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  • Writer's pictureSaleem Qamar Butt

Afghanistan: historic arena for great games

Updated: Dec 12, 2018

During an intellectual discussion with a large number of regional and subject experts from Western and Central Asian Republics, I posed a question to the participants, “can someone comment why Afghanistan has repeatedly remained victim of invasions, infighting and Great Games?” No one came out with a clear reply; supposedly, not for the reason that they didn’t know the answer, but perhaps it could touch certain sensitivities and expose the truth behind ongoing endless war on terrorism in Afghanistan.

My own brief take on the question was that it was a continuation of same old Great Games, which had been played here since centuries. One scholar from USA endorsed my view point and called it a “new Great Game, still being played by old rules”. A brief walk through Afghan history will help us to comprehend the motive for seemingly an endless bloody war being fought since 2001 till to date with devastating fallout for Pakistan in particular and for the CASA (Central Asia South Asia) region in general.

Historical Perspective: Afghanistan’s history as a state began in 1747 with its establishment by Ahmad Shah Durrani. Afghanistan (meaning “land of the Afghans”) has been a strategically important location throughout history. The land served as “a gateway to India, impinging on the ancient Silk Road, which carried trade from the Mediterranean to China“. Sitting on many trade and migration routes, Afghanistan may be called the ‘Central Asian roundabout’ since routes converge from the Middle East, from the Indus Valley through the passes over the Hindu Kush, from the Far East via the Tarim Basin, and from the adjacent Eurasian Steppe.

The term “Great Game” is attributed to British intelligence officer Arthur Conolly and was popularized by Rudyard Kipling in his book “Kim” from 1904, wherein he played up the idea of power struggles between great nations as a game of sorts. The Great Game — also known as Bolshaya Igra — was an intense rivalry between the British and Russian Empires in Central Asia, beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing through 1907 wherein Britain sought to influence or control much of Central Asia to buffer the “crown jewel” of its empire i.e. British India. Tsarist Russia, meanwhile, sought to expand its territory and sphere of influence, in order to create one of history’s largest land-based empires. The British Lord Ellen-borough started “The Great Game” on January 12, 1830, with an edict establishing a new trade route from India to Bukhara, using Turkey, Persia and Afghanistan as a buffer against Russia to prevent it from controlling any ports on the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, Russia wanted to establish a neutral zone in Afghanistan allowing for their use of crucial trade routes.

This resulted in a series of unsuccessful wars for the British to control Afghanistan, Bukhara and Turkey. The British lost at all four wars — the First Anglo-Saxon War (1838), the First Anglo-Sikh War (1843), the Second Anglo-Sikh War (1848) and the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878) — resulting in Russia taking control of several Khanates in Central Asia including Bukhara and tribes on its southern borders; whereas Britain solidified its hold on India — including what is now Myanmar, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Although Britain’s attempts to conquer Afghanistan ended in humiliation, the independent nation held as a buffer between Tsarist Russia and British India. Consequently, as a result of an agreement between Sir Mortimer Durand, a secretary of the British Indian government, and Abdur Rahman Khan, ruler of Afghanistan, a boundary was established in the Hindu Kush in 1893 running through the tribal lands between Afghanistan and British India (then called Durand Line), marking their respective spheres of influence; in modern times it has marked the international borders between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Nevertheless, the Great Game officially ended with the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, which divided Persia into a Russian-controlled northern zone, a nominally independent central zone, and a British-controlled southern zone with Afghanistan its protectorate.

A quick glance through Afghanistan’s infighting from 1921 to 1978, which again was orchestrated by power play between former USSR and US/allies, confirms that Afghanistan never remained unattended by great powers. The British, beleaguered in the wake of World War-I, were defeated in the Third British-Afghan War (1919-21), and Afghanistan became an independent nation. Concerned that Afghanistan had fallen behind the rest of the world, Amir Amanullah Khan began a rigorous campaign of socioeconomic reform. In 1926, Amanullah declared Afghanistan a monarchy, rather than an emirate, and proclaimed himself king. He launched a series of modernization plans and attempted to limit the power of the Loya Jirga, the National Council. Critics, frustrated by Amanullah’s policies, took up arms in 1928 and by 1929; the king abdicated and left the country. In 1933, Zahir Shah became king and brought a semblance of stability to the dwindling country and he ruled for the next 40 years. In 1953, the pro-Soviet Gen. Mohammed Daoud Khan, cousin of the king, became prime minister and looked to the communist nation for economic and military assistance. He also introduced a number of social reforms including allowing women a more public presence. In 1956, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to help Afghanistan, and the two countries became close allies. In 1965, the Afghan Communist Party was secretly formed. The group’s principal leaders were Babrak Karmal and Nur Mohammad Taraki. In 1973 Daoud Khan overthrew the last king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, in a military coup. Khan’s regime, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, came to power. Khan abolished the monarchy and named himself president. The Republic of Afghanistan was established with firm ties to the former USSR. However, in 1978, Daoud Khan was killed in a communist coup. Nur Mohammad Taraki, one of the founding members of the Afghan Communist Party, took control of the country as president, and Babrak Karmal was named deputy prime minister. They proclaimed independence from Soviet influence, and declared their policies to be based on Islamic principles, Afghan nationalism and socioeconomic justice. Taraki signed a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union. But a rivalry between Taraki and Hafizullah Amin, another influential communist leader, led to fighting between the two sides. At the same time, conservative Islamic and ethnic leaders who objected to social changes which had been introduced by Khan began an armed revolt in the countryside. In June 1978, the guerrilla movement Mujahedeen was created to battle the Soviet-backed government. In 1979, American Ambassador Adolph Dubs was killed in Afghanistan. The United States cut off assistance to Afghanistan. A power struggle between Taraki and Deputy Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin began and Taraki was killed on 14 Sept in a confrontation with Amin supporters.

The USSR invaded Afghanistan on 24 Dec 1979 to bolster the faltering communist regime. On 27 December, Amin and many of his followers were executed and Deputy Prime Minister Babrak Karmal became prime minister. Widespread opposition to Karmal and the Soviets spawned violent public demonstrations. As a result, yet another round of Great Game commenced in Afghanistan as USA went ahead with its biggest covert war against USSR duly fought by Pakistan’s ISI and largely funded by Saudi money and ideology, as confessed by former CIA and National Security Council veteran Bruce Reidel in his book, “What We Won; America’s Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979–89”. By early 1980, the Mujahedeen rebels had united against Soviet invaders and the USSR-backed Afghan Army. Through 1982, Some 2.8 million Afghans fled from the war to Pakistan, and another 1.5 million fled to Iran. Afghan guerrillas who were receiving arms courtesy CIA, from the United States, Britain and China via Pakistan gained control of rural areas and Soviet troops held urban areas. In September 1988, Osama bin Laden and 15 other Islamists formed the group ‘Al-Qaida’, or “the base”, to continue their jihad, or holy war, against the Soviets and others who they believed opposed their goal of a pure nation governed by Islam. In 1989, The U.S., Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Soviet Union signed peace accords in Geneva guaranteeing Afghan independence and the withdrawal of 100,000 Soviet troops, marking American victory against Soviet rival, which resulted in disintegration of former USSR, independence of Central Asian Republics and making USA unchallenged single Global Super Power.

The Great Game in Central and South Asia, in the past was played for real stakes, and not merely for the imaginary ones – the unjustified fears and mutual misunderstandings upon which historians nowadays tend to focus. Of the many causes of the Anglo-Russian rivalry, some were irrational and some lapsed with time and circumstance, but the initial cause, suggested by Pitt in 1791, remained valid as long as the Game was played – the danger that Russian expansion would overthrow the balance of power and result in czarist domination of Eurasia if not the entire planet

In 1992, The Mujahedeen and other rebel groups, with the aid of turncoat government troops, stormed the capital, Kabul, and ousted Najibullah from power. The Mujahedeen, a group already beginning to fracture as warlords fought over the future of Afghanistan, formed a largely Islamic state with Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani as president. In 1995, newly formed Islamic militia, the Taliban, rose to power on promises of peace. Most Afghans, exhausted by years of drought, famine and war, approved of the Taliban for upholding traditional Islamic values. The Taliban outlawed cultivation of poppies for the opium trade, cracked down on crime, and curtailed the education and employment of women. Women were required to be fully veiled and were not allowed outside alone. Islamic law was enforced via public executions and amputations. Resultantly, the United States refused to recognize the authority of the Taliban, and they fell from grace. From 1995-1999, Continued drought devastated farmers and made many rural areas uninhabitable. Again, more than one million Afghans fled to neighboring Pakistan as refugees, causing severe security, drugs, weapons and allied socio-economic problems for Pakistan.

In 1998, following al-Qaida’s bombings of two American embassies in Africa, President Clinton ordered cruise missile attacks against bin Laden’s training camps in Afghanistan; although, the attacks missed the Saudi and other leaders of the terrorist group. By 2000, considered an international terrorist, Osama bin Laden was widely believed to be hiding in Afghanistan and cultivating thousands of followers in terrorist training camps. The United States demanded that bin Laden be extradited to stand trial for the embassy bombings; however, the Taliban declined to extradite him. The United Nations punished Afghanistan with sanctions restricting trade and economic development.

Present Conundrum: The ongoing imbroglio in Afghanistan commenced when on 9 Sept 2001 (9/11 incident) Hijackers commandeered four commercial air planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center Towers in New York, the Pentagon outside Washington, DC, and a Pennsylvania field, killing thousands. Days later, US officials said bin Laden, the Saudi exile believed to be hiding in Afghanistan, was the prime suspect in the attack. Following unanswered demands that the Taliban turn over bin Laden, US and British forces launched airstrikes against targets in Afghanistan on 7 Oct 2001. American warplanes started to bomb Taliban targets and bases reportedly belonging to the al-Qaeda network. The Taliban proclaimed they were ready for jihad. On 13 Nov 2001, after weeks of intense fighting with Taliban troops, the West backed Northern Alliance entered Kabul. The retreating Taliban fled southward toward Kandahar. By Dec 2001, Taliban hold on Afghanistan disintegrated and on 22 Dec 2001, Hamid Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, was sworn in as the leader of the interim government in Afghanistan with due support of the Western Alliance. Amid increased violence, NATO took over security in Kabul in August 2003 as the security organization’s first-ever commitment outside of Europe. In 2006, amid continuing fighting between Taliban and al-Qaida fighters and the Afghan government forces, NATO expanded its operation to the southern portion of the country.

After the forces took over from American-led troops, Taliban fighters launched a bloody wave of suicide attacks and raids against the international troops. Since then till to date, Afghanistan has been seeing intense insurgency by ousted Taliban against Afghan, NATO/ISAF forces despite deployment of best military commanders and at one time almost 150,000 foreign troops with latest state of the art arms, munitions and equipment, but with no favourable end in sight, adding to frustration of US, which has been almost abandoned by NATO and ISAF due to unbearable economic and human cost. However, the victim of American political and military frustration remained Pakistan despite successfully executing its part on its own territory in so called Global War on Terror. Another Western puppet Ashraf Ghani became president of Afghanistan in September 2014 after two rounds of voting, claims of election fraud and a power-sharing agreement with main rival Abdullah Abdullah. In December 2014, NATO officially ended its combat mission in Afghanistan. Some US led NATO troops along with a large number of contractors remained to train and advise Afghan forces, hoping to restore peace and stability in Afghanistan and some believe looking for a face saving exit. Nevertheless, that is not what the latest round of Great Game has been fought for!

Big Picture: As a dominant Global Super Power, American current big challenges include enormous rise of China, resurgent Russia, North Korea and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Pakistan’s nuclear capability vis-à-vis perceived extremism in the society, waning economy impinging upon middle and lower middle class in US, maintaining domination of Air, Land and Sea Lines of Communications, supremacy of cyber and outer spaces and finally maintain her technological edge. On other fronts, political polarization in America and replacement of high morals with lofty economic and security interests, increasing extremism in society, rising anti-Americanism all over the world and particularly in Muslim world and keeping military and economic alliances intact with greater economic burden sharing by allies top the list. American invasion of Afghanistan and during the same period her forays in to Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Syria and less visible to the common eye are the covert operations in other parts of the world, which has to be understood keeping in view her above stated challenges for maintaining global supremacy.

Above in context, one wonders Why America could not win or achieve desired end state in Afghanistan and what all is different this time compared with 80s. Some of the factors that might have contributed for Stalemate in Afghanistan could be:

a) A variety of Shifting political and military goals, mistaken strategy, flawed military assessment, simultaneously opening Middle East fronts, disparity in means and ends, over reliance on alliances, tendency to bomb its way to victory, killing with one hand and trying to shake with other.

b) Confusion or deliberate attempt to keep haze on real shots caller in Afghanistan i.e. White House, State Department, DoD or Langley.c) Underestimation of Taliban’s guerrilla warfare dominated insurgency, AQ’s global outreach and underestimation of splinter effects, ideological appeal and counter strike capabilities.

d) Regional countries’ insecurities, interests and responses mainly through political as well as militant proxies not adequately catered for by US and allies.

e) US and allies’ failure to fully comprehend dynamics of a tribal society with conflicting tribal, ethnic, sectarian, political and economic interests, shifting loyalties and exploitative nature of Afghan leaders.

f) War lords, drug cartels, smuggling mafias and human traffickers making hay and enjoying complex nexus with all neighbouring countries and covert operators in Afghanistan.

g) US’s biggest mistake to replace Pakistan midway by India as a strategic partner in the region to mainly contest and contain China particularly CPEC/BRI initiative. To further worsen the situation, letting India to launch proxies against Pakistan using both Eastern and Western fronts.

h) US indulging in Pakistan bashing and making it worst by economic, diplomatic and military coercion with ill founded concerns on Pakistan’s strategic capability (nuclear deterrence).

i) Pushing Pakistan towards Chinese and Russian camps based on erroneous understanding of Pakistan’s strategic compulsions.

j) Declared offensive design against Iran by scrapping JCPOA and by effectively dividing Muslim countries in the Middle East in distinct KSA and Iran led sectarian coalitions.

k) Consequently, in ME and in CASA regions, there are three blocs busy in every way for competing interests ; one mainly includes Russia, Iran, Syria, Qatar, Lebanon, some CARs and Turkey, second includes USA, KSA, UAE, Jordan, Egypt, India and some CARs, third include China and Pakistan (in catch-22 position) with some allies.

Conclusions: Apropos, following conclusions can be drawn with few hints on way forward:

i) US stated objectives notwithstanding, another big covert war in Afghanistan is an ominous reality for regional peace and full of perils for all regional countries especially China, Iran and Pakistan.ii) The US will want to counter any benefit that China may gain from that situation. By retaining its forces in Afghanistan, the US could potentially keep a close watch on Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, a massive project that has the potential – if successful – to bring all those countries that subscribe to the Initiative under Chinese influence.

iii) Given its history in Afghanistan and in the face of new challengers and despite its frustration, it is unlikely that Washington would remove its forces from Afghanistan without a face saving solution that caters for retention of some military bases, reduced forces or at the least strong influence in governance. Nevertheless, in that sense, the relationship between US and Afghanistan is likely to continue as it has since 1921.

iv) All CASA countries are justified to undertake whatever measures to avoid fallout from Afghanistan riddle without standing on someone else’s toe. However, Indian efforts to enliven Hindutva Doctrine/ Dream of Greater India taking advantage of situation in Afghanistan and American patronage can neither be justified not left uncontested by Pakistan, China and other regional countries, making the region potential Nuclear Flash Point.

v) Only a strong regional approach and military cum economic alliance (e.g. a mix of SCO, CSTO and SAARC with due positive support from OIC, GCC and UNO) is likely to find a lasting solution to Afghan mess and put an end to 5th generation hybrid war being fought as a New Great Pakistan alone can neither do much about Afghanistan muddle nor can any amount of backward bending please or satisfy USA or Afghanistan.

vii) Despite unprecedented favours granted by Pakistan, Afghanistan has never been sincere to Pakistan bilaterally or internationally ever since 1947, and remains so till Todate in spite of Pakistan going extra miles to help her. Therefore appeasement policies towards Afghanistan tantamount to hoping against hope and demonstrates ignorance or neglect of Afghanistan history and culture as discussed above. Cooperation with Afghanistan must be based on condition of non-animosity, no blame games and no use of Afghan soil against Pakistan by hostile elements.

viii) All out efforts need to be further enhanced to keep Afghan insurgency, insurgents and other militants as far away as possible from Pakistani borders by effective hardening and surveillance to avoid fallouts and blame game.

ix) After hardening Pakistani borders, getting all aliens/ illegal foreigners and refugees out of Pakistan should be a high national priority.x) Weakness invites aggression whether military or economic; thus, Pakistan has to be balanced and strong on both counts by putting own house in order.xi) For economic independence, new political government in Pakistan must focus on getting rid of foreign loans by strict accountability and by retrieving stolen national wealth stashed abroad by following Malaysian, Saudi and Chinese model. Unconventional measures and means have to be employed in unusual circumstances.

xii) Corruption has to be ruthlessly eliminated through a mix of out of box solutions and extraordinary judicial steps duly backed up by due reforms and required fresh legislation.

xiii) New Government must induce transparency and accountability in accepting foreign economic assistance, loans (if at all unavoidable) with preference for FDIs instead of loans and grants.

xiv) Pakistan’s policy making wizards have to join hands and work headlong for putting in place a much awaited well synched diversified economic and foreign policy. Diplomatic front has to be more pro-active based on real geo-political realities rather than meaningless slogans.

xv) All brands of militant organizations need to be disarmed, rehabilitated and kept under strict and effective check.

xvi) In order to effectively defeat hybrid war unleashed against Pakistan, internal front has to be improved manifold by being ruthless on identified internal enemies and black sheep in all ranks and files.

xvii) Besides gradual improvement in conventional capability, Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence has to be kept safest and always updated as a national survival kit.

xviii) For obvious reasons, Pakistan Army must disengage from a protracted war against terror and hand over the responsibilities to civil armed forces in all cleared areas without further delay.

xix) Pakistan’s intelligence agencies duly led by ISI have to take the lead role with much more sharpened teeth for defeating covert war unleashed against Pakistan.

xx) Finally, Pakistan needs to shed away culture of “Fiddling, while Rome burns” (mainly witnessed on social, print and electronic media), restore normalcy in society lost since 2002 and reclaim leadership role in the Muslim world.

Tailpiece: The Great Game in Central and South Asia, in the past was played for real stakes, and not merely for the imaginary ones – the unjustified fears and mutual misunderstandings upon which historians nowadays tend to focus. Of the many causes of the Anglo-Russian rivalry, some were irrational and some lapsed with time and circumstance, but the initial cause, suggested by Pitt in 1791, remained valid as long as the Game was played – the danger that Russian expansion would overthrow the balance of power and result in czarist domination of Eurasia if not the entire planet. Queen Victoria claimed that “it is a question of Russian or British supremacy in the world”. That may be too simple a way of putting it, but it is not very far from the truth. The same holds good today for the New Great Game being played in the same old arena with expanded strategic objectives and more players in the game with America, Russia and China being in the lead.

‘When everyone is dead, the Great Game is finished. Not before’. “Rudyard Kipling”

The writer is a senior retired Army officer with rich experience in Military and Intelligence Diplomacy and Strategic Analysis. He can be reached at

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