The New Great Game

The New Great Game

Once the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan, Washington will no longer set the rules in Southwest Asia.


President Obama described his recent pact with Kabul as the symbol of a new chapter in the decade-long conflict in Afghanistan. Others have portrayed it as an omen of things to come. But for the region’s power brokers watching the U.S. drawdown and coldly weighing their options, the accord marks little more than another stage in the great game—one in which the United States will no longer be the dominant player.

For the last ten years, Washington has set the rules of this game by saturating Afghanistan with tens of billions of dollars and nearly one hundred thousand of the world’s best fighting forces. This nearly limitless flood of resources has allowed U.S. officials to plow blindly through the competing interests of government officials in Kabul and Islamabad and local power brokers in Afghanistan’s far-flung villages.


But as the United States withdraws most of its forces and money, it will have less leverage with Afghan leaders. The interests of the United States and its erstwhile allies in the region will diverge, and those conflicts will become increasingly difficult to overcome through direct measures. Afghan president Hamid Karzai and other Afghan officials are likely to pursue their interests more vigorously and defiantly. American officials will have to find more indirect ways to cajole and manipulate these competing interests toward something less than civil war and Taliban rule.

Soon after signing the agreement with Obama, Karzai instructed officials in the Afghan Ministry of Interior to refuse action on intelligence provided by U.S. forces if there is any doubt about its veracity. His government has demanded control over night raids and detention operations, which will be central to U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Karzai has made it clear to Washington that once the flow of money and forces slows, so will U.S. influence and the level of cooperation between the two governments.

Like their counterparts in Pakistan, Afghanistan’s rulers may not always see eye to eye with the United States when it comes to radical militant groups associated with al-Qaeda, especially if these groups agree to leave the region’s governments alone. Officials in Kabul and Islamabad will look to their own interests first.

Obama’s pact with Karzai sent a clear message: America’s interest in the region stops where al-Qaeda ends. But leaders in Kabul have less reason to be concerned about al-Qaeda and its war against the West than they do about civil war and the return of the Taliban.

Thus, Afghanistan’s leaders, no longer backed by so much American power and money, may prefer accommodation to confrontation—as Pakistan’s rulers have done to varying degrees over the years. In many areas of Afghanistan, local officials are already making deals with local Taliban commanders, giving insurgents free rein to attack U.S. forces as long as they leave Afghan personnel alone.

To ensure elements of al-Qaeda (or other anti-American groups) don’t reestablish sanctuaries inside Afghanistan, a great deal more behind-the-scenes diplomacy will be needed than was evident during the last decade, when U.S. forces called the shots and had the capability to strike as they wished.

There are no constant friends in international politics—only interests formed by shifting sands and temporary alliances subject to rapid change. Nowhere is this truer than in Southwest Asia. Pakistan, a U.S. ally and sole conduit for aid to the Afghan resistance during the 1980s, is now the primary supporter of the Taliban and other insurgents targeting Western forces in Afghanistan.

India, which leaned towards the USSR during the latter part of the Cold War and voiced no opposition to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, is now a U.S. strategic partner and staunch supporter of the international effort in Afghanistan. In today’s Afghan army, Soviet-trained officers have joined with former Afghan resistance commanders to defeat the Taliban and its allies.

During the late 1990s, Washington leaned toward the Taliban to counter Iranian influence and secure pipelines from Central Asia. After 2001, the United States and Iran worked together to create a stable anti-Taliban government in Kabul. As Washington established a permanent presence in southwest Afghanistan close to the Iranian border, Iran began supporting elements of the Taliban—despite the movement’s long history of oppressing Afghanistan’s Shia minority and its role in the 1998 murder of Iranian diplomats.

The Taliban banned the opium trade when it controlled southern Afghanistan, but now it has joined with narcotics traffickers to target Western troops and undermine the Afghan government. Notorious drug lord and former governor of Helmand province Sher Muhammad Akhundzada, was instrumental in helping the United States defeat the Taliban in 2002. When he was ousted as governor in 2005, he told his fighters to join the Taliban.

As the insurgents grew in strength and Washington’s withdrawal drew nearer, the Karzai government began leaning toward the Taliban—so much so that leaders among the non-Pashtun minorities worry he may welcome Mullah Omar into Kabul. Senior Pakistani military and intelligence officials have visited Kabul, attempting to persuade Karzai to resist U.S. pressure.

Going forward, it is likely the government in Kabul will play as many sides as it can to extract maximum concessions. Karzai will, no doubt, maintain good relations with India while talking to Pakistan and the Taliban. Like Pakistan’s rulers, he may even play a double game—talking to the Taliban and groups linked with al-Qaeda, while doing just enough to maintain U.S. financial and military assistance.

The same will be true of Afghanistan’s many local and regional power brokers. They will play both sides as they have always done—toying with the Taliban and Pakistani intelligence when it suits them and working with the United States and the Kabul government at the same time. As in years past, certain factions will lean toward the Taliban, others toward the government, sometimes switching sides as conditions dictate.

As U.S. forces pull out of Afghanistan’s villages, the sense of foreign occupation that has unified the Taliban’s many disparate factions will dissipate. Local commanders and power brokers will come to the fore. To prevent the Taliban from retaking the East and South, American and Afghan forces will have to work quietly and indirectly through local power brokers and attempt to exploit divisions within the Taliban’s ranks.

The players of the great game have changed somewhat since the nineteenth century when the expanding British and Russian empires competed for control over Afghanistan and conspired against one another through fitful bargains with the country’s fractious and fiercely independent tribes. Distribution of power also has changed, along with the region’s demographics, unique brands of Islamic extremism, the quality of foreign intervention and many other factors.

Yet many of the dynamics and rules of the game remain the same. The region’s power brokers continue to pursue their own particular interests despite grand pronouncements about regional stability and shared goals—and despite massive outlays of money and manpower. Those familiar with how the game is played know better than to declare their intentions or confront the United States directly. Instead, they engage in diplomacy by intrigue and war by proxy. The great game of today is just as Machiavellian as it ever was.

The next chapter of the Afghan conflict will be one in which U.S. forces no longer call the shots. Those charged with executing Washington’s policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan will find it increasingly difficult to ignore the ancient rules of the game and still achieve their objectives. The United States will have to learn to play—and win—the great game in Southwest Asia.

Jerry Meyerle is a senior political scientist at CNA. He has served as an advisor in eastern and southern Afghanistan and on policy reviews in Washington. He is the author of Counterinsurgency on the Ground in Afghanistan.

Image: Kenny Holston 21