THE GREAT GAME
Ambassador Ahmed is currently the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University. He was also the First Distinguished Chair of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He has taught at Princeton, Harvard, and Cambridge Universities and has advised General David Petraeus, the late Amb. Richard Holbrooke, and many US agencies on Islam and foreign policy.
From your point of you, what are the implications of an announced troop withdrawal, no matter what the numbers are?
Obama’s announcement of “significant” troop withdrawals in the wake of bin Laden’s death and on the eve of re-elections makes sense. The majority of Americans are now tired of America’s longest war being fought in Afghanistan.
But Obama’s announcement would have also been heard with great interest in Afghanistan and the countries around it. Everyone there would be thinking of a post-America scenario for themselves.
Troop withdrawals are part of war strategy and military tactics. In that sense, by showing his hand, Obama has thrown his troops off-balance. Secretary Gates promptly talked of the need for continued engagement. Privately, he would be thinking of the logistics of withdrawal in a country that has a track record of leaving little trace of the occupying force—as the examples of the British in the nineteenth century and the Soviets in the twentieth century testify.
For purposes of the discussion, let me use the metaphor of the Great Game.
The Great Game was the name given to the rivalry between Imperial Britain, Russia and China for influence, prestige–and ensuring the other players were kept in check in an arena which could be defined generally as Central Asia including Afghanistan and what is now Pakistan. The most important objective of each player was to maximize the interests of his country and prevent a vacuum from forming which could be filled in by an opponent.
Applying the metaphor of the Great Game to Afghanistan and Pakistan today, we can see three major powers contending for influence.
While America has the largest number of troops in Afghanistan, the Chinese and Indians are also involved in exerting influence. In addition, mid-level players like Iran and Pakistan are active. Russia watches the situation, recalling its own decade-long war in Afghanistan. Obama’s announcement therefore affects a range of people and evokes different responses.
How would Karzai react to withdrawal of American support?
With consternation. President Karzai would be casting a nervous eye on the fate of those rulers in Kabul who are seen as stooges of foreign forces. When the Taliban last took Kabul, President Najibullah was castrated, had his fingers smashed, body dragged and finally hung in a public square. So Karzai would be in negotiations with the Taliban or making plans for a quiet retirement in the United States on a remote ranch far from their reach.
American withdrawal within the next year or two will mean a collapse of the present political structure. Afghan security forces are simply not ready and will not be for some time. Besides, too many of them are non-Pashtun and the Taliban (who are Pahstun) will be itching to pay them back in their own coin.
“So it is official,” Afghans who have been American allies—artists, NGOs, media people, warlords—would say. “They promised not to repeat the mistake they had made after we defeated the Soviets in the 1980s. They promised this time it was different. They would not abandon us after it was over.” (I am deliberately using imagined conversations and painting nations with an exceedingly broad brush to make my points)
What about the Taliban?
Jubilation. On hearing Obama, they would interpret his words as a fig leaf to cover what, in effect, would be an American admission of failure to complete the “stabilization” of Afghanistan and “de-Talibanization” of Afghanistan.
“God is great”, they would say. “Our elders have defeated the Soviet empire and now we have defeated the American empire. Their President has announced a withdrawal. They hurl missiles at our women and children from the skies. They have no honor. We will make them pay to the last American as they flee from our land.”
What will the impact be on China?
Quiet satisfaction. If America withdraws from the Great Game, China and India will be the biggest beneficiaries. China will slowly and imperceptibly, in its characteristic strategy, fill the vacuum. China has already begun to play a major role in Pakistan. Its promise of aid to the tune of 30 billion will go in constructing railway links between China and Pakistan which will extend its influence right up to the Arabian Sea. It is developing the Gwadar port which lies at the entrance to some of the world’s most important shipping lanes supplying oil to America. It is helping Pakistan in its other vital strategic interests such as its nuclear program and supply of FC-1 Fierce Dragon fighter planes.
In terms of the Great Game, China has been particularly successful in quietly developing a popular image in Pakistan. Both the President and Prime Minister of Pakistan recently and publicly reiterated the undying affiliation with their “all weather” friend—a not so subtle dig at their “fair weather” friends, the Americans.
After the killing of Osama bin Laden, when the Pakistanis felt bruised and battered by American accusations of duplicity, the Chinese addressed Pakistanis in terms of honor and dignity. Little wonder then that after a decade in which billions of American dollars were poured into Pakistan, their approval rating in Pakistan is about 15%. In contrast, the approval rating for the Chinese is about 85%.
The Chinese have therefore been conducting a highly successful Great Game strategy. They have been thinking long term and playing to cultural notions of respect and dignity. The Chinese diplomat who told an American counterpart, “Pakistan is our Israel”, was making as much an important geopolitical statement as confirming the triumph of Chinese policy over American in Pakistan.
Quiet satisfaction. India comes out a winner. It is emerging as a regional power and its financial and political aid to Afghanistan make it a player in the Great Game.
India has been generous with aid to Afghanistan. 500 million dollars is an impressive sum. It has also helped set up key parts of Afghanistan’s new administration including the intelligence services. It has built highways, offers free medical clinics and will construct Afghanistan’s new Parliament building.
This influence allows India to execute a master stroke in terms of the Great Game. Without firing a shot, it now has a presence along Pakistan’s western borders.
America also relies heavily on India to help stabilize the country especially after its troops start withdrawing. India’s increasing presence in Afghanistan will become a nightmare for Pakistan always concerned about being squeezed on both flanks by its larger neighbor. Neither country has forgotten that they have fought three wars; only this time both are nuclear.
Cautious expectations. Pakistan may see a glimmer of hope in the American announcement. Things may go back to what looked like Halcyon days in the pre-9/11 era.
Over the last years Pakistanis have seen the collapse of law and order, soaring prices, and the gap between the rich and the poor growing increasingly wide. The TTP in Pakistan (Tehrik-i-Taliban / the Pakistan Taliban) seem to have declared a war on the state—no one is safe and the attacks continue with frightening frequency.
Pakistan’s failure to maintain law and order in its tribal areas has been colossal. Pakistanis see their leaders as incompetent and corrupt and blame them for their woes. They believe their leaders have brought the country to the brink of collapse.
It would do everything possible to counter India’s presence on its western borders by reinforcing or recreating its links with the Taliban so that when they have a voice in Kabul, Pakistan has a friend. Pakistan would like to see itself as a player in the Great Game, but it is punching above its weight.
A large number of Pakistanis today see the United States—aided by the old adversary India—behind al Qaeda and TTP, responsible for creating havoc across the land. The ultimate objective, Pakistanis believe, is to destroy the country’s nuclear assets.
Controlled jubilation. Iranians are old masters of the Great Game. Iran is extremely unhappy with the presence of American troops on both its eastern and western borders. Any announcement therefore of American withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan would be met with joy in Iran.
Iran has traditionally looked down on the Taliban. Yet, there are reports of Iranians providing arms and ammunition to the Taliban to fight NATO troops. A recent high powered Iranian delegation in Pakistan warned Pakistanis about America’s true intentions to get at it nuclear assets. It also urged Pakistanis to ally with Turkey and Iranto help Afghanistan get rid of the occupying forces. They also said these Muslim lands should reach out to China and Russia.
And on the United States?
I have watched the Great Game for the last decade and have not been able to discern a cohesive or persuasive American strategy. Even the books don’t balance: billions of dollars invested in Afghanistan and Pakistan–and the people have never been more anti-American. The method is as confusing as the strategy. Foes are now being seduced into talks (Taliban) and allies publicly humiliated (Kabul and Islamabad). It doesn’t make sense.
America appears to be fighting several wars: one against an elusive creature called al Qaeda, which may or may not have morphed into the Taliban; another war to create a modern nation-state out of the wreck that it Afghanistan; and yet another war against what to too many Pashtuns appears as a war against them in alliance with the non-Pashtun tribes.
Considering the importance of the arena within which the Great Game is being played, the US cannot walk away. An announcement of withdrawal does not mean an end to the war overnight. But it is a clear indication that America does not want to play the game for much longer. Therefore it is imperative for America to plan a short-term (2-5 years) and long-term (5-50 years) strategy.
In the short term, America must build up a network of alliances in Afghanistan and Pakistan which will establish the basis for relations in the future.
It needs to bring back American troops with safety and dignity. There is no more depressing sight than an army withdrawing after an inconclusive end to any war—however much of a spin is put on a bad situation converted into a “victory”.
A rigorous policy that is neither Democrat nor Republican but represents America needs to be formulated for this region. The best diplomats familiar with local culture backed by scholars need to be posted here. Aid should concentrate on education and communications rather than defense and security.
The American aim should be to remain in the Great Game but to play it differently: This time around not so much with drones and tanks, but scholars and scholarships. Americans playing the game need to learn subtlety, nuance and being nimble on their cultural feet. They need to think long-term.
America needs to remain in what will always be one of the most important geopolitical areas in terms of its economic needs and foreign policy needs. America cannot abandon the Great Game. The vacuum it leaves will be quickly filled up with other players. None of them will represent American interests. They will have their own interests at heart. The first step then is for American to become familiar with the notion of the Great Game and then master how it is played.
Given the tribal nature of American politics, Republicans will oppose the withdrawal because the president is a Democrat. Washington has to stop thinking along tribal lines if it is to play successfully in the Great Game.
It has to promote and implement its greatest assets which to me define American identity itself—human rights, civil liberties, democracy and the pursuit of happiness.
At that point, no Afghan or Pakistani will fail to connect with America.