The “Great Game” was the byname given to the 19th century confrontation between the British and Russian empires over Afghanistan and the contiguous territories in Central and South Asia. War, diplomacy, tribal politics, spying, and sabotage were the norms that governed rapports between protagonists in the field.
Both empires –stricto sensu– are no more, while others have since emerged including, the US hegemon and more recently, the Chinese dragon which is fast on the rise. But in today’s world, expansionist intentions are not limited to empires as defined two centuries ago. Aspiring nations with sophisticated arsenals, proclivity for land-grab and, strong ideological undercurrents can also play this game.
As nature abhors the void, it tends to fill-it the best way it can. So, the unbecoming exit of US troops from Afghanistan -and from various foreign zones – will be filled by others, no doubt. One can foretell that the prospective exit of US troops from Syria and Iraq will undoubtedly pave the way for a wider field to be crowded by auxiliary newcomers.
Russia, China, Turkey, and Iran seem most bent at trying their hands at this blood sport. Russia, who has learned a harsh lesson in Afghanistan few decades ago, will most likely consolidate its ‘holdings’ in Syria and attempt to make some inroads, in due time, both in Libya and in Iraq. The Baathists ideology might reemerge in Baghdad if relations with Iran become sour in the future. Turkey is already leveraging its patronage of Qatar by playing ‘Sunni Arbiter’ in Afghanistan thus, putting more pressure on Iran and Pakistan, the nervous neighbors of the newly reinstated Taliban. Meanwhile, Iran will make full use of its assets in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza to extract better terms at the Vienna negotiation table. Finally, China will have more leeway than all, as it steps onto the Middle East/Near East stage with no colonial legacies, no recent invasions, or ghastly withdrawals, rich with project-financing, and, capable -if need be- of using overwhelming military power.
Amidst all these tectonic shifts, the Biden-Blinken foreign policy team seems out of touch, like a deer caught in the headlights. The US State Department will limit itself, as it has done, to issuing futile condemnations that have no correlation with the realities on the ground. Just like its recent statement of consternation about the new Taliban government not being inclusive of female members. A fact, not a parody. With no skin in the game, no boots on the ground, and a rabbit-speed exit from Kabul, the US is as distant from the region politically as it is geographically. We reckon that domestic demons, from the Woke Culture to the Fauci-led Covid-19 crusade, to inflationary pressures and the US mid-term elections, will keep the US too busy and much harmless for a while.
Amidst this situation some Arab nations especially, Egypt, Saudi and the UAE, will work on reinstating their relations with Turkey (a Sunni fellow nation), on strengthening their ties with Russia (an OPEC ally), on solidifying their overt-covert links with Israel (a staunch anti-Iranian coalitionist), and on maintaining traditionally good rapports with the EU + UK (natural commercial and defense partners). In fact, these Arab nations would arguably have more partners to choose from, to ward off their foes pointedly, Iran and its regional proxy militias.
In the context of game theory, the more players the higher risk of collusions but also the more possibilities for alternative strategies. Winning will not solely depend on one nation’s military might, or natural resources, or demographics. The relative strengths and weaknesses of other players in the game must be factored-in, before initiating any forward action.
After the disastrous closure of the US chapter on Afghanistan, every aspiring entrant in the ‘Great Game’ should heed the words of Erwin Rommel: “Don’t fight a battle if you don’t gain anything by winning”.