It all started with Dost Mohammad Khan.
In 1838, the wily Afghan emir, disappointed in his British allies, chose to flirt with his powerful northern neighbours, the Russians. The Russians were only too happy to oblige, but it cost Dost Mohammad dearly. The irate British deposed him, invaded the country, and installed a corrupt former ruler. It took three years and a bloody war to get Dost Mohammad back on the throne.
Known as the Great Game, or, more poetically, the “Tournament of Shadows”, the long and vicious ballet between the Great Powers over the fate of Afghanistan has continued for over 170 years. All too often, it has resulted in war, death and destruction for all the parties involved.
Now they’re at it again.
Afghan president Hamed Karzai, hand-picked and supported by the United States, has lost his status as darling of the West. This has been obvious since at least last June, when he returned from the Paris donor conference in a frankly bellicose mood, apparently having been given the word that his seven-year blank cheque had expired.
It has been painfully clear since Barack Obama became president of the United States. Ever since the US election on November 4, officials have been severely critical of the Karzai administration.
So the Afghan president has resorted to the time-honoured tactic of the emirs – bring in the Russian bear.
Last November, Karzai quietly sent a letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The content was not made public, but the answer certainly was.
On January 24, Karzai’s administration leaked Medvedev’s response, which was full of assurances of friendship and offers of cooperation on defence.
Karzai lost no time in capitalising on his new chumminess with Russia. In an address to graduates of the National Military Academy on January 25, Karzai warned that “if the United States does not help us, we will ask other countries for planes and tanks”.
While he did not name his new partner, most observers believe he was referring to Russia.
The Afghan defence ministry added fuel to the fire.
“An Afghan government delegation may go to Russia in the near future,” said defence ministry spokesman General Zahir Azimi. “The details of the assistance will become clear at that time.”
The Russian embassy declined requests for an interview.
Many observers have viewed Karzai’s tactics with dismay, fearing that it can only lead the country further into chaos.
“Whenever Afghan leaders have a problem with the West, they turn to Russia, and vice versa,” said Habibullah Rafi, of the Afghan academy of sciences. He pointed out that it was seldom in Afghanistan’s long-term interests to encourage rivalry between its allies of convenience.
“When Daoud Khan was prime minister in the 1960s, he repeatedly asked western countries for military cooperation, but they did not respond,” said Rafi. “So he turned to the Soviet Union.”
After he became president, Daoud Khan prided himself on his ability to juggle the superpowers, deriving benefit from both.
“I am happiest when I can light my American cigarettes with Russian matches,” he is quoted as saying.
But he lit more than a cigarette: he ignited a fire that toppled his regime and led to the Soviet invasion of his country, setting the stage for the current crisis.
Karzai would do well to be cautious with the Russians, added Rafi.
“Russia was defeated here once,” he said. “If it gets involved again, it will take out its frustration on us.”
Afghanistan could once again become the football in a match between world powers, warn analysts.
“Russia is not alone,” said Ahmad Sayedi, a former diplomat. “Iran is with it, as well as China. We are in the middle of an economic war, and these countries want to challenge the West and NATO.”
By responding to Karzai’s overtures, Russia is trying to show that it can assume its old dominion over the region, say some.
“Russia is giving Afghanistan the green light because it wants to show that they can ensure the security of the area themselves, with no need for the United States and NATO,” said political analyst Wahid Muzhda.
But the old days of superpower rivalry are gone, say others, and Russia is no longer the giant it once was – so Afghanistan could do well to strike up a friendship with its northern neighbour.
“Times have changed, and if Afghanistan has the freedom to have support from all countries, in order to strengthen its army … without creating friction between East and West, it will benefit the country,” said Ghafour Liwal, head of the Centre for Regional Studies.
Russia, he added, showed every sign of cooperating with the US in the region, granting transit rights for non-lethal supplies to American troops in Afghanistan, and recently hinting that weapons shipments might also be permitted.
Russia has taken a back seat in Afghanistan over the past seven years, as the US and its allies have pursued their war on terror. But it has kept its hand in, as witnessed by the aborted deal to train police and counter-narcotics officers in 2008.
Eighteen officers had been selected, and given visas and tickets for Moscow, but the trip was cancelled the day before their scheduled departure. Afghanistan cited technical difficulties, but Russia reacted strongly.
“We think there are foreign advisers in [the interior and counter-narcotics] ministries who are sabotaging this process,” said Zamir Nabievich Kabulov, Russia’s ambassador to Kabul, speaking to the media at the time. “This shows their lack of transparency and impartiality, and the Americans’ intentions in the area of counter-narcotics will come into question.”
But when the big powers squabble, it is often ordinary Afghans who pay the price.
“We lost everything because of these military [rivalries],” said Ehsanullah, a Kabul resident, referring to the country’s foreign-sponsored civil wars. “We do not want to get caught in these games again.”
Jean MacKenzie is IWPR Afghanistan programme director.
IWPR-trained journalists in Afghanistan contributed to this report.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.