Since centuries ago, Afghanistan has been a center for the game of powers, and the contradictory role of great and regional powers has had a great impact on the change of systems, political stability and security situation of this country. In the New Great Game, the role of Afghanistan is a corridor for exporting terrorism, and inflaming the political and security environment of Afghanistan's neighboring countries, especially countries to the north of Afghanistan. In this game, rival countries such as China, Russia, and the US compete with each other to acquire energy resources and geopolitical position, as well as to conquer the island of power based on geopolitical theories. Given the severe pressures brought to the region, due to the international terrorism and changing security dynamics, this region will be the point of intersection and collision between China, Russia, America, Iran, India and Turkey in the future. Each of these actors is trying to have a big share in this game, based on their facilities, military and economic tools, and political influences.
By: Abdulnaser Noorzad
Since the past centuries, Afghanistan has been a center for the game of great and regional powers, and the contradictory role of great powers and regional countries has had a great impact on the change of systems, political stability and security situation of the country. In the New Great Game, the role of Afghanistan is a corridor for exporting terrorism, and inflaming the political and security environment of Afghanistan's neighboring countries, especially countries to the north of it. In this game, rival countries such as China, Russia, and the United States compete with each other to acquire energy resources and geopolitical position, as well as to conquer the island of power based on geopolitical theories. This article seeks to answer this question: which actor will win in the power game for dominating the Central Asia resources? Due to the amount of pressures caused by international terrorism, and the change in security dynamics in the region, this region will be the point of intersection and collision between China, Russia, America, Iran, India and Turkey in the future. Each of these actors are trying to have a big share in this game, by taking into account their facilities, level of influence, military and economic tools, and political influences.
This issue is very broad, and for a better understanding of the game conditions, it is necessary to examine different aspects of it. In this report, we are trying to analyze the role of each of these actors, by using the available data and analysis, as well as evaluating the objective conditions and changes in the rules of the game. China and Russia are two sufficiently powerful actors in this game. Both countries use advantages, such as geographical proximity, common security structures, and the existence of the Shanghai Security Treaty, as a tactic to influence and control the region. Turkey has just entered the field. It uses the Turkic countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus region as the main levers of the game to be present in this ground. Despite many efforts, the US has not succeeded in restraining the influence of these two countries. For this reason, it ended its twenty-year presence in Afghanistan, and left Afghanistan as a cancerous tumor to disturb its rivals in the region. In this sense, the importance of Afghanistan's place in this game has been greatly improved, and its destructive role is very prominent.
The focus of this report is Afghanistan, as the center of conflict among the great powers in the New Great Game. The logic of the argument is that the US efforts to entice the Central Asian countries in the last twenty years had the opposite result. Because this area, has traditionally been influenced by the Russians and a little bit by the Chinese. In these twenty years, measures were taken to turn northern Afghanistan into a new platform for the confrontation of proxy groups with the neighboring countries, and to prepare the ground for a new round of the game. But the resistance, good planning, and the creation of security belts by the Russians, which were created in close agreement with the Chinese, marginalized this game. As a result, the United States decided to hand over the Afghan field, with its billion-dollar equipment, to the Taliban and its foreign allies. The Taliban quickly became the undisputed owner of Afghanistan, and the foreign terrorist groups allied with the Taliban took control of the northern region of Afghanistan as the main geography for the advancement of the New Great Game. China and Russia have been extremely sensitive to this security and political dynamics of Afghanistan, especially in the vicinity of their borders, and so have a coordinated response.
Both powers tried to use the Taliban card to deal with the future security threats. But they came to the conclusion that the Taliban is as the context creator of this game, in order to create a danger for the security of the region. The three main pillars of creating a threat to the security of Central Asia, Russia and China are terrorism, separatism, and drug trafficking, of which Afghanistan is considered their main source. The New Great Game in the Central Asian axis is planned with a focus on the gathering of foreign and regional terrorist groups, which will cause more tensions in the region in the long term.
Afghanistan's geopolitical position
Afghanistan's situation has made it a ground of the game in the new round. Unfortunately, the rules of the game and its tools will cost a lot for Afghanistan's security and political stability. Terrorism as a tool for the game, has taken victims from Afghanistan in the last 20 years. Now, with the gathering of multi-national terrorist groups in northern Afghanistan, the anti-security nature of Afghanistan in the region is becoming more prominent. China with Xinjiang’ Uyghurs, Russia with Tajik, Uzbek and Chechen extremists, Iran with religious and Takfiri extremists, and the US with the Achilles heel position of the region, will advance the game. Terrorism plays a central role in this game, and the countries of the region and America's rivals are trying to respond to this situation with security coordination. Until now, the stances of China and Russia in international crises have been coordinated, and based on a strategic alliance. In the New Great Game, they are also trying to move in harmony to some extent. In order to understand the game better, it is necessary to understand the players, the level, and the goals of the game.
Based on reports, China pursues the following goals:
1-Exploiting the region's oil and gas reserves;
2-Preventing any further presence of America and NATO in Central Asia, and the Caucasus;
3-Weakening the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) organization, and reducing dependence on Russia;
4-Helping to realize the economic unity of the region;
5-Preventing the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism in the region, due to the vulnerability of its northwestern provinces; and
6-Competing and trying to gain superiority in the New Great Game, alongside other rivals.
China is vigorously pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as the super strategy of the century, and has chosen the Central Asia route as one of the main corridors for the implementation of this plan. A Central Asia out of China's control and influence, will mean the failure of this multi-billion-dollar plan.
It must be said that during more than a year of Taliban’s control over Afghanistan, the image of the country for Beijing has been a mixed image. At first, it seemed that the Taliban were honest about their promise to restrain the Uyghur militias. According to the recent UN report on Afghanistan which was published at the end of May, the Taliban has actively moved the members of the Turkestan Islamic party (TIP) away from the Chinese border, in order to protect and restrain this group. In previous UN reports, it was also stated that these fighters were transferred from their former headquarters in Badakhshan, to Baghlan, Takhar and other provinces. With the strengthening of ISKP, however, there are reports of Uyghurs joining the ranks of ISKP. It shows that the US and its allies have changed the rules of the game by changing the players, to continue the game. It should be noted that one of the most important factors that has continued the relationship between China and the Taliban until now is the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) recommendations, which made China see the situation in Afghanistan through Pakistan's lens. But this situation cannot continue for a long time, and China will face serious security challenges willy-nilly if the current situation continues - A situation that Beijing does not want it at all.
The success of Russia's policy in Central Asia and the New Great Game will depend on its success in Afghanistan. Russians are trying hard to consider security arrangements, along with political measures.
In general, the Russians are trying to maintain the dependence of the Central Asian and Caucasus countries on them in various fields such as energy, communication and security, in order to maintain a continuous presence in the region, prevent the expansion of other players’ influence in it, prevent the tendency of these countries to other players, and be the only leader of the new Heartland. Realizing the sensitivity of the game, the Russians are now more serious than before in this matter. The main enemy is the American-backed multi-national terrorism based in Afghanistan, whose dangers are very noticeable. The next threats are India, China and Turkey. Russia is in no way willing to lose its traditional and old role in Central Asia, and to be replaced by other regional and extra-regional countries. Along with the economic dependence of the Central Asian countries on Russia and the traditional political influence of Moscow in these countries, the growing danger of religious fundamentalism, multinational terrorism and the increasing growth of drug trafficking are Russia's main concerns in this region.
Iran cannot remain indifferent to Afghanistan's issues, despite the importance of issues such as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA (, Ukraine, and Syria and Iraq. The rules of the game have forced Iran into this game. Tehran is extremely worried about religious extremist groups, especially IS, and is trying to prevent the growth of them. For Iran, both Afghanistan and Central Asia are important. For this reason, Iran's role cannot be ignored in the New Great Game on a regional scale. Iran's attempt is to benefit from the anti-American and anti-terrorist project of China and Russia in various ways, and to secure its security and economic interests. Iran can be a key player in the New Great Game and play an important role in the geography of Afghanistan, because it has geographical proximity to Afghanistan and has also been a long-standing player in the country.
Iran has always tried to keep the Taliban away from the influence of rival powers in the region, but perhaps Iran’s effort has not been fully successful so far. Despite the fact that there have been some disruptions in the Taliban - Pakistan relations in the past months, the warm and multilateral relations of the new rulers of Kabul with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar are not comparable to their relations with Tehran- Although there has been a change in this situation recently, and we are witnessing the closure of some embassies in Kabul.
Realizing this fact, it seems that Iran will take a path to cooperate with the Taliban that will lead to achieving its desired results. At the same time, by supporting Intra-Afghan Dialogues and emphasizing the need to form an inclusive government, Iran will try to moderate the behavior of the Taliban and make Afghanistan move towards stability, in order to minimize the grounds for the emergence and growth of crisis caused by the presence of terrorist groups.
Economically, Iran looked at relations with the Taliban with a new perspective. Iran expected that the Taliban, by granting concessions to Iran about water rights (which has become a vital issue in the fate of eastern Iran) will remove this Tehran’s concern. But after a year and a half of Taliban rule, there are still major challenges to resolve the Hirmand water issue between the two, and it may not be resolved anytime soon. In addition, the joint project that Tehran and Delhi launched during the Republican era for the development of Chabahar port and the use of Iran's corridor facilities for better access of India to Afghanistan and Central Asia, still does not have a favorable outlook with the Taliban coming to power. It has some reasons, one of which is probably the Taliban's restrictions on trade and especially imports. We cannot be sure that some recent openings in the relations between the Taliban and India, which have also caused the anger and sensitivity of Pakistan, will bring about a change in this reality. Of course, the war in Ukraine as well as the approach of Russia, Central Asia countries and India to use Iran's transit facilities, have caused a serious look at Chabahar. However, Afghanistan’s role in the prosperity of this port is still far from what was expected.
The Taliban is usually mentioned as Pakistan's strategic tool to realize the country's strategic depth in Afghanistan. When the Taliban came to power for the second time on August 15, 2021, many believed that Pakistan had achieved it "strategic depth" in Afghanistan. According to some experts, the Taliban has not wanted or been able to act independently of Pakistan's considerations since its emergence. It seems that this time Pakistan is playing with two axes: the first axis is cooperation with China, which probably aimed at creating a barrier against terrorism that threatens the interests of China and Pakistan. The second axis is cooperation with the US and UK, which Pakistan has been an integral part of it for a long time. This time, with India's involvement in the New Game, Pakistan will lose exclusive control over the Taliban card. By understanding the situation and creating parallel structures in the rules of the Great Game, Pakistan is trying to be an irreplaceable fighter in the field, to defeat India, and to take a share in this project. Since Pakistan has been the executor of extremist programs in Afghanistan since the beginning, so it plays a smart game and is careful about the entry of any new player in this game.
Islamabad is trying to use the Taliban card for its macro regional agenda in the commercial, economic, political, and military and security fields. However, the Taliban has shown that after coming to power, it does not have the obedience expected by Pakistan. It seems that Pakistan's policy of strategic depth in Afghanistan is only true for the Haqqani network, and this group remains one of Pakistan's key allies among the Taliban. But Kandahari and Helmandi networks are out of Pakistan’s control and play a different game. These two networks have had strong relations with other countries in the region since the past.
In general, Pakistan is trying to both have China's support and use its economic power, and to align with the US and UK and not let India enter the game. Moreover, Pakistan is trying to play the Taliban card to score points and secure its vital interests, and also sees the Taliban as its most irreplaceable ally in Afghanistan. In short, the double game of this country has been one of the requirements to understand the nature of this country's presence in Afghanistan in the last forty years. In the meantime, Pakistan is trying hard to establish warm relations with the countries of Central Asia and not allow India to advance in this arena. Central Asia energy resources and its suitable markets play a vital role for Pakistan's economy. This issue has made the commercial, economic and transit diplomacy of this country to be very active regarding the countries of Central Asia. So, the New Great Game is very important for Pakistan.
The side role of Central Asia
With the energy weapon, the central Asian countries are trying to both get rid of the danger of the bankrupt economy and find an economic alternative, and also to prevent the dangers caused by the export of terrorism in their soil. The creation of a defense belt on the border of Afghanistan, and Russia's security cover for Tajikistan and Uzbekistan show that Central Asia wants to benefit from the presence of China, Russia, the United States, and to some extent, Turkey and help improve the current situation and deadlock in the region.
It is important to know that the side role of Central Asia in this game is not due to its geography, but due to the lack of a strong security system and stable political structure. Therefore Central Asian countries intend to meet their security needs, and find the necessary condition to be included in this game. What Central Asia can provide in this game is only geography, and it does not have the power to act in this New Great Game. While the fuel of this game is provided from Afghanistan and Central Asian countries, the benefit of the game goes to big countries like China, Russia, Iran, the US and Turkey. Tajikistan, with its high level of public discontent, unfavorable economic situation, corruption, and the existence of Islamic extremist groups, has a high probability of being vulnerable in this game.
Tajikistan looks at post-American Afghanistan from a political, military, security and economic point of view. From a political point of view, Tajikistan has expressed concern about the situation of Afghan Tajiks who have potential political, scientific and military capability; and for this reason, Dushanbe supports the movements of Afghan Tajik origin. From a military point of view, the problem of terrorism rooted in Afghanistan, and the emergence of terrorist groups such as the Tajikistan Taliban Movement, ISKP and other terrorist groups located on the border of Tajikistan are matters of deep concern for the Tajik authorities. From an economic point of view, the geographical location of Afghanistan and the transit route that Afghanistan can provide, in order to transfer energy from Tajikistan to South Asia and vice versa, are important for Dushanbe. Therefore, Tajikistan is trying to keep this path active with new initiatives, and organize its chaotic economy. In a general view, it can be assumed that the total political, economic, security and military views of Tajikistan in the post- US withdrawal era are parts of a long-term strategy that can have its own message for Afghanistan.
India is pursuing economic diplomacy in Central Asia, and this issue has caused China's sensitivity. Central Asia is one of the areas of economic and political competition between India and China, and both countries are trying to gain more influence in this region. Delhi has strategic interests in the Central Asian region and is eagerly looking for ways to access the region's energy resources. But the amount of economic transactions between Central Asia and India is not significant. For this reason, efforts are being made to increase the volume of exchanges, through economic diplomacy and effective means of cooperation, so that India can get a greater share of the energy resources of Central Asia. According to Indian calculations, Afghanistan can be the shortest way to reach the energy resources of Central Asia.
The collapse of the republic government in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s governance have somewhat influenced Indian diplomacy. India is trying to find alternative ways to reach Central Asia. On a regional scale, The New Great Game shows India as an important and undeniable factor that is trying to be included in this game, either through Afghanistan or through other countries, to gain its economic benefits. Despite its efforts, the Taliban has not been able to win India's trust. Given the current situation, realization of India's economic diplomacy through Afghanistan is not currently possible. Delhi may enter into a forced engagement with the Taliban, or seek an alternative way to pursue its economic interests.
United States of America
Along with China, Russia and India, the United States is one of the main contenders in the New Great Game in Central Asia. The creation of an alternative Silk Road plan under the title of New Silk Road, shows Washington's attempt to penetrate and influence this region. The economic interests of the United States in this region are not very important, but in the political and geopolitical dimensions, the US is trying to have a continuous presence in this region according to Mackinder's Heartland Theory. In this way, the United States pursues several major goals: countering Iran's influence, restraining and weakening Russia, controlling China in the region, strengthening Israel's presence and influence in Central Asia, Realization of strategic-military goals of the United States in Central Eurasia, trying to provide Turkey's model for the countries of the region, and accessing energy resources of the Caspian Sea.
The US is trying to establish its presence in the region, by using pressure and persuasion tools towards the Central Asian states. One way to achieve these goals is to use terrorist groups that are embedded in northern Afghanistan. It is estimated that these groups will be one of the ways for the US to confront China, Russia and Iran, for the next stages of the New Great Game. America's use of Islamic extremists to secure its own interests is precedent. This inhuman exploitation of terrorism and extremism has cost the lives of millions of people, and has become a good source for securing the interests of this country in all over the world. For this reason, Afghanistan’s role in this game is very prominent. The unexpected withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the support of the Taliban rule in Afghanistan by the US was one of Washington's calculated goals in the region, which might be difficult to understand at this stage. But Afghanistan's move towards internal instability, the expansion of terrorism phenomenon, and the further strengthening of terrorist groups show that the US is very determined to enter the next stage of the New Great Game to achieve its goals through regional terrorism. If the countries of the region, especially the four countries involved in the Afghan affairs, do not consider these things in their interaction with the Taliban, this goal of the US and its allies will have a greater chance of being realized.
Controlling Afghanistan means controlling a part of Central Asia and maybe beyond that. Therefore, it is logical that several international and regional players try to have a hand in Afghanistan in line with their interests. To achieve this goal, players may enter the game independently, or act indirectly.
The Great Game in the axis of Central Asia and Afghanistan will probably take a long time. This game will continue to affect Afghanistan, most of all, and will lead to big competitions in this geography. This round of the game is called the New Great Game, and actors like India, Iran, Turkey and even Japan, experience it to gain economic, political and even geopolitical benefits. These countries are trying to outdo each other to control oil and natural gas resources, infrastructures, and influence in the Central Asian region. This competition for superiority in the Central Asian axis shows that none of the regional and extra-regional players are going to give up, and these not-giving ups among the powerful players make Afghanistan more and more involved in these competitions. Afghanistan under the Taliban is a springboard for the destabilization of Central Asia by the United States and its allies, while Iran, Russia, China and India follow the strategy of stabilization in Central Asia to achieve their goals. This functional paradox is obvious in the actors' policies.
Abdulnaser Noorzad, is the Ex-Kabul University lecturer, and has a M.A in National Security Studies