After Barak Obama assumed office as President of the USA in January 2009, Afghanistan and to a large extent, Western Provinces of Pakistan, in the immediate neighbourhood of Afghanistan have occupied the top slot in the US foreign policy agenda, pushing Iraq far down the ladder. This step signifies that the strategic region is again been subjected to The Great Game, which has been played for centuries by the western powers on the one side and the Russians in its various political manifestations, right from Czarist Russia to its present State, on the other side, albeit with new and modified rules, just as the game of cricket is now being played in its T-20 form with a new format. This has brought tremendous activity in our immediate vicinity and we need to be not only extra alert and vigilant but also take overt and covert steps to safeguard our interests.
In the present scenario, the number of players in The Great Game has multiplied manifold. The stakes have become higher still. With the prospects of oil, gas and minerals – precious metals and precious and semi-precious stones, the economic claims are considerable.
Afghanistan is still nature in its raw, naked and magnificent beauty. The countryside is almost 50 per cent mountainous – rugged, treacherous, chilly and as harsh as it can be. Till lately, it was also littered with mine fields and unexploded bombs, but thankfully, with the tremendous efforts of various international NGOs, these have been successfully eliminated to a very large extent. However, Al Qaida is quite active in placing new mines in some of their strongholds, which are mostly in the south. Much of those parts which are not mountains, are deserts or marshes. Many of the mountain peaks in the eastern part of the country reach more than 7,000 meters. The highest of these is Nowshak at 7,485 meters (Mount Everest stands 8,796 meters high). The Pamir mountains, which Afghans refer to as the ‘roof of the world’, extend into Tajikistan, China and Kashmir. Numerous high passes transect the mountains, forming a strategically important road network. The most important mountain pass is at Salang (3,878 meters high); it points south to north Afghanistan and links Kabul. The completion of a tunnel within this pass in 1964 reduced travel time between Kabul and the north to just a few hours. Previously, access to the north through the Shibar (3,260 meters) took three days. The Salang Tunnel is 3.36 kms long and the extensive network of snow galleries on the North-South Highway were constructed with Soviet financial and technological assistance and involved the drilling of 1.7 miles through the heart of the Hindukush.
If anything, the winters in the mountains are harsher still with as much as ten meters of snow accumulating in the slopes, causing devastating avalanches as soon as the frequent snow storms start. Traffic management and snow clearance in such conditions is the State’s nightmare. Only in parts of North Afghanistan one finds fertile plains along the Rivers Amu Darya and the Kunduz. Inevitably, the rivers have their origins from the central mountainous region. The Kunduz River flows to the north, the Hari Rud to the west, the Kabul River in the south
east and the Halmund River flows across into Sastan. The Amu Darya creates natural boundaries between Afghanistan and the northern states of erstwhile USSR – Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
The capital city of Kabul at 2000 m above the sea level is strategically located just east of central Afghanistan and is the main trade centre. Other significant trade centres are located in each side near the borders – Jalalabad on the east, close to Pakistan, Qandhar to the west, Herat in the southwest near Iran and the holy city of Mazar-i-Sharif in the north near Uzbekistan.
From 1839 onwards, Afghanistan got caught in the ‘The Great Game’, originally between the British and Czarist Russia. Relative peace followed from 1919 to 1973, when Ammanullah followed by Nadir Shah and then Zahir Shah became kings. In 1973, Daud Khan, the Prime Minister of King Zahir Shah captured power through a coup with Soviet assistance. While the British were playing their game and strove hard to deny access to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean to the Russians, Moscow’s efforts to gain this access of obtaining a foothold in Afghanistan succeeded, from 1979 to 1989. The Americans, never to be left behind, started showing interest in this Great Game during the Soviet era. During this period, the Mujahideen elements, financed by the Arabs, heavily armed by the Americans and trained in Pakistan started the guerilla warfare to get rid of the Soviets. When the Soviets started to feel the pinch, suffering heavy casualties and financial constraints, they decided to pull out, thereby suffering dismemberment as partial fallout of the misadventure. The Mujahideen, having grouped themselves as the Taliban, (a motley collection of students, indoctrinated in Pakistani Madrassas and trained by ISI and the Pakistani Army with Arab wealth) had tasted blood and entered the region in 1994. From 1994 to 2001, the Taliban inflicted inhuman barbarities on the Afghan population in the name of Jehad. The Taliban and Al Qaida, under the influence and leadership of Osama-bin-Laden became so emboldened as to attack the famous World Trade Center and the Pentagon buildings in the USA on 11 September 2001. The USA, in retaliation launched a full time offensive against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The Taliban resistance collapsed within a month and their leaders, including Osama-bin-Laden, guided by ISI and Pakistani Army fled to inaccessible hills on the western borders of Pakistan, where they are still hiding. In the meanwhile, power in Afghanistan was handed over to Karzai, a Pushtun, under the auspices of the United Nations on 27 November 2001, first as an interim President and later as full fledged President of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan after the first ever elections took place in 2004. The second elections were held in August 2009. President Karzai has the assistance of the USA and the NATO Powers who have amalgamated troops to maintain law and order in Afghanistan under one unified command known as ISAF. As of date, American forces in Afghanistan with the help of its NATO allies and reluctant support of newly elected civilian Government of Pakistan is focused to flush out the firmly entrenched and consolidated leadership of the Taliban and Al Qaida from the northwest frontier provinces in Pakistan and southern provinces of Afghanistan but it is proving to be a tough task so far.
Achievements So Far
Much has been achieved after the banishing of the Taliban from Afghanistan in 2001. Several billions of dollars as aid and loans have poured in, especially from the USA, Great Britain, NATO Countries, China, India, Iran, Japan and a host of other countries. The most notable achievements are complete removal of mines and unexploded bombs from all over the countryside – thereby making it safe to move about without fear of sudden death. This by far the most noble and commendable achievement and selfless contribution by the HALO Trust – a charitable organisation specialising in the removal of debris of war, is really praiseworthy.
Also the complete repair and reopening of the Salang Tunnel which was very badly damaged has not only restored the traffic from Kabul to Mazar-i-Sharif but also reduced it from several days to about six hours. This is an indeed notable achievement by the NGO ACTED. The road network too has been restored, improved and widened to international standards, thereby improving transportability, especially of heavy transport, considerably shortened travelling time and improved travelling comforts. Easy term loans and aid by the World Bank, Asia Development Bank, Islamic Bank, and countries like USA, Japan, India, Iran and several other nations have made this possible.
However, much more has to be achieved in the fields of health care, education and human resource development. Power transmission projects are in the pipeline and communication networks have improved to a large extent but more needs to be done. Agriculture, fishing, mining and small scale industries too need a much stronger boost.
The Present Situation
If Afghanistan seeks progress and development, it goes without saying that the foremost task will
be the immediate removal of Al Qaida and
Taliban from within and across the Pakistan border. America has recently pledged a 1.5 billion dollar aid per year to Pakistan for fighting terror for the next five years. But Pakistan’s record of using aid for such purposes has been so far very poor. It has duped the USA for decades by accepting billions of dollars for the purpose of fighting insurgency but using it to build and consolidate war machinery against India. In the meanwhile, China has been falling over itself, building, improving, updating and supplementing the nuclear reactors, weapons and delivery systems in Pakistan. The leadership of Taliban, hiding in so called inaccessible hilly regions of western Pakistan is warned well before launching any attacks and allowed to get away while the poor civilian population is subjected to missiles, heavy artillery and air attacks. Pakistan then declares the civilian casualties as those of the Taliban and claims victory and more funds which the Americans are ever ready to donate. The biggest cause of worry for India is the ever increasing nuclear arsenal of Pakistan, upgraded and updated with Chinese aid. Pakistan diplomacy seems to be extremely brilliant and successful. So far, Pakistan has not taken a single concrete step to dismantle terrorist activity being organised and perpetrated from within its territory against India despite numerous promises and pledges made to India, USA, European Union, Great Britain, UNO or any other forum. Yet aid keeps pouring in.
India has been active in the region because it affects her interests. However, with changing rules of The Great Game, India urgently needs to position itself and formulate a well thought out strategic policy that is uniformly agreed upon by all political parties.