New great Game in South and Central Asian

Afghanistan – a battlefield of power politics

Col (r) Ikram Ullah Khan

During the past few centuries Afghanistan has remained a pivot of a complicated regional as well as global power politics. Its global rise to real geopolitics with myriad unwinnable battles and endless proxies on its soil during the 19th and 20th century and also in the beginning of the current century came in the shape of three Anglo-Afghan wars, (1839-42;  1878-80; 1919), Soviet-Afghan war (1979-1989) and the recent US-Afghan war (2001-2021). 

Interestingly, in all these wars, Afghanistan has turned out to be the grave-yard of great empires. History bears witness to the fact that regional powers, and super powers have remained aggressively engaged in battles in Afghanistan over the decades to achieve their geo-strategic objectives and safeguard their socioeconomic interests.

During the cold-war era, the US and the erstwhile USSR had been eyeing on Afghanistan due to its extremely important geo-strategic location. This was precisely the reason behind Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 that continued for ten years leading to a long Soviet-Afghan war (1979-1989) fought by Afghan Mujahideen against the Soviet Union backed by the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The US capitalized on the golden opportunity to defeat its lone formidable adversary, the USSR and transform the bipolar world into a unipolar one. In this regard, it played a masterstroke to win the support of the Muslim world by terming “Communism” as enemy of Islam and Muslims and succeeded to coax Saudi Arabia and Pakistan into helping achieve its grand objective. Saudi Arabia spent huge money to assist various factions of Afghan warlords and Afghan Mujahideen to compel the former USSR to make a forced exit from Afghanistan. Mujahideen were branded as freedom fighters by the US and its allies but with the paradigm shift in geopolitics, same Mujahideen were subsequently labelled as “terrorists” and enemies of humanity. The war ended with the ultimate dismemberment of USSR thus giving birth to a unipolar world.

Afghanistan has been a playground of “Great Game” since long and has remained an epicentre of power politics and is known for the diplomatic and military confrontation during the past two and a quarter century. Due to its important strategic location, Afghanistan serves as a gateway to Central Asian Republics. For this reason, in the past, the grand strategy of both Russian and British Empires had been to control Afghanistan as well as the neighbouring territories in Central and South Asia. This Great Game brought nothing except destruction, human misery, political chaos, social unrest, ethnic division and economic meltdown in the region. It appears that no lesson has been learnt from Afghan history as Afghanistan once again has attracted attention of the major world players and has become the playground of regional as well as global powers with the new Great Game in the offing. This time around the major players are China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan being on one side and the US and India on the other side.

With the US hurried exit from Afghanistan having a sneaky withdrawal of its troops, geopoloitical and geostrategic landscape has totally changed making a room for a much awaited entry of new players including China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan forming a troika-plus. Taliban who seem to stand a good chance to take over Afghanistan are trying to develop a good understanding with the troika-plus with Pakistan seemingly playing a crucial role in bringing Taliban closer to these countries. Hence, a new stage is being set in Afghanistan where these players would have hospitable environment to make an entry in a big way and make investments on a massive scale and play an active role to rebuild and reconstruct the war-ravaged Afghanistan that could ultimately pave the way for their access to resource rich Central Asian Republics (CARs) to benefit from the rich energy and mineral resources of these countries.

A very interesting geopolitical, geostrategic and geoeconomic scenario is emerging in and around South and Central Asian region. A great understanding seems to have developed among China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan. Russia has recently inked a gas pipeline agreement with Pakistan worth around 3 billion dollars whereas China has signed a 25 year “Strategic Cooperation Pact” with Iran paving the way for a huge investment worth 400 billion dollars while China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) with One Belt and One Road (OBOR) initiative worth 65 billion dollars is fast proceeding towards completion. Russia is already spearheading the Collective Security Treaty Organization (SCTO) that includes the Central Asian Republics. All these developments have laid the foundations of power politics and new geo-economic ambitions in the region and much beyond thus bringing these countries closer that poses a great challenge to the US hegemony. All these extraordinary activities are being viewed by the US, NATO and India as tools of Chinese imperialism and expansionist designs. India as a strategic partner of the US seems to have its own regional hegemonic designs forcing it to indulge in misadventurism and hybrid war against Pakistan, its only formidable adversary in the region after China.

With the recent visit of Taliban’s nine-member delegation to China headed by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar that coincides with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to New Delhi on the same date, power politics in the region has taken a very interesting twist. Reacting to Taliban’s visit to China, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “Afghanistan would become a pariah state if Taliban seize power by force”,  a message obliquely conveyed to China to refrain from supporting Taliban. However, Taliban have responded to Blinken’s statement with restraint and maturity. This is how the game of power politics is played between the existing and the emerging super powers.

According to defence analysts, Taliban’s visit to China carries a special significance for two reasons. Firstly, it comes in the backdrop of US secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to New Delhi. Secondly, it comes a few days after Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and DG ISI General Faiz Hameed’s visit to China. During Taliban’s visit the Chinese foreign minister Wang voiced security concerns and urged the Taliban leadership to make a clean break from the terrorist organizations, specially the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) – the Uighur Muslim militant outfit which is involved in terrorist activities in China’s restive province Xinjiang. The Taliban delegation assured the Chinese leadership that Afghan territory would not be used for terrorist operations against any country including China, meaning thereby that Uyghur militants wouldn’t be provided sanctuaries in Afghanistan to carry out terrorist activities in Xinjiang.

Making a slight departure from the main theme,  I would like to add that having felt the heat of Taliban’s possible takeover which seems quite probable, India has launched Ashraf Ghani and his hawkish team against Pakistan who seems to be suffering from Pakistan phobia and who along with his Vice President Amrullah Saleh and his National Security Advisor Hamdullah Muhib has resorted to smear campaign against Pakistan using vitriolic expression and lay all the blame of political turmoil and absence of peace and stability in Afghanistan squarely at Pakistan’s door without realizing that peace and stability in Afghanistan is directly proportional to the peace and stability in Pakistan. So Pakistan can’t be expected to shoot itself in the foot by creating conditions inside Afghanistan which could disturb peace and stability in Afghanistan. Ashraf Ghani must understand that he is being used by India as a pawn to serve its strategic ends. So one finally gets to see the results of one’s own doings because what goes around comes around.

In order for the new emerging block to succeed in its economic and strategic ambitions, peace and stability in the region particularly Afghanistan is necessary which currently seems to be a remote possibility given the volatile security environment prevailing around and in the absence of willingness on the part of both Afghan government and the Taliban to come to a negotiating table to thrash out a compromise deal that could make a peaceful political settlement of Afghan conflict possible.  But peace and stability in the region, particularly Afghanistan most certainly is not what the US and India would like to see because that would provide an enabling environment for China and Russia to make huge investments in Afghanistan and through Afghanistan make inroads into resource rich Central Asian countries thus making the regional connectivity possible. This is one of the main reasons that the US after withdrawal from Afghanistan is in search of military bases in the region for monitoring and stemming new developments taking place in Afghanistan which could be detrimental to US interests and also to keep a close watch on China who the US fears is going to supplant it as a future world super power.

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