Afghanistan: New Great Game unfolds - I
by Sandhya Jain on 18 Jul 2015 1 Comment

A 21st century version of the Great Game is unfolding in Afghanistan, even as its internally fractured regime strives to stabilise a land ravaged by 14 years of war that has not yet ended. Once the arena of intense rivalry between the British Indian Empire, Tsarist Russia and the Chinese authorities, with Persia a keen watcher on account of the region’s geostrategic location as gateway to India, Persia, and Muslim Central Asia (part of the ancient Silk Road trade route), the stakes today are higher than ever before.


There is, to begin with, the official wealth of Afghanistan - its huge deposits of gold, copper, lithium and other minerals, estimated at around $3 trillion. Then, there is the multi-billion dollar opium trade, whose profits mainly land in Western offshore banks and give them liquidity, especially since the 2008 economic meltdown.


The front ranking players in Kabul presently include China and Pakistan; both have leverage with the Taliban that has to be appeased for the country to stabilise. Britain is reticent, but the fragile Ghani-Abdullah regime is banking on US troops for security. The dual need to fight and pacify the Taliban has pushed India into the background. So far, there is no clear role for Iran and Russia; both are unlikely to be content with the role of bystanders for long.


Looming in the background is the Dawlat al-Islamiyah f’al-Iraq w Belaad al-Sham (Daesh) or Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is possibly being pushed into Afghanistan to protect the poppy fields as the Taliban is accommodated within the regime, a goal that, if achieved, bodes ill for India and the region. The situation is highly fluid; many Taliban cadres are defecting to the Islamic State. For now, we may note some broad themes.


Opium trade


The unstated bottom line in Afghanistan is the lucrative opium trade. After US President Barack Obama announced that troops would start pulling out of Afghanistan from July 2011, Afghan opium production began to rise and peaked in 2014, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) ‘2014 Afghan Opium Survey’. In 2012, poppy cultivation covered over 154,000 hectares, an increase of 18% over 2011. The potential opium production that year was around 3,700 tonnes, which strategic expert Michel Chossudovsky feels is an underestimate belied by UNODC’s own prediction of record harvests. Even accounting for bad weather and crop damage, historical trends show that the potential production for 154,000 hectares should be over 6000 tonnes; in 2003, just 80,000 hectares yielded around 3600 tonnes of opium.


Hitherto, UNODC estimated heroin production on the premise that the entire global opium crop was processed into heroin (10 kg of opium = 1 kg of heroin); but in 2010, it changed the methodology to downwardly revise estimates for 2004 to 2011. UNODC claimed, without evidence, that much of world opium is no longer linked with the illegal heroin market. This masks the size of the Afghan drug trade, which is a multi-billion dollar cash cow for Western financial institutions and organised crime. In 2014, UNAIDS reported that poppy cultivation expanded to 224,000 hectares despite the US alone spending $7.6 billion on counter-narcotics programs. In December 2014, the UN issued a separate report recording a 60 per cent growth in Afghan land used for opium cultivation since 2011. Farmers openly confess, “We’re forced to plant opium,” in order to survive.




The lucrative drug trade may be luring Daesh/ISIS into Afghanistan. Observers say northern Afghanistan is ISIS’s fallback option as it faces resistance from Iran-led Shia militia and non-Wahhabi Sunni forces of Iraq and Syria. As in other countries where it is establishing roots, the ISIS could eventually pose a threat to the Pakistani Army, which is why Islamabad turned down Saudi King Salman bin Abdel Aziz’s request for help in Yemen, where Riyadh intervened on 25 March 2015. But the pressure on Pakistan has intensified.


ISIS marked its presence in Afghanistan with suicide bomber killing 33 people and injuring over 100 others outside a bank in Jalalabad on Saturday, 18 April 2015. Local media said a former spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility on behalf of ISIS in both Pakistan and Afghanistan; President Ghani too accused ISIS. The Taliban condemned the attack as “an evil act”. 


UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has informed the Security Council that ISIS has entered Afghanistan and some Taliban commanders have joined it. Nicholas Haysom, UN Special Representative and chief of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, reported to the Security Council that ISIS has the potential to unite different groups under its command, but that it has not yet established “firm roots” in the country.


But Russian envoy to the UN, Zahir Tanin, warned that ISIS could spread its footprint to the Central Asian states, thus endangering Russia and her neighbourhood. Experts say Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz are joining ISIS in increasing numbers. Beijing is nervous about the situation in Xinjiang.


Gen. Sergey Smirnov, deputy director of Russia’s Federal Security Service, told the media that the authorities have information on about 1,700 Russian citizens fighting alongside Sunni extremists in Iraq. He said, “The danger of ISIS is also in their ability to infiltrate other terrorist groups.” Indeed, some leaders of the Imarat Caucasus group have pledged loyalty to ISIS. In Tajikistan, according to the International Research Group for Crisis Regions, nearly 4,000 people from Central Asian countries have joined ISIS. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s regional anti-terror body has decided to monitor the movement of ISIS cadre in their States and jointly thwart their activities. Last December, Russia banned ISIS as a terrorist organisation and asked all nations to recognize ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front as terrorist groups.


Kabul is aware of the ISIS presence on its soil and is fighting it. On March 11, 2015, ISIS commander Hafiz Waheed, who succeeded his uncle, Abdul Rauf Khadim, was killed with nine others in an airstrike by Afghan forces in Sangin district, Helmand province. Khadim, a former Taliban commander and Guantanamo detainee who reputedly switched over to ISIS, was killed in a US drone strike on February 9. Overall, violence in Afghanistan peaked in 2014; a UN report in February recorded 3,699 civilian deaths (as opposed to nearly 3,000 for 2013). A total of 4,380 Afghan soldiers and policemen were killed as of October 2014.


In an interview with Voice of America in Washington, President Ashraf Ghani said that when his government took over, “the threat of Daesh (ISIS) was not even in the minds of the people”. But the terrorist networks are changing and “they have begun concentrating on us [Afghanistan] through various factors. Our historical name of ‘Khurasan’ has a vital and symbolic significance for the ISIS and you are aware of the fact that many ISIS members have changed their surnames to ‘Khurasani’. In their (ISIS) philosophy, Dajjal (the false prophet) will emerge from Khurasan and fight them [ISIS] in the apocalyptic war in Syria”.


Early in April, CNN recorded Daesh members parading at a camp south of Kabul, wearing military-style fatigues and face masks; they admitted belonging to ISIS. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which operates in northern Afghanistan, recently declared allegiance to Daesh and released a video of the beheading of an Afghan National Army soldier to avenge the detention of some female IMU supporters by security forces in Faryab. Confirming the death, the National Directorate of Security said the soldier belonged to Andarab district, Baghlan province.

Several Afghan MPs have expressed concern over ISIS activities in the country. It is believed to be behind recent serial attacks on civilian buses and abduction and killing of passengers. Black flags have been spotted in several provinces. Washington says Daesh has a limited capacity to make recruits, but President Ghani told the US Congress, “We are the front line. The terrorists neither recognize boundaries nor require passports to spread their message of hate and discord. From the west, Daesh is already sending advance guards to southern and western Afghanistan to push our vulnerabilities”.


(To be continued…)

This article was written in April for Dialogue quarterly, April-June 2015, Vol. 16 No. 4, before the visit of the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani 

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