For more than a century the playing field of far bigger powers, Afghanistan has again captured the world's attention as a country where others come to compete.
As the United States and its allies confront the Taliban leadership over its links to terrorism, Afghanistan's future is suddenly open to outside influence and manipulation, raising the specter of a new Great Game--Rudyard Kipling's mischievous term for the military and political competition between Russia and Britain in the Central Asia of the 1800s.
This time many of the same players are involved over the same turf, raising the same questions about the appropriateness and the ability of outsiders to change the destiny of a country, particularly one like Afghanistan that is notoriously difficult to conquer.
In the past month, since the Sept. 11 attacks on America were connected to the Taliban, the United States, Great Britain, Russia and Iran all have signaled their interest in getting involved in the fight to control Afghanistan.
Russia and Iran have backed factions of the Northern Alliance for different reasons. Russia considers the Taliban a fomenter of Muslim uprisings closer to home. The Iranians have traditionally supported Shiite Afghan tribes.
Pakistan caught in middle
The Pakistanis are also involved. They saw the Taliban as the Islamic force that would bring law and order to war-weary Afghanistan. But they are now caught in the middle, pressured to support Washington or risk international isolation, even as they attempt to broker a diplomatic solution as the only country to maintain official ties with the Taliban.
Another player is Saudi Arabia, which initially helped to finance the Taliban until it realized it was also funding Taliban-trained opposition to its own pro-Western monarchy. Additionally, Afghan tribes of Uzbek and Tajik ethnicity have traditionally requested and received support from the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
U.S. involvement runs deep. It helped to arm and train the Afghan mujahedeen rebels who fought and defeated the Soviet Union in the 1980s after its invasion of Afghanistan. Washington then followed a hands-off policy in the intertribal war for control of Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew. The Taliban won that war.
No battle lines have been drawn in the current conflict, but the presumed focus is the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, a rag-tag rebel army that lost control of the country in 1995 and has stubbornly held on to a small piece of the rugged north since.
On Wednesday the picture became clearer when a spokesman for the Northern Alliance said that his leadership is coordinating its fight against the Taliban with the United States and expects to receive a fresh shipment of arms from Russia and Iran.
Abdullah Abdullah said representatives of the United States and the Northern Alliance have been having "regular and daily meetings" outside Afghanistan.
The comments represented less than confirmation of potential U.S. military involvement on behalf of the Northern Alliance but they strongly evoked the concept of the Great Game.
The difference this time is that it's more difficult to sort out the opposing team, and therefore harder to say for certain what will happen.
The United States has declared war on terrorism, not Afghanistan. The Taliban is in the cross hairs not as a sworn enemy of the United States but because it refuses to participate the newly declared war on terrorism. It won't hand over Osama bin Laden, the suspected terrorist mastermind of the attacks on New York and Washington.
While the United States is threatening military action against the Taliban unless it turns in bin Laden, it is much less clear whether the eventual aim is to overthrow the Taliban.
Ousting rulers a touchy issue
However, President Bush has called on Afghans "who may be tired of having the Taliban in place" to come forward.
But, while the Taliban is reviled in much of the West for the destructive influences of its radical Islamic vision, the overthrow of the government has become an extraordinarily sensitive question because of concerns that an attack on the Taliban would be viewed as an attack on Islam.
It also isn't clear whether there are better options for Afghanistan if the Taliban rulers are thrown out. The Northern Alliance has not proved its legitimacy or leadership ability.
Yet with the United States appearing to move closer to military action, it has become impossible to ignore the idea that the Taliban will fall, increasing the imperative on outsiders to get involved.
The Northern Alliance's sudden move into the spotlight came with the recognition that as the Taliban's enemy and as a native force, it is in the best position to help the United States track down bin Laden.
From the start it has done what it can to position itself as a partner and a viable alternative. On Wednesday, the Northern Alliance spokesman tried to play on that wish.
He said Afghan opposition representatives and U.S. officials have discussed "all aspects" of cooperation in their latest meetings and that the "results were good."
He did not say where the meetings took place.
Asked what the talks were about, Abdullah replied, "coordination of efforts to eradicate terrorism."