Small Wars Journal

Karzai's Great Game Gamble

Fri, 01/24/2014 - 2:21pm

Karzai's Great Game Gamble

Gawdat Bahgat and Bob Sharp

Peter Hopkirk’s famous book: “The Great Game,” building on Rudyard Kiplings Great Game concept in his novel “Kim”, charts the imperial wrestling match for power in Central Asia, the graveyard battlefield of Empires that is Afghanistan, and access to riches in India and the East.  The players back then were England and Russia.  If the struggle continues, as many say it does, do the players today seek the same gains as before or is there a new prize?  What is the impact of Afghan President Karzai’s resistance in signing the Bi-Lateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US?  What is Karzai’s Great Game Gamble?

Some agree with Lutz Kleveman’s thesis in his book: “The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia” within which he posits a view that the riches sought today are not so much about geographic control of the region as it was before, but today more about the power struggle of petroleum politics.  For Lutz, the prize is still wealth but in this modern variant it is all about pipelines, tanker routes and contracts.  England and Russia have been replaced as Great Game Players by super groups and the new Great Game is played out to dominate the resources of the wider Caspian region in what some call the Pentagon five seas region.  On this battlefield, the US Group including the UK and NATO is pitched against the Eastern Group of Russia and China.

The US Indian Ocean rebalancing, or Pivot, is directly although not obviously linked to this new Great Game.  It is well known that the US is striving to reduce its dependency on Middle East oil, currently about 20%.  The so-called shale gas revolution has substantially improved the U.S. energy outlook.  According to the latest projections by the International Energy Agency, the Energy Information Administration and the British Petroleum, among others, the United States will become an oil and gas exporter in the coming few years.  Despite the projected increase in US oil self-reliance, Washington will necessarily wish to maintain a watchful eye on the Indian Ocean that was so aptly described as a global economic interstate by Robert Kaplan in his book “Monsoon.”  As rising India and China draw ever-increasing amounts of oil from the Middle East, the Indian Ocean as a “tragedy of the global commons” presents a largely ungoverned maritime space the US can ill afford to ignore. 

Instability glues the US into the Middle East, not oil.  As the sole superpower, as the Pivot suggests, the US wants to rebalance to achieve oversight across the Indian Ocean region as China’s and India’s economies rise as they both pull ever increasing oil resources from the Middle East to feed their swelling populations.  As the Atlantic is now relatively quiet, a shift, a pivot, a re-balance from the Middle East to the Indian Ocean region, makes sense and is indeed a necessity.

If the Pivot - therefore - is the maritime battle, the land battle is the new Great Game in Central Asia described earlier.  The US wants influence in both battles to provide it with options for resources as it continues to reduce imports of Arab oil, and also to support global security, particularly Middle East stability.  If the US allows Afghanistan to slip from its grasp, it opens the door in classic Great Game theory to other powers.  The pivot to the Indian Ocean and the new Great Game in Central Asia are that closely related.  The prize is thus enormous and arguably fundamental to retaining US sole superpower status.

The US has learned the lessons of the British and Russian occupation of Afghanistan.  A BSA makes sense because it is a request from the Afghans and not a US-imposed solution.  Recent discussion centers around the need for President Karzai to act quickly or the US will take their ball home and/or play with somebody else.  President Karzai has likely done the regional power math and concluded that he can negotiate a stronger position by stalling with the BSA.  He knows that the US will stay interested but he also knows that he runs the risk that a US exit means “one out, all out” as international partner support for Afghanistan will falter rapidly as the US departs.  Also, as Secretary Hagel has stated recently, time is getting short as it takes many months to re-deploy an Army that has been in Afghanistan since 2001. 

President Karzai seems to want to outsource the BSA decision either as an April 2014 election debate issue or until after Afghanistan has transitioned power, hopefully peacefully.  In so doing, he will secure his legacy.  As Ambassador Neuman has recently suggested, the US should invest in the country and not the man meaning the US should just wait.  Although waiting is not included in the vocabulary of planners burning the midnight oil in the Pentagon, if we consider the wider ramifications of the new Great Game and Pivot to the Indian Ocean, we clearly have no better option than just to wait.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Gawdat Bahgat is a professor at the National Defense University's Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. The views expressed by the authors are the author's alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Robert Sharp is an associate professor at the National Defense University's Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies.  The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


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What's missing here is any indication of how exactly Afghanistan is relevant to US energy interests, or to any US strategic interest. The pipeline once proposed for Afghanistan was never going to supply the US: its output would have gone to Pakistan and India. While the US certainly would like to be less reliant on Middle East oil, Central Asia is, for geographic reasons, a most unlikely source of supply: Central Asian output is much more likely to flow east to China and west to Europe than south. Afghanistan means exactly nothing to US energy strategy and very little to Central Asia n strategies for moving their products..

What the US stands to lose by letting Afghanistan "slip from its grasp", beyond an enormous headache, is not in any way clear. Afghanistan is a liability, not an asset, and "losing" it would be a bit like losing a case of the clap: cause for relief, not dismay.


Fri, 01/24/2014 - 4:03pm

I don't doubt that President Karzai is playing a 'game' over a basing agreement or status of forces agreement, whether it is great is a very moot point. To extrapolate backwards to the imperial contests before 1914 in 'The Great Game' is a mistake.

Nor does it help to advocate a Western, primarily if not exclusively US, military presence in Afghanistan post-2014. I can hardly see the public here, in the UK, accepting such an expensive role.

If you look at 'The Great Game' it was "played" over incredibly inhospitable, economically useless and marginally strategic territory - in Afghanistan, Central Asia (until the Russian Empire secured control) and Tibet. The actual prize was Persia (Iran) which did have value, that was where Anglo-Russian competition focused till 1945 - often in coordination in both world wars.

I suspect Karzai knows that GoIRA can ONLY survive without a BSA and Western troops.

Our national security does NOT require us to stay.


Tue, 01/28/2014 - 9:43am

In reply to by lazarus

Lazarus makes an excellent observation about the differences between the British vs. the Russian and American experience in Afghanistan. The British managed the situation generally quite skillfully in order to checkmate Russian expansionist desires that threatened their hold on India. And they did so with relatively modest amounts of forces and funds.

I am surprised that two well-educated authors would use a "cliche" and refer to Afghanistan as a "graveyard of empires". It is instead a long-used "highway of empire" that has allowed Persian, Hellenistic, Turkish, British, and Russian empires to move within greater Central Asia. I also doubt that the US has learned any "lessons" from the British or Russian occupations of Afghanistan. The British rather skillfully managed Afghanistan and only had problems when leadership in London or Delhi ignored the ruler in Kabul and/or his opponents in the mountains. The Russians occupied and committed genocide in Afghanistan in the period 1979-1988. To put both empires in the same sentence is not accurate. If the US had learned any lessons, it would not be so anxious to leave. Afghanistan is at its worst (historically) when ignored and unsupported by great powers. I think you gentlemen should re-read Kaplan's books, especially "The Revenge of Geography". What you have written is no more than an apologia for the present administration's policies.