Anti-Imperialism/Foreign Policy

Losing the Great Game in Afghanistan

Article by Devika Patel.


Ten years ago, I watched the Twin Towers fall. A San Francisco Examiner headline the next day summed up my feelings fairly well: “Bastards!” Of course we had to fight back. I thought there’d be a bit of a scuffle, much like the first Gulf War, and we’d be done with the whole affair in a few weeks.

A decade later, do I ever feel silly. My eureka moment came around 2004, when I stumbled across a piece that had appeared in the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur sometime in 1998, featuring former United States National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. In Cheshire Cat fashion, Brzezinski explained that offering CIA aid to the mujahideen drew “the Russians into the Afghan trap,” where we armed the Taliban’s predecessors to the gills after Russia’s invasion. The unrepentant Brzezinski was delighted by his maneuver that gave Russia its own Vietnam War, bankrupting them and ending the Cold War.

But Brzezinski’s “agitated Muslims,” who flew planes into our towers, eventually proved far more troublesome than the Soviets who had been declining economically each day with or without their own Vietnam.

Afghanistan prior to the Soviet invasion was being ruled by Mohammed Daoud Khan, a moderate dictator who had seized power from his first cousin, King Mohammed Zahir Shah, in a bloodless 1973 coup. Five years into his leadership, Khan was assassinated. His successor, Nur Muhammad Taraki of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), attempted to implement a socialist agenda in earnest. Beards and burqas were banned; mosques were shut down.

“If we’ve learned anything from history, we know that the Afghan region is nearly impossible to control.”

Afghanistan became a rallying point for religious Muslims, who began flooding into the country to fight the PDPA, and the mujahideen were born. We then aided the mujahideen, leading to the Soviet invasion exactly as Brzezinski had hoped. By playing God in a part of the world where the locals bow to another deity, we were throwing our dice into the Great Game of Central Asia, or the Tournament of Shadows as it was termed in Russia, a war that has produced no clear victor after nearly 200 years.

In 1837, British Captain Arthur Conolly wrote of “the great game” unfolding across Asia. As an officer in the British Raj, Conolly was a key player in the game. Beyond securing the region, he said he wanted to “civilize and Christianize” it. In a letter inviting a fellow officer to join in the fun, Conolly wrote, “You’ve a great game, a noble one, before you.…If the British Government would only play the grand game.…” Not long afterward, Conolly was executed when visiting Russian-controlled Bukhara, now in present-day Uzbekistan, as an envoy.

Made famous in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, the “Great Game” of wits and warfare between Britain and Russia was a competitive flexing of imperial muscle. Wikipedia claims that “The classic Great Game period is generally regarded as running approximately from the Russo-Persian Treaty of 1813 to the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. A second, less intensive phase followed the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.” Journalist Peter Hopkirk, however, claims Great Game hostilities were never fully settled until Soviet Russia’s fall in 1991. I’ll do him one better and say that it’s still up in the air.

Hostilities were clearly mounting in the early 19th century between the British and Russian empires, who both had their eye on India and the territories surrounding the subcontinent. Britain had been entrenched in India for a century; its hold on the subcontinent was now irrefutable and India was considered the Empire’s crowning jewel. So when gossip leaked that Tsar Alexander I was teaming up with Napoleon Bonaparte to invade India, Britain grew alarmed. But the Afghan terrain was too troublesome for Napoleon to navigate with troops and supplies. Defeated but never humbled, the little Corsican headed home to France.

Russia was ignored for a few more years until it became impossible not to notice that she was allowing her troops to wander a bit south of previous boundaries. While Britain controlled the sea routes to India, the country’s northern frontier, protected for millennia by the Himalayas, remained vulnerable to a land attack. Even though these areas were difficult to pass and bordered by the hermit-like kingdom of Tibet and Afghanistan’s Wild West lawlessness just over the Khyber Pass, India’s northern frontier was vulnerable and would be costly to defend. The British worried that Afghanistan could become a post from which the Russians could invade.

Britain instigated the First Anglo-Afghan War in 1838 in response to shaky evidence that a Russian diplomat visited Kabul; essentially, both sides were looking for a fight. The Brits tried to impose a puppet regime in Kabul, but the attempt failed, and for the next 70 years the two empires conducted multiple advances and retreats trying to secure a hold in Central Asia. In 1907, the empires agreed to a de facto peace, with Britain retaining control over most of the disputed terrain. But ten years later, the Russian Revolution nullified all previous agreements and a second phase of the Great Game began. The Brits tried to prevail, but the end results were that Afghanistan and Russia signed a treaty of friendship and Britain imposed sanctions on Kabul.

As World War II approached, Germany posed a larger threat and the Brits gave up on Afghanistan. Eventually, the sun began to set on the British Empire, mostly due to huge war debts, and Afghanistan was left in relative peace until the late 1970s, when America began needling the Soviets into battle there.

The Great Game continues to this day. While we are no longer fighting Russians in the region, the US is deeply embroiled in a clash that has gone on for centuries. If we’ve learned anything from history, we know that the Afghan region is nearly impossible to control. Afghanistan humbled Napoleon, one of history’s best military strategists, into retreat. Even the Soviets were forced to back down once the mujahideen opened fire.

Our own puppet regime under Hamid Karzai is not faring much better than the one imposed under the British. Karzai is so hated that he barely escaped assassination when visiting Kandahar in 2002. Three more attempts on his life followed. The elections that won him office were heavily disputed, and even when he won fairly, he only secured 55% of the vote.

Yet with each promise to pull out, we send more troops. In December 2009, while announcing we would withdraw from Afghanistan by 2011, President Barack Obama sent 30,000 more troops to the region, bringing the total US contribution to nearly 100,000. Brzezinski gave Russia her own Vietnam, but he and Carter also started a debacle that has resulted in massive US debt, casualties, and public despondency. We are now trying to put out a fire that’s been smoldering for nearly 200 years.

The war can’t be won. It has never been won. The Afghan people want us out of their country, which they’ve made perfectly clear through attacks, protests, and popular opinion. The only victory we can hope to achieve from this fiasco is to cut our losses. Our national deficit is mounting, and the financiers working around Ground Zero assure us this level of debt can’t be sustained. It’s time to cut military spending and give up on the Great Game fantasy of controlling Central Asia.

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