By David Piper
In the 19th Century Afghanistan was seen as a major prize for the superpowers of that time, Britain and Russia.
It was known as ‘The Great Game’ and involved the two nations attempting to gain influence over Afghanistan and surrounding Central Asian countries by bribes, intimidation or military conquest.
The heart of that 19th Century ‘Cold War’ was the desire to gain access to sell their wares in the lucrative markets of the region and also the prize of India, which Britain then ruled and feared Russia coveted.
Afghanistan has been fought over so many times that it has become well known as a graveyard for invading armies.
The British found that out to their cost in the 19th Century and the USSR discovered that bitter truth in the 20th Century.
Now the U.S. led coalition is counting down the days until all its combat troops have left the country by the end of 2014.
The Alliance has vowed, though, to keep supporting the Afghan government as it battles the Taliban and other groups for control of the country.
Afghanistan is, of course, too important to allow it to become a safe haven again for terrorists to launch further attacks on the West.
But while the soldiers of the Alliance get ready to pack up and head home other countries are now preparing for a new struggle to gain influence in this troubled country.
China, Russia and four Central Asian countries have now vowed to play a larger role in Afghanistan.
At a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) this week in Beijing Afghanistan was also granted observer status of the group that was created as a counterbalance to US and NATO influence in Central Asia.
Chinese President Hu Jintao was quoted in the People’s Daily newspaper:
"We will... play a greater role in the peaceful reconstruction process in Afghanistan…The SCO supports Afghanistan becoming an independent, peaceful, prosperous, neighborly country, free from terrorism and drugs," he said.
James Brazier from HIS Global Insight believes fears over the spread of terrorism across the region once the US led alliance pulls out is uppermost in the minds of those countries:
“The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has reason to fear an unstable Afghanistan. Its main role is to prevent insurgency and narcotics smuggling throughout Central Asia.
If Afghanistan again becomes Disneyworld for jihadists, then there’s a risk of contagion into the brittle post-Soviet states in Central Asia the SCO is designed to protect.”
The SCO is also committed to closer security ties including adopting an anti-terrorism plan and, what it describes as, establishing a swift response mechanism.
That mechanism would allow SCO members to request help of other members during domestic emergencies.
Such a policy could, though. mean Russian and Chinese forces getting involved in dealing with terrorists in the region, including Afghanistan if it becomes a full member.
Neither China or Russia at the moment seem to have the stomach for an Afghan adventure but even the possibility of the country coming within their orbit will concern the United States and its allies.
The major counterbalances to that in the region have historically been India and Pakistan.
But China has already got strong military ties with Pakistan while Russia has for decades been on good relations with India.
The Obama administration, though, is clearly hoping that India will be the answer with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta calling for deeper military ties with the country during his visit this week to Delhi.
"I think close partnership with America will be key to meeting India's own stated aims of a modern and effective defense force," he said.
The US is also looking to India to have more influence in Afghanistan, despite its history of non-alignment.
India has, though, already signed a wide-ranging agreement with Kabul to strengthen ties between the two countries, including the training of Afghan officers in India.
James Brazier of HIS Global Insight doesn’t believe India is the answer to US concerns about creeping Chinese and Russian influence:
“India’s regional influence in Central Asia is constricted because its tucked under the Himalayas and Pakistan acts as its “gatekeeper” to the west. So if the US wants a someone to help project influence in Central Asia, I doubt that India’s it.”
He instead believes the US and Pakistan should try to resolve their current differences and work together in the future as they did in the past when they helped push Soviet forces out of Afghanistan in the 1980’s.
Beyond concerns about spreading terrorism and spheres of influence there is a growing factor that seems to be concentrating the minds of all the major powers, and that is the potential riches to be unearthed in Afghanistan and as a route for pipelines and trade.
The US has, what it describes as a “New Silk Road” strategy that involves attempting to improve trade ties between the countries of central Asia and the Indian sub-continent.
The aim of it is to bring economic prosperity to the region and hopefully that will undermine the extremists.
The US is also promoting the benefits of the TAPI pipeline project that would bring natural gas from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan to markets in Pakistan and India.
Rival powers are already, though, arguing over who will build the pipeline with India objecting to Chinese engineers being involved in the project despite their experience, as some suggest it would bring Beijing more influence in the region and a player in the longstanding disputes between India and Pakistan.
The race for the Afghanistan’s natural resources has already begun and China and India are the frontrunners.
A Pentagon report back in 2010 said that surveys showed that Afghanistan has untapped mineral deposits of nearly a $1 trillion.
Despite the potential bonanza US companies have shied away from investing here because of security concerns, but Chinese and Indian companies have dived in despite the risks.
A consortium of Indian companies has won extraction rights to part of a massive 1.8 billion tones iron ore deposit less than a hundred miles from Kabul.
The Indian government has promised to support the development of the mining sector in Afghanistan and its thought one of the reasons behind the investment was the fear that China and Pakistan was trying to dominate the sector.
Chinese companies are currently developing a huge copper mine just 20 miles from Kabul in the province of Logar.
They expect to begin production by 2015 despite the discovery of an ancient Buddhist site in the area that slowed its development.
The challenge will be to get the natural resources to markets.
India is looking at improving rail links from Afghanistan to ports in Iran, while China is looking to develop the railway north through Uzbekistan despite the security problems of going that way.
The new “Great Game” seems to have started already in trying to gain influence over Afghanistan and exploit its natural resources.
But it’s unlikely to involve foreign armies, instead Chinese and Indian companies are pouring into the country in search of riches.