‘Great Game’ returns to Central Asia with new players

‘Great Game’ returns to Central Asia with new players

A return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan would likely see a repeat of their previous policies, writes Rajkumar Singh.

In the past two years the Taliban’s strength in Afghanistan has been restored and dozens of other militia groups, operating inside and outside the country, are cooperating with the Taliban leadership.

While a return to power of the Taliban is not out of question, it would appear to be extremely difficult in present circumstances. In 1996, when the Taliban seized power, their leadership was united and Afghanistan was still in chaos following the Soviet withdrawal. The United States—pre-9/11—had not yet begun to take a close interest in events in the country.

Today, the Taliban leadership is split and, although the security situation in Afghanistan is again sharply deteriorating, there has not been a return to the chaotic conditions of 1996. Should the Taliban regain power, however, their policies are unlikely to be much different to those when they ruled from 1996 to 2001, and would again pose a danger to regional peace and a challenge for world leaders. Also at stake would be access to the considerable oil, gas and mineral reserves of Central Asia.

Power centres

During its previous rule, the Taliban enforced a strict interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law. The circumstances that led to this can be traced back to the Soviet invasion in December 1979 and its aftermath. The Soviet Union found itself confronting two disparate power centres—on the domestic front, a loose grouping of opposition parties, including national, tribal, and religious powers, and supporters of democracy and reform, and international opposition from Western powers, led most notably by the United States in conjunction with its ally Pakistan.

US interference in Afghanistan’s affairs, to counter growing Soviet influence during the later years of the Daud regime (1973–78), increased after the Soviet invasion. Using Pakistan as a base, the US stepped up support for the opposition parties, supplying them with abundant financial, military and staff assistance.

It was during this period that the religions of the Persian Gulf, mainly the radical Wahhabi movement, entered Afghanistan under the banner of jihad. The most active of the jihadists, Osama bin Laden, established a fund to enrol volunteers from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to fight in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. Zealots from all parts of the Islamic world with nothing in common but a willingness to die for a cause considered Islamic were brought to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The convergence of Islamist volunteers from around the world, enabled by the support of Western powers for the mujahideen guerilla fighters, forced the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan after a nine-year occupation. But there was also another consequence. Their successful resistance against Soviet combat forces made Islamists aware of the potential of jihad, and the effects of networking.

The withdrawal of Soviet troops, however, did not bring peace and stability to Afghanistan. The disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and feuding among the mujahideen created a power vacuum in Central Asia, leading to the ascendancy of the Taliban, who had been recruited, trained, weaponised and militarily backed by Pakistan.

Under Pakistan’s patronage, Afghanistan became a breeding ground for Islamic terrorists, with Islamic countries from around the world providing training bases and infrastructure support. Afghanistan became home to al-Qaeda, founded by bin Laden in the late 1980s, giving Islamists a base from which they could to pursue their global jihad with impunity. The motives of those financing and training Islamic terrorist groups, however, were hardly religious. Groups, such as al-Qaeda and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, misused Islam to justify terrorism to further their political ends by identifying the state with religion.

Lure of resources

Lured by the prospect of controlling the oil and natural gas resources of Central Asia and of gaining strategic proximity to the underbelly of Russia and China, the US government began to encourage giant energy corporations, such as Enron and Unocal, to ‘humour’ the Taliban in order to gain access to the region’s extensive oil and gas reserves. By constructing pipelines that would pass through Afghanistan and Pakistan—rather than through Iran—to the Indian Ocean, the US would have a new conduit for the delivery of oil and gas to its own markets and those if its allies.

The prospect of financial gain and strategic advantage made the region highly important to major regional and international powers. Some Central Asian leaders, obsessed with projected pipeline routes and the geopolitics surrounding them, even began dealing with the Taliban. Throughout the Cold War, the United States, too, had ‘romanced’ jihadist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan who were important to positioning US multinationals to gain control of the region’s considerable resources. During the civil war in Afghanistan between 1994 and 1996, the CIA–Pakistan Intelligence nexus funnelled arms to jihadist groups, marginalising the country’s more traditional tribal-based parties and moderate leadership, and catapulting radical Islamists to the forefront of the war.

Between 1994 and 1997 the US supported the Taliban in the sense of allowing its two regional allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, to back the regime. With the Taliban takeover in 1996, there were hopes of an end to the long period of chaos and instability in Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion. A US State Department spokesperson told reporters there was ‘nothing objectionable’ about the Taliban’s coming to power, and it was hoped the new regime would provide the security and infrastructure needed to construct pipelines from Central Asian states to deliver oil and gas to international markets via Pakistan.

Agreement signed

In January 1998, the Taliban signed an agreement to allow a proposed natural gas pipeline project led by Unocal. Through its surrogates in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the US also financed and encouraged the Taliban to help realise other projects. The Taliban’s human rights record was the least of US concerns.

The US had been showing a keen interest in the Caspian Sea region, and its estimated 200 billion barrels of untapped oil, since the mid-1990s. Although the region’s oil and gas reserves could not compare to those of the Middle East, they were, nevertheless, attractive to exploration and production. With Europe, the US and Japan dependent on Saudi-dominated OPEC suppliers for 40 per cent of their crude oil, tapping into the Caspian Sea reserves was seen as a strategic move to meet their growing energy demands and reduce their dependence on the Middle East.

The key to creating this new fundamentalist world lay in converting Central Asia into a zone of instability through drug trafficking and Islamic terrorism

In December 1997, a delegation of Taliban mullahs travelled to the United States and met with State Department officials. Both President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney had worked in the oil business and retained close ties with major corporations in the sector.

But at the same time, the Taliban’s victory opened a new chapter in Afghanistan’s history. Under the regime, another version of the ‘Great Game’ was being played—to create a fundamentalist Islamic world, with state and non-state actors using religion for mutual advantage. In identifying nation with religion, the interests of Pakistan and the fundamentalist groups converged. The key to creating this new fundamentalist world would lie in converting Central Asia into a zone of instability through drug trafficking and Islamic terrorism. Religious radicals and their backers calculated that Central Asia, with its vast resources of oil and natural gas, uranium and other rare metals, was critical to their global plan.

During the past decade the emergence of Afghanistan as one of the world’s largest illegal drug producers has given the Taliban enormous financial benefits that they have used to train and arm militant groups. Their return to power, most likely, would see the reintroduction of strict sharia law and the continued destabilisation of the region as part of a new ‘Great Game’—to gain access to Central Asia’s extensive resources in order to create a new, fundamentalist Islamic world.

Featured image
Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

Dr Rajkumar Singh is professor and head of the Postgraduate Department of Political Science, Bhupendra Narayan Mandal University, West Campus, Bihar, India.

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