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21st century ‘Great Game’

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Ikram Sehgal

Rudyard Kipling’s 19th-century “Great Game” encompassed mostly the region mow comprising Pakistan and Afghanistan and adjacent areas. It remained an area of turmoil in the 20th century. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the subsequent events that led to the ouster of Soviet forces and the emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the last decade of the past century brought things to a head.
Robert D Kaplan’s 13th book, Monsoon, expands the area of “the Great Game” in the 21st century and examines the role of the US in the Indian Ocean. The interested powers include China, Russia, India and the emerging countries at the rim of the Indian Ocean. The search for energy and its denial thereof are what drove Japan to battle in the Second World War. The 21st century “Great Game” still has oil and gas as objectives, but the primary riches are greater (and now definable), the untold wealth buried in the triangle where the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan meet with Iran’s.
Columbus went in search of the tantalising and coveted yellow metal called gold in the New World. It inspired a rush to places as diverse as California and Alaska in the 19th century. Reko Diq has brought to the surface the hidden urgency in Western circles to dominate the area in the 21st century. The world’s largest goldmine is only the tip of the iceberg, the location being part of the Tethyan Magmatic Arc that extends from southern Europe, Turkey, Iran and through the Himalayan region into Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Enormous gold and copper lodes exist underneath the north-western horn of Balochistan, a mostly inhabitable desert area in Chagai district of perhaps 5,000 sq kms (100 kms west to east and 50 kms north to south), which makes it perhaps the richest real estate in the world today.
Kaplan has maintained in his book that it is in the greater Indian Ocean region that the “21st century’s global power dynamics will be revealed.” The world’s huge copper, gold and diamond mines and their history makes it apparent why the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean will be contested between those aspiring to control access to its wealth.
Kaplan accuses China of inspiring the new conflict. That is not true: China is only reacting late to the impending encroachment into its own vicinity, an area that gives it land access to other areas through the Karakorams. Kashgar in Xinjiang province being declared a “Special Economic Zone” is significant.
Local populations benefit only partially from Western exploitation of mining assets, and that also till the raw material underground lasts. With the wealth safely in the coffers of the Western world, the area is left a wasteland, both in the aftermath of mining and the ravages of battle to grab the riches. Places in Africa having vast mineral resources are even today major areas of internecine conflict – e.g., the diamond mines of West African states.
Attracted to Balochistan like bees to honey, everyone and his uncle has ideas of how to bring about “democracy,” not only in this province of feudal lords but a possible “Greater Balochistan.” If leaders like the Bugtis, Marris and Mengals are democrats, Adolf Hitler was a pacifist! This has nothing to do with the people. The subterfuge is simply intended for the looting of the province’s wealth. The Taliban’s being lumped together with the terrorists provides the casus belli.
Those who brokered the initial Reko Diq deal, BHP Billiton and its Pakistani agents, have already made billions and are happily settled abroad. They have enough money to shape Pakistani politics through the judicious use of lobbyists to influence US policy in the region, in a judo ploy using Pakistan’s wealth against Pakistani interests. Such agents have influenced geopolitics for commercial purposes for centuries, Remember Sir Basil Zaharoff arranging wars in the 19th century between nations on behalf of arms manufacturers?
A few weeks ago, a very crucial US-Pakistan strategic dialogue followed the one held earlier this year. The Pakistani army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani took part in both, giving it the stamp of approval required to give it legitimacy in the eyes of the Pakistani public. The public was satisfied that, with Kayani in attendance, Pakistani geopolitical interests would not be sold out. Soon after that, President Obama visited New Delhi as part of his Asian tour. Pakistanis were mollified by the fact that Obama will visit us sometime in 2011. The hard fact of life is that India is now in a different league altogether and certainly does not want to be equated with Pakistan in world perception. The US was only practicing Realpolitik.
While that snub of sorts one could live with, the real defining moment came when supposed NATO ally Pakistan – despite the 10:1 ratio between its soldiers’ casualties and those of all the coalition partners put together – was not even invited to the NATO summit in Lisbon, although Afghanistan’s Karzai was. We have been reduced to being paid mercenaries who do their master’s bidding but are not invited to dine at the master’s table. And what did we hear from the assembled NATO and other G-20 leaders, except that Pakistan is not doing enough and should do more?
Much as I admire Kayani for the turnaround he has brought in the image of the Pakistani army, he owes it to his 3,000 soldiers dead (in contrast to the 300 or so lost by the coalition) during the last 18 months to demand the self-respect that their sacrifice in blood deserves. Do they deserve mercenary status? Unfortunately, it seems that their continuing sacrifice is for foreign vested interests that for centuries have used compliant natives in their imperial armies as officers and soldiers.
We are in a geopolitical Catch-22 which is only partly of our own making. The “war against terrorism” we have to fight, not for the sake of Western nations but for our own and for the future of our children. We have to take our destiny in our own hands, and not allow it to be manipulated by vested interests. Let us not expect much from the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The court’s judgment on the NRO and beneficiaries thereof came more than a year ago, but after that judgment has been given, why are NRO beneficiaries still “upholding the rule of law”? Nobody asks the government to be unseated, only for those to be shown the door whose presence in government is clearly illegitimate.
The stakes are unimaginably high for this country and its people. Its leaders have clearly been found wanting in being able to safeguard the country’s interests. It is very easy to suggest extra-constitutional rule by the military but is that the answer? Certainly not. It is democracy that must reform itself to meet the challenges that confront us today and will confront us tomorrow. We desperately need leaders who have the moral (and physical) courage to march to a different drumbeat and adopt an attitude that enables us to stand up to foreign powers’ intent in beating their own drum in pursuit of their own particular interests in the 21st century “Great Game.”
A poor nation cannot afford rich leaders.

The writer is a defence and political analyst. Email: isehgal@

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