Lt Gen ® Asad Durrani, former Head of the ISI, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency


The “old” Great Game, though long drawn- Imperialist Russia and Britain fought for influence in Afghanistan for the entire 19th century- was largely played out by spies and diplomats. It also ended well (not the least because of the sagacity of the Afghan Emirs): Afghanistan won the status of a buffer state, and peace. The “new” Great Game (NGG) that kicked-off after the collapse of the Soviet Union, ostensibly to exploit the natural resources of Central Asia seems far more complex. To start with, one is not even sure if it is merely about geo-economics.


Regardless of what led to the US’ invasion of Afghanistan post 9/11, ten years on, the invaders are still there, and at least its American component is hunkering down for a long haul. The NGG may therefore well be about dominating a region called the cross-roads of history by Toynbee and centre of the world by geopolitical gurus. Exploiting the vacuum after the collapse of the Soviet Empire, containing the new global rival China, keeping a watch over nuclear “rogues” like Pakistan and Iran, and indeed maintaining a strong presence in an energy rich region, make this the greatest game ever; geo-economics, geo-strategy and geo-politics, all rolled in one.


But indeed the NGG predates 9/11. “Who would extract oil & gas and how these would be delivered to the users”, seemed a reasonable description. Russian desire to build upon the existing Soviet era network was thus understandable*; as were the Saudi-American efforts to woo the Taliban to construct TAPI and obstruct IPI**. Arrival in force of the US and its allies post 9/11, threatened to change the rules of the game. Some in the region responded by creating the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization), hoping that in due course it would become a bulwark against the intruders.


Another response, which may eventually serve the SCO objective, has evolved as the US’ intent to maintain three or more military bases in Afghanistan beyond 2014 became clear. It led to a development that seemed unlikely till only a few years back: the regional countries gradually but steadily mending fences, with some of them building consensus against the American military presence. The Indo-Pak rapprochement may not fall in that category but still augers well for the regional harmony.


Relations between the two countries have had their feel-good moments before, but never were they followed up with such unusual gestures, some admittedly symbolic. Earlier in the year, a major military exercise close to Pakistani borders passed virtually unnoticed, and an Indian helicopter that had strayed into Pakistani controlled Kashmir was returned within hours. After dragging its feet for over a decade, the rationale apart, Pakistan has granted India the MFN status that was obligatory under the WTO.


Soon after the murder of the former Afghan President Rabbani, which created plenty of ill-will against Pakistan in Kabul, Karzai visited Delhi and concluded a “strategic agreement” providing for increased economic cooperation and Indian training assistance for the Afghan military. In different times, it would have created uproar in Pakistan. This time around hardly an eyebrow was raised. Significantly, Pakistan did not object to India taking part in the second round of the Istanbul Process (like it did last year), suggesting that it was now prepared to engage the archrival on Afghanistan in a regional setting.


India on its part no longer blames Pakistan for the unrest in Kashmir or blasts elsewhere (concedes in fact that many of these were the handiwork of local groups). Both the countries have supported each other’s candidature for the UNSC. They may still be reluctant to cooperate on Afghanistan (even though some significant opinion in India is in favour of granting Pakistan the lead role), but the relationship has clearly turned a corner.


India’s interests in the NGG are indeed not merely linked to its equation with Pakistan. It wants to compete with China to exploit Afghanistan’s mineral resources, is planning to revive an airstrip in Tajikistan and reopen a military hospital: all legitimate aspirations to be amongst the big players.


The two South-Asian countries are also improving their bilateral ties with Iran. The latter concedes that Pakistan has effectively cracked down on Jandullah; an anti-Iran militant group that was operating from Pakistani Baluchistan. And India after a five years hiatus is reviving cooperation with Iran- with Tehran reciprocating despite its annoyance when Delhi succumbed to the American pressure and supported sanctions against the Mullah Regime. India seeks access to Afghanistan through Iran, but at the same time remains mindful of US’ displeasure.


Turnaround in Russian relations with Pakistan is remarkable. For the first time Moscow has openly endorsed Pakistan’s full membership for the SCO and has offered help to modernise the Karachi Steel Mills that are still using Soviet technology of the 1970s. It has also pledged large investment to bring electricity from Tajikistan to Pakistan. Since the transmission lines are to pass through the non-Pashtun areas of Afghanistan, the ethnic groups there will now have a stake in this relationship. It is a major initiative toward Tajikistan as well, and falls under the orbit of Putin’s “Eurasia Union” project

The most significant cooperative step that the two countries have taken, indicative of their convergence in the NGG, is their clear opposition to the US sponsored “New Silk Road” project. Ostensibly, it is for the economic development of the Region with Afghanistan as the hub. The regional countries however regard it as a ploy to perpetuate American influence, justify retention of military bases in Afghanistan, and diminish the role of Iran, China, and Russia. Except for the Kabul Regime, no regional country supported the proposal when it was presented in Istanbul on the 7th of November. China and India kept a low profile, the former confident that the others would effectively scuttle it and the latter probably because it could harm its relations with the US. The Indian hedging did not seem to have amused Moscow, who in turn may have gone lukewarm on its support for India’s full membership of the SCO. Still a power to reckon with, and with Europe in throes of a financial crisis, Russia with some surplus cash has a good chance to regain influence in the former Soviet states of Central Asia.

China’s location and economic prowess provide it with probably the best cards in the Game, and it seems to be playing them well. Its pipeline projects with Russia and investments in Afghan infrastructure and minerals are on track. The sixty billion dollars trade with India effectively deters the latter from undertaking any “containment” role on behalf of the US. And it happily transports oil from Iran through the straits of Hormuz unmindful of American Armada or embargo. But indeed it is worried about the prospects of an open-ended US-led military presence in the area that will continue to adversely affect China’s strategic interests in Pakistan: developing and securing lines of communications to the Indian Ocean and investments in the resource rich province of Baluchistan; and in due course threatens China’s freedom of action in the region.

In its rivalry with the US, China has come out looking better in ASEAN, trumping (so far) the US scramble for energy in the Caspian Basin and in Central Asia, but of course it continues to invest in the US treasury bonds.

The SCO, consisting of Russia, China, and four of the five Central Asian states, is likely to upgrade Indian and Pakistani observer status to full membership, and add Afghanistan as an observer and Turkey as a dialogue partner. It is indeed uniquely placed in the NGG and provides a regional canopy beneath which India and Pakistan could work on issues of regional security such as Afghanistan. The problem is that whereas Pakistan feels far more comfortable with the SCO processes than with Pax Americana, Delhi has taken a stance that in essence favors a long-term US military presence in Afghanistan***. Moreover, along with Australia, Japan and South Korea, it is being wooed by NATO to cooperate on the latter’s Anti-Ballistic Missile project. If India succumbs, it will dent its regional relations.

And that is what the NGG is actually all about: how can the countries in the region or beyond work together to exploit natural resources or exercise influence.

A few years after the Cold War had ended, Strobe Tolbert, an American academic, diplomat, and a Soviet specialist, wrote on the subject; concluding that “the new great game could either be played together or not at all”. Anyone familiar with the environment in Afghanistan or in the broader region understands its logic and not simply the desire. When there are too many factions who irrespective of their size can throw spanner in the works, nothing works till all or most of them were on board.

Like the stability in Afghanistan is a function of the broadest possible consensus, since all ethnic groups and major tribes hold sway over their respective turfs, a number of internal and external forces can act as spoilers in the NGG. Whereas insurgents or saboteurs can only blow up pipelines, cross-alignments amongst competing centres of power may bring back the memories of Byzantine era intrigues; only at a global scale. India and Pakistan may have changed camps after the Cold War- from East to West in case of the former and the other way around for the latter- the environment in the new game is so complex that they still remain dependent on help from the neighbourhood.

India has many advantages because of its size, economic clout and historical linkages. It still cannot realise its full potential unless Pakistan, which comes in the way, cooperates. Pakistan claims more leverage in Afghanistan, mainly because of geography and its role in helping the Afghan resistance during the last decades. It now faces the consequences both within and on its western borders, and therefore needs India’s help to keep the eastern front quiet. Both the countries may just have begun to extend the minimum essential relief.

Playing together, as advised by Tolbert, may however place his home country at a disadvantage. America does not belong in the region; it no longer has money to invest; and in fair play its main rivals in the region, even in Europe, stand to gain more. It however has enough hard power and global reach to act as spoiler in the Game. Long time back, another American, Eisenhower, had warned that its military-industrial complex could keep the Country involved in a state of perpetual war. 


*Chechnya’s struggle to secede was ruthlessly struck down since it disrupted an important supply line.


**Acronyms for two pipelines; namely, Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India, and Iran-Pakistan-India.


***At the November 2 Istanbul Conference, the Indian Foreign Minister offered India’s cooperation to the US and NATO during and beyond the transition in Afghanistan. Both the US and NATO have often reiterated that there was no “beyond” in Afghanistan without their military presence.





©Jules Stewart 2010