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This transcript is produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

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. "Turkestan, Afghanistan, 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.

(Royal Institute of International Affairs)
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?

(John Hopkins University, Washington)
The United States is addressing Russia's top security concern. Its 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 Westernising policy.

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 here.

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 government.

(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 to us.

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.

(Foreign Secretary)
There must be no more great games, with Afghan people the pawns. No more regional rivalries, with Afghan people the victims.

The West now hopes it can inoculate Afghanistan against instability with a big injection of aid.

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 recognition internationally. 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 of resignation.

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