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Current great Game in South Asia: Its impact on AF-Pak and the Region
Author/Source: Muzaffar K. Awan  (mkawanmd@yahoo.com) Posted by: admin
Hits: 1583 Rating: 0 (0 votes) Comments: 0 Added On: Tuesday, October 11, 2011 Rate this article

 

President Barack Obama last June ordered the US military to pull out 33,000 “surge” troops from Afghanistan by the end of next summer, leaving nearly 70,000 troops in place. After the summer of 2012 drawdown, Mr. Obama said, U.S. troops would continue leaving Afghanistan at “a steady pace” as Afghan security forces assume more control.


US announcement of a significant troop’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in the wake of Osama’s reported death and on the eve of US re-elections makes a great deal of sense. A majority of the Americans and the people of the region are fed up with wars and particularly the ongoing America’s longest war being fought in Afghanistan. There have been no real gains made thus far in Afghanistan and the U.S. nation-building project has had very limited success and that the Afghanistan nation (as planned and perceived by the west) may not survive the withdrawal according to a two-year congressional investigation report published by the Washington Post recently.1


The withdrawal announcement was also heard with keen interest in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the region where thinking of a post-American scenario importantly prevails.


The troop withdrawals are often a part of war strategy and military tactics. In that sense the US announcement has thrown its own troops off-balance. The then defense secretary Robert Gates had promptly talked about the need for continued engagement. Leon Panetta who became new defense secretary when asked about in early July the pace of the U.S. troop drawdown, replied, “We’re going to have 70,000 there through 2014, and obviously, as we get to 2014, we’ll develop a plan as to how we reduce force at that time,” Mr. Panetta said. “For at least the next two years we’re going to have a pretty significant force in place to try to deal with the challenges we face.” Privately, Panetta has to be thinking seriously of the logistics of withdrawal from a country that has had a historical track record of leaving little trace of the occupying force except for the grave-yards of previous empires— the most recent examples testified by the British in the nineteenth century and the Soviet Union in the twentieth century.

 
The Great Game of old scenario comes to the minds of many observers to this day. The name Great Game was born as it was called by the British and as the Tournament of Shadows by the Russians. It was a deadly serious game starting from the late 18th century just about the time the British had consolidated their hold on India. The main players in the game were Czarist Russia and Britain and China. What is interesting by today’s notions is that it was Czarist Russia and British India which were expansionists and the Soviet Union, Russian Czarist’s successor that eventually dismantled a substantial portion of this empire in 1991 while Britain had been decolonizing for a long time. There were many subsidiary players including Napoleon, the Turks, the Germans, the Iranians, the Japanese, and the Central Asian Khanates. The Great Game’s major competing rivals were British Imperialists, Czarist Russia and the Chinese for influence, prestige ensuring that the other players were kept in check in Central Asia including Afghanistan and what is Pakistan today. The most important objective of each competitor then was to maximize the interests of his own country and avoiding creation of a vacuum that could be filled by an opponent.

 
The great game at that time has had its own framework and style. It was played by political and military men of the era. Although it was played in a subtle and intelligent manner, the game always was indeed deadly. A missed step would cost the life of an official and the consequences would be a war between the opponents.

 

Applying a similar scenario of the Great Game to Afghanistan and Pakistan today, we can see three major powers contending for influence. The Americans have had the largest stake and numbers of troops in Afghanistan, the Chinese and Indians have also remained involved in an effort to gain influence. In addition, Iran and Pakistan are also active. Russia is just watching the situation, remembering its own decade-long and messy war and a defeat in Afghanistan. The US withdrawal announcement therefore affects the region and amongst a range of people it evokes varying reactions.

 
The reaction of Afghanistan’s President Karzai has been an alarm and opposition to steep withdrawal of American forces because his own security forces are not going to be able to deal with the threat of the Taliban as pointed out by many observers.

 
Also, President Karzai has to be nervous and confused imagining the fate of those previous rulers in Kabul who were seen as stooges of Soviet Union. When the Taliban last took Kabul in 1996, President Najibullah was castrated, had his face smashed, body dragged and finally hung in a public square. So Karzai would certainly want to negotiate with the Taliban or else make plans for a quiet retirement in the US or elsewhere.

 
Despite American pullout or no pullout, within the next year or two, there is an eminent collapse of the present political structure in Kabul. Afghan security forces are simply not ready and will never be ready under the present set up as too many of them are non-Pashtun and the Pashtun–Taliban sooner than later will pay them back in their own cash and coin for high treason.

 
The Afghans who have been American allies for a decade now —artists, NGOs, media people, warlords — would complain that the Americans who promised them again after they defeated the Soviets in the 1980s ( that this second and different time they would not abandon them after it was over) are about to abandon them again.

 
Afghan Talibans are bound to be Jubilant at the announcement of American withdrawal; they are interpreting the announcement as a fig leaf to cover what, in effect, would be an American admission of their failure to accomplish the "stabilization" of Afghanistan and /or "de-Talibanization" of Afghanistan. They would be proud of their elders who defeated the Soviet Russian Empire and now they have defeated the American empire as Obama has announced a withdrawal even if America is continuing to hurl drone missiles at their women, children and elderly from the remote skies. America has no honor in Taliban’s mind and they too will make America pay to the last American as they flee from their land.

 
China is experiencing a Quiet satisfaction most certainly. If America withdraws from the Great Game, China will be the biggest beneficiary. China has slowly but surely, in its quiet strategy, been filling the vacuum. China has begun to play a major role in Pakistan already. China’s commitment of aid to Pakistan amounting to 30 billion dollars will go in constructing railway links between China and Pakistan extending its influence right up to the Arabian Sea. It has been developing the Gwadar port that lies at the door steps of some of the world’s most important shipping lanes supplying oil to the West. China is helping Pakistan in its other vitally important strategic interests such as its nuclear assets, supply of Fierce and advanced Dragon jet fighters, mining of Gold and copper deposits in Baluchistan, huge coal deposits in Sind and training of Pakistan navy.

 
In the context of the Great Game, China has been most successful in quietly developing a popular image in Pakistan. The President and Prime Minister of Pakistan have recently and publicly reaffirmed the underlying affiliation with China their "all weather" friend—unlike their "fair weather" friend, the USA.
After the reported killing of Osama, the Pakistanis felt humiliated and bruised by American accusations of double game, the Chinese admired Pakistan in terms of honor and dignity. Strangely enough and after a decade in of pouring billions of American dollars into Pakistan, the American approval rating in Pakistan is about 15%. Comparing with, the approval rating for the Chinese being at about 85%.

 
The Chinese have certainly been executing an extremely successful Great Game strategy. The Chinese have been planning and exercising long term cultural notions of respect and dignity for Pakistan. A Chinese diplomat reportedly expressed to an American diplomat that Pakistan was Chinese Israel. An important geopolitical statement confirming the diplomatic victory of Chinese policy over American policy in Pakistan.

 
India too might come out as a satisfied winner. India is emerging as a regional power and its financial and political support to Afghanistan makes it a player in the regional Great Game. India has been generous with financial aid to Afghanistan. 500 million dollars have been an impressive sum. India has also helped built highways, set up key parts of Afghanistan’s new administration including the intelligence services. It has offered free medical clinics and is helping construct a new Afghanistan Parliament building in Kabul. All this allows India to execute a master plan in terms of the Great Game. Without firing a shot, it has a presence along Pakistani borders.

 
America can now increasingly rely on India to help stabilize Afghanistan especially after the American troops start withdrawing. Howevere, India’s presence in Afghanistan is a nightmare for Pakistan that has always been concerned about being squeezed on both its eastern and western borders by a much bigger neighbor. Pakistan and India have fought three wars in the past; and at this point both happen to be nuclear nations. Pakistan and India sooner than later must sign a no war pact and arrive at the resolution of all of their mutual difference and arrive at a permanent peace accord and form a regional confederation or a union.

 
Pakistan remains cautious with a ray of hope in the American troop withdrawal announcement. Things will most probably be back to what looked like the pre-9/11 days.. The scenario of Pakistan’s Great Game in Afghanistan could be negotiated peace or a repeat of 1990s-style civil war, sucking in not only the Afghans but also regional and world powers. The blowback into Pakistan of such misadventure would be unfortunate — like the 1990s —it is most probably inevitable. Understanding, not certitude is what is needed of analysts, whether elite or proletariat. Otherwise, as Kipling had said: “When everyone is dead, the Great Game is finished. Not before.”

 
Over the recent years Pakistanis have watched the collapse of law and order, soaring prices, rampant corruption, load-shedding, lack of clean water compounded by natural disasters, and the ever widening gap between the rich and the poor. In Pakistan, the Pakistani Talibans seem to have declared a war on the state—no one is really safe and the terrorist attacks continue with frightening frequency. There are ongoing 9/11 type attacks weekly in Pakistan.

 
Pakistani government has utterly failed to maintain law and order in its tribal areas and chaos and killings in Karachi have been colossal. Pakistanis see their leaders as totally incompetent and corrupt and blame them for their woes. They believe their leaders have brought the country to the brink of disaster and collaps.It would do everything possible to counter India’s presence on its western borders by reinforcing and recreating its links with the Taliban so that when they have a voice in Kabul, Pakistan has a friend. Pakistan would like to see itself as an important player in the Great Game, but it is punching above its weight and height at this time.

 
A large number of Pakistanis today see the United States—supported by the Indian adversary —behind al Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban, responsible for creating havoc across Pakistan. The ultimate objective, Pakistanis believe, is to destroy the country’s nuclear assets.
The announcement of American withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan is being met with joy by Iranians who are pleased being old players of the Great Game. Iran has been unhappy with the presence of American troops on its both flanks -- eastern and western borders. Iran has traditionally looked down upon the Taliban even if there are reports of Iranians providing arms and ammunition to the Taliban to fight NATO troops.
A recent high powered Iranian delegation to Pakistan warned Pakistanis about America’s true intentions to get at its nuclear assets. It also urged Pakistanis to ally with Turkey and Iran to help Afghanistan get rid of the occupying forces. Iran also supports Muslim countries reaching out to China and Russia.
Russia is observing with keen interest. Putin had advised Bush Administration not to employ ground forces in Afghanistan based on Soviet’s own bitter experience and recognizing that, in the final analysis, neither the Russians nor the US could ever succeed in occupying Afghanistan. Many Russian commentators fore-see the America’s uncontrolled economic bleeding will lead to American bankruptcy and sort of payback to America for its successful strategy in Afghanistan against the Soviet Russia. They believe that The Americans have failed to learn from history and are bound to lose eventually.

 
The world has been watching this new Great Game for the last decade and it has not been able to help fathom a consistent or persuasive American strategy. Even the numbers don’t add up: billions of American dollars invested in Afghanistan and Pakistan–and the masses of people in the region have never been more anti-American. The American mode of operandi has been as confusing as their strategy. Foes like Taliban are now being asked to engage in a dialogue and allies like Kabul and Islamabad are being humiliated in public. It doesn’t make any sense what-so-ever.
America appears to be fighting several wars: one against an elusive creature called al Qaeda, which may have morphed into some Taliban; another war to create a modern nation-state out of the wreckage in Afghanistan; and yet another war against too many Pashtuns appears as a war against them in alliance with the non-Pashtun tribal minority.

 
Considering the importance of this new arena within which the new Great Game is being played, the US really cannot win or walk away. An announcement of withdrawal does not mean an end to the war overnight. But it is a clear indication that America does not want to or even afford to play the game, the way it has thus far, any longer. It is imperative for America to plan a short-term and long-term strategy. This war has eroded the strongest economy in the world and polarized the political support of other nations.

 
In the short term, America must build up a network of alliances with Afghanistan, Pakistan and the regional players which will establish the basis for constructive, cooperative and lasting regional relationships for achieving peace and harmony in the future.

 
It certainly needs to pull out American troops with safety, dignity and peace. It is a depressing sight for American army withdrawing after an inconclusive end to a war.

 
American foreign policy should be nonpartisan representing genuine needs to be formulated for this region. Diplomacy with local culture backed by familiar scholarship and the local needs are to be posted here through winning hearts and minds. Focus should be on education, health and development through communications rather than defense and security.

 
The US should stick to the Great Game but to play it differently: This time around not so much with drones and tanks, but better learning and getting to understand the region and its culture. America playing the game needs to think long-term. It is a region that has historically been one of the most important geopolitically in terms of its economic needs and foreign policy interests. Region is also a strategic piece of real estate in the geopolitical struggle for influence and dominance in the region. For 2 decades Washington & the west has promoted a natural gas pipeline south through Afghanistan. The proposed pipeline is called TAPI, after the initials of the four participating countries (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India). Eleven high-level planning meetings have been held during the past seven years, with Asian Development Bank sponsorship and multilateral support (including Canada's).

 
Pipeline construction is planned to start next year. The route would pass through Kandahar province. In 2007, Richard Boucher, U.S. assistant secretary of state, said: "One of our goals is to stabilize Afghanistan," and to link South and Central Asia "so that energy can flow to the south." Oil and gas have motivated U.S. involvement in the Middle East for decades. Unwittingly or willingly, Canadians and Europeans are supporting American goals.

 
America cannot and should not abandon the Great Game. The vacuum America leaves will be quickly filled by other players and will not represent American interests. They will have their own interests at heart. The first step for the America is to become genuinely familiar with the notion of the Great Game and then master how it is to be played fairly and constructively in a cooperative manner in the future.

 
Given the bipartisan nature of American politics, Republicans will oppose the withdrawal because the president is a Democrat. Washington has to also stop thinking along party lines if it is to play successfully in the Great Game.

 
America is to promote and implement globally its own forgotten and the greatest assets that defined American true identity to begin with— human rights, civil liberties, popular democracy and the pursuit of happiness for all. At that point with hearts and minds won, no Afghani or Pakistani or the regional players will ever fail to connect with the West and the rest.
 

 

Reference:

1. Karen DeYoung, Washington Post Published: June 07-11: Afghan nation-building programs not sustainable.


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