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US withdrawal from Afghanistan ends ‘Great Game’

Sep 01,2021 - Last updated at Sep 01,2021

The chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan brings an end to the 21st century contest in the "Great Game", the competition for dominence in central and south Asia launched in January 1830 by the British Empire to block the expansion of the Russian Empire into that region. This lasted until 1895 when the frontier between Afghanistan and Russia was defined.

The "Great Game" revived in 1979 with the launch of the Soviet-Afghan conflict which drew in Pakistan and the Western powers on the side of the Afghan mujahideen, including the Taliban. It took control of the country in 1996 but was driven from power in 2001, following Afghanistan-based al-Qaeda's attacks on New York and Washington on September 11.

Numerous regional experts have pointed out that Al Qaeda presented the US with the opportunity to establish a military and political presence in central Asia with the aim of preventing China and Russia to expand their influence there.  According to a former US intelligence agent quoted on the Middle East Eye website by ex-Italian diplomat Marco Carnelos, "The nation-building and humanitarian aspects of the [Us] occupation were largely window dressing to cover Washington's geopolitical ambitions."

Evading mention of the central motive of the US occupation, US President Joe Biden defined the object of the Daesh mission in Afghanistan as degrading Al Qaeda and preventing Afghanistan from becoming a base from which attacks could "be continued against the United States... We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build". However, this was essential to make Afghanistan user friendly, an enterprise the US, in fact, attempted but failed.

It must be remembered that it was the neo-con-dominated George W. Bush administration which not only went into Afghanistan but also cooked up a phony casus belli to occupy Iraq, at the heart of the Eastern Arab World, with the aim of obtaining a military foothold in this region. The Iraq debacle should have warned Washington it had to do a better job in both nation-building and preparing the Afghan army to fight if the Taliban and other takfiri groups were to be eliminated.

Now that the Taliban has ousted the US/Nato-supported government and defeated its armed forces, the balance of regional political advantage favours China, Russia and Iran, local powers which border on Afghanistan.  All three have been courting the Taliban while the US had been fighting the movement.

In another Middle East Eye article, British expert Alastair Crooke pointed out that Beijing seeks to promote security in Afghanistan which has a border with China's Xinjiang province, home to restive ethnic Turkic Muslim Uighurs, many of whom have joined takfiri groups in recent years. Russia is similarly vulnerable to destabilisation in the southern Muslim republics while Iran seeks stability in frontier areas. All three want to promote trade and ensure the transit of goods through Afghanistan. China, Russia and Pakistan could allocate to Afghanistan infrastructure investments in Beijing's Belt and Road project designed to reconstitute and reconnect historic Silk Road trade routes stretching from China through central and west Asia to the Levant. This will require the Afghan and Pakistani authorities to impose security within their borders.

While the original version of the "Great Game" resulted in a short-term victory for the British Empire, Afghanistan has rarely been at peace.  The country has been gripped by intermittent warfare since then. It shifted into the Soviet sphere of influence from 1978 until 1992, bolstered from 1979-89 by Russian troops. After their withdrawal, the country collapsed into full-scale civil conflict driven by warlords. Many Afghans welcomed the Taliban when it took over in 1996 and ended the violence but they were alienated and repressed when it installed a harsh repressive regime which was brought down by US/Nato intervention in late 2001.

Nato became involved under article 5 of the charter of the alliance which holds that an attack on one amounts to an attack on all and binds members to take action. This provision was activated after the September Al Qaeda strikes on the US.  Forty countries took part in the campaign to eliminate Al Qaeda and deny takfiri groups freedom to operate in and from Afghanistan. Despite the US/Nato intervention and occupation the effort was only partially successful because the Taliban and other takfiri groups have remained rooted in the countryside and mountainous areas.

Nato members were not consulted when Donald Trump took his unilateral decision to make peace with the Taliban and pull US troops out of Afghanistan and Biden unilaterally followed up by implementing a precipitate and chaotic pull-out. This "America First" approach has angered and upset Washington's major Nato partners which were prepared to remain in Afghanistan until the fate of the country under the Taliban could be negotiated and foreigners and vulnerable Afghans could be evacuated.

While both Trump and Biden are held responsible for the anarchic situation in the country, Biden must shoulder more blame as he had pledged to respect and uphold the alliance. Instead, he has disrespected and weakened Nato while the alliance has shown itself to be incapable of intervening with force unless it has full-scale US ground and aerial backing. This amounts to a hard blow to the viability of Nato and the principle of "one for all and all for one" at a time China, primarily, and Russia are challenging world-wide Western dominance and engineering strategic shifts in influence and power in this region, Asia and Africa.  The "Great Game" has become global.

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