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New great game in South and Central Asia

Col (r) Ikram Ullah Khan

The US frenzied exit from Afghanistan after twenty years of sterile war making Ashraf Ghani’s fragile and corruption-ridden empire crumbled like a house of cards before the Taliban’s onslaught, has raised many eyebrows as to US dependability and capability as a super power, its future strategy and intentions about Afghanistan’s murky future. Taliban have proved their mettle on both strategic and tactical fronts and nobody should be under any illusion about their capability as a potent force. They used quick and lightning warfare strategy against the demoralized Afghan security forces that reminds of German blitzkrieg adopted during Second World War against France. The US knows it pretty well that given its geo-strategic importance, Afghanistan serves as a pivot for South Asian Regional politics. Hence, the US after quitting Afghanistan can’t afford to remain aloof from the events taking place in South and Central Asian Region after the Taliban’s takeover which has stricken a stunning blow on the US and has come as a nightmare for both the US, its NATO allies and its non-NATO strategic partner India.

  As the US frantic pullout is coming to a close on 31 August, 2021 with Taliban’s conquest of Afghanistan, the world is going to witness a new Great Game in South and Central Asian Region involving the US, China, Russia, India, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan.

The US precipitous withdrawal has left a vacuum to be filled by regional powers like China, Russia and India, with Pakistan already embroiled in security issues being Afghanistan’s immediate neighbour by default. What role the US wants to play and can play in the emerging turbulent security environment prevailing around South Asian Region (SAR) after quitting Afghanistan and sitting thousands of miles away remains anybody’s guess. The US itself seems to be uncertain about its future role. Nonetheless, the US has a painful realization that after having failed to vanquish the Taliban, it has lost the strategic balance and its control over the South Asian Region is fast slipping out of its hands. 

As the Taliban’s future strategy is gradually unfolding after they have presented a blueprint in a press conference held immediately after taking over Kabul, it’s becoming increasingly clear to the US and its allies that Taliban have an absolutely independent policy of their own and that Pakistan doesn’t wield much influence over them after they have taken over Afghanistan and that it can only facilitate the Afghan peace process but can’t guarantee its success. It can only make endeavours to induce the Taliban to agree to form a broad-based and inclusive government involving all ethnic groups so as to makeit acceptable to international community. It’s entirely up to Taliban leadership to either accept Pakistan’s proposal to adopt a reconciliatory posture and find a middle course to reach a durable solution or reject it outrightly as an absolutely independent entity. Taliban need to understand that a flexible and reconciliatory approach would pave the way for their recognition by the world and make political legitimacy of their regime possible which is necessary for their future existence.

There is a need to understand that Pakistan’s leverage with Taliban is on the wane and is diminishing with every passing day in the wake of Taliban’s decisive victory and control over Afghanistan gained by them after the Afghan security forces meekly surrendered before them without putting up a potent fight. After taking over Kabul, Taliban seem to be in no hurry to form a government. They are engaged in a consultative process to form a type of government which could meet not only their ideology and belief which has remained a bedrock of their long struggle but could also be acceptable to different ethnic groups inside Afghanistan besides being acceptable to the international community which is necessary for their recognition as a legitimate political entity and their future survival.

A shift in US strategy from invasion to  containment of China is what is clearly seen in US hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan. As a step forward towards a new Great Game, US seems to have decided to use India as a pawn to further its interests by fanning violence and  terrorism in and around Afghanistan including Pakistan and keep the security situation in the region at the boiling point in order to create conditions whereby it would be difficult for the regional players like China and Russia to make investments in Afghanistan and Central Asian Republics (CARs) on a massive scale.

It would be pertinent to mention here that India is already fighting a proxy war in Balochistan against Pakistan through centrifugal forces and is involved in terrorist activities to destabilize Pakistan and create hindrances in the way of China’s huge investment in Pakistan in the form ofOne Belt One Road (OBOR) and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that has remained an irritant for both the US and its compulsive strategic partner, India.

Given their growing anxiety over the huge economic partnership between Pakistan and China, an intense opposition and hostility at multilateral fora on CPEC is continuing with full force. India’s hostile activities against Pakistan duly backed by US at different fora such as Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is quite manifest to the world. What makes the situation more nightmarish for India and the US is the Taliban’s recent takeover of Afghanistan with a possible formation of a pro-Islamabad government in Kabul that is likely to create conditions that would make India’s Pakistan specific huge strategic investment in Afghanistan come to naught.

Sensing the danger, India is making frantic efforts to instigate and support the anti-Taliban forces such as ex- Vice President of Afghanistan Amr Saleh and Ahmad Masood son of late Ahmad Shah Masood, head of Northern Alliance,  to rise against the Talibanand challenge their authority.

With the US exit from Afghanistan, a new Great Game has started to seek influence and control in Afghanistan and through Afghanistan in the entire South and Central Asian Region with a grand strategy shifted from seeking territorial control to seeking control over the huge mineral reserves of gold, copper, iron ore and coal in Afghanistan with an estimated value of three trillion dollars and vast oil and gas reserves in the Central Asian Republics (CARs) having an estimated value of over nine trillion dollars as per conservative estimate. The game primarily focuses on trade and investment in Afghanistan and Central Asian Republics. China and Russia are the key players of this Great Game that would be played against the US and India. As an emerging super power, China is focusing on economic prosperity, technological advancement and military power to utilize them as important tools to get the strategic balance tilted in its favour.

Today US grand strategy is to contain China and to continue to act as the world’s sole super power and contest with both China and Russia that challenge its cleverly crafted world order. The US has a realization that it’s quite hard to tackle both China and Russia at the same time. Both China and Russia are challenging US supremacy with impunity and it is primarily for this reason that the US is focusing on Indo-Pacific region and more specifically on Indian Ocean to deny China and Russia an access to Strait of Malacca, a main shipping channel between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean,linking major Asian economies.

The strategic and economic importance of the Strait of Malacca for the South and Central Asian Region can be gauged from the fact that about 25% of the world’s trade goods including oil, Chinese manufactured products, coal and palm oil, etc., passes through it, mainly from Persian Gulf suppliers to Asian markets. For this new Great Game, Afghanistan and Indian Ocean may serve as the geographical space for strategic and economic battle where it will be contested by the adversaries to guard their strategic and economic interests in the region. The US considers it necessary to prevent the emergence of economic giants that could challenge and threaten its supremacy as the world’s hegemon. However,the growing understanding between the trio, i.e. China, Russia and Pakistan is destined to tilt the strategic balance in favour of China as an emerging super power.

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