NATO’s Civilian Representative Mark Sedwill remarked that the Great Game, referring to the 19th Century rivalry between Imperial Russia and Britain in Afghanistan is over. Perhaps not, for as Zhou Enlai said about the French Revolution in the 20th Century it is too early to tell. Given the moves on the global and the regional chess board, between the West, particularly US and UK on one side and the shadow boxing by Pakistan with other regional players Russia, China, Iran and India waiting in the wings, a new Great Game may be in the offing in the 21st Century in Afghanistan, for as they say history does repeats itself but possibly in a different form.
First the eternally troubled US Pakistan relations, which denote lack of concern for each others sensitivities, severe encroachment on strategic space by intelligence agents and proxy players as the Taliban are typical moves seen in the previous version of the Great Game. On the face of it both sides are making serious efforts to patch up. Thus US Central Command military commander James Mattis met Pakistan’s top brass this week in Rawalpindi even as President Obama in a report to the Congress indicated lack of satisfaction over Pakistan’s operations against the Taliban. At the same time a senior Pakistani intelligence officer was quoted by the media that Joint US-Pakistan intelligence operations have been halted since late January after the Raymond Davis Case.
The White House report which is required to be forwarded in accordance to the Supplemental Appropriations Act 2009 to keep the Congress fully informed of Pakistan’s counter insurgency progress indicated that the Hold and Develop portion of counter militancy strategy was not being implemented on the ground by the Army, thus allowing the Taliban to recoup. Meanwhile some US senators are arguing that US partnership with Pakistan is not yielding results and the government should look more towards India.
The suspension of intelligence operations between Pakistan and the United States is another concern and should hopefully be resumed after the visit of the US Central Command Chief Admiral Mattis to Islamabad. While the relationship has soured with the Davis episode where a CIA operative was seen to be involved in the shooting of what were his ISI colleagues the details of which are not likely to be revealed in the near future, the botched operation in North Waziristan in which a drone attack killed tribal in a jirga has added to the tensions. The latter was possibly a lead from some of the rogue or even ISI supported informers to the US agencies and thus the level of suspicion would remain very high between the two.
The elephant in this room are the Al Qaeda and Taliban. The rift between the US and Pakistan would only provide a boon to these non state actors as sharing of intelligence was leading to a number of engagements by the US on the Pakistani side by drone attacks which have completely stopped. With the US also having pulled out of Kunar in Afghanistan, elements of Al Qaeda have now greater room for expansion, thereby raising a threat of geographic proliferation.
The outreach by the UK Prime Minister to Pakistan with a visit to Islamabad to assuage the sentiments of the Pakistani leadership particularly the Army over his statements of two way approach by Islamabad is another strand of the new Great Game as Britain attempts to seek a place for itself in this strategic geometry. The Army chief General Kiyani was attending the Prime Ministerial level talks termed as a strategic dialogue it is apparent that the structure was to ensure that the Army is also on board whereas in most other democracies such a dialogue will be held by the civilian counterparts such as the Defence Secretary.
What gains the UK expects to come out of the talks remains to be seen but the overall results as far as the Afghan cauldron is concerned may not be very positive given that the Pakistan Army is already under scrutiny by the White House for delinquency in operations in its tribal areas. This is also evident with the ongoing internecine combat in the Tirah valley where two groups are slugging it out even as there are claims of the region being stable.
Britain maintains close relations with many of the Pakistani leadership. For instance the opposition leaders and former Prime Minister Mr Nawaz Sharif is undergoing extensive treatment in London while the MQM leader Mr Altaf Hussain is lodged permanently. The former Army Chief and President Pervez Musharraf is also in London even as a court in Pakistan has issued a warrant for his arrest. Also given British troops involvement in Afghanistan there is a need for smooth relations with Pakistan. More over Cameroon is also seen as some sort of an advance mission for a possible Obama visit if all goes well that is.
Another dimension of the Great game is unfolding relations between Iran and Pakistan which have always been very testy with a common border which is uncontrolled and where groups as the Taliban, Baloch insurgents and the Jundullah have a free run. New reports indicate that Pakistan is set to provide military or police assistance to Riyadh and Bahrain to overcome the internal turmoil in these countries. This will certainly irk Tehran setting a regional and sectarian dimension to Iran Pakistan relations.
So where do Russia, China and India stand in the new great game. Being old masters they are waiting on the wings till the current order either plays its hands or exhausts itself, these civilisational powers know that come what may they will survive the vestiges in Afghanistan.
And what about the Afghans themselves, they need all the help required to strengthen their space for Great games strive in vacuum. A strong Afghanistan alone will ensure that there are no great games in that country.