Afghanistan’s strategic position between the Eurasian heartland and the Indian Ocean made it the focus of the “Great Game,” the historical competition between the British and Russian empires for geopolitical supremacy.
During the Cold War, the Great Game referred to the two superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union, jostling for influence, and now it characterizes the complex game involving America and various active regional powers such as Russia, Iran, Pakistan, China and India, and non-state actors such as the Taliban, ISIS and other insurgent groups.
Access to the Eurasian region is needed to facilitate land strategies and to the Indian Ocean to support naval strategies. The region contains critical resources for the sustenance of a global power, such as minerals, gas and oil. Washington believes wielding influence in Kabul is essential to containing the regional influence of Russia and neighboring Iran and China.
The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 witnessed an exponential growth in the number of madrassas, which provided recruits for filling the ranks of the Islamist mujahideen to fight the communist forces. These were, however, the result of the ideological indoctrination and economic resources poured into raising the insurgencies by state actors instead of indicating a religious backlash.
The importance of these factors is borne out by the fact that when the Pakistani leader Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq turned down the Carter administration’s offer of US$4 million, the Reagan government provided Pakistan with an aid package worth more than $3.2 billion to strengthen the insurgency.
The effects of geopolitical factors were underlined by the fact that most of the sophisticated weapons such as the first firearms – mainly .303 Enfield rifles – arrived in Pakistan on January 10, 1980, 14 days after the Soviet invasion (CG Cogan, “Partners in Time: The CIA and Afghanistan since 1979”, World Policy Journal, Vol. 10, No. 2, Summer 1993, p76).
In the latter part of 1986, the US brought the first ground-to-air missiles in the form of the American Stinger, a handheld, “fire and forget” anti-aircraft missile to Afghan territory to fight the Russian forces (K Katzman, “Afghanistan: Current Issues and US Policy”, CRS Report for Congress, updated in August 27, 2003, p2).
Pakistan saw an alliance with the US as an opportunity to offset the power imbalance with India, scuttle the Indian effort to cultivate Afghanistan and increase its influence in Kashmir. It is roughly calculated that 70% of the weapons supplied to continue jihad in Afghanistan never reached there. They either became Pakistani military assets or were sold for profit by the Pakistani military or its various entrepreneurial middlemen.
The mujahideen were the first non-NATO recipients of the sophisticated weapons (For more details on US arms sales to Pakistan during the Soviet Occupation, see RF Grimmett, “US arms sales to Pakistan”, CRS Report for Congress, August 24, 2009, p1).
Pakistan wanted to enhance its influence vis-a-vis India, particularly in relation to Kashmir. Prominent Pakistani leaders and army officials preferred to describe Kashmir as the jugular vein of Pakistan, underlining the geopolitical importance of Kashmir for Islamabad, although they committed themselves to the cause of the freedom struggle in Kashmir.
It was after the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan that Pakistan tried to internationalize the Kashmir issue. Its active anti-Soviet role paid it rich dividends in terms of securing diplomatic support from the West and Islamic states apart from the huge amount of aid and arms received from the US, Saudi Arabia and Britain.
In this context, Pakistan hoped to reverse the agreement reached between it and India in Shimla that Kashmir was a bilateral issue to be resolved bilaterally. Furthermore, Pakistan was involved in the clandestine acquisition of nuclear weapons to create a favorable strategic environment to pursue its interests in Kashmir with relative asymmetry.
It was during this time that Pakistan hoped that its activities were likely to be ignored as the attention of the West was focused on the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (For details. see V Longer, The Defence and Foreign Policies of India, Sterling Publication, New Delhi, 1988, p285-290).
The Pakistani leadership also considered the Soviet intervention an opportunity to forge an overarching Islamic identity within which demand for an independent Pashtunistan could be subsumed. Pakistan was aware that the demand for Pashtunistan, if conceded, would have granted Afghanistan the most desired route to the Indian Ocean as Kabul was on the lookout for alternative routes to lessen dependence on the market provided by Islamabad.
Nonetheless, the fact that Pashtunistan dominated Afghan foreign policy in the early 1960s despite the little support it enjoyed among the Pashtuns of Pakistan indicated its geopolitical character. Further, the geopolitical character of the insurgency is underlined by the fact that when the Afghans thought the jihad had ended with the departure of Soviet troops, the US adopted a rollback policy, increasingly relying on Salafi Arab fighters to enhance its influence.
The Soviet Union disintegrated in the early 1990s and gave way to the emergence of five Central Asian states that were landlocked but rich with natural resources. The resource potential of the Caspian Sea region was believed to be high enough to sustain the growing needs of the global economy and even serve as an alternative to the unstable Persian Gulf region.
Indicating its desire to reach out to the region, the US Congress started passing bills that called for the diversification of energy supplies from the Central Asian and Caspian region starting from the late 1990s
Indicating its desire to reach out to the region, the US Congress started passing bills that called for the diversification of energy supplies from the Central Asian and Caspian region starting from the late 1990s. Around this time, however, the US lacked an overarching ideological threat due to the demise of the Soviet Union, around which it framed its geopolitical interests.
Its interests were placed, on the one hand, within the spheres of various regional powers and militant groups. On the other hand, Pakistan, in its attempt to enhance both trade and political ties to the region, needed stability in Afghanistan, which was ripped apart by civil war and the local rule of the warlords.
Under the government of Benazir Bhutto, the interior minister, General Naseerullah Babur, prepared the groundwork to use the Taliban to bring stability to southern and eastern Afghanistan, following the failure of Gulbuddin Hekmetyar to subdue ethnic forces in Afghanistan despite repeated attempts. In this changed context, the US was poised to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate regime.
For instance, Robin Raphel, who was in charge of the Central Asian region at the US State Department, paid two visits to Kabul to meet Taliban government functionaries. State Department spokesman Glyn Davies said the US found “nothing objectionable” in the steps taken by the Taliban to impose Islamic law (A Tarock, “The Politics of the Pipeline: The Iran and Afghanistan Conflict”, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 20, No4, August 1999, p815).
American and Pakistani geopolitical interests in Afghanistan converged in the opening of trade routes and the forging of links with different resource-rich Central Asian states. Nonetheless, the fact that the Taliban comprised many members drawn from the Central Asian states instead of exclusively representing the Pashtun Afghans of the refugee camps in Pakistan pointed to it being structured to suit geopolitical interests.
On the other side, Russia saw the Taliban’s rise to prominence as a threat. Sergei Ivanov, then the head of the Russian Security Council, not only accused the Taliban government of assisting the Chechen resistance but claimed the group gave sanctuary to Islamists from some of the Central Asian states and allowed them to train for guerrilla warfare to destabilize those states.
Similarly, the animosity between Iran and the Taliban reached a peak in 1998 when the Taliban attacked and conquered the northern town of Mazar-i Sharif, killing eight Iranian diplomats and journalists they accused of supplying arms to the opposition.
This issue led to the deployment of Iranian troops along the Afghan border, raising fears of conflict. Washington’s enhanced military presence in Afghanistan and the Central Asia region and proposals for alternative pipeline routes, such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline through Turkey and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan through Afghanistan, engendered deep-rooted suspicions within the Iranian and Russian governments.
Because of the evolving dynamics in Kabul and the geopolitical importance of the outcomes of regional war and peace efforts, Moscow and Tehran have allegedly shifted their support from the fragmented Northern Alliance group to the Taliban in order to strengthen their Afghan role. Washington has signaled its dissatisfaction with these states’ alleged support for the Taliban to impede the peace process in Kabul and roll back progress made by US-led forces. On the other hand, Moscow and Tehran have denied reports of their support for the radical group.
The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, impose fresh sanctions on Tehran and Moscow and inaugurate the Trans-Afghan peace pipeline project in February 2018 indicate an American desire to pursue its geopolitical interests at the expense of Iranian and Russian interests.
Evolving Afghan circumstances, such as increasing violence perpetrated by the Taliban and America’s withdrawal of security assistance to Pakistan, indicate that Washington’s interests are seemingly at odds with the Taliban as well as Islamabad.
On the other side, there has been a series of trilateral meetings between Pakistan, Russia and China primarily aimed at combating the ISIS threat. During one of the trilateral meetings in Moscow, they agreed to remove certain Taliban figures from the US sanctions list and approved Islamabad’s hosting of a meeting of heads of intelligence agencies from Russia, China and Iran to beef up counter-terrorism efforts aimed at the threat posed by ISIS.
Afghanistan continues to be in an imbroglio even while the US and other regional powers such as Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran have changed sides in the geopolitical game. These regional powers allege that the US pursued shared interests with ISIS in keeping Afghanistan embroiled in instabilities and disorder so that it could have a permanent military presence in the region.
The US has reportedly claimed that the size and strength of ISIS were intentionally inflated while attempts were made to strengthen the Taliban to bog down the US war and peace efforts in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the distrust between the US and the regional powers has prevented a coordinated response to the Afghan quagmire, and violence by radical groups is on the rise.