Satish Singh Lalotra
‘For other people, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Persia and other names of Central Asia might breathe only as a mark of remoteness. But to me they are pieces on a chess board upon which is being played a game for the dominion of the world— Lord Curzon. (Former Governor General of India)’
What prophetic words from a former Governor General of India ,which holds true even today after a gap of about 130 years. With the sudden and dramatic collapse of communism in 1991 ,and the breaking up of the Soviet union/USSR ,there sprang up almost overnight five entirely new countries ….eight if you include the Caucasus region. At first even those with the long experience of central Asia had difficulty in familiarizing themselves with the new geographical and political jigsaw puzzle, not to mention getting their tongues around such Romanization as Kyrgyzstan. In fact it had been so much simpler when the entire region was just called Soviet central Asia. A single visa if you could get one, took you from Baku to Bokhara, from Tbilisi to Tashkent with Moscow and Leningrad thrown in. The actual’ Great Game ‘was a term used by the British empire to describe the Russo-British power struggle for supremacy on the chessboard of Afghanistan and central Asia -A contest with few players ,mostly limited to intelligence forays and short wars fought on horse backs with rifles and with those on the chessboard as bystanders or victims. As opposed to the above, the new ‘Great Game’ as the name envisages is a term used to describe the conceptualization of modern Geopolitics in central Asia as a competition between regional and world powers for influence, power, money profit and hegemony.
The control over energy resources of the former Soviet union and export run out of the Eurasian hinterland is quickly becoming one of the central issues in post cold war politics. As I write this article ,things have gone ballistic in general area Afghanistan/Khybe Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) with the US having announced its withdrawal of forces ,and signed a US-Taliban peace deal in Doha /Qatar in February this year. Historically Chitral never formed part of the Dogra rule ,except that Maharaja Gulab singh the 1st empire builder of the Dogra dynasty launched in a routine manner punitive expeditions for conquest of Dardistan which was necessary for the defence of north western frontiers of his kingdom. Since Chitral formed part of Dardistan which extends to present day Gilgit ,Skardu the people living in these part of Dardistan naturally had an affiliation with it. At the same time it is in recorded history that the Mehtar (Ruler) of Chitral was a regular contributor of revenue to the Dogra empire as a tribute since the late 1860s confirming thereby the suzerainty of Dogras over Chitral. Chitral is situated on the river Chitral river having an area of a total of 57 Sq kms at an altitude of 1494 mts/4902ft above the Msl. Chitral typically falls under the area of Dardistan,which includes smaller principalities like, Punial, Nagar, Hunza,Yasin, Tangir, Gor, Mastinj, Chilas etc to name a few. Chilas was the largest of principalities of Dogra empire which lay astride River Indus and Nanga Parbat. Various punitive expeditions were launched in the life time of Maharaja Gulab singh and Ranbir singh under able commanders like General Bhup Singh, Sant Singh, Dewan Hari Chand, Wazir Zorawaru and Colonel Baz Singh from 1851 onwards till 1867, till the time all these principalities were brought under the overall suzerainty of the Dogra empire.
Cut to the modern times, and Chitral assumes massive Geo strategic importance ,which relatively underscores its importance as a lynchpin on which revolves the complete stratagem of the new Great Game. To those of us who are not aware of the critical importance of Chitral the more said about it is in fact less. Chitral district consists of about 20%of KPK (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and its potential is backed by its mega reserves of granite, gemstones and metal works which amounts to appx Rs 177 Billion . In addition to the above Chitral has got enormous amounts of hydropower ,tourism and mineral potential waiting to be exploited by a resourceful entrepreneur . It boasts of highest literacy rates in KPK, a cause of heart burn for other similar regions of Dardistan. As per the present Prince of Chitral, Shahzada Iftikharuddin, Chitral has a reservoir of about 45 Billion meteric tons of granite worth about 500-1000billion dollars. He further says that Chitral can earn alone from Granite an amount of 15 Billion dollars from its reserves,and 30 billion dollars from its marble reserves , and because of its sobriquet as a Marble city a total of 20 marble factories can be established with each earning 600 million dollars annually. According to the Prince of Chitral, there are dozens of hydroelectric power projects that can be constructed which can provide 10,000 to 12,000 MW of electricity garnered from rivers .Mr Shahzada Iftikharuddin the only MNA elected on a ticket of All Pakistan Muslim league (APML) has in an exclusive interview recently stated that Rs 4 billion is being spent on Lowari tunnel in addition to Booni- Buzund and Booni Shandoor roads ,which will go a long way in uplifting the overall standard of living of the locals. In fact the prince wants to turn Chitral into Gawadar of the north waiting only to be exploited of its potential.
If one casts his eye on the map of KPK (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) he will notice that Chitral which forms part of it ,and now part of Pakistan is separated from Tajikistan by a mere 5-10 km of a narrow strip of land through the Wakhan corridor. Chitral’s close proximity to china, Afghanistan and Tajikistan certainly makes it a hot spot in central Asia. If Pakistan negotiates with Afghan-istan to find out a passage into Tajikistan, then Chitral’s Geostrategic importance increases manifold. Tajikistan is a potential market for Pakistani goods, whereas Pakistan is a potential buyer of cheap raw materials and minerals from Tajikistan .Furthermore if Pakistan allows India to trade with Tajikistan through the Broghil pass it would render the area into a transit economy .If Pakistan manages to build a road access to Afghanistan running through the Wakhan corridor they can have an alternate route available for China and Afghanistan, which will further strengthen not only trade relations with Tajikistan, Afghanistan and China ,but also open up a viable new chapter in Sino-Pak military relations. In fact Chitral typically falls under the cross roads of China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, with CPEC(China Pakistan economic corridor) running close by, thus gaining gigantic importance for all the nation states hugging it. Chitral’s close proximity has always been a great factor of influence over Afghanistan’s interior political environment, since the early days of the Great Game in the 19th century. Chitral was typically the last Indian outpost during the British India and coveted by both the Czarist Russia as well as Victorian England to assuage their expansionist Geopolitical aspirations.
It is in recorded history that when the shadow boxing began between the two great super powers of that time viz Russia and England to expand their tentacles into this vast landmass of central Asia, the rival empires lay about 2000 miles away .But by the time this rivalry ended in the third decade of the 20th century some Russian outposts lay just 20 miles north of Chitral. The same importance has been accorded to Chitral by the present think tank of US, since it underpins Afghanistan’s look east policy particularly towards India. The physical continuity of Chitral with Afghanistan spilled over to socio -cultural mix with its bigger cousin ,resulting in centuries old relations cemented by familial bondings which remain as strong even today. Hence any small or big upheaval in Afghanistan casts its shadow on Chitral too with ominous repercussions. As we all know that Afghanistan is in the throes of a tectonic geostrategic shift with US already having commenced its withdrawal of forces from that endemic warring nation, hence it is but natural that Chitral too would be sucked into the whirlpool of international politics. The three main elements of withdrawal focuses on firstly.. orderly withdrawal of US led forces with minimum of confusion ,secondly to prevent Afghanistan from becoming an international haven for terrorists ,and lastly permanent ceasefire between the Taliban and Afghan led forces. As mentioned above Chitral being part of Malakand division of KPK,has traditionally been brother in arms with their Pashtun tribal mates in Pakistan and Afghanistan for eons ,with their territorial boundaries blurred by long lasting blood relations across the Durand line. Readers would recall well that one of the most pressing needs of Britain during the 1890s was to demarcate the erstwhile British India from Afghanistan in order to create an outer boundary of defence called as the Durand line( Named after the then British foreign secy Sir Mortimer Durand) separating the war like Pashtuns from from India. But unfortunately even after the passage of 130 years ,the Durand line has failed to fulfill its role of a deterrent in the region notwithstanding the changed geopolitical situation in this region.
With Chitral sitting bang on the Durand line and US already in the throes of a planned withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan, the vacuum thus created by this withdrawal will certainly prove to be a dangerous cocktail ready to be filled in by renegade elements of the region. The Chitralis in cohort with the Taliban easily fit the bill for filling this vacuum off course with dangerous consequences. The latest Taliban -Afghan talks having stalled due to prisoner swap deal rings ominous bells for the entire area that can have a cascading effect on peace and stability in the entire region of central Asia to include Chitral. The fact that the casus belli of prisoner swap in this peace deal has an upper hand oblivious to the gains accruing out of the deal ,gives further credence to the logic that renegade elements call the shots, and will unite with the neighboring such elements waiting in the wings to partake in the spoils of an already unstable region. The above fact is backed by historical evidence when during the 1947/48 Kashmir operations the Mehtar (ruler) of Chitral Muzaffar Ul-Mulk was the first one to raise the flag of Jihad to liberate Kashmir from the Dogras and Chitrali Lashkars were swelled by tribals from across the Hindu kush range . The Chitrali body guards under the Chitrali prince subjugated the fort of Skardu after laying a siege resulting in its downfall. Though Chitral is very far off from Indian borders ,its ominous shadow still lurks around casting an evil eye on India’s northern frontiers. Since Chitral being in KPK and also closely linked with Afghanistan in every way ,India’s position on Afghanistan has always been that it doesn’t have to do anything with Taliban ,though some experts argue that India should have an open contact with Taliban as they are the part and parcel of the peace process there. Though Taliban has never ever criticized India in the past it would do well for us not to forget issues like the hijacking of IC-814 Flight to Kandahar in 1999 ,which had overt and covert signatures of Taliban having steered the entire episode. Moreover since Chitral provides an easy route of ingress and egress of all foreign militants to Indian hinterland ,it would be in all fairness of things for India to factor in this area in its overall containment policy in cohort with the new Afghan govt. During the height of Taliban conflict in 1996, India was actively providing medical assistance to Afghan Northern Alliance fighters via a small hospital established at Farkhor in Tajikistan,where the Lion of Panjshir valley Ahmed Shah Masood also was evacuated in 2002 after a suicidal attempt on his life. India thereafter decided to have a permanent presence in that area, and proposed to improve upon a dilapidated air base with Tajiki authorities.
It was a long outstanding desire of India to have a footprint in central Asia which seemed now feasible. The airbase was finally fructified in 2005 by the BRO (Border Roads Organization). The Farkhor air base in Tajikistan about 130 kms from its capital Dushanbe is maintained jointly by the Indian air force and the Tajik air force and is India’s first military air base in the central Asian region forming part of the grand strategic Indian design with routine flights of ARC (Aviation research center ) operating from it. This air base has catapulted India into the thick of action obtaining in that region. The Chabahar port in Iran developed by India provides us surface transport access to Farkhor airbase via Afghanistan for contingencies like the hijacking of IC-814 aircraft .The Farkhor air base in Tajikistan would give Indian military the required depth and range in seeking a larger role in the Indian subcontinent and is a tangible manifestation of India’s move to project its power play in Central Asia of which Chitral is a part and parcel .
In all its fairness and not withstanding the above prognosis looming large in front of our country ,the only way forward for India is to go back to the drawing board of the late 19th century irrespective of the time line ,draw some lessons which were learnt by the British namely….Have friendly relations with the Afghan govt of the day, endear the local Afghans by continuing the developmental works in their country and finally help the Afghan forces militarily by joint training in combination with keeping a hawk’s eye on the fast evolving situation on the Durand line by sharing joint info with its Afghan counterparts on a routine basis to thwart any threat emanating from this most volatile area of the earth.
(The writer of the article is a retired army officer from the Indian army)
Satish Singh Lalotra