Shifting the Afghan 'Great Game'

Daily News Egypt
7 Min Read

TEL AVIV: So President Barack Obama has decided to “stay the course. The obstinate battle cry of the Bush administration in Iraq has now won out in Obama’s planned surge of an additional 30,000 troops in Afghanistan. A Taliban victory there, the advocates of the surge had warned, would radicalize the entire region and create a domino effect, with Islamic insurgencies unleashed across Central Asia. Al Qaeda, inextricably entwined with the Taliban, would also claim victory if America had signaled a retreat.

But victory for the forces of jihad is not the only possible scenario. Al Qaeda, for example, has now become a franchised global concern whose capabilities no longer depend on its Afghan base. In fact, disconnected from the heroin trade, which has turned the Taliban into a colossal economic concern, Al Qaeda is in clear financial decline. Nor is it clear that NATO’s withdrawal would inevitably usher in a Taliban takeover. A fragmentation of the country along ethnic lines is a more probable scenario.

In reality, the question of what to do in Afghanistan concerns the old vocation of the “white man’s burden, which never seems to die, however costly and duplicitous it might be. For, even if the calamities predicted by the prophets of doom are the most likely scenario, why are they a greater threat to the West than they are to regional powers like India, China, Russia, and Iran (for which the Sunni Taliban are a dangerous ideological challenge). None of these countries is considering a military solution to the Afghan crisis.

Pakistan’s macabre association with the Taliban stems mostly from its constant effort to pressure its mortal enemy, India. A stable and secular Afghanistan is therefore a vital strategic necessity for India. Indeed, India was alone in the non-aligned movement in supporting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980’s, and it also desperately supported the secular Northern Alliance after the Taliban victory of the 1990’s.

Nor can China’s interest in the stability of both Afghanistan and Pakistan be underestimated. Afghanistan, along with Pakistan and Iran, is part of a vital western security zone for China. It is a corridor through which it can secure its interests in Pakistan, a traditional ally, and ensure its access to vital natural resources in the region. Moreover, China’s Muslim-majority province of Xinjiang, bordering on Afghanistan, can be dangerously affected by a Taliban takeover in Kabul or by the dismemberment of the country.

Russia, of course, has no appetite to repeat the Soviet Union’s calamitous military adventure in Afghanistan. But this does not mean that a Taliban victory or an Afghan crisis that spirals out of control is no threat to the Kremlin’s standing in Central Asia, a region it considers its strategic backyard. The Russians are especially concerned by the regularly involvement of fighters from Chechnya, Dagestan, and Central Asia with Taliban fighters.

So, while the US gets to play the “Ugly American once again, the regional powers promote their interests in that war-torn country with a smiling face and away from the battlefield. America’s difficulties in Afghanistan — and the serious problems it faces in harnessing Pakistan’s government to a more robust fight against the Taliban both at home and in Afghanistan — provide an opportunity for these powers to attempt to shift the dynamics of the “Great Game to their benefit.

Soft power is their means. Afghanistan is the recipient of the largest assistance program that India has for any country in the world. That program focuses on the Afghanization of the development process, as well as on allowing the security forces to operate autonomously.

As in Africa, where it is consistently replacing Western influence with its massive financial firepower, China’s strategy in Afghanistan is mostly focused on business development — with a stabilizing effect on the country that should not be underestimated. China’s development of the Ainak Copper Mine is the largest single foreign direct investment in Afghanistan’s history. China is also engaged in constructing a $500 million electric plant and railway link between Tajikistan and Pakistan.

Russia’s economic influence in Afghanistan is far less robust, but it is growing. While the West is busy fighting the Taliban, the Russians, like the other regional powers, are building roads and electricity stations, and conceiving regional diplomatic solutions to what has become a Vietnam-like quagmire for the West. If both war and diplomacy fail, these regional powers believe they will be better positioned than the West to shift the Afghan Great Game in their favor.

China’s diplomatic recipe for Afghanistan and Pakistan is the right one, and the US should focus on it. A settlement over Kashmir is the key to stability in Afghanistan, which would then no longer be a strategic playground for India and Pakistan. Instead of persisting in a counterproductive war effort, the US should use its leverage on India and Pakistan to bring them back to peace negotiations.

Beyond the additional troops, President Obama must strive for an inclusive settlement in Afghanistan. This means engaging Afghanistan’s neighboring states to promote a settlement of national reconciliation that includes all the major stakeholders – the government, the Taliban and the warlords – in the country.

Shlomo Ben Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is Vice-President of the Toledo International Centre for Peace. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Arab-Israeli Tragedy. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (

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