British imperial forces attack Ghazni fort in First Anglo-Afghan War, 1839.

The great game of empire plays out in Afghanistan

Afghanistan has been pulped and bloodied over a grand sweep of time. Each battle, each human casualty, every bridge ruined, homes leveled, irrigation channel wrecked result from the seismic activity of factional competition. It must be a cosmopolitan country, since the flags of many a group from across the planet now billow pridefully, or lay discarded and perhaps forgotten after the passage of numerous human generations.

Armies came from distant lands. The British Empire waged two successive wars there during the 19th century. They launched their attacks from colonised India in the attempt to oppose the southward march of the Russian Empire. The first empire guarded its global empire while the other its continental one. Central Asia was more than a valuable possession, it was a launching pad from which to reach beyond: north into Russian holdings, south to British India and the ocean, west to Iran and the open seas. Perhaps the eastward route to China was too daunting in those days thanks to an enormous barrier of freezing mountains, arid plains, and deserts. Better to go there by sea or by way of Siberia. This is changing today, however, with China laying major new rail and road routes through the once impassable mountains into nearby Pakistan, as well as further afield in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

By holding considerable influence over some part of Central Asia, each of the 19th century empires could threaten the other or deny access via the precious transit routes. Afghanistan and its surrounding regions had become a gateway to grand aspirations of international domination. Gates can be closed as well as opened, and that party which holds the keys could influence the ebb and tide of trade, transit, communication, military bases, and military supply trains over a significant stretch of Asia. Russia reached out for what is today Uzbekistan while Britain went for Afghanistan with zones of contestation in between.

Map of Russia's expansion over time.
Image: CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Members of the British ruling class are stereotyped for an exhibitionism of understatement. Maybe there’s some truth to this. Some of them called the expansive campaign for power over South and Central Asia ‘the great game’.

Wars must be justified, not only to others but to oneself. Ambition can be a modest creature, humiliated by nakedness. Evil deeds spawn from the breast of those who judge their own hearts good and are appeased by the distorting carnival mirrors that reflect justice upon the aggressors’ countenance. Brute and open oppression is brittle while the myth of superiority is far firmer ground on which to plant the foundations of lasting rule. Legitimating myths also help to stave off self-hatred by those who carry the scepter of command or those far more numerous toilers who bear the tools of empire’s construction.

Malcom Yapp, a British historian spoke to these points during a lecture entitled The Legend of the Great Game. He said that in July 1840, a political agent of the British Empire, captain Arthur Conolly, wrote a letter to his compatriot and colleague assigned to Afghanistan’s Kandahar city in which the captain expresses his belief in the moral goodness of Britain’s civilising force. Yapp says that,

Conolly informed Rawlinson: ‘You’ve a great game, a noble game before you.’ The context makes his meaning clear: Conolly believed that Rawlinson, in his new post, had been given an opportunity to work for the regeneration or the advancement of the civilisation of Afghanistan.

Yapp calls Conolly’s expression “a species of humanitarianism”. Fast forward through numerous ‘humanitarian’ interventions by international to regional powers and you have the ruins of contemporary Afghanistan: whose people are once more ‘liberated’ by those who likewise quest for a firm grip on the keys to that most valuable gateway country.

The British Empire enforced its influence there following two 19th century wars (the first and second Anglo-Afghan Wars). Afghanistan was made a protectorate of the British while imperial Russia nipped the northern borders and cast its influence over Central Asia.

The British drew new borders for the country, bisecting its southern communities. This feature is part of what permits Pakistan to amplify its power over Afghanistan since many of the long established communities, centres, and people of southern Afghanistan’s predominantly Pashtun territories now lie in Pakistan. Pakistan recognises and utilises this situation by maintaining that region as a special administrative zone rather than as a proper province.

With the decline of imperial Britain, the main players in the ‘great game’ were the United States and the Soviet Union. Eventually, the Soviet military entered the country to fight a war shortly following a coup d’état  in Afghanistan. The country’s internal camps and apparatus of domestic power reflect the contentions of external interference, coalescing along historic fault lines. In short, the situation there is politically volatile and unstable, agitated by generations of geopolitical penetration into many aspects of life and governance.

The Soviet army fought, and lost, against an insurgency that styled itself as religious and anti-imperialist. This insurgency was famously and substantially supported by such parties as the US and Saudi Arabia. These people are the precursors of various organisations such as today’s Taliban. The insurgents’ characteristics in favour of religious and roughly nationalistic sovereignty was then useful to the US and a hindrance to the Soviets. Today, the tables have turned and the Taliban’s strict insistence on national sovereignty (such as no foreign military bases must be permitted), is a major impediment to a negotiated settlement between the US and the Taliban. (see former Indian diplomat M. K. Bhadrakumar’s post about recent attempts at negotiations for a brief illustration).

Once the Soviet Union withdrew, Afghanistan succumbed to a long civil war that has continued even after the invasion of US and allied forces. The military occupation by the allied armed forces of the internally warring country began in 2001. It is ongoing, the length of which is indication of the desire for lasting influence over that country.

Each new conflict buries and revivifies the last. Each new war is declared a start from which clocks are set in the count of that moment’s promise of future peace and prosperity. One has to incessantly ask whose peace and wellbeing is supposed to be assured, and for what particular interest it is feuded over.

It’s difficult to make an accurate count of the actual temporal span of warfare in Afghanistan when they glide from one to another, from proxy war to international war and civil war. The fight is not only declared by the clatter of gunfire and commotion of weapons; opposing propaganda campaigns cut to the cultural bone or smother the once acceptable under beds of repression.

“They make a desolation and call it peace”. This was written about the imperial conquest of Britain by one of Rome’s ancient historians, Tacitus. He might as well have been writing about Afghanistan. Not a surprise, really, that domineering ambition shares similarities across time and space. The similarities are important, but so are the particularities of each situation.

The field of the ‘great game’ of social and political management has expanded hand in hand with the enlargement and increased elaboration of the world’s market. Local markets are combined as well as superceded by ‘national’ ones, and these in turn are associated by regional and global ones. Fernand Braudel, a historian of exceptional rigour, has done a marvelous job of relating this transformation in the history of the Mediterranean region (for a taste, see the table of contents from the book, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II). A similar process has taken place across continents and gone yet further to develop a world market and corresponding apparatus.

Surely, the transformation is not merely one of size but also of quality and type. Economies have transformed but so have states (now predominantly ‘national’ or territorial versus feudal or tribal, for example). The articulation of power over social relations and our view of spatial relations has also changed. The supply chain of goods and services, and military logistical lines straddle continents. Globalisation is a common short hand for this web of social, cultural, political, economic, and military relations.

Afghanistan holds a special place in this modern cartography of human geography. It is rent by historical tremors because it lies on a fault line that runs across geopolitical plates. The strategists of British and Russian empires had good reason to show interest in the pivotal centre of Asia.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, a strategist of US empire wrote the following in his 1997 book, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives:

Geopolitical pivots are the states whose importance is derived not from their power and motivation but rather from their sensitive location and from the consequences of their potentially vulnerable condition for the behavior of geostrategic players. Most often, geopolitical pivots are determined by their geography, which in some cases gives them a special role either in defining access to important areas or in denying resources to a significant player. In some cases, a geopolitical pivot may act as a defensive shield for a vital state or even a region. 

The region and the country are caught up in this interplay of competing interests. Weak, Afghanistan is battered by contradicting forces. The social and political consequences have been terrible.

Map of Central Asia, including Afghanistan.
Image: CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

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