by the duo of Suhail Shaheen and Zabiullah Mujahid. The Taliban depended on the narco-terror economy in the 20 years of war against the Afghan state. It shall test the Taliban to what extent they sever their ties with this unIslamic practice and how it assuages Pakistan patrons. Taliban appears to some as an instrument of geopolitical calibration against China’s South Asian presence. China has warmly welcomed the Taliban capture of power in Afghanistan but hasn’t given a clean chit on cross-border extremism and terrorism witnessed by Xinjiang. The time has come for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India to align their geopolitical vectors according to the great power alignments. The current developments in Afghanistan are labour pains suffered by the Afghan nation for the birth of a new South Asia.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.