Being played in the Great Game of Aghanistan

There is a saying among professional gamblers that if you sit down to the table and you don’t know who the sucker is, it’s you. 

Every major power has a real, vital national interest in Afghanistan – except the U.S. and NATO – and the rest of them are all playing us for the fool. Afghan history did not begin on Sept. 11 2001. In Victorian times, playing power politics there was known as the Great Game because it played Great Britain, with its colonies in modern Pakistan and India, against Russia with China and Persia all involved, and the game pieces were local actors of unknown loyalties and shadowy motivations. Here are just some of the folks who are playing us:

Pakistan: Pakistan is India’s evil twin. Whereas India is stable, prosperous and has a long democratic tradition, Pakistan is/does not. Since splitting apart at independence in 1948, they have fought four wars — and to Pakistan, the question is not will there be another, but when.  Pakistan’s worst nightmare is an Afghanistan allied with India against them. They want Afghanistan as their client state, not India’s. And their tool for accomplishing this has been the Taliban. Pakistani intelligence helped create and promote the Taliban originally. Their support for the Taliban continued until 9/11, and it is no coincidence that India supported the Northern Alliance against the Taliban.

After 9/11, Pakistan had to choose between the Taliban and its longtime alliance with the U.S. America backed Pakistan in the cold war because India’s non-aligned status was seen as titling towards Russia. After the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. flooded Pakistan, and especially the Pakistani military, with aid and other goodies. Now they are profiting from their part in the war on terror.

Continued war is in Pakistan’s best interest. Pakistan saw after the Russians withdrew how soon America’s interest in helping them dropped off. The war also keeps Afghanistan so self involved and weak that it could not think of turning to India. And with deep contacts on both sides, Pakistan is able to keep the pot boiling.

China: I’m surprised our troops can’t hear the laughter coming at us all the way from China. We are spending a hundred billion a year making Afghanistan safe for Chinese mineral concessions. Mountains have minerals, and because of the decades of chaos, Afghanistan has the most unprospected, undeveloped mountains in the world. The value of Afghan mineral wealth has been estimated at over a trillion dollars – a fact trotted out to justify our surge, even though the Chinese are the ones profiting from our military venture.

And boy is China snapping it up. In 2007, China paid $3 billion dollars to lock up the largest unexploited copper reserves in the world south of Kabul. Found by Soviet geologists, we chased them out before they could exploit it and now it is part of China’s increasing influence in Central Asia. China is building Afghanistan’s first major railroad – which will connect this mine and future mines back to China, while providing a captive market for Chinese goods. This railroad will connect to a deep water port being built in Pakistan. (Having read this far, you probably won’t be surprised that the Indians are building a deepwater port in Iran and financing transport that would allow Afghan minerals to flow out in a way that bypasses Pakistan).

 The Afghans: Let’s put it in macro-economic terms – the civilian Afghan GNP is $16.6 billion. We spend a hundred billion a year on our war there, and war is their biggest cash crop. It dwarfs opium and rug production. And it is income that Afghans wouldn’t want to lose.

I got a great insight into how we are being played by the Afghans by a New York Times piece I almost didn’t read. It was about the problems we are having with security for transport around Afghanistan, which didn’t seem a particularly interesting topic – but it was. Seems that we are spending billions and billions on private Afghan security firms to guard our shipments as they make their way through the country. Those firms have discovered that the most cost effective way to insure safe arrival of their shipments is to pay off the local Taliban not to attack them. Furthermore if the U.S. gives the contract to a different firm, they pay the Taliban to attack those shipments, or they stage the attack themselves with their now unemployed guards. Draw your own conclusions from the fact that President Karzai’s brother owns the largest of these firms.

Afghanistan can’t afford peace. And the newly minted millionaires buying mansions in Kabul, and just-in-case mansions in Abu Dhabi, certainly can’t afford for peace to break out. This explains why Karzai would promote chaos by denouncing the Florida pastor who burned a Koran. Chaos is his friend because it keeps the dollars flowing into Afghanistan.

The U.S. : The war on terror is over. We won. And we won in spite of our best efforts. The war was for the hearts and mind of the young of the Muslim world. The choice we presented to them was between the Mubaraks we were supporting and Osama bin Laden. But now the choice is between Tarir Square and suicide bombing, and we know what they are choosing now. Zawahiri tried for decades to overthrow the Egyptian government, that was his main aim, and he made not a dent. His way – the way of Islamic extremist terror – has been now totally supplanted by something that actually works.

And what of the $100 billion we spend in Afghanistan? We can no longer make that decision in some off-budget dreamland that pretends the money doesn’t come from somewhere. If we are spending that money there, then it is money we are not spending elsewhere. So the question isn’t a black and white “should we be in Afghanistan?”, but rather, “what is the best place to spend that $100 billion?”  Can we really say that we wouldn’t be more secure spending the hundred billion on alternative energy or education? In every discussion of the budget, and every mention of various cuts to social programs, end your response with “and we’re spending $100 billion in Afghanistan.”

The Most Cost Effective Solution: The best solution I’ve heard is to take what we can and leave the rest. In the Taliban heartland, the Pastun area centered around Kandahar we will never control anything more than the ground we are standing on. We can take any area we want and it will revert to Taliban control the second we leave. That is 40% of the country. Just leave it be. Life there will suck, but it sucks in lots of places in the world, and we don’t send troops. If they set up any terrorist training camps, we destroy them with drones.  The rest of the country — including Kabul, as well as most of the recently discovered mineral wealth — supports us, out of hatred for the Pashtuns and the Taliban. We should be able to empower the people there with weapons and training to keep the Taliban out.


Tom Wellington is a longtime Democratic campaign operative based in Washington, DC.

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