But the mountains are the same: A New Great Game Begins
by Sandhya Jain on 07 Aug 2011 14 Comments
As the Russians went into Afghanistan at the end of December 1979, a cautious Soviet official is said to have remarked to Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko that the British had got themselves into serious trouble there a century earlier. “Are you comparing the imperialist British to our gallant Soviet boys?” spluttered the indignant minister. “Of course not,” the official hurriedly replied. “The soldiers are quite different. But the mountains are the same.”


History’s legendary ‘graveyard of empires’ justified its formidable reputation as Imperial America beats an unhappy retreat, its only face-saving the culling of an unarmed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May this year. This has dented the image of the US-NATO alliance, and undermined the position of Pakistan Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, whose eleven corps commanders are livid at his excessive cooperation with Washington.


Ravaged by war


The raison d’etre for America’s invasion of Afghanistan post-September 11, 2001, is now under a cloud. Washington said it wanted to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar; but bin Laden was killed in Pakistan and US is in covert negotiations with Omar. Latter-day excuses like war for democracy, women’s rights, development, eradication of the opium trade, were just excuses. Afghanistan has been pushed back to the Stone Age; there is no talk of reconstruction or democracy… Taliban controls 70% of the country and enjoys rising support due to resentment at foreign occupation and thousands of civilian casualties caused by NATO.


Ravaged by war, drugs and a ruined agriculture, Afghanistan is in deep crisis triggered by the retreat, and intensified by the re-emergence of warlords, militants, and the assassination of President Hamid Karzai’s brother and Kandahar strongman, Ahmed Wali Karzai, on 12 July 2011. The Taliban owned responsibility, explaining that Ahmad Wali worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and had helped the US-led coalition forces to occupy Afghanistan and gain control of its entire southwestern region, not just Kandahar.


Ahmad Wali had assisted Gen. David Petraeus in the failed troop surge in 2009; he remained on the CIA payroll after the retreat began and would have served Petraeus in his new avatar as CIA chief. The Taliban thus issued a warning to Afghan elites to desist from cooperating with the invaders [Ahmad Wali was killed by a trusted friend within his own home]. Earlier, on 29 May 2011, Mohammed Daud, commander of 303 Pamir Corps, was killed in Takhar due to his proximity with German forces in Amu Darya region.


The Taliban opposes America’s plan of ‘leaving to stay’ by retaining permanent military bases on Afghan soil. America recently invested heavily in upgrading the military infrastructure in many provinces, including that built by the Soviets in the 1980s. Both Taliban and Hamid Karzai desire to keep Washington out, as do neighbours like Iran, Pakistan, China, India, and (near-neighbour) Russia. But Afghanistan is critical to the new Great Game emerging in strategically crucial Eurasia, so the Anglo-Americans will certainly try to dig their heels in. After all, US retained the huge Camp Bondsteel and other bases in Kosovo for control over the Western Balkans long after that war was over.


Afghanistan, like Kosovo, is deeply integrated in the West’s narco-traffic as leading producer of heroin that goes to Europe, Russia, Iran, and Dubai (from where it reaches the rest of the world). Kosovo is a major artery in the heroin traffic to the European Union. The Afghan drug market is worth US $ 1 trillion and drug-generated money is one of few sources of cash in the present bankrupt global financial system (read City of London and Wall Street banks), as admitted by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).


Washington is also attracted to the huge natural resources found in Afghanistan, which include iron, cobalt, gold, copper, columbic, molybdenum, lithium; the uranium and emerald discoveries are kept quiet. The bounty is worth US$ 900 billion.


Naturally, all major imperial and regional players are preparing for the new Great Game; manoeuvring amidst all the moves and countermoves makes diplomacy the art of ballet dancing on a trapeze rope!


Washington has turned the object of its ire from Afghanistan to Pakistan, reversing Af-Pak to Pak-Af to neutralize Taliban havens inside Pakistan. The alliance between the two countries broke down under the cumulative strain of continuing Drone attacks from Afghan soil; the Osama bin Laden killing; the Raymond Davis affair; and the knowledge that America was dealing directly with the Taliban behind the back of the Rawalpindi generals. Pakistan’s own policy of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds breached the outer limits of its credibility with the culling of Osama bin Laden some 800 metres from the Pakistan Military Academy Kakul.


Covert operations


President Hamid Karzai exposed the US-Taliban contacts in a nationwide address on 18 June 2011, following tensions over Washington pressuring him to agree to a strategic partnership and allow permanent US-NATO bases in the country. A direct US-Taliban deal would make Karzai expendable by 2014. He moved swiftly for alliance with Iran and Pakistan. Karzai is also furious at Washington trying to corner him in the Kabul Bank scam, which he claims was due to bad advice from the West regarding international banking practices. But the International Monetary Fund intervened and froze disbursal of funds from the World-Bank administered Afghan Reconstruction Trust Fund.


Pakistan realized the extent of the secret negotiations only during the arrest and interrogation of covert CIA operative Raymond Davis; this apparently released both Islamabad and Kabul from any obligations towards Washington. Meetings with Taliban took place in Germany (November 2010), Qatar (February 2011) and again the Germany (May 2011). At America’s nudge, the UN Security Council conveniently separated Taliban from al-Qaeda and removed sanctions on some Taliban leaders.


The Pakistani response was to ask US (and British) military personnel to leave; ending of covert operations on Pakistani soil; and future cooperation in intelligence on explicit ground rules. After all, Islamabad cooperated in the Afghan war because it was assured it would be a key player in an Afghan settlement, and its legitimate security interests would be taken care of.


Washington however, adopted a new agenda and new regional strategies, and dealt directly with Taliban. It took up the Bush-era ‘Blackwill plan’ to partition the country along the main Pashtun ethnic fault line, ceding the southern and southeastern provinces to Taliban for a “greater Pashtunistan” and keeping the mainly Tajik northern region. It all hinged on Taliban giving up opposition to US-NATO military bases in the Hindu Kush.


Neither Kabul nor Islamabad could countenance such a move, or permit permanent military bases in Afghanistan. The Afghanistan partition would trigger unrest across the Durand Line among Pakistan’s sizeable Pashtun population. Any strengthening of ethnic faultlines in Afghanistan and Pakistan would also impact Iran and Central Asian countries negatively.


As Pakistan resisted American moves, the US suddenly began to pull out troops from Pech valley in Kunar, eastern Afghanistan, in February, even while Davis was under detention. The withdrawal was completed in two months, and soon various insurgent groups from Afghani and Pakistani Taliban, Hizb-i-Islami, al-Qaeda affiliates and Lashkar-e-Taiba settled down in Kunar and launched a “low-intensity war” against Pakistan (covertly backed by the US). As the groups fight each other and the Pakistani armed forces, the conflict zone spread beyond FATA to Chitral mountains in the Northern Areas of undivided Kashmir. These can have grave consequences for Pakistan. Attempts to patch up ties through the visit of ISI chief Ahmed Pasha Shuja to Washington and Gen. Petraeus to Islamabad are unlikely to have a lasting impact.


Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad took the lead in inviting President Karzai and Pakistan President Asif Zardari to Tehran 24 June for a conference on terrorism, where the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline figured, to American dismay. Previously, Iranian Defense Minister Ahmed Vahidi visited Kabul (18 June) and signed a bilateral security cooperation agreement with Defence Minister Abdulrahim Wardak. Vahidi denounced US efforts to establish bases in Afghanistan as a move to impose a ‘hegemonistic system’ on the region.


Tehran is inimical to Washington expanding into the strategically vital Central Asian region. It also resents the US-Saudi-Israeli alliance. America supports the terrorist group Jundallah in Sistan-Balochistan province in eastern Iran, bordering Pakistan.


The security of Central Asian nations and Afghanistan’s stability are interlinked, as the return of the Taliban would energise Islamists in these countries, which are already worried by the ‘Arab Spring’. Much will depend on whether the Shanghai Cooperation Organization can rise to the occasion by admitting Pakistan and India and evolving a regional security framework. The SCO has called for an “independent, neutral” Afghanistan (read: free of foreign occupation). Kazakhstan president Nurusultan Nazarbayev said, “It is possible that the SCO will assume responsibility for many issues in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of coalition forces in 2014.”


New stratagem


For India, the Afghan imbroglio involves walking on hot coals; a mature and calibrated response is in order. With regional cooperation the only way to ensure regional stability, New Delhi must remember how it allowed Washington to disrupt its traditional ties with Tehran, to no Indian advantage. Tehran is important to India’s energy security, and a major player in Kabul. India needs to disregard Washington’s shifting regional preferences and concentrate on its national interests. Rethinking the gas pipeline with adequate safeguards and guarantees would be in order, besides bringing Beijing into the picture. New Delhi has wisely avoided the trap of letting Washington play on its tensions with China and Pakistan.


Yet, as American withdrawal accelerates, India may become more vulnerable to jihad as pro-jihadi elements in the Pakistani military seek to deny New Delhi a legitimate stake in Afghanistan. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s June visit to Kabul and support to its “process of national reconciliation” was read in Islamabad as an Indian effort to deny it the “strategic depth” it craves in that country.


As Islamabad emerges as America’s new regional punching bag, the ball is in its court. Pakistan must either implode from the weight of its own contradictions, or get real about the fight against terror. New Delhi’s persistence with the dialogue process must be reciprocated with meaningful action on the 26/11 investigations and dismantling of terrorist bases on Pakistani soil. ISI must stop training, arming and sending terrorists across the border, or recruiting them locally in India. The ‘boys’ from Kashmir must no longer be welcomed in Occupied Kashmir.


Islamabad must understand that if Afghanistan splits on ethnic lines, Pakistan too will split in many parts, and Iran will be in distress. But India will remain intact, and neither Kashmir nor any other part will break away. It is possible that the Northern Areas and Occupied Kashmir return to India. Hence Islamabad should work for a regional framework on Afghanistan; a tacit ‘standstill’ agreement would be in the interests of all.


The article was originally written for the August 2011 issue of Defence and Security Alert

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