The New Great Game in Afghanistan: Continuing Misery of Afghans

The World Happiness Report which is prepared with the combined efforts of Gallup, the Oxford Wellbeing Research Centre, the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and the WHR’s editorial board to support the United Nations’ sustainable development goals indexed Afghanistan as the unhappiest and miserable country for the year 2024. Major chunk of this misery goes to the geopolitical factors such as its location and objectives those were being pursued by external powers in the country.

Afghanistan’s strategic position between the Eurasian heartland and the Indian Ocean made it the focus of the “Great Game,” the historical competition between the British and Russian empires for geopolitical supremacy.

During the Cold War, the Great Game referred to the two superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union, jostling for influence, and later it characterized the complex game involving America and various active regional powers such as Russia, Iran, Pakistan, China and India, and non-state actors such as the Taliban, ISIS and other insurgent groups until the Taliban’s seizure of power. Now a geopolitical lull characterizes Afghan landscape.

Access to the Eurasian region is needed to facilitate land strategies and to the Indian Ocean to support naval strategies. The region contains critical resources for the sustenance of a global power, such as minerals, gas and oil. Washington believes wielding influence in Kabul is essential to containing the regional influence of Russia and neighboring Iran and China.

The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 witnessed an exponential growth in the number of madrassas, which provided recruits for filling the ranks of the Islamist mujahideen to fight the communist forces. These were, however, the result of the ideological indoctrination and economic resources poured into raising the insurgencies by state actors instead of indicating a religious backlash.

The importance of these factors is borne out by the fact that when the Pakistani leader Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq turned down the Carter administration’s offer of US$4 million, the Reagan government provided Pakistan with an aid package worth more than $3.2 billion to strengthen the insurgency.

The effects of geopolitical factors were underlined by the fact that most of the sophisticated weapons such as the first firearms – mainly .303 Enfield rifles – arrived in Pakistan on January 10, 1980, 14 days after the Soviet invasion (CG Cogan, “Partners in Time: The CIA and Afghanistan since 1979”, World Policy Journal, Vol. 10, No. 2, Summer 1993, p76).

In the latter part of 1986, the US brought the first ground-to-air missiles in the form of the American Stinger, a handheld, “fire and forget” anti-aircraft missile to Afghan territory to fight the Russian forces (K Katzman, “Afghanistan: Current Issues and US Policy”, CRS Report for Congress, updated in August 27, 2003, p2).

Pakistan saw an alliance with the US as an opportunity to offset the power imbalance with India, scuttle the Indian effort to cultivate Afghanistan and increase its influence in Kashmir. It is roughly calculated that 70% of the weapons supplied to continue jihad in Afghanistan never reached there. They either became Pakistani military assets or were sold for profit by the Pakistani military or its various entrepreneurial middlemen.

The mujahideen were the first non-NATO recipients of the sophisticated weapons (For more details on US arms sales to Pakistan during the Soviet Occupation, see RF Grimmett, “US arms sales to Pakistan”, CRS Report for Congress, August 24, 2009, p1).

Pakistan wanted to enhance its influence vis-a-vis India, particularly in relation to Kashmir. Prominent Pakistani leaders and army officials preferred to describe Kashmir as the jugular vein of Pakistan, underlining the geopolitical importance of Kashmir for Islamabad, although they committed themselves to the cause of the freedom struggle in Kashmir.

It was after the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan that Pakistan tried to internationalize the Kashmir issue. Its active anti-Soviet role paid it rich dividends in terms of securing diplomatic support from the West and Islamic states apart from the huge amount of aid and arms received from the US, Saudi Arabia and Britain.

In this context, Pakistan hoped to reverse the agreement reached between it and India in Shimla that Kashmir was a bilateral issue to be resolved bilaterally. Furthermore, Pakistan was involved in the clandestine acquisition of nuclear weapons to create a favorable strategic environment to pursue its interests in Kashmir with relative asymmetry.

It was during this time that Pakistan hoped that its activities were likely to be ignored as the attention of the West was focused on the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (For details. see V Longer, The Defence and Foreign Policies of India, Sterling Publication, New Delhi, 1988, p285-290).

The Pakistani leadership also considered the Soviet intervention an opportunity to forge an overarching Islamic identity within which demand for an independent Pashtunistan could be subsumed. Pakistan was aware that the demand for Pashtunistan, if conceded, would have granted Afghanistan the most desired route to the Indian Ocean as Kabul was on the lookout for alternative routes to lessen dependence on the market provided by Islamabad.

Nonetheless, the fact that Pashtunistan dominated Afghan foreign policy in the early 1960s despite the little support it enjoyed among the Pashtuns of Pakistan indicated its geopolitical character. Further, the geopolitical character of the insurgency is underlined by the fact that when the Afghans thought the jihad had ended with the departure of Soviet troops, the US adopted a rollback policy, increasingly relying on Salafi Arab fighters to enhance its influence.

Balance of power politics and Energy politics

No external actor was ever prepared to see its contenders spread their influence in Afghanistan. The balance of power politics between the Russian and British Empires in the 19th century, the Soviet Union and US during the Cold War and the US on the one hand and many regional powers on the other in the post-Cold War era constantly kept Afghanistan embroiled in global power politics. Afghanistan’s location as a bridge between the Eurasian Heartland on the one hand and the Indian Ocean at the other end of the spectrum swayed the external actors to juggle for an upper hand in the country to maneuver continental and naval strategies. In a similar vein, once the Central Asian states endowed with rich deposits of natural resources emerged as independent international actors following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia to retain its monopoly over energy politics and Iran and US to capitalize on the emerged situation carved out plans to contain and bypass each other to gain an upper hand in the pipeline politics to supply energy resources from the Central Asian region to the world market. Afghanistan as a bridge between the Central Asian region and Indian Ocean became vital to these external actors’ strategies. This energy politics had a negative impact on the evolution of Afghan political scenario as the actors chose different sides in the Afghan war and reconciliation efforts and made any kind of political resolution to the conflict increasingly intractable. The Afghan Taliban and ISKP sought to manipulate such external dynamics in their favour and the Afghan graveyard continued to swell.

The Soviet Union disintegrated in the early 1990s and gave way to the emergence of five Central Asian states that were landlocked but rich with natural resources. The resource potential of the Caspian Sea region was believed to be high enough to sustain the growing needs of the global economy and even serve as an alternative to the unstable Persian Gulf region.

Indicating its desire to reach out to the region, the US Congress started passing bills that called for the diversification of energy supplies from the Central Asian and Caspian region starting from the late 1990s. Around this time, however, the US lacked an overarching ideological threat due to the demise of the Soviet Union, around which it framed its geopolitical interests.

Its interests were placed, on the one hand, within the spheres of various regional powers and militant groups. On the other hand, Pakistan, in its attempt to enhance both trade and political ties to the region, needed stability in Afghanistan, which was ripped apart by civil war and the local rule of the warlords.

Under the government of Benazir Bhutto, the interior minister, General Naseerullah Babur, prepared the groundwork to use the Taliban to bring stability to southern and eastern Afghanistan, following the failure of Gulbuddin Hekmetyar to subdue ethnic forces in Afghanistan despite repeated attempts. In this changed context, the US was poised to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate regime.

For instance, Robin Raphel, who was in charge of the Central Asian region at the US State Department, paid two visits to Kabul to meet Taliban government functionaries. State Department spokesman Glyn Davies said the US found “nothing objectionable” in the steps taken by the Taliban to impose Islamic law (A Tarock, “The Politics of the Pipeline: The Iran and Afghanistan Conflict”, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 20, No4, August 1999, p815).

American and Pakistani geopolitical interests in Afghanistan converged in the opening of trade routes and the forging of links with different resource-rich Central Asian states. Nonetheless, the fact that the Taliban comprised many members drawn from the Central Asian states instead of exclusively representing the Pashtun Afghans of the refugee camps in Pakistan pointed to it being structured to suit geopolitical interests.

On the other side, Russia saw the Taliban’s rise to prominence as a threat. Sergei Ivanov, then the head of the Russian Security Council, not only accused the Taliban government of assisting the Chechen resistance but claimed the group gave sanctuary to Islamists from some of the Central Asian states and allowed them to train for guerrilla warfare to destabilize those states.

Similarly, the animosity between Iran and the Taliban reached a peak in 1998 when the Taliban attacked and conquered the northern town of Mazar-i Sharif, killing eight Iranian diplomats and journalists they accused of supplying arms to the opposition.

This issue led to the deployment of Iranian troops along the Afghan border, raising fears of conflict. Washington’s enhanced military presence in Afghanistan and the Central Asia region and proposals for alternative pipeline routes, such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline through Turkey and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan through Afghanistan, engendered deep-rooted suspicions within the Iranian and Russian governments impinging on the US-led war, counter- insurgency and peace efforts.

Moscow and Tehran allegedly shifted their support from the fragmented Northern Alliance group to the Taliban in order to strengthen their Afghan role. Washington signaled its dissatisfaction with these states’ alleged support for the Taliban to impede the peace process in Kabul and roll back progress made by US-led forces. On the other hand, Moscow and Tehran kept denying the reports of their support for the radical group.

Geography as a Bane

While Afghanistan’s geography has been a source of attraction for external powers, it has been a bane for the country itself. It has no direct access to the Indian Ocean and to the world market. It has been heavily dependent on Pakistan for trade and commerce. Pakistan, on the other hand, used this dependence in its favour by meddling in the internal affairs of the country in its search for strategic depth against India and by colluding the political fabrics of the country. The radical elements used to receive training and arms in the Pakistani side of the border and then get infused into the Afghan society. An independent Pashtunistan which could have allowed Afghanistan an outlet to the Sea was suppressed by Pakistan within the larger umbrella of Islamic Fundamentalism such as Jihadi forces including the Taliban. Under the current Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Pakistan far from securing strategic depth against India has pandered to radical elements itself which was evidenced from Tehrik-i-Taliban’s attacks in the Pakistani mainland- the group allegedly found sanctuaries in Afghanistan. This resulted not only expulsion of many Afghans from Pakistan, it also led to Islamabad’s efforts to strangulate trade and commerce. Without legitimate domestic revenue sources and restrictions put in place on the Afghan banking system, millions of returnees from Pakistan pose difficult economic challenges to the country.

Afghans love independence and desire to be the architect of their own destiny as has been evidenced in their resolve to force the external powers out of the country from the British and Russian Empires to the then Soviet Union onto the American exit in 2021. However, this desire still remains a distant dream as the Taliban wrested power in 2021 and governs Afghanistan as the de facto regime without international recognition and all the external actors who were once active pursuing their interests in Afghanistan seemingly agreed to a new balance of power politics which is simultaneous disengagement from the Afghan misery.

[Photo by VOA, Public Domain]

Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra is a Lecturer at the Department of Political Science, SVM Autonomous College, Odisha, India. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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