A spate of activity by an apparently revitalized Taleban has led the United States and its coalition allies to launch a new offensive in Afghanistan. The country also faces a threat of interference by neighboring nations.
More than 100 years ago, Britain and Russia engaged in what was called the "Great Game." The phrase was coined by author Rudyard Kipling to describe the geopolitical intrigue of the two nations as they grappled for supremacy in Central Asia, particularly in Afghanistan, which by an accident of geography became the central playing field of the game.
Challenges Facing the Afghan Government
Now a new, scaled-down version of the "Great Game" is looming as Afghanistan's neighbors watch to see if the struggling government of President Hamid Karzai can survive in the face of a renewed insurgency, unmet domestic expectations, and drifting international attention.
In a new paper for the U.S. Institute for Peace, former State Department intelligence analyst Marvin Weinbaum says the Karzai government is losing support because of faltering security.
"I just see this as the kind of paralysis which is then going to, along with everything else, lead people to turn away from the central government. And in this case the Taleban, not because they are a beloved group but by default, are there to pick up the pieces," says Weinbaum.
Landlocked Afghanistan is surrounded by Pakistan, Iran, China, and the three Central Asian nations of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. Larry Goodson, a professor of Middle East Studies at the U.S. Army War College, says Afghanistan's central location in a strategic but tough neighborhood has had its benefits and drawbacks throughout history.
"You have a country that has overlapping ethnicities and sectarian groups with neighboring countries, extremely porous borders, and it is landlocked but it lies between countries that all wish to trade and interact with each other. So it's both its blessing and its curse that it's the crossroads of Central and South Asia and the Middle East," says Goodson.
Marvin Weinbaum, now with the Middle East Institute, says that for now, Afghanistan's neighbors, especially Pakistan and Iran, have a "hands off" attitude towards Afghanistan so long as U.S. and NATO troops are there, and no other nation tries to gain advantage in Afghanistan.
"This is what has precipitated the competition over Afghanistan. They can live with an Afghanistan which is a neutral state as long as it's very clear that neither party, any party, has been able to manipulate Afghanistan to its own advantage," says Weinbaum.
The Pakistan Factor
Afghanistan's longest border is with Pakistan, a nation with which it has had a tumultuous relationship over the years. Pakistan was a key backer of the Islamic-based resistance to Soviet occupation in the 1980s, partly in the hope it would get a friendly government in Kabul. But the mujahedin resistance fighters quickly descended into fratricidal squabbling after their victory in Kabul in 1992. Pakistan then helped create a new movement in Afghanistan: the Taleban.
Today, Marvin Weinbaum says, the government of Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf is engaged in a two-track, often conflicting Afghan policy. On the one hand it supports the Karzai government and its stabilizing influence. But as a hedge against any collapse in Afghanistan, Musharraf is also keeping ties with its old mujahedin allies, some of whom may be Taleban or even al-Qaida.
"The very patronage of those elements undermines its official policy, which is to see that the Karzai government succeeds. So it wants it to succeed at one level, but it is doing things within Pakistan, some of which it has no choice because it doesn't control its own borders very well, which in fact work against the central government and Karzai," says Weinbaum.
The Army War College's Larry Goodson says President Musharraf's efforts to halt the cross-border activities of the Taleban have been half-hearted at best, much to the displeasure of President Karzai.
"He's been officially trying to maintain good relations with the Karzai government in Kabul, while at the same time allowing - especially the Taleban forces from the Kandahar region but across the border in Pakistan, in Quetta and Baluchistan - he's allowed those forces to continue to have some sanctuary and go back and forth across the border. And I think the Kabul government now is beginning to reach a point of disquiet and dissatisfaction with this," says Goodson.
As far as Iran goes, analysts say most of its attention has been focused elsewhere, primarily on Iraq. But, says Larry Goodson, Afghanistan has not been forgotten in Tehran, particularly with regard to Afghanistan's western provinces that border Iran and are populated with Shiite Muslims.
"What we have seen in Afghanistan is a careful [Iranian] policy of economic development in the west and very quiet business and intelligence linkages being developed out there with, I think, a long run view to at least protecting Iranian interests and thwarting Pakistani expansionism, as they see it," says Goodson.
Goodson adds that Afghanistan's neighboring states' perspective is that that the United States and its allies will not continue to be engaged at a high enough level to prevent the reassertion of a new, little version of the Great Game.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.