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.

The project, however, was plagued by difficulties from the onset. First, there were allegations that the former Afghan minister of mines accepted a huge bribe from MCC for the contract. Thereafter, as the project progressed into its initial phases, it was discovered that the Mes Aynak site was situated above an ancient, 3,000-year-old Buddhist settlement with the remains of over 400 Buddha statues, stupas, and a huge monastery complex. Archaeologists then discovered an older, bronze age site below the Buddhist level, including a 5,000-year-old copper smelter. As a result of those discoveries, very little actual progress was made in developing the Mes Aynak mine over the next dozen years.

It remains to be seen whether the Islamic Emirate will allow the Chinese to begin in earnest mining operations at Mes Aynak, but the mine remains an important element of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as well as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) from western China to the Arabian Sea, where roads and rail link up with the Chinese financed and built Gwadar Port in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. Beyond Mes Aynak, China may be eyeing additional, major mineral deposits in Afghanistan, valued by the U.S. Department of Defense team that investigated Afghanistan’s mineral deposits at approximately $1 trillion in value. In addition to significant copper and iron ore deposits, Afghanistan is rich in lithium as well as rare earths. As China already produces almost 90 percent of the world’s rare earth oxides, metals, and alloys, the Chinese may intend to leave Afghan rare earth deposits in the ground for the time being, and thus continue to enjoy their own dominant position on the world market.

A related issue will be how China handles the delicate issue of Bagram Air Base. The Chinese will certainly view Bagram as a potential play in its growing projection of power beyond China’s shores. Any Chinese efforts to take over Bagram should be viewed within the context of their construction of a People’s Liberation Army Navy base at Djibouti in 2016, at an estimated cost of $590 million, as well as their ongoing construction of artificial islands to serve as military bases in the South China Sea. While the Taliban might well balk at a Chinese takeover of Bagram Air Base as a foreign military installation on Afghan soil, they might be less troubled with the concept of a commercial air transport hub as part of both the BRI and CPEC. A future shift from a purely commercial hub to a Chinese military installation at Bagram would be a relatively easy step.

WHILE SOME of Pakistan’s vital interests in Afghanistan coincide with those of China—CPEC and the BRI—Pakistan has always attempted to play a bigger hand in Afghanistan than the one it has actually been dealt. Pakistan has repeatedly been accused of having “created” the Taliban and, to a large degree, having control over them; but the truth may be far less dramatic. When I was personally involved in serving as CIA political agent and quartermaster to the Afghan Mujaheddin in their battle against the Soviet occupation, I dealt directly with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). On one occasion, I asked my ISI counterpart whether he could get a particular Mujaheddin commander to execute a specific operation; his answer was reflective of Pakistan’s overall influence with the Mujaheddin. He said, “I can usually get the Mujaheddin to do something they really want to do in the first place.” That comment probably applies as much today as it did over thirty years ago.

Following the Taliban victory on August 15, Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, congratulated the movement on having “broken the shackles of slavery;” and, during the second week of September, intelligence chiefs from the region, plus the United States and the United Kingdom, gathered in Islamabad for discussions on the way forward in Afghanistan. Director William J. Burns of the CIA reportedly visited Islamabad on September 9 for discussions with Pakistan’s chief of army staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and the director of Pakistan’s ISI, Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed. Following those discussions, Pakistani officials reportedly met with the British MI6 chief. The intelligence chiefs of Iran, Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan also gathered a few days later in Islamabad for urgent discussions on events in Afghanistan. Like it or not, Islamabad once again finds itself center stage in the Afghan affair, with the delicate task of dealing with the Afghan interests of a growing list of countries, both near and far.

Aside from the geopolitical pressure exerted on Pakistan by events in Afghanistan, the expected flood of refugees from Afghanistan into Pakistan will only magnify existing problems and sorely strain Pakistan’s resources. There were about two million Afghan refugees in Pakistan during the ten-year Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. They were not only gathered in Pakistan’s northwest but had infiltrated large numbers into Pakistan cities, in particular Karachi and Rawalpindi. Pakistan’s porous border with Afghanistan makes it virtually impossible to control such flows of refugees from either side.

THE GOVERNMENT of Iran is moving cautiously in its dealings with the new Taliban regime. While it may also be bracing for a flood of refugees reminiscent of the roughly a million Afghans who fled to Iran during the Soviet occupation, it is also trying to temper the coverage of the Taliban in the Iranian domestic press by discouraging the use of such provocative terms as “brutality, crime, atrocity” when reporting on events in Afghanistan under the Taliban.

The Iranians, moreover, will be sensitive to the fate of their fellow Shia adherents in Afghanistan, particularly in Shia-dominant Bamiyan province, thousands of whom were slaughtered by the Sunni Taliban during their last reign in Afghanistan. Memories are also still fresh over the Taliban murder of eleven Iranian diplomats and an Iranian journalist in their consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan twenty-three years ago. The Iranians, nevertheless, have kept their embassy in Kabul open as well as their consulate in Herat in the west as they feel their way along in this new dynamic in the neighborhood.

FOLLOWING ITS 1979–89 occupation of Afghanistan, a disaster that set the Soviet Union on a trajectory of ultimate dissolution, Russia has always remained darkly in the background of developments in Afghanistan. In July 2020, a story broke accusing Russian military intelligence, the GRU, of paying bounties to the Taliban for killing American and allied troops in Afghanistan. The reports were vaguely sourced to Afghan anti-Taliban groups; and U.S. intelligence intercepts reportedly tracked GRU financial transfers to Taliban linked accounts, thus providing “confirmation,” though not enough, according to the New York Times reporting, that the National Security Agency would add its imprimatur to the initial report on the bounties. Most of the key U.S. national security players expressed outrage and a commitment to investigate the issue of Russian bounties on U.S. troops, but after a few weeks, the story just faded away.


U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have consistently reported Russia’s double-dealing in the conflict. Russia, on the one hand, appeared to support U.S. efforts to dislodge the Taliban by allowing U.S. military overflights of Russian territory to funnel supplies and American troops to Afghanistan, while on the other hand, they provided covert assistance, including cash and weapons to the Taliban insurgents. Despite all of Russia’s sub-rosa operations in Afghanistan, with the final departure of American troops from Afghanistan at the end of August, the Russians were no better off in the war-torn country than when they drove homeward across Friendship Bridge in 1989.

The Trump administration’s February 2020 agreement with the Taliban was not a complicated deal. In return for a complete withdrawal of all U.S. and allied forces from Afghanistan within fourteen months, the Taliban were to deny their territory as a safe haven to terrorists, to cease attacks on American and NATO troops, to start peace talks with the Afghan government, and to consider a ceasefire. The Taliban stuck to at least part of the agreement—U.S. troops suffered no casualties in the subsequent fourteen months until the terrorist attack at HKIA in August, which was not carried out by the Taliban. Peace talks with the Ghani government never got any traction, and both Al Qaeda and ISIS-K remained present and active in Afghanistan. But the story of Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for Al Qaeda has a complicated history.

In 1991, after a break with the Saudi royal family over its support for the United States in the first Gulf War, Osama bin Laden pitched up in Sudan where he was tentatively welcomed on the proviso that he invest in Sudan’s agriculture or infrastructure projects. He did just that, investing a reported $50 million in agricultural projects. For the next four years, bin Laden lived a quiet life with his several wives outside Khartoum at a modest residence on the banks of the Blue Nile. Sudan at the time was under crippling U.S. sanctions and was also listed on the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list. Eager for some relief from American sanctions, Khartoum dispatched a minister-of-state level official to meet with senior American State Department representatives in Rosslyn, Virginia, in March 1996. The United States demands of the Sudanese in return for some relief on the sanctions were clear. Foremost among them was, “get rid of Osama bin Laden!”