The Great Game Is Back, and Afghanistan Is at the Center of It

The Great Game Is Back, and Afghanistan Is at the Center of It

The United States should not disengage and simply leave the Afghan game to others. It needs to stay in this new Great Game, wherever it might lead.

It is probable that a good deal of gaming went into these two appointments. Naming Sirajuddin Haqqani as interim interior minister suggests that he has won that key national security ministry as his power base. That is certainly possible; however, that appointment viewed from another perspective might suggest that Haqqani was deftly handed a poison pill, that he may have even been set up to fail. Haqqani will now have to prove himself capable of handling Kabul, the hardest nut to crack. Everything that goes wrong in the Afghan capital will be on him, and there are already signs that plenty can go wrong in the burgeoning city of some six million. In this regard, the Taliban announced in late September that a special commission has been established to deal with security in Kabul, with Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Ghani Baradar as its chair. Moreover, among the Taliban, at least in the way they perceive themselves, purity of intent and selflessness are central to gaining the admiration and adoration of the ranks. In that respect, Haqqani simply cannot measure up.


Established by Sirajuddin’s father Jalaluddin, a major Mujaheddin commander who fought the Soviet occupation, the “Haqqani Network” has in recent years earned an enduring reputation as looters, drug dealers, and Al Qaeda affiliates. While Sirajuddin may be different, the vulnerability of his position and reputation will become increasingly apparent to the Taliban leadership. They are painfully aware that the appointment of Haqqani to the interior ministry has been critically viewed by literally every potential Western donor government; they also recognize that he is wanted by the FBI and that there is a $10 million U.S. State Department reward for information leading to his arrest. As the pressure of increasing isolation on the interim government mounts, sidelining Haqqani could well become a credible demonstration that they have broken with Al Qaeda and are intent on cleaning up their image. In the same vein, the appointment of Khalil Haqqani, Sirajuddin’s uncle, as minister of refugees carries with it the potential of being another setup, one for which there is some history. When Jalaluddin Haqqani fell out of favor with Mullah Mohammad Omar, he was appointed minister for refugees—a clear and stinging demotion. The ministry responsible for refugees under the Taliban government could well become the lightning rod for international focus on foreign troublemakers in Afghanistan, along the lines that Osama bin Laden was received following his expulsion from Sudan in 1996.

Mohammad Yaqoob, the eldest son of Taliban founder, the one-eyed Mullah Omar, is a rising figure in the movement. Though Mullah Omar reportedly died in 2013, his death was not formally announced until July 2015, at which time Yaqoob began his calculated move in the Taliban ranks. Though reportedly unwilling to accept the top position in the Taliban immediately following his father’s death, by 2016, at the age of twenty-six, he had taken charge of the Taliban military commission, at that time controlling almost half of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces. Though considered by some observers to be a moderate, at least in the Taliban universe—he supported a negotiated settlement to the Afghan war—he nevertheless adroitly exploited the endgame weaknesses of the former government of Afghanistan and drove his blitzkrieg advances across the entire country. Yaqoob’s forces were the ones that took Kabul on August 15, two days after Afghan president Ashraf Ghani had fled the country, reportedly taking with him millions of U.S. dollars. While Yaqoob enjoys the support of Interim Prime Minister Mullah Hasan Akhund, Interim Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, and Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Ghani Baradar, his rival, Sirajuddin Haqqani, seems to have emerged in the new interim government without a prominent circle of trust or protectors outside the Haqqani Network.

On the heels of the formation of the interim government, rumors immediately swirled about serious rifts between the political faction led by Baradar, who led the peace negotiations with the United States in Doha, Qatar, and the Haqqani Network. The growing rift centers on claims by the Baradar faction that peace in Afghanistan was secured through negotiations led by his team in Doha; that claim is disputed by Haqqani and his followers, who claim that peace was achieved by victory in the field, in particular by Haqqani fighters.

In mid-September, stories circulated that Baradar had been killed in a palace clash with the Haqqanis, though that rumor was quickly denied in a short video clip of Baradar posted by the Taliban’s political office in Qatar; and later in September he was pictured meeting in Kabul with representatives of the World Health Organization. Further evidence of the strength of the Baradar Doha team was its September 21 request to have its spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, address the UN General Assembly in New York. In the end, however, for the interim government to function, it will probably have to be represented by both wings, Haqqani and Yaqoob/Baradar. Otherwise, these rivalries will only intensify.

Compounding those rumors is the apparent fact that the movement’s supreme leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, had not been seen in public since August 15. These early indicators of serious rivalries in the new Taliban government have led some Afghan analysts to conclude that they could lead to a return to the regional power bases, which have plagued Afghanistan throughout its modern history. Even the possibility of an Afghan civil war between rival Taliban factions has not been discounted by some analysts.

Though the suggestion that the new government of the Islamic Emirate represents a Taliban 2.0 remains contested, the Afghanistan they have seized is certainly Afghanistan 2.0 when compared to the country the last time they were in power. An entire generation of Afghans has been born and grown into young adulthood in a society that was, at the very least, influenced by an American presence. In the wake of our departure, we left behind hundreds of thousands of Afghans in whom we engendered some sense of belief in national and local government institutions created in our own democratic image, even if Potemkin villages with little thought given to their survivability in our absence. We left behind the hopes of a population whose percentage of university students over the last twenty years has grown from fewer than 30,000 in 2001, to approaching 200,000 today. We left behind the expectations of the women who have tripled their numbers in Afghan schools and who had their own Ministry of Women’s Affairs established in 2001. The Taliban shuttered that ministry on September 18, replacing it with their own Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, prompting a small, but well-noted demonstration by about two dozen Afghan women at the gates of the ministry the following day. As of this writing, the interim government continues to claim that it will form a more inclusive government, including women, at some unspecified future date.

We also left behind a “wired” Afghan population, whose access to the Internet rose from 0.01 percent of the population in 2002 to almost 15 percent today, and a connected Afghan population where mobile cellular subscriptions rose from 25,000 in 2002 to almost 22 million as the Taliban swept into Kabul. The Taliban themselves may be as wired and connected as the overall population of the Islamic Emirate. The broad and rapid dissemination of news in the country is already a nightmare for the new government, in particular for the new minister of interior, whose image is now broadly viewed as represented by Taliban enforcers beating women with sticks and horsewhips on the streets of Kabul.

While the traditional donor nations can take a wait-and-see position on any involvement with the interim government of the Islamic Emirate, neighboring countries may not enjoy the luxury of detachment. China, Pakistan, Russia, and Iran will not have the “decent interval” that the United States, the European Union, and NATO countries might seem to have. Afghanistan’s neighbors will have to deal with their problem neighbor now.

THOUGH IT has only a sliver of common border with Afghanistan at the end of the impossibly rugged Wakhan corridor, China nevertheless has the most at stake of perhaps all of Afghanistan’s neighbors. On September 10, China provided a modest aid package—$31 million in food grains, winter supplies, vaccines and medicine—in what was described in the Chinese media as “according to the needs of the Afghan people.” In connection with that aid package, the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, called for the Taliban to sever ties with all terrorist groups, particularly those with the East Turkestan Islamic movement, a terrorist organization China accuses of attacks in China’s Xinjiang province. China’s embassy in Kabul has remained open since the Taliban took over the capital, a clear indication that China intends to protect its considerable interests in the country.

Prominent among those interests is the Mes Aynak copper mine located about twenty-five miles southeast of Kabul in Logar Province. The state-controlled China Metallurgical Group (MCC) secured a thirty-year lease on the Aynak copper mine in 2007, for $3 billion, a private investment that remains the largest in Afghanistan’s history. Some estimates hold that the mine contains over five million metric tons of copper, expected to be worth tens of billions of dollars.