Distributed November 15, 2001
Copyright ©2001 by William O. Beeman
Op-Ed Editor: Mark Nickel
About 810 Words

William O. Beeman

Op-Ed: ‘The Great Game’ continues

“The Great Game” – Kipling’s term for great-power rivalry in Central Asia – is ongoing, with the United States, Russia, Pakistan, oil companies and other external forces competing to shape the Afghani future. The losers are likely to be the Afghani people.

The Afghan Northern Alliance has now occupied Kabul. Commentators in the United States have likened this to an American victory in the War against terrorism. However, it is no such thing. It is another move in the 150-year “Great Game,” pitting colonial powers against each other for control of Central Asia. The outcome could be unpleasant: genocide, civil war, or the partition of Afghanistan.

Rudyard Kipling first coined the phrase “Great Game” in his famous novel Kim to describe the 19th-century rivalry between Britain and Russia over Central Asia. The region was seen as the buffer between India and the growing Russian Empire. The Soviet Union annexed most of Central Asia in the 20th century. Only Afghanistan remained outside the Russian sphere.

In the late 1970s a palace coup in Afghanistan gave the Soviet Union an opportunity to establish a series of communist puppet leaders in Afghanistan. These local leaders were extraordinarily inept. Violating the semi-autonomy of the many ethnic groups making up Afghanistan, they tried to establish a strong ideological regime that lay heavy on the heads of all Afghanis. The people revolted in a decade-long war, aided by the United States, that routed the Soviets and contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union.

The United States abandoned the region almost as soon as the Soviet threat had disappeared. This left a vacuum in Afghanistan. The Pakistanis, seeing an opportunity to dominate their neighbor, identified a fledgling fundamentalist Pushtun religious group, the Taliban, and built them into a military power. In the absence of any significant opposition, they were able to take over the government, touching off another civil war, as the ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks resisted dominant Pushtun rule.

Then another wrinkle emerged. To the north of Afghanistan – on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea in the new republics of the former Soviet Union – is one of the wealthiest oil fields in the world. American oil companies are involved in an oil boom larger than any in the last 40 years in this region. At stake is untold wealth, which depends on getting the oil out of the landlocked region through a warm-water port.

The simplest and cheapest route is through Iran. It is the route favored by all oil companies, because it involves building a short pipeline and transshiping the oil through the existing Iranian petroleum network.

The U.S. government had such massive antipathy to Iran that it was willing to do anything to prevent this from happening. One alternate route would be through Afghanistan and Pakistan. The difficulty is in securing the agreement of the powers that be in Afghanistan. From the U.S. standpoint the only way to deny Iran everything was for the anti-Iranian Taliban to win in Afghanistan and to agree to the pipeline through their territory. The Pakistanis, who would also benefit from this arrangement, are willing to defy the Iranians for a share of the pot.

Enter Osama bin Laden, a sworn enemy of the United States living in Afghanistan. His forces could see that the Taliban would eventually end up in the American camp if things proceeded as they had been. His bombing of U.S. embassies in East Africa (since there were none in Afghanistan) was accompanied by a message for Americans to get out of Islamic countries. He meant Saudi Arabia, but also Afghanistan. The United States abandoned the Taliban, whose days were numbered from that point. The events of Sept. 11 sealed their fate.

With the Taliban in retreat, and with them Pakistani influence, the Russians backed the Tajiks and Uzbeks of the Northern alliance to the hilt. They are joined by Iran as a junior ally. This is nothing less than Russian revenge for their earlier rout in Afghanistan, sweetened by the prospect of controlling the territory for whatever future development might be forthcoming.

Qui bono – “Who gains?” In the short term, the winners are the Russians, the United States, the oil companies. The Pushtuns and Pakistan clearly lose. But the big losers are the people of Afghanistan. They are once again manipulated by external powers. They have lost the possibility of self-determination, and they are not likely to get the kind of government they need and want. That would be a government which will allow each ethnic group in the country a semi-autonomous existence in a loose coalition.

If the Northern Alliance is allowed to hold sway, Pushtuns will be slaughtered. If the Pushtuns fight back, civil war will continue to rage. If no accommodation can be reached, the nation may be partitioned into a Tajik/Uzbek north and a Pushtun south. None of these outcomes will please anyone, least of all the great powers, for whom a stable, controllable government is of paramount importance for their own economic and political future.

And Osama bin Laden remains at large.

William O. Beeman teaches anthropology at Brown University. He has more than 30 years experience working in the Middle East and Central Asia, and visited the region most recently in August of this year. His forthcoming book is titled Double Demons: The Middle East Opposition vs. The United States.