"If the British Government would only play the grand game — help Russia cordially to all that she has a right to expect — shake hands with Persia — get her all possible amends from Oosbegs — force the Bokhara Amir to be just to us, the Afghans, and other Oosbeg states, and his own kingdom…The expediency, nay the necessity of them will be seen, and we shall play the noble part that the first Christian nation of the world ought to fill."
Arthur Conolly, 1840
Alphen, Netherlands. 24 August. The Great Game was the nineteenth century struggle between Britain and Russia for India, with much of the conflict over all-important control of Afghanistan. It was British diplomat Arthur Conolly who in 1840 coined the phrase Great Game. This week President Trump committed the US to the latest iteration of it, the latest twist in America’s now sixteen year Afghan War, its longest. The President also said, “We are going to win”. He would be the first. No outside power has ever won the Great Game in Afghanistan. And, the US will have little chance of ‘winning’ it without a counter-terrorism, governance and regional strategy reinforced by strategic patience. What can President Trump hope to achieve?
In his address to the American nation on Monday the President clearly indicated the continuing need for multifaceted strategy which came out of last week’s meeting with his senior generals at Camp David. The main effort at present is to reinforce the Kabul government of President Ashraf Ghani by focusing on the capacity-building of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). An extra 3,800 troops will be sent back to Afghanistan to reinforce the 8,400 troops already in theatre to bolster counter-terrorism operations and reinforce ANSF training. This ‘new approach’ has the fingerprints of Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster all over it.
The Administration is correct to be concerned. Since the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan at the end of 2015 the Taliban have extended their traditional reach beyond the Pashtun heartlands on either side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, into Uzbek and Tadjik areas. Worse, according to London Al Qaeda (AQ) are also showing signs of once again exploiting a lack of governance to re-establish safe havens, and ISIS is also now present on the ground.
Critically, the Administration seems to want to establish a proper joined-up regional strategy, without which there can be no stability in Afghanistan, and may just work this time. The threat posed by Al Qaeda and ISIS is one of those strange conjunctions in geopolitics that could unite all the contending Great Powers and regional-strategic powers that surround Afghanistan. Shia Iran hates ISIS, and it is in the interests of China, Russia, and India, all three of which are very active in Afghanistan – both overtly and covertly – to block the return of AQ to Afghanistan, and most certainly ISIS.
The challenge, and the key to the strategy having any success, is Pakistan. Or, to be more precise, the need to separate the Indian-Pakistan regional-strategic conflict from the path to something like stability in Afghanistan. Some years ago the late, great Ron Asmus and I were briefed by Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) at the Pakistan Army’s General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. Naturally, we were given the Pakistani regional view. It was a view all about the strategic threat posed to Islamabad by Indian activities in southern Afghanistan, Pakistan’s fear of being caught in a strategic sandwich between Afghanistan and India, and the consequent need for Pakistan to maintain ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan.
Of course, if the strategy is to have any chance of succeeding the ‘Talib’ will need to brought to some form of accommodation with Kabul government. To that end, the US is also offering ‘unconditional’ peace talks with the Taliban in an effort to get them to abandon AQ and ISIS. However, the Taliban will not feel at all obliged to talk until their two main shuras (councils), based in Pakistan’s Peshawar and Quetta respectively, are forced to treat terms. In other words, Islamabad will need to be either convinced or coerced to help exert such pressure.
The American plan, as it stands, represents a limited US reengagement in Afghanistan. Washington is certainly right to reinject political energy and capital into a struggle that is central to the World-wider challenge posed by Islamism. Sending 4000 or so extra troops that boost the counter-terror and ANSF training missions will indeed be useful. However, the most that can be said for the strategy is that it is a blocking/holding/reinforcing move. As the British, Russians, and indeed the US and its NATO allies have discovered, what matters in Afghanistan and the surrounding region is not force levels, important though they can be, but sustained good strategy over time and distance.
In November 1841 Conolly was captured in Afghanistan on a rescue mission to free a fellow British officer. The two were executed by the Emir of Bukhara on 24 June 1842 on charges of spying for the British Empire. That same year some 16,500 British soldiers and civilians were massacred at a mountain pass, the Khurd Kabul. As Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “And the end of the fight is a tombstone white with the name of the late deceased, and the epitaph drear: A Fool lies here who tried to hustle the East”.
A word of warning from history?