There is a palpable sense of fear and implicit adulation over the fact that Afghanistan is charting out an ‘independent’ foreign policy. Of course the country is entitled to win its own friends and influence people, but the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani&’s efforts to seek the support of China is a major departure from the diplomacy pursued by his predecessor, Hamid Karzai.

For a country of wounded innocence, it is difficult to forget that Afghanistan is a terrain where Czarist Russia and Victorian Britain were for a century engaged in imperial rivalry called “The Great Game”. The final phase of the Soviet-American Cold War was a deterrent to world peace. For the administrations of President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, and General Zia-ul-Haq, the warlike swathe of Pakistan&’s tribal north-west was the indispensable base to raise, train and launch an Islamic guerrilla army against the Soviet invaders. Henry Kissinger had in the late 1960s and early 1970s exploited the close ties between the USA and Pakistan&’s military rulers to forge a strategic relationship with China, the Soviet Union&’s great Asian rival and adversary. The then US Defence Secretary, Harold Brown, visited Beijing to follow up on the careful work (covert aid to the nascent anti-Russian resistance fighters) begun by Kissinger and Nixon. He secured China&’s assent and assistance in the Afghanistan adventure. Pakistan and China formed the anchor in Washington&’s Asian game.

Once again, Pakistan and China are in the reckoning. President Ghani paid a landmark visit to China in October last year. It transpired that China had already established several forums in an effort to rope in the neighbouring states and others to support the reconciliation process in Afghanistan, with broad hints of putative stakeholders. One tripod involves talks between China, Afghanistan and Pakistan; the second is a group of regional countries called ‘Six Plus One’, involving the USA, Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Iran besides Afghanistan. Western diplomats sotto voce point that the Chinese are wary of talking about another ‘tripod’ – China, USA and Afghanistan – and one that is believed to have held several meetings.

The Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 led to a fundamental change in US policy. While it elevated the strategic relationship with China to a de facto alliance, it began to court Pakistan assiduously as a frontline state. Almost as a quid pro quo, in exchange for the US aid package from both the Carter and the Reagan administrations, Pakistan agreed to be the ‘conduit’ for the supply of US arms, training and funding to the Afghan guerrillas organised by ISI, in a ‘holy’ war against the Afghan government and its Soviet backers. The travesty of history and the dictates of realpolitik are such that the colluders of history are now in the role of saviours.

Considerable blood has flown down the Amu Darya and many limbs across the Khyber Pass have been blown off as Afghanistan is charting out a course of tortuous peace. One presumption is that the battle-weary country does not want to go back to the heady days of instability and that China would urge Pakistan to play a constructive role in Afghan security. This would mean inviting the Taliban to the negotiation table… with a unity government on the agenda. Lest we forget that the Afghan Taliban – referred to as the Good Taliban by Pakistan and the USA – nurtured by the ISI to fight Pakistan&’s proxy battle in Afghanistan is now deemed to be a “good boy”. However, observers have noted that the Taliban is no longer the monolithic group under a single leader, subject to the ISI&’s machinations. On the contrary, it has many clones and offshoots with differing loyalties, notably the Al-Khorasan and the Tehrik-e-Taliban which is a breakaway group from the original Taliban created by the Pakistan government and has now become the latter&’s avowed enemy.

In a significant development recently, President Ghani has ordered the country&’s intelligence service to end a bloody campaign of retaliatory covert action against Pakistan&’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, in a bid to secure Islamabad&’s support for talks with the Taliban leadership expected to materialise very shortly. Following the recent release of some of the documents captured in the US raid on Osama bin Laden&’s Abbottabad hideout, it is generally believed that the Al Qaida was trying to prop up the TTP as a threat and the Haqqani network as a messenger to the ISI. These are two independent terror groups that prowl the badlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

When the US handpicked the Westernised Pashtun, Hamid Karzai, as leader of the new government, it was naïve on our part to feel complacent. He was neither involved in the fight against the Soviets nor against the Taliban. He had minimal tribal support.

America had enlisted tribal warlords such as Hazrat Ali in Nangarhar province, Pacha Khan Zadran in Khowst province, and Mohammed Shirzai in Qandahar province to provide Karzai with military support in regions where the Pashtun tribes were politically and demographically dominant. But they did not ascertain whether these warlords had been in exile or were under domestic subordination. They had little support inside the country, and worse, were afraid of the Taliban and Al Qaida.

President Ghani will hopefully be able to transform Karzai&’s Great Game to a Great Gamble. In terms of geopolitics, the role of China is crucial. The greater challenge is the resurgence of a conservative tribal and Islamist society in Afghanistan. A de-Talibanised Afghanistan has always been a myth. India must, therefore, take steps to protect its embassy, citizens and other projects that symbolise bilateral cooperation. At least this time, China must be prompted to succeed.