The Great Game played out again

Russia has asked for Britain's help over the Afghan crisis. Christopher Bellamy reports

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Stiller as Derek Zoolander in the leaked trailer for Zoolander 2
film
Sport
footballArsenal take the Community Shield thanks to a sensational strike from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
Arts and Entertainment
Gemma Chan as synth Anita in Humans
film
News
Keeping it friendly: Tom Cruise on ‘The Daily Show’ with Jon Stewart
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ensemble cast: Jamie McCartney with ‘The Great Wall of Vagina’
artBritish artist Jamie McCartney explains a work that is designed to put women's minds at rest
News
Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Engineer

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for an I...

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen