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 Barnett R. Rubin and Ahmed Rashid


NEW 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.

Securing 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.

But 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.

These 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.

This 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.

Pakistan 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 interest.

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 whole.

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