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The Great Game 12/11/01
With howitzers or daisy cutters,
muskets or B-52s, the West has been
fighting on and off in Afghanistan
for the best part of two centuries.
Between 1839 and 1919, there were
three Anglo-Afghan wars. The
ultimate aim was debated as keenly
then as it is now. Was the urge to
control an uncontrollable nation
really justified? For this man, the
answer was an emphatic yes. George
Nathaniel Curzon, known to his
detractors as a most superior person,
was a passionate orientalist who
travelled widely in central Asia in
the late 19th century, before
becoming Viceroy of India and
later, Foreign Secretary. For him,
the vast empty spaces between India
and Russia were a dangerous,
strategic vacuum. Curzon was
convinced that if we didn't fill it,
others would, though he recognised
his obsession struck many as mad.
Transcaspia, Persia. To many, these
words breathe only a sense of utter
remoteness, or a memory of strange
vicissitudes or moribund romance.
To me, I confess, they are pieces
on a chessboard, upon which is being
played out a game for the domination
of the world". The Great Game, as
depicted here in London's National
Army Museum as a story of gallantry
and adventure. But Lieutenant
Walter Hamilton VC, who heroically
defended the British embassy in
Kabul against Afghan mutineers,
was eventually slaughtered with
all his men.
Dr ROY ALLISON:
(Royal Institute of International
None of the British interventionists
in Afghanistan in the 19th century
really achieved their objectives.
They did, however, have the result
of keeping the influence and
controlling influence of Russia,
imperial Russia, in Afghanistan at
bay, and this was the overriding
concern of the imperial British
authorities at the time.
It seemed to be Afghanistan's
destiny to be caught forever
between two hostile beasts. In
the 1980s, the Soviets fought
the American-backed Mujahideen,
it was the same story. Moscow
eventually retreated, but America
pressed its advantage, scheming
to control central Asia's new energy
wealth. It was only in the late
1990s, with Afghanistan no longer
central to Washington's intrigues,
that the game ground to a halt.
It was the horror of September 11th
that forced America back to the
board, but now all the diplomatic
pieces had been thrown up in the
air, and come down in totally new
positions. Old rivalries were buried
in the rubble of the Twin Towers.
In international meetings after the
terrorist attacks, President Putin
as good as invited American forces
into central Asia, a region Russia
had jealously guarded for so long.
But was that historic concession,
with a hefty price tag attached,
just a diplomatic conjuring trick?
Dr FRED STARR:
(John Hopkins University,
The United States is addressing
Russia's top security concern. It¿s
doing it at risk to American troops.
Not one Russian soldier is going to
be involved. We are doing a job
that they weren't able to do.
Lord Powell was foreign affairs
adviser to two Conservative
prime ministers and has been in
the Middle East for Tony Blair.
He's convinced that there is
nothing temporary about Russia's
turn to the West.
There has been a great debate
going in Russia for some time,
about the future direction of
foreign policy. There's no real
conclusion. Should it be Russia
and China against the West?
Should it be Russia teaming up
with Iraq and Iran and some of
these unsatisfactory states against
the West? Or should Russia try to
go in for a Westernising policy.
I think the die has been cast.
Russia has embarked upon a
Peace between the great powers may
at last give Afghans the chance to
emerge from the economic middle
ages, but only if the game players
in the region also leave them alone.
For now, Afghan's neighbours are
paying a heavy price for destabilising
the country. It's become a black
hole that spews out all manner of
evil, not just dust storms, but also
drugs, refugees, terrorists, and the
Taliban brand of militant Islam.
But once America's freed them from
those threats, the neighbours may
again start calculating their best
advantage on the Afghan board.
Poor remote Tajikistan has to dance
carefully between its Russian
protectors and its Islamic traditions.
The happy couple at this wedding,
and most of their guests, share a
religion and a language with Afghan
Tajiks who fought Moscow for
years. But when I was called upon
to make a toast, I discovered vodka
was the only drink they respect.
Forcing bride and groom into
embarrassed intimacy is also an
old Russian custom. Bit this couple
know that without Russia, this might
have been no time for celebration.
Independence here was followed by
a civil war that only Moscow had
the power to end. The groom's father
was among the tens of thousands
killed. No-one wants war to return
You know how many years the
war in Afghanistan's being going
on for. Us Tajik mothers don't
want any more war, we've had one
of our own, and we now want to
live in a peaceful world.
8.00 and the party is over. It is
risky here to stay out late.
Tajikistan fears that if it is sucked
into America's war, there may be
no more celebrations here at all.
Richer and stronger Uzbekistan,
by contrast, has welcomed US
troops. It even wants them to stay
after the war. But, if they do, it
will anger Russia and Iran. Iran,
now an ally of Russia, wants a
new regime in Kabul, but not
one that gives any advantage to
America or Pakistan. Pakistan,
however, still insists that as long
as it is in conflict with India, it
will have a vital strategic
interest in Afghanistan's future
ABDUL KADER JAFFER:
(Pakistan High Commissioner)
First of all, they're Muslims, an
Islamic nation. Secondly,
unfortunately, as you know, we
have an unfriendly neighbour on
the eastern side. We cannot have
two unfriendly neighbours.
Therefore, peace, stability of
Afghanistan is very important
That means that the Northern
Alliance, known to hate Pakistan,
can't be allowed to control Kabul.
Islamabad wants at least some
elements of the Taliban to remain
in power. The sudden advance
of the Northern Alliance may
have unlocked a military log jam,
but with no agreement about
the future of Afghanistan, it's
created new diplomatic dangers.
The old games could begin all
over again. As Lord Curzon's
latest successor at the Foreign
Office is well aware.
There must be no more great
games, with Afghan people the
pawns. No more regional
rivalries, with Afghan people
The West now hopes it can
inoculate Afghanistan against
instability with a big injection
Dr FRED STARR:
Out in the future, in a strategic
sense, are some very, very heady,
positive prospects. I mean, put
a new regime in place. Only the
Afghans can create that. We
can't make it. Give that government
Provide real economic development
support, and that's an attainable
goal, by the way, and you gradually
get an Afghanistan where people
are able to do what they want to
do now, that is, live normal lives.
Is that a commitment to abandon
the game, or just a strategy for
further engagement? Diplomats no
longer use the language of Curzon,
but it may be a little early to talk