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From Great Game to Grand Bargain: Ending Chaos in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Afghan President Hamid Karzai addresses media representatives at the Presidential palace in Kabul on November 5, 2008. Karzai congratulated Barack Obama on his election victory, saying it took the world to a 'new era.' (Shai Marai/AFP/Getty Images)
by Stephanie Valera
5 November 2008

by Barnett R. Rubin
and Ahmed Rashid


YORK, November 5, 2008 - The "Great Game" is no fun anymore.
Nineteenth-century British imperialists used that term to describe the
British-Russian struggle for position on the chessboard of Afghanistan
and Central Asia. More than a century later, the game continues. But
now, the number of players has exploded, those living on the chessboard
have become involved, and the intensity of the violence and the threats
it produces affect the entire globe. Afghanistan has been at war for
three decades and that war is spreading to Pakistan and beyond. We'd
like to call a time out—and ask the players, including President-Elect
Barack Obama, to negotiate a new bargain for the region.

Afghanistan and its region will require an international presence for
many years; building Afghanistan's security forces is at most a stopgap
measure, as the country cannot sustain forces of the size it now needs.
Only a regional and global agreement to place Afghanistan's stability
above other objectives could make long-term stability possible by
enabling Afghanistan to survive with security forces it can afford.
Such agreement, however, will require political and diplomatic
initiatives both inside and outside of the country.

In Afghanistan the US and NATO must make clear that they are at war
with al-Qaida and those who support its global objectives, but have no
objection if either Kabul or Islamabad negotiates with insurgents who
renounce ties to Bin Laden. In return for such guarantees,
international forces could largely withdraw, leaving a force to secure
a political agreement and train Afghan security forces.

a political settlement within Afghanistan cannot succeed without a
regional grand bargain. The first round of the Great Game was resolved
by making Afghanistan a buffer state in which outsiders did not
interfere; today Afghanistan is the scene not only of the War on
Terror, but of long-standing Afghanistan-Pakistan disputes, the
India-Pakistan conflict, domestic struggles in Pakistan, US-Iran
opposition, Russian concerns about NATO, Sunni-Shi'a rivalry, and
struggles over regional energy infrastructure.

conflicts will continue as long as the US treats stabilizing
Afghanistan as subordinate to other goals, with all the risks of
terrorist resurgence and regional security crisis. This is why
President-Elect Obama must adopt a bold diplomatic initiative that will
encompass the region and help solve longstanding differences between
Afghanistan's neighbors. Such a diplomatic initiative must also be
accompanied by a substantial regional aid and development package.

The US must rebalance its regional posture by
reducing its dependence on the Pakistan military. Most important is to
firmly support Pakistan's fragile elected government as it tries to
gain control over the army and intelligence apparatus to reverse
decades of support for militants. Dialogue with Iran and Russia over
common interests in Afghanistan—both helped the US in 2001—would place
more pressure on Pakistan. At the same time the US and other powers
with a stake in Afghanistan must seek to reduce Indian activities in
Afghanistan that Pakistan sees as threatening, or assure greater
transparency of those policies, if they are not threatening.

objective requires more than "pressuring" Pakistan. The Pakistani
security establishment believes that it faces a US-Indian-Afghan
alliance aimed at undermining Pakistani influence in Afghanistan and
even dismembering the Pakistani state. Civilian leaders evaluate
Pakistan's national interests differently, but they too cannot be
indifferent to Pakistan's chronic sense of insecurity.

does not have border agreements with either India, into which Islamabad
contests the incorporation of Kashmir, or Afghanistan, which has never
explicitly recognized the Durand Line, the frontier between Pakistan
and Afghanistan. Pakistan also claims that the Northern Alliance, part
of the anti-Taliban resistance in Afghanistan, is working with India
from inside Afghanistan's security services. And the US-Indian nuclear
deal effectively recognizes New Delhi's legitimacy as a nuclear power
while continuing to treat Islamabad, with its record of proliferation,
as a pariah.

Pressure will not work if
Pakistan's leaders think their country's survival is at stake. The
answer is therefore for the new administration to help create a broad
multilateral framework for the region to build a genuine consensus on
the goal of achieving Afghan stability by addressing the legitimate
sources of Pakistan's insecurity while increasing the opposition to its
disruptive actions.

A first step could be the
establishment of a contact group on the region authorized by the UN
Security Council. This contact group could promote dialogue between
India and Pakistan about their respective interests in Afghanistan and
about finding a solution to the Kashmir dispute; seek a long-term
political vision for the future of the tribal agencies from the
Pakistani government; move Afghanistan and Pakistan toward discussions
on frontier issues, and promote a regional plan for economic
development and integration. China, the largest investor in both
Pakistan and Afghanistan, could help finance projects of common

A successful initiative will require
exploratory talks and an evolving road map. Today, such suggestions may
seem audacious, naive, or impossible, but without such audacity there
is little hope for Afghanistan, for Pakistan, or for the region as a

Barnett R. Rubin
is an Asia Society Fellow and the Director of Studies and Senior Fellow
at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, where he
directs the program on the Reconstruction of Afghanistan.

Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani writer based in Lahore, is author of several books, including Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (2008), Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia and The Resurgence of Central Asia: Islam or Nationalism? (Politics in Contemporary Asia). He has covered Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia for the past 25 years.


Copyright: Project Syndicate/Asia Society