Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hasn’t travelled the world anywhere as much as his predecessor, Hilary Clinton; she covered almost a million miles! That is why his recent trip to South Asia excited some attention. It also brought into focus the new Great Game being played in South and Central Asia. In this new version, the United States has replaced Great Britain while, in addition to Russia, China has also become a player on the board.
Secretary Tillerson’s trip began at Al Udeid, the US base in Qatar. He and his staff donned helmets and flak jackets, and boarded a military C-17 plane. Flying in less than first-class comfort, they stoically endured the ride, including the standard deep dive onto Bagram airbase. From the plane they were quickly rushed (driving through high concrete blast walls) to the US HQ in a former prison on the base, while helicopters patrolled the perimeter and two security blimps equipped with long-range cameras hovered above.
Unable to risk the short trip into Kabul, Tillerson met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and others, including chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, in a windowless room on the base, while US troops stood guard outside. The communiqués issued by the US and Afghan governments after this meeting included the obligatory picture of the two leaders in their meeting. Unfortunately, these pictures resulted in more attention being paid afterwards to the mystery of the vanishing clock on the wall, than to any substantive results from the meeting.
The picture issued by the US shows a standard US military clock on the wall behind the two men, from which it can be inferred that the meeting took place at the Bagram Airbase. In the one issued by the Afghan presidential office, the clock has mysteriously vanished. It seems Mr Ghani didn’t want it widely known that the Americans didn’t consider it worthwhile for Secretary Tillerson to travel outside the safety of the US base in Bagram.
Finally, duty done (and pictures taken), Secretary Tillerson safely left Afghanistan after a total visit of all of two hours. As the New York Times commented on the visit: That top American officials must sneak into this country after 16 years of war, thousands of lives lost and hundreds of billions of dollars spent was testimony to the stalemate confronting the United States because of a stubborn and effective Taliban foe that is increasingly ascendant.
Afghanistan is usually referred to as a country, whereas it is, in fact, just a land of tribal groups. The two main ones are the Pashtuns (concentrated in the South and overflowing into Northern Pakistan) and what may be called the Northerners (mainly Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek tribes). The Taliban draw their strength from the Pashtuns, while the Northerners formed the bulk of the force that, with US assistance, ousted the Taliban from power during the US-led invasion of 2001.
What is now being painted (especially in the Western media) as a Taliban insurgency against the legal government of Afghanistan is in fact a civil war between the Northerners and the Pashtuns. The US and NATO are supporting one side in this civil war, while the Pashtuns of Pakistan (unofficially aided by their government) are supporting their brethren in Afghanistan. President Ashraf Ghani is a Pashtun heading a puppet government in which the real power lies with the Chief Executive, Abdullah Abdullah, a Northerner. The vast majority of the Afghan Special Forces, who are leading the fight against the Taliban, are Northerners. It is these Special Forces that the US is supporting with its SF troops and air power.
Pakistan’s rivalry with, and fear of, India also determine its policy on Afghanistan. Pakistan has no love for the Taliban as such; in fact, it fought and eradicated the movement (with the same name and the same ideology) that spread among the Pashtuns of Pakistan in 2007. But, it knows that the Northerners have the support of India, and their victory in the ongoing Afghan civil war would create the hostile encirclement it fears. Hence it is supporting the Afghan Taliban in their war against the Northerners (even though it does not officially acknowledge this).
After his short Afghanistan visit, Secretary Tillerson stopped for a few hours in Pakistan on his way to India. In meetings with Pakistani political and military officials, he hammered home the need for Pakistan to change its regional policies. According to former Indian ambassador Bhadrakumar, the US wants Pakistan “to leverage its influence with the Taliban to show flexibility” in their demand for US troops to leave Afghanistan, because the US needs to maintain “an open-ended military presence in the hugely strategic region for the pursuit of its containment strategy against China, Russia and Iran”.
The Pakistanis politely heard out these admonitions, but merely reiterated their standard stance of being against all terrorists, and having no links with, or influence upon, the Taliban. Both sides were well aware of the underlying reality, namely, that nearly all of the supplies for US troops in Afghanistan are transported by air or land through Pakistani territory, making the US dependent on Pakistan, rather than the other way around.
Pakistan has for long been an on-again, off-again US ally. But as the US has grown closer to India, it has moved away, and has now become an ally of China. This new relationship has been cemented with the planned China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), an important part of China’s Belt and Road plans.
After meeting Tillerson, Afghan President Ghani travelled to New Delhi the very next day, where he met PM Modi, under whom India has been providing both economic and military aid (training and equipment) to Afghanistan. Since Pakistan won’t allow India access to Afghanistan, it had to resort initially to an air corridor until it established a sea-land route through the Iranian port of Chabahar, which it has been upgrading since 2016. A few days after Ghani’s visit, India shipped, through Chabahar, the first of six consignments of a gift of 1.1 million metric tons of wheat to Afghanistan.
The new US strategy for Asia, which has the goal of preventing China and Russia from dominating the Eurasian continent, calls for India to play a key role in these plans. This strategy has become feasible ever since Indian PM Narendra Modi (aka Modi the Hugger) switched India from being an ally of Russia to becoming an ally of the US (even though Modi was banned earlier for almost 10 years from entering the United States because of the large-scale massacre of Muslims in Bombay during his governance of the state).
Ghani was followed in New Delhi by Secretary Tillerson, who reiterated the importance that the US attaches to its alliance with India and its role in Asia. Indian access to Central Asia (where the US already has links) through Iran is critical to US plans. The prize there is the former Soviet republics, especially Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan: securing influence with them and obtaining oil and gas from them.
India’s switch, under PM Modi, to its present alliance with the United States creates problems for those who were comfortable with it as a leading neutral country. Especially Russia, which has long had a close relationship with India, being one of its main military weapons and equipment suppliers. While PM Modi has been at pains to reassure Russia, there is bound to be some rethinking going on in the Kremlin. Already, problems are arising.
Another country reassessing its relations with India is Iran. It has slowed down the paperwork needed for India to develop the port of Chabahar, and has not so far drawn the soft loan that the Indians had agreed to provide it as part of the deal. It is quite possible that Iran may hinder Indian access to the port if the latter starts to adhere too closely to the US agenda in the region. (That was probably why Secretary Tillerson was at pains in New Delhi to try and soften the US’s anti-Iran stance).
Of course, the principal target of the USA in the new Great Game developing in Central and South Asia is China, and its plans for the Eurasian continent. Early on, China began to express alarm, and sound warnings, at the development of close relations between India and the US. To neutralize India, China has chosen Pakistan as its ally in South Asia. It has accorded only a minimal role to India in its Belt and Road plan, while India has made clear that it will not participate, with PM Modi refusing to attend the Peking Belt-and-Road Summit in May 2017, even though 29 other heads of state or government attended.
In Central Asia, the main playing field for this Great Game, all three major powers are seeking trade, influence and alliances with these countries, especially the biggest, Kazakhstan. Not only due to their strategic location, but also because of their natural resources. Russia has an inside edge, having taken the place of the defunct Soviet Union, of which these ‘stans were a part. However, China is now rapidly developing relations, especially economic, with them (its Belt route passes through them). As discussed above, the US is urging and assisting India, as a proxy, to also move into this area, while the purpose of its military efforts and diplomatic presence in Afghanistan is mainly to ensure a role for itself in Central Asia.
So, this new Great Game goes on, with wily Vladimir Putin, tweeting Donald Trump, smiling Xi Jinpeng and creepy Narendra Modi all trying to outwit each other, and rope in the other minor players to their side. However it plays out, I very much doubt it will be as delightfully chronicled as the old one was in the Flashman Papers.