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Few had imagined that Rudyard Kipling’s picaresque novel “Kim” would be remembered as such an apt satire on the political affairs of the region. The old great game has ended and today the politics of the post colonial world is quite distinct from the past. Independent states have now come about to establish their self-rule and sovereignty. Nevertheless, an end to colonialism must not be equated to an end to imperialism as well. The aim to establish control and maximize domination continues to direct international affairs till today. Newly independent states as well as superpowers continue to aspire to establish hegemony but the players and the means of the great game have changed. The old Great Game emerged when the Russian and British empires struggled for dominance in the region. Today the economic resources of the central Asia have raised its importance in the region with China, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan all aiming to establish relations such that their countries can benefit from the Central Asian oil and gas. Pakistan specifically due to a host of factors has lost a chance of doing so mainly due to US influence on its foreign policy and the situation in Afghanistan. This paper will examine what were the exact circumstances that prevented this relationship from flourishing. Moreover, future prospects for Pakistan will also be analyzed as regards its position of being one of the major contenders in the region.  
                Afghanistan has been the bone of contention for centuries and continues to be so today. Its strategic location and importance has caused several powers to attempt to establish control over it. The nineteenth century saw the Russian and British empires competing for supremacy and control throughout the world. This led them to colonize various lands and cultures. Both powers attempted to establish control over the most prized lands and Afghanistan due to its prime location was significant. The British suspected that after establishing control in most of Central Asia, the Russians would move towards Afghanistan since it would help them gain access to a sea route through the Indian sub continent. This was alarming for the British as the Indian sub continent was considered the “jewel in the crown” for the British Empire. The situation reached somewhat of a halt in 1907 when the Anglo-Russian agreement was signed and both powers agreed to contain their advances and define their spheres of influence[1] . However in foreign policy, interests end up taking precedence disregarding historical relations and similarly the situation changed between Russia and Britain. With new powers such as Germany and USA coming to the forefront, world politics took a different turn. The two empires lost their strength and later in World War II ended up becoming allies. With the new political situation, the old great game drifted into the past as the empires involved lost their glory.

Soviet hegemony in Central Asia can be traced back to the 18th century. Two phases majorly define Russian domination of the region of Kazakhstan; the first from 1731 to 1854 and then from 1865 to 1881. This followed a period of immense transformation and change. The populace was a mix of a variety of ethnicities, and most of them were culturally well wedded to Islamic norms. The Russians at first considered it expedient not to interfere with the cultural set up but to focus on urbanization and development. Around 1926, communist reforms took hold and a ban was put on religious propaganda and schooling. The script was changed from Arabic to Latin and the entire clergy was now dependant on the centralized Soviet system[2] . The Soviet efforts although prioritized centralization in economic terms but in terms of politics, they favored setting up of a political elite. Also through conscious efforts of movement and migration, they altered the natural ethnic composition of these lands. These steps were to have far flung consequences on the future of these countries even after independence from the USSR.

After US emerged as the victor from the cold war, Pakistan lost all strategic value for it. US left Afghanistan as well without any reconstruction initiatives or infrastructure building. The decade of the 1990s saw “Islamic fundamentalism” other such movements as the next menace after the decline of communism. Building ties with the newly independent Central Asian Republics was crucial for Pakistan at this moment. These states possessed rich mineral resources and also a similar cultural and historical background. On the other hand the Central Asian states wanted to assert their identity and independence and to free themselves of Russia’s patronage. The southern side seemed an attractive option for the Central Asian Republics to build up ties with. Due to their secular politics, India appeared as the most suitable option. However Pakistan was also a major contender in the region especially with regards the fact that it was the rightful heir of the Muslims tradition and rule in the sub continent [3].Moreover strengthening of ties with India was a plausible option since India sided with the communist USSR right from the beginning.

 Nevertheless, Pakistan was a most viable option due to geographical proximity foremost. The Special Technical Assistance Program was started under which Pakistan provided training and courses to Central Asian students in English, diplomacy and a variety of other subjects[4] .Although after the fall of communism in these states, religious freedom did find its place, nevertheless the long standing secular mindset could not be eradicated in a short time. This is why these states were initially apprehensive of developing stronger ties with Iran fearing the export of a revolution. Pakistan seemed a safe option as no strong religious movements were thriving in Pakistan at that time. Turkey was also not a priority for the Central Asian states since they had long sustained a history of Turkish domination and they were now looking forward to self assertion. Furthermore, Pakistan provided a reliable sea route for trade and commerce and so relations building with Pakistan became an important foreign policy concern for these newly independent states as well. Therefore they have shown considerable support towards Pakistan.  Islam Karimov, of Uzbekistan pressed that a solution to the Kashmir dispute through peaceful means was essential in order to maintain peace and stability in the region. The Foreign Minister of the ECO has also asserted a similar claim that the Kashmir issue is central to peace in the region and must be resolved according to the United Nations resolutions[5]

By far the major stalemate in the relations between the Central Asian Republics and Pakistan has been the situation in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan has been whimsical and ineffective. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was a landmark event in the history of the region. It became the central focus for the United States as the intensity of the cold war reached new heights. The US viewed Pakistan as an ally through which it could rid the region of Soviet interference. During the 1990s Pakistan viewed their support for the Taliban as a guarantee of stability in both the countries. This fateful decision was advocated by the military who believed that a strong government such as that of the Taliban could ensure peace between the warring ethnicities in Afghanistan at the time. Moreover the Pakistani government at the time had to deal with local pressure itself arising from the vast Pashtun population in Pakistan, many of whom ideologically supported the Taliban at that time [6].
              The decision to support the Taliban however was not simply based on the idea of supporting US interests but also keeping in view the Indian threat. Pakistan at the time considered that based on their support to the Taliban, the Taliban would in turn provide Pakistan with any support in the future to maintain peace. Although this view was controversial however Pakistan military were adamant on the idea due to the magnified threat of India[7]. The ISI contained many strong elements in support of the Taliban till a long while and this reality continued to perplex the US as well. The Central Asian Republics viewed the Taliban as a menace in the region. This was partly owed to the fact that these countries had a populace of diverse ethnicities and the Taliban government was hostile to all apart from the Pashtuns in Afghanistan. This is why Tajikistan and Uzbekistan had been supporting leaders of the Northern Alliance providing them with arms and support in their struggle against the Taliban. Perhaps Turkmenistan was the only exception who had taken a friendly stance towards the Taliban regime [8].With the Taliban government coming to power in 1996, world opinion became antagonistic towards Pakistan as well since Pakistan was one of the three states in the entire world to support and recognize the new government in Afghanistan. Moreover the internal degenerating conditions of Afghanistan lead the drug trade to flourish there and this was having consequences for the neighboring countries. One of the major problems that perplexed the Central Asian Republics was the illegal drug flow into their countries from Afghanistan [9].This was creating issues of law and order and crime even in Pakistan however the military regimes chose to ignore it and gave precedence to allying with the US. This companionship of Pakistan with the Taliban regime alienated the Central Asian Republics who felt that strong links with such a country would export similar radicalism and extremism to their lands about which they were highly apprehensive.
                Due to their historical communist background, the Central Asian states were disinclined towards religious extremism. These societies had been brought up on secular lines by the USSR and now even after independence they naturally held on to much of Russian influence and ideology. They did not experience any nationalist movements or struggle for liberation. In fact upon the brink of independence these countries found themselves with previous communist leaders as their head of states. Therefore the secular tilt made them apprehensive of strictly Islamic movements and slogans. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) was one such movement that was headed by Juma Namangani and consisted of Uzbek and Tajik radicals. Although their ideology was unclear however in order to gain power and create civil strife they played the religious card in Uzbekistan [10].They were opposed to President Karimov’s regime and after a bloody incident of bombings, many of their leaders and members were arrested by the government. Around the year 2000, due to the political turmoil and arrests, their leader fled to Afghanistan where he found a safe haven with the Taliban. Apart from being strictly opposed to extremist movements, the governments of these states especially in Uzbekistan, were highly averse to anything with even the slightest hint of religion attached to it. During Karimov’s regime, not only was there a complete lack of religious freedom but also every attempt was made to curb political expression and liberty [11]. On the other hand, pursuit of the Islamic ideology has been one of top priorities of every successive Pakistan government, as in most cases it has served to legitimize their rule.
               Pakistan viewed the inception of the Central Asian republics as being of immense economic benefit for itself. The idea was to form regional links with these states as they were regarded as a treasure of untapped mineral resources. Pakistan on the other hand was a viable option for these states as well since they were land locked and they required Pakistan’s support and cooperation. Initially what appeared as a marriage of convenience however could not end up successfully due to several in competencies. The first major step towards economic and trade related cooperation was the entrance of these six countries into the ECO (Economic Cooperation Organization) in 1992. The ECO began in 1985 by Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. It was a successor organization to the RCD (Regional Cooperation for Development). However till much of the decade, trade between ECO countries remained limited. For the Central Asian Republics trading activity with Russia always took precedence. Moreover, most of the member states are semi-industrialized economies which make them dependent on external suppliers [12]They are more or less on the same standing and majority of exports and produce accounts for raw materials and not finished goods [13]. It is also noteworthy that in case of better quality exports countries in the ECO chose to trade with major trading partners outside the region thereby rendering the function of the ECO ineffective. Also it is challenging for Pakistan and Iran to face competition coming from China and the Far East because of low cost labor available in China especially. This fact explains the trend that the only diversification experienced has been an increase in trade with China by the Central Asian Republics, exposing weaknesses in the ECO.

The ECO was speculated to provide a golden opportunity for regional trade to flourish and for ties to strengthen between Pakistan and Central Asia however apart from economic constraints, the failure of the project can also be attributed to the leadership. Implementation of economic policies requires a strong stance and focus on the part of the leadership in the region and this was strongly lacking. The decade of the 1990s saw Benazir Bhutto’s and Nawaz Sharif’s governments coming to power and their foreign policy objectives were not far sighted enough to judge the significance of building up this lucrative connection. Successive Pakistani governments remained infatuated with harboring the Islamic ideology mainly to secure their position and to avoid internal strife by religious circles. Furthermore the strong dependence on US meant that Pakistan had to play an important role in the Afghanistan fiasco which ended up putting Pakistan in the Taliban mess.
                 With the advent of the 21st century Pakistan finds itself amidst new political and strategic conflicts. The global environment is starkly different from what it was when the Russian and British empires were ruling the world. Although the incentives remain more or less the same i.e. economic control leading to political hegemony however the means have changed. Today the situation is far more complex and does not involve only two competing empires rather each country is interested in pursuing its own agenda. The region of Central Asia retains its importance and some such as Ahmed Rasheed hold the view that a new great game has emerged with China, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan.
                  Pakistan’s role in the new great game depends on how much influence it can exert. It has the options of building oil and gas pipelines such as the most famous intended project of the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. However for this Pakistan requires major economic cooperation. The Trans-Afghanistan pipeline aimed to transport approximately 33 billion cubic meters of gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan. It was to continue from Pakistan to India. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is monitoring the feasibility of the project[14]. The project has not been able to produce results on ground because Afghanistan continues to be the hub of violence and internal strife. Iran on the other hand is offering a more secure route to Pakistan and India from Turkmenistan, over which US expressed deep concern. The other major player in the new great game Russia remains the largest importer of Turkmenistan’s gas. Despite new avenues opening for Turkmenistan, Russia does not want to see its old patronage slipping away. Despite the fact that old pipelines are almost withering away, an agreement was signed with Russia on rebuilding them. China too is watchful and is building a pipeline to export gas from Turkmenistan[15]. The TAPI pipeline has immense prospects of boosting Pakistan’s position in the region and also in increasing stability. If the project is materialized Pakistan can secure royalty from India on the passage of gas to India via the pipeline. This will help to improve the trust deficit that exists between the two neighbors and will promote much needed peace in the region.
                  Another profitable alternative is the Gwadar sea port offers Pakistan a golden opportunity to develop trade links with Central Asia, China and Iran. Iran views the development of the Gwadar port as a threat for its own Chambahar port since now it may distract trade that was previously dependent on Iran’s port. Iran is therefore taking India’s help and making sure that the place of Chambahar port is not lost.  China’s interest in Gwadar port was inevitable as it became weary of US troops centered at Western Asian countries. It wanted to secure safer alternative sea routes so that it would not be completely dependent on the ones coming from the Persian Gulf.  The first three years of the development process saw rapid progress and raised expectations[16]. Land prices began to rise upwards and Gwadar began to be viewed as an upcoming port being built on international standards. This raised both local interest as well as chances of further foreign investment. However Balochistan is witnessing separatist movements and they are apprehensive of foreign influence and presence in their land. The attack on Chinese engineers in the year 2004 was a major blow to the project[17]. However if Pakistan can pacify local Baloch sentiments and make them stakeholders in the project, Pakistan economy can benefit immensely. The port has the potential to become a hub for trading activities in the region and will pull the attention of the landlocked Central Asian Republics. It can provide a major breakthrough and boost to Pakistan’s relations with these states, which have broken down due to several historical factors. Not only that, with being in control of international trade in the region, Pakistan will not only reap economic benefits but can also affirm itself on political and regional issues.  

For centuries in international affairs, countries have always been struggling and competing for economic control and political hegemony. Powerful nations have in the past exploited the rest of the world through colonization. Today world politics is dominated by controlling energy resources and thereby securing complete hegemony over the rest of the world. The case of the Central Asian Republics is a perfect example of how world powers such as USA, China and Russia are aiming to extract and exploit the treasure of resources found there. Moreover the regional powers such as Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkey have also become stakeholders and are making profound attempts to haul out maximum benefit. In the current global situation with regards the issues of terrorism at the forefront of US policy, Central Asian Republics can serve as useful allies. Due to their location they are connected to Pakistan and Afghanistan; the two most troubled regions at present. US wanted that it should guarantee Central Asian support in eradicating terrorists from the region and in this way it would not solely have to rely on Pakistan’s support. Previously with Pakistan experiencing internal problems of inflation, weak governments and terrorism it could not assert its interests out rightly in the great game. However with the current state of affairs, the situation has become more volatile and unpredictable. The end of Osama bin Laden can be viewed as leading to a pulling out of American troops from Afghanistan. An improved peace situation in Afghanistan is what the region has been yearning for for around two decades now and it is something that can lead to peace and more economic development in the region which will be immensely beneficial for Pakistan.

Written By: Chanel Khaliq

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