America must get a lot better at playing the new ‘Great Game’

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Rudyard Kipling’s depiction of strategic skullduggery — particularly in his 1901 novel, “Kim” — popularized for the British public the “Great Game” of the time, a late 19th-early 20th century political and diplomatic contest between the British Empire and Tsarist Russia over Afghanistan and Central Asia. 

The funny thing about history, as Mark Twain shrewdly put it, is that it does not repeat itself but it often rhymes. Following the dramatic collapse of America’s occupation of Afghanistan, a new Great Game is already advancing, with three players: China, Russia and the U.S./European Union. 

Yet today’s Great Game 2.0 is far more multidimensional than the strategic contest of Kipling’s day. The new game will be played on more levels than the old one was, with diplomatic, economic, cultural, espionage and military maneuverings short of all-out war determining the outcome of the contest. 

Another difference is that, this time around, the Central Asian states of the region have far more agency in terms of determining their own fates, looking to retain true independence and sovereignty amid the great powers.

Of course, the U.S. retains significant interests in the vast Central Asian region, the center of the pivotal Eurasian landmass. The neo-conservatives’ disastrously wrongheaded nation-building agenda must not be allowed to obscure this reality. 

To “win” the game, enhancing its interests at the expense of its great power rivals, the U.S. must be infinitely strategically smarter than it has been over the past generation regarding the Central Asian region. First, the U.S. must accept the continuing need to play the Great Game itself. With the chaotic fall of Kabul, there is a real fear that ISIS Khorasan, al Qaeda and other jihadi organizations will reconstitute themselves in Central Asia, since the Taliban — even if their highly problematic pledges to spurn the terror groups are accepted — has limited control of Afghanistan’s porous borders. 

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, gloomily estimated that al Qaeda could reconstitute itself in Afghanistan in merely six to 36 months. Stopping this from happening by having limited but lethal assets in the region to halt Osama bin Laden’s heirs from attacking the American homeland still amounts to an overwhelming primary American national security interest. 

The second primary U.S. national interest at play in the new Great Game is keeping either rival great power, China or Russia, from wholly dominating the Eurasian heartland, replete with its vast natural resources. Particularly, rising China, the architect of the $2 trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) encompassing the region, must not be left to solely economically dominate Eurasia.

The new Great Game provides America with just such an opportunity to meet these twin strategic imperatives. With U.S. primacy in the region gone because of the debacle in Afghanistan, quasi-allies Russia and China now find themselves in direct competition for primary dominance in Central Asia — with Russia dominating the strategic landscape even as China is paramount economically. 

This present sectoral division favors Beijing, even as it throws Russia and America together in terms of basic strategic interests in the region. Both fear the rise of terrorism and narco-trafficking in an anarchic Afghanistan, and both fear China’s dominance of the Eurasian heartland. No one is naively saying that Moscow and Washington are about to become allies, or even should be. However, the new Great Game, from America’s perspective, allows the U.S. to work with Russia in Central Asia; doing so suits both powers’ interests.

At the same time, doing so increases and exploits the fissures in the Sino-Russian alliance. A practical place to start is for the Biden administration to explore Russian President Vladimir Putin’s offer, made at the Geneva summit in June, to allow U.S. troops and assets to be quartered at Russian bases in the region, for dealing with the common violent extremist/jihadi enemy (in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan), should such an initiative be necessary. 

A second U.S. move in the new Great Game must be to more actively diplomatically engage the other Central Asian countries in the region, particularly pivotal Kazakhstan. Possessing the region’s largest landmass, largest regional economy, and largest military, Kazakhstan is where the new Great Game begins and ends. Facilitating the Central Asian Union, a regional body originally proposed by former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, would boost the region’s internal agency, allowing it to diplomatically withstand the Taliban threat. 

There are also real opportunities for increased Western investment in Kazakhstan. The World Bank recently found that it ranked 25th out of 190 economies in terms of ease of doing business. 

Strategically, in line with America’s post-Afghanistan Central Asian interests, Kazakhstan — like most regional great powers — is trying to steer a neutral course between great powers Russia, China and the West, a point of view that coincides with U.S. interests. At the diplomatic level, successfully increasing engagement with Kazakhstan and the other Central Asian states is the obvious next play in the new Great Game. 

Practically, at the policy level, the U.S. should push to do more with pivotal Kazakhstan, seeing that its neutralist foreign policy dovetails with America’s own interests. The countries in the region would prefer to make policy decisions themselves, with global and regional powers taking a back seat but supporting them in dealings with Afghanistan in the humanitarian, educational and economic realms. For example, America should urge that the United Nations aid hub for the region be established in Almaty, the largest city in the country’s south, as a sign of America’s continuing commitment to the countries of the region as a whole.

More broadly, this may be an opportunity for the U.S. to attempt to transform Kazakhstan and Central Asia away from a gladiatorial arena between Washington, Beijing and Moscow and into a hub for seeking a stable balance of power. Whether America likes it or not, a new Great Game is upon it. We must hope that a chastened U.S. is ready to up its game. 

Dr. John C. Hulsman is president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a global political-risk consulting firm headquartered in Milan, Germany and London. A life member of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, Hulsman is a contributing editor for Aspenia, the flagship foreign policy journal of The Aspen Institute, Italy. Follow him on Twitter @JohnHulsman1.

Tags Afghanistan conflict Central Asia China Great Game Joe Biden Kazakhstan Mark Milley Russia Vladimir Putin

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