By Mahir Ali
The language, to some extent, betrays the provenance of this piece of advocacy: 21st-century spin doctors would couch their aims in somewhat different terms. Yet the advice offered in 1868 by Sir Henry Rawlinson, a member of the Council of India, serves as a useful reminder of the longevity of the Great Game.
His comments were made in the context of the potential threat posed by a Russian presence in Afghanistan, and it is notable that commerce took precedence over other concerns. It could also be argued, not entirely without merit, that in the late 20th century the Great Game was resumed only when the prospect of a Russian presence arose once more.
However, it’s not that simple. By the late 1970s, Afghanistan was an unlikely zone for the Cold War, in which the Soviet Union and the US were the main protagonists, with Britain reduced to a relatively insignificant ally of the latter. Its basically feudal structure notwithstanding, Afghanistan was considered to be in the Soviet sphere of influence, much as the United States’ Latin American ‘backyard’ was construed to be a politico-economic playing field exclusive to Uncle Sam. But then the Saur Revolution – styled thus, presumably, to evoke the landmark October variant in its neighbourhood – helped to change the rules of the game.
It may have been different had the Saur coup-makers enjoyed widespread popular support. Their influence, however, was restricted largely to the Kabul intelligentsia. Well aware of their compatriots’ confessional tendencies, Nur Mohammed Taraki and his ilk went out of their way to insinuate that their government was neither un-Islamic nor anti-Islamic. But it was a futile effort, damned by the communist tag. It is quite possible that the cold warriors in Washington were even quicker than the bamboozled apparatchiks in Moscow in deciding to exploit the situation.
The US did its level best to create a situation whereby it just might be able to avenge its humiliation in Vietnam. The effort rapidly paid dividends – although it’s well worth noting that the Soviet decision to invade Afghanistan, notwithstanding the absence of bourgeois democracy, was preceded by a spirited debate within the communist hierarchy in which sceptics such as KGB chief Yuri Andropov and rising star Mikhail Gorbachev were overruled by the Brezhnevite majority.
That offers a striking contrast with the virtual absence of discussion that preceded the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and even Iraq in 2003. The American entanglement in Afghanistan, from the late 1970s, was supposedly surreptitious, although by the early 1980s it had become an open secret as the CIA operation expanded into the largest covert war since Vietnam, with Pakistan reprising with greater gusto than ever before its chosen role as an agent for Uncle Sam – personified in those crucial years by the recklessly delusional Ronald Reagan.
In those days, the US was a prime source of jihadi literature, alongside Pakistan under Gen Ziaul Haq and Saudi Arabia. The motley bands of Mujahideen were schooled, inter alia, in slitting the throats of those who dared to teach in coeducational institutions. More or less every sign of progress on the economic or social front was painted as a communist conspiracy. The trend appealed, inevitably, to those who were least inclined to take progressive developments in their stride. They may have been wary of the Americans, but they were more than willing to accept the assistance of perceived infidels in the crusade against Moscow’s godless agents.
This included, crucially, the shoulder-fired Stinger missiles, liberally supplied by the CIA, that effectively knocked Soviet helicopter gunships out of the equation. Once they had achieved their purpose, the US devoted some energy to buying back unused Stingers, often from arms bazaars in Pakistan. The absence of equivalent weaponry has helped to keep the western death toll relatively low in Afghanistan, although last month proved to be the deadliest since 2001, amid the battle for Helmand – in greeting whose purported conclusion, Gordon Brown sounded much like one of his distant predecessors would have in the Victorian era.
His foreign secretary, David Miliband, meanwhile, has once more mooted the idea of negotiations with second-tier Taliban. At least one of his cabinet colleagues has at the same time pointed out that the terrorist threat to Britain emanates more from Pakistan than from Helmand.
As they did under the command of Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, American and British troops are today once more involved in offering combat training to Afghans, albeit this time with the intention of tackling the offspring of their previous pupils, the Mujahideen. Gen Stanley McChrystal, the head of American and Nato forces in the country, is reportedly working on a ‘new’ strategy that involves doubling the Anglo-American presence as well as boosting the numbers and capabilities of the official Afghan security forces. And attempts to buy off sections of the resistance – including familiar figures such as the infamous CIA and Zia favourite Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – evidently enjoy Washington’s imprimatur.
Barack Obama, before he became president, was taken aback when he discovered that the Pentagon lacked an exit strategy in Afghanistan. However, none has thus far become apparent during his incumbency either. It is unlikely that the Afghan presidential election scheduled for Aug 20 will produce any dramatic change. The neocolonial adventure embarked upon in the wake of 9/11 is ultimately doomed to failure in the absence of the realisation that the long-term future of Afghanistan must be determined by Afghans, rather than by interlopers, well-intentioned or otherwise, from near or afar.