By Afrasiab Khattak
The latest round of the so called Great Game which has started recently, like the previous ones played in 19th and 20th centuries, has brought new troubles for South Asia in general and for Afghan/Pashtuns in particular. The first round of the Great Game is supposed to have started between the British and Russian empires in 1830 when Britishers decided to connect Bukhara (now part of Uzbekistan) with British India by road. The Tzarist Russia that regarded Central Asia to be its natural zone of influence wasn’t amused at this strategic British initiative. The ensuing conflict between the two great empires of that era resulted in division of Afghanistan.
Afghanistan was turned into a buffer zone to prevent a physical clash between the two big powers. The first and second Anglo-Afghan wars (1842 and 1878) erupted when Britishers tried to physically occupy Afghanistan. In 1917 the Bolshevik Revolution turned Russian empire into Soviet Union leading to a severe tussle between the communist block and the capitalist west which was first led by UK and later by US. In 1980 at the peak of Cold War the two blocks fought a devastating war in Afghanistan when the Soviet armed forces entered Afghanistan to support the leftist government in Kabul. Afghan/Pashtuns had to face death and destruction on a very large scale during the war which continued for almost a decade. In 1990s after the collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union and emergence of independent republics in Central Asia there was a hope for end of the Great Game. But as the recent developments have demonstrated that was not to be.
The eastward expansion of NATO has resulted in the beginning of a new Cold War between Russia and the West in Europe. US has revived its policy of imposing sanctions against its rivals (like Russia and Iran) that used to be part of its strategy against socialist states. The rise of China as a great power which is skillfully filling the vacuum created by economic decline of the West is yet another important factor for the beginning of the new Great Game. Emerging powers united in BRICS are not only creating new international financial institutions to compete with IMF and the World Bank but they are also challenging the Western dominated old political order in the world. India, Japan and Australia for their own reasons and interests have teamed up with US. Like Middle East, East Europe and South China Sea, AfPak is also one of the potential flash points in the new Great Game. The strong and declared US opposition to the Chinese vision of BR ( Belt & Road) in general and to CPEC in particular underlines the significance of AfPak in the new Great Game. But the problem is that the fires of religious extremism and militancy ignited by previous Great Game have yet to be overcome in the AfPak.
Western colonial powers had the richest experience in using religious and ethnic cards for dividing and weakening the national liberation movements in Asia and Africa. Apart from creating military blocks like SEATO and CENTO, revival of Jihad was part of Anglo-American strategy to contain and defeat communism. The war in Afghanistan in 1980s vindicated the wisdom of western strategists. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the jihadists have turned to strong anti west rhetoric but the west is too experienced in using the communal and sectarian cards to be outsmarted by them. The scary thing is that the modern jihadist project has strong roots in AfPak. Pakistan has been successfully and effectively used by western powers as a bastion of Jihad in Afghanistan. Alqaida which was basically of Arab origin gravitated to AfPak and OBL took his last stand in Pakistan. A similar trend can be seen in the so called IS although the local version of the terrorist network doesn’t seem to be fully controlled from the Middle East and appears to be shaped mostly by local dynamics.
Be that as it may the fact of the matter is that the jihadist project that flourished in Pakistan during General Zia led military dictatorship has persisted in Pakistan and has adopted different new and dangerous forms. It has radicalized both the state and the society. Despite rhetorical claims by successive governments the non registered and unreformed religious seminaries keep on producing brain washed young men attracted by jihadist industry. The strong backlash from religious extremists has defeated every effort at taking hate material out of curricula and reforming laws with great potential of misuse against religious minorities. Weaponized religious decrees used both by state and non state actors have unfortunately become part and parcel of of political battles. But worst of all is Project Taliban that is the mother of religious militancy in AfPak. The statement by recently released North American hostages that they were kept for years in Pakistan by the Haqqani network speaks volumes about the bankruptcy of Pakistan’s Afghan policy. The fact that Taliban sanctuaries have survived Zarb-e-Azb, NAP and Radul Fassad exposes the hollow nature of the state policies against extremism and terrorism. As a consequence the sovereignty of the nuclear state is regularly violated by foreign terrorists as well as drones. But the game of religious militancy seems to have reached a dead end. The US led West that had midwifed the Jihad against communism has turned against it due to the growing loss of life of US troops in Afghanistan.
Pakistani media tends to exaggerate reports about “Russian flirtation “with Taliban. The strong language used by the communique of the recent BRICS Summit against Taliban reveals the opposition of China and Russia to the outfit. One can fully understand their concerns as Taliban ultimately threaten Central Asia that includes Xinjiang. It’s time for AfPak to raise to the occasion and team up against extremism/terrorism. AfPak can turn the challenge into an opportunity by getting into the fast lane of economic development. AfPak has to put its act together before friends and foes act in unison to root out religious militancy. Map of the region was redrawn in the previous rounds of the Great Game. If lessons are not learnt history tends to repeat itself.
(The author Afrasiab Khattak is a retired Senator and an analyst of regional affairs.)