The Great Game played out again

Russia has asked for Britain's help over the Afghan crisis. Christopher Bellamy reports
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The Independent Online
The continued success of the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban in Afghanistan has brought about a bizarre rerun of the 19th- century "Great Game", when British and Russian diplomats engaged in cloak-and-dagger operations to establish influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia in the face of a Russian threat to invade the British Raj in India.

But in the new game, the players are rather different. Russia has quietly asked Britain for help, and the two former imperial adversaries find themselves arrayed with France, Iran and other former Soviet republics against Britain's ally the United States.

In recent weeks, the Taliban - "seekers of religious knowledge" - who seized Kabul in the autumn have continued to drive back the Jamiat-i-Islami faction led by the military commander General Ahmed Shah Masood.

The Taliban have continued to make gains north of Kabul, near the entrance to the key Panjshir valley, the scene of much fighting during the Soviet Union's 10-year Afghan war, which leads north-east to Tajikistan. Fighting has recently taken place around Bagram airbase, north of the capital.

The Independent has learnt that Russia has hinted to Britain that it wants more help against the Taliban and in support of General Masood's troops. This is consistent with Russian noises about concern for their "near abroad" and requests for Nato help in dealing with Central Asian instability.

The Jamiat-i-Islami gains its support mainly from the Farsi (Persian)- speaking ethnic group in Afghanistan and has supporters in Russia, Iran and India. All these countries support General Masood against the extreme Sunni Taliban, who are mostly ethnic Pathans. So do Britain and France, which are both concerned about Islamic fundamentalism.

Iran is unhappy about the presence of the Taliban just across its border. The Sunni Taliban movement's strong sentiments against the Shia and Pathan domination of a largely Persian-speaking area of Afghanistan, are both most unwelcome to Iran. Neighbouring Uzbekistan is uneasy about Islamic fundamentalists, particularly Pathans, so close to its borders. Tajikistan fears that fundamentalist influences might reinforce Islamic insurgents on its territory, and Russia fears they might spread in Russia, too.

On 4 October last year, Russia called a conference of the CIS to discuss the situation in Afghanistan, which is adding to its concerns about security in the former Soviet Union - the "near abroad". By the end of last year, Russia was openly asking Nato for help in improving security in central Asia.

Pakistan, which has given some encouragement and support to the Taliban, also has its concerns. It is worried that the Taliban may revive demands for an independent Pathan state (Pushtunistan) which would incorporate an extensive belt of Pakistani territory.

The Pakistan government also worries about a spill-over of militant Islam from Afghani- stan, which is already hap- pening - the Taliban have received training and weaponry from extreme Islamic groups in Pakistan.

However, alone among the great powers, the United States has been supporting the Taliban - because of its historic antipathy towards both Russia and Iran. Diplomatic sources said they found the US attitude rather naive, but there was no doubt of its direction.

That has brought about the unlikely and unwelcome prospect of British and French weaponry and advisers on General Masood's side clashing with US advisers and materiel on the Taliban side. The Foreign Office said yesterday that it remained committed to the present arms embargo prohibiting supplies to Afghanistan and that Britain's main concern was to maintain the Overseas Development Administration's aid project in Afghanistan which the Taliban regime has hindered.

Diplomatic sources said they were very concerned about the repression of women and the implementation of their interpretation of Islamic sharia law, but has refused to comment on suggestions that Britain was playing a more active role, and stressed that British diplomats in the region would meet representatives of any of the warring factions. However, other sources say that other options are also being canvassed.

Afghanistan is already awash with weapons, mostly inherited from the 10-year Soviet war. However, the Taliban have also acquired US weapons via Pakistan. Harold Wilson famously said that "the frontiers of Britain lie on the Himalayas" - but he said it just before slashing Britain's defence commitments east of Suez. The renewed attention in London to Afghanistan is evidence that the end of the Cold War is taking Britain back into places which hitherto were only Imperial memories. A power vacuum has opened up, and Britain is one of many nations edging into it.

It is partly oil and gas that has led to a revival of British interest. British Gas and BP are both involved in extracting gas and oil from Central Asia. British Gas is involved in a joint venture with Agip, an Italian company, and the Kazakhstan government to exploit a huge field at Karchaganak in Kazakhstan.

BP is involved in joint ventures in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan to extract petroleum from the Caspian Sea. This has meant that there is considerable concern in London over the stability of Central Asia, and a desire to assist Russia in main- taining it.

There are only two small gas-distribution pipes running from Uzbekistan into Afghanistan, which date back to the days when Afghanistan was no more than a client regime of the Soviet Union. Until a stable and politically acceptable regime is established, Afghanistan is only of interest as a route to get relatively small quantities of oil and gas to Pakistan.