Since the 19th century, the “Great Game” has defined the history of Afghanistan. For centuries the global powers have recklessly indulged in intrigues, bloodshed and manipulations to outwit each other, as was hauntingly captured in Rudyard Kipling's Kim. Today, that graveyard that once wore out the imperial ambitions of the English Crown and the Soviet might during the Cold War is now straining at the seams for the United States, which is caught in an unending vortex of the longest war in its history (the 18-year-old “War on Terror” started since 9/11, 2001).
The history of the preceding century is replete with behind-the-scenes manoeuvres like Operation Cyclone (1979-1989) which entailed the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to jointly finance, arm and train the Afghan mujahideen. It included the deliberate infusion of extreme religiosity and, incredulously, arranging dreaded warlords like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to be flown to the United States. Some other mujahideen like Younis Khalis were even hosted at the White House and their pointsman in the US Administration in those days was the Afghan-born US national, Zalmay Khalilzad.
Once feted by the US, the Afghan mujahideen were to become the Achilles heel of their one-time progenitor, after having metamorphosed into the phenomenon of the Afghan Taliban. Having selfishly abandoned Kabul after achieving its limited Cold War objective of removing the Soviet-supported government of Najibullah, the US re-engaged with Afghanistan in 2001. For, not unexpectedly, the Frankenstein’s monster-like ideology that it had incubated had come to haunt the Americans themselves.
In a convenient case of selective amnesia, then US President George W. Bush, expressing his frustration with the Taliban, said, “More than two weeks ago, I gave Taliban leaders a series of clear and specific demands: Close terrorist training camps, hand over leaders of the Al Qaeda network, and return all foreign nationals, including American citizens unjustly detained in your country. None of these demands were met. And now, the Taliban will pay a price.” Eighteen years on, the battles continue and a fellow Republican President, Donald Trump, has shockingly shared that he had planned a secret meeting with the Taliban at the Camp David presidential retreat!
In yet another U-turn that had caught the embattled Afghan regime by surprise a few months back, the US President had unilaterally declared his plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan — basically facilitating the return of the slippery Pakistanis into their “strategic depth” (as they have historically envisaged Afghanistan) and willy-nilly ensconcing the way for the Pakistani ISI-supported Taliban into Kabul. The irony of the US retraction on the role of the Pakistanis in Afghanistan was magnified by a tweet of Mr Trump, who had famously ranted just over a year back, “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than $33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more.”
As is the pattern with the storyline in Afghanistan and in particular with Mr Trump’s unmatched record of inconsistencies, the US President played with fire and got the old Afghan hand, Khalilzad, in the fray again to negotiate with the untrustworthy Taliban and incorrigible Pakistan.
With their canny instinct for extracting an opportunistic upper hand in any bargain, the Taliban-ISI combine undertook a deadly terror strike just on the eve of the US President’s secret meeting with the Taliban at Camp David. It was eerily reminiscent of the terror attacks that have taken place in India, immediately preceding or during rapprochement talks between Indian and Pakistani interlocutors. Here too, the die was immediately cast and Mr Trump had no choice but to renege. The suicide car bombing had killed one US soldier and 10 civilians. The Taliban rubbed in their advantage by further threatening that hereon the situation “will lead to more losses to the US”!
The supposed “peace talks” with the Afghan Taliban will now take a back seat. Ironically though, both Kabul and Delhi will heave a collective sigh of relief as the inevitable spectre of a “total civil war” in the absence of the US troops is stalled temporarily as a result of this development. The sanctity of the pre-committed timeline for the withdrawal of US troops is no longer applicable. The implications of a premature withdrawal are indefensible.
With looming elections, Mr Trump is on a sticky wicket to persist with “peace talks” as he could be seen to be wheeling-dealing with “enemies” who are known to have American blood on their hands. A former top US military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, had gone on record to slam the duplicitous ways of the Pakistanis by explicitly stating, "In choosing to use violent extremism as an instrument of policy, the government of Pakistan — and most especially the Pakistani Army and ISI — jeopardises not only the prospect of our strategic partnership, but also Pakistan's opportunity to be a respected nation with legitimate regional influence."
Yet despite such incontrovertible evidence and professional opinion within the US administration, Mr Trump had gambled his way into trying to negotiate with the Pakistan-Taliban combine, only to be bitten by the same hand. The hard reality is that neither are the Taliban a monolithic organisation, nor are they the only terror organisation in the region — the Afghan wastelands are rife with assorted warlords with conflicting allegiances and convictions.
What is needed, therefore, is to strengthen the hand of the official government in Kabul and curb the machinations of Islamabad, as everything else is plain selfishness from the playbook of the “Great Game”.