A new Great Game begins in Afghanistan

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A new Great Game begins in Afghanistan

Thursday, 02 February 2023 | Nishtha Kaushiki & Nikhil Sharma

A new Great Game begins in Afghanistan

Pakistan might be tempted to test Indo-US strategic ties by launching terror strikes in Kashmir through proxies

After the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the relations between the US and Pakistan have strategically declined. However, Pakistan's fight with TTP, apart from the China-induced economic crisis and the denial of a loan package by the IMF, has renewed American interests in Pakistan.

Reasons for the American interests are varied and have deep connections with the history of South and Central Asia. Despite Islamabad's active support to the Taliban, the American interests will bring the much-required finance and military support, as it has done in the past. The development increases opportunities for Washington to adopt a leapfrog approach again in the two regions to enhance its strategic outreach.

Pakistan lies at the cusp of the two regions. To be more specific, its location to the south of Russia and its 'strategic backyard,' i.e. Central Asia makes it relatively important. Historically, the US and Pakistan were joined by China, and their efforts were based on shared interests against the Soviet Union apart from limiting India's political and geostrategic influence in the South Asian region.

From Pakistan's perspective, the US interest allowed it to put forward its ‘geostrategic marketability’ and extract military leverage against India. In 1954, the US government announced a military aid package of $500 million instead of its mutual defence assistance agreement. Further, from 1967-1980 the US provided military and technical assistance of around $6 billion.

Pakistan used this aid against Indian interests. Thus, it adopted the approach of buck passing, which was relatively cheaper than internal and external balancing and bandwagoning. Before any conflict, Pakistan expected the US to guarantee its security. In the first case, before the 1965 war, Ayub Khan had demanded that the United States should accept securing Pakistan against India's "aggression" as an essential component of guarantees provided through an alliance with the US. Although defeated, one cannot deny the US military supplies to Pakistan that made it believe that it could fight India. But Islamabad, too, realized that Washington was not prepared to issue a "blank check" against India. The tables were turned again against India in the 1971 war. Even though Pakistan launched a pre-emptive war against India in 1971, the US' seventh fleet ensured that India did not consider retaking PoK while liberating East Pakistan.

Later, during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan gained financial support $3.2 billion from 1980 to 1990, aiding the Mujahideen to fight against the Soviet Union. Additionally, the US supplied Pakistan with F-16.

After the nuclear tests, Pakistan adopted a similar approach and always used its Islamic state status quo of possessing nuclear weapons, thereby extracting substantial advantages through its nuclear blackmailing. Despite India's readiness to take a limited military action against Pakistan after the Kargil crisis and the attacks on Parliament, it was the US that intervened on the grounds of restoring "normalcy" and substantially limited India's response.

The 9/11 again brought the US and Pakistan in a more tactical embrace with each other. Pakistan became a major non-NATO ally, and as per the SIPRI data, during 2002-14, it got military aid worth $5.81 billion, of which the arms sales component was $3.2 billion. After the killing of Osama in Abbottabad, as per the C.R.S. report, in 2014-15, the total financial and military aid decreased to 40 per cent from 2011-2015. In the years preceding the US exit from Afghanistan, Washington had become diplomatically and strategically dependent on Islamabad to help it handle the coerced talks with the Taliban and smartly ensure its safe exit from the region.

In the process, it made the Taliban and itself essential stakeholders in the region. Pakistan’s case study proves that the weak states thrive on the great power insecurities and mismanagement of international politics. In the contemporary situation, the renewed interest of the US in Pakistan has historical interlinkages between Russia and Pakistan apart from the triangular dynamics between Russia, China and Pakistan. Russia has been making positive overtures to Pakistan much before the outbreak of the Ukraine War. Starting from the Iran-Pakistan pipeline in the news in mid-2010, one has witnessed rapid convergences between Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran.

In 2015, Russia lifted its arms embargo on Pakistan. Since then, the two have broadened the horizon of their strategic relations, which included a defence agreement, supply of Mi-35M Hind-E helicopter and joint military exercises apart from signing a 'Rare Military Cooperation Pact' in 2018. Interestingly, Pakistan's military arsenal includes Russia's Klimov RD-93 engine used to make JF-17 Thunder aircraft.

Russia has reignited its interest in the pipeline politics of Iran and Pakistan and has expressed a willingness to supply crude oil to Pakistan. The deal is to be materialized in the "currency of friendly countries", which might slightly dent the Western sanctions on Russia. Further, the Kazakhstan-Pakistan pipeline also has the potential to turn the tables and form new energy architectures. From another perspective, Russia and Pakistan agreement on "practical engagement" on the Afghan Taliban issues have serious undertones for the two regions.

It is pertinent to mention that the US National Security Strategy (2022) has emphasized the issue of terrorism but has deliberately omitted to name the terror modules in Pakistan as a source of terror but mentions the Taliban as a challenge. The document speaks of increasing its "cooperation and support to trusted partners" and "shifting from a strategy that is 'US-led, partner-enabled' to one that is 'partner-led, US-enabled". The document further hints that the US might be interested in exploiting the emerging faultlines of Russia-China relations which have emerged as the fallout of the Ukraine war.

Additionally, the US will make its presence felt in Central Asia in the coming few days through the C5+1 diplomatic platform (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and the United States).

Now, one needs to brainstorm what position Pakistan will occupy in this “'partner-led, US-enabled” strategy to finish terror? The most pertinent question is how Pakistan would exploit the insecurities and fear of Russia, the US, and China vis-à-vis each other? What military and financial packages will Pakistan get hold of in this new emerging great power game? Will the Afghan Taliban, Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and other Islamic groups be finally crushed? Will there be another military onslaught in Afghanistan as it was in 1979-80?

From an Indian perspective, while coordinating with the US to crush the TTP, Pakistan might be tempted to test the Indo-US strategic relations by launching simultaneous terror strikes in Kashmir through its proxies. If so, would the US be neutral again and insist on "normalcy"? Pakistan thus has a well-designed strategy to play the US and Russia off of one another to enhance its security against the possible Indian response to its misadventures in India, gain military and financial packages and finally, slow down the US–China hostility.

All these factors may constrain India’s options to enhance its posturing on crucial future developments. The emerging faultlines remind us of an American mathematician John Allen Paules who stated: "Uncertainty is the only certainty there is, and knowing how to live with this insecurity is the only security”.


(Nishtha Kaushiki is Associate Professor in Central University of Punjab, Bathinda; Nikhil Sharma is a research scholar)

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