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  December 14, 2001  

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Central Asia/Russia

The Grand Game in Afghanistan
By Francesco Sisci

BEIJING - The Han dynasty, after which the majority of modern Chinese name themselves, started by taking control of the land that once belonged to the Qin emperor, then stretched its empire along the Silk Road as far as far as the Caspian sea. Around 56 BC, the Han created a protectorate of the western regions, Xiguduhu, the first establishment of Chinese power in those areas, and the first time a Chinese empire thought it was important for its security to gain some kind of foothold in Central Asia.

China was not alone. From the other side of the world, the Roman Empire was trying to do the same. In the second century AD, the emperor Trajan led a major Roman push against the Parthians. He conquered what is now Iraq, but he wasn't able to advance further and after a short while was forced to withdraw.

From that feat came to China the legend of a Roman legion that had been captured by the Parthians, then escaped east and through Central Asia. It reached the Han empire and fought with the Chinese against the Persians. It was the first time in recorded history that East and West of the Eurasian continent had met. And the quest for Central Asia that would project China and India to the shores of the Mediterranean, and Europe to China and India, was to remain constant for the next couple of millennia.

In this Grand Game, the land of modern Afghanistan was the central jewel. It was so worthy that Genghis Khan, whose empire for the first time unified the Eurasian continent from one end to another, destroyed the Afghan irrigation system and turned it into a desert, according to modern Afghan historians, to make it fit for his nomadic troops. From there, for centuries the Mongols would scurry to the Middle East, to India, to China and to continental Europe.

Contemporary Afghanistan and its plight owe much to this history that scarred its very land for geo-strategic purposes.

The smaller Grand Game of Afghanistan, which pitted for a hundred years Russia against Britain, started slowly, at the end of 17th century and through the 18th century, with Russia and Britain respectively gaining ground from China and India. The Qing dynasty in China reined in its claims on Central Asia, leaving it to the Russians and British, who conquered the Indian subcontinent and thus took over China's strategic ambitions for Central Asia.

With two treaties in 1689 and 1727, China gave in to the Russians to forestall an alliance between Russia and the Zungar Mongols, who were threatening the Chinese Empire. Britain then conquered and unified India, pooling together under its rule the vast and diverse forces, religions and peoples of this land. With the idea of further unifying the Pashtuns, who lived partly under British rule and partly were independent, the British marched north to Afghanistan.

The present idea of a possible partition of Afghanistan harks back to those precedents, and it is reinforced by the fact that the collapse of the Soviet Union turned Moscow's territorial span back 300 years. That was roughly the time when Moscow was granted free access to Central Asia by the agreement with the Chinese, and India was divided into a motley crowd of states as British control expanded.

However, this time the Sino-Russian relationship is different. The Chinese are politically stronger than the Russians and don't want to be excluded from the present Afghan game, where they see two important stakes. Influence on Afghanistan could help control the independence drive in Xinjiang and could forestall a possible containment vise in which the US positions itself both east and west of China.

In this way the Chinese position appears simpler compared with those of other actors on the scene and somehow strangely consistent with the position of the US. Both countries don't want Afghanistan's partition, and both support a new government with broad representation, doing away with extremism but standing for the interests of all Afghan ethnic groups. Both China and the US take to heart the danger of destabilizing Pakistan and plunging it and the surrounding area into a much bigger mess than Afghanistan.

This is the core of the problem. In India, but also in Russia and Iran, pundits claim that the heart of the solution of Afghanistan lies with the Pashtuns, split between Pakistan and Afghanistan. They say that the unification of this people would create a new balance in Pakistan, which has been so far too dominated by the Punjabis. But the proposal is by itself openly destabilizing in more than one way. If the Pashtuns were to become an ethnic group able to "balance" the Punjabi lead, obviously this new balance between Pashtun and Punjabi would be gained through some kind of power struggle, and in a country as volatile as Pakistan this could easily flare up into an internal war.

Yet even if this new ethnic balance were to be gained peacefully, this would not necessarily diminish Pakistani involvement in Punjabi-dominated Kashmir, as some Indians seem to hope. Pakistan was involved in Afghanistan through its Pashtun links, although the Pashtuns were not the dominant ethnic group of Pakistan. Similarly the Punjabis would still push Islamabad to get involved in Kashmir, even if they were to become a minority in Pakistan. Furthermore the partition of Afghanistan would open the floodgates of greed, as Iran, Russia (through its Central Asian proxies) and maybe even China would want a slice of the remaining cake. And then these actors would also be left without a buffer, which Afghanistan was, among one another and this could lead to even further conflict.
  • Part 2: Stability and instability in the subcontinent

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