Summer Blog 1: In the news again - for all the wrong reasons, Afghanistan
One of the ever present issues of modern history, at least since the 18th century, has been the irrepressible Russian policy of Expansionism. This has occurred under the Romanov Tsars, under Stalin , and now under Putin.
Sometimes this has manifested itself in territorial aggrandisement, as in The Caucasus, sometimes in seeking control of outwardly independent states, such as East Germany, and and sometimes buying influence via arms or cash, as in the continent of Africa.
The Russian political journey has not, however, been a smooth one. There have been many downs as well as ups in their policy. The final acquisition of Finland in 1809 ended with The Revolution of 1917. Ten years fighting in Afghanistan during the 1980s led to defeat, and in the opinion of many was a major final contributor to the fall of The USSR.
Another ever present issue in our modern world, again dating back to the 18th century, has been Britain's imperial role, which although ending post 1945, lingers on, especially in the minds of our political leaders from Ernest Bevin's insistence on keeping an independent nuclear deterrent to Boris Johnson's catch phrase 'Global Britain'. As such we followed the American lead intervention into Afghanistan in 2001, but withdrew in 2014. This was the fourth time since 1838 that Britain had been involved in a war in Afghanistan.
The first modern conflicts over Afghanistan were the three Anglo-Afghan Wars, viz
The British victory in the First Afghan War has subsequently cost Britain any reputation it might previously have had in the country. Such Afghan resentment simmers on to this day. Arwin Rahi, writing in 'The Diplomat' of the First Afghan War, says, 'After destroying much of Kabul city.....the British proceeded further north........It wouldn't be unfair to conclude that the British used rape as a weapon of war against the Afghans........By invading Afghanistan, the British earned the eternal hostility of the Afghans'.
The British 'victory 'in The Second Afghan War also saw much bloodshed on both sides, yet after Lord Roberts' victory at the Battle of Kandahar in September 1881 and the subsequent Peace Treaty of Gandamak an uneasy peace held.
The Treaty agreed
a. Afghans retained internal control of the country
b. Britain oversaw Foreign Policy (to protect British India)
c. Britain retained some of the territory gained during the war
d. Britain guaranteed protection to Afghanistan from external sources (ie Russia)
e. Britain provided cash subsidies to the Afghan Government
British troops subsequently withdrew.
The Third Afghan War fought by the British Empire came, after the end of The First World War, in 1919. The Afghans themselves call this war 'The War of Independence'. This brief war, 6 May to 8 August, was fought by Britain to secure its North West Frontier against potential Afghan or Soviet attack. In the war, the British deployed The RAF to strafe not only Afghan troops but civilians too. The RAF bombed Kabul which was well behind enemy lines. The RAF also used up some of the gas stored since the end of The First World War for these various attacks. Nothing was resolved by the British intervention. Long term solutions were still being difficult to find.
These three wars were all part of what has been called 'The Great Game'. A phrase first coined by Arthur Conolly in 1840, and taken up by Kipling in his great novel, 'Kim'. Today, we use the phrase 'The New Great Game' to describe ongoing issues in the area. As Kipling wrote, the Great Game isn't over until the last player is dead. In fact there are now more players in The Game than ever before. Afghanistan is a country at the crossroads of Asia, sharing borders with Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and even a small land corridor to China (bordering the volatile Chinese areas of Uyghur Xinjiang and Tibet). Afghanistan is also a country at the crossroads of modern day global conflict, viz
a. In 19th century between the Russian and British Empires
b. In 20th century between the East and the West in The Cold War
c. In the 21st century between ideological and terrorist Islam and The Western World.
The last outside intervention in Afghanistan, the American led invasion lasting twenty years, has this year ended in another defeat, following Britain's earlier defeats in all three of its wars. As a recent headline in The Times said, 'Afghan invasions always end in retreat'. As Ben Macintyre wrote in the subsequent article, 'History repeats itself in the tribal lands where foreign armies count the cost of their folly in huge debts and lives lost.'
As the Americans complete their withdrawal for all the fine words from Washington the Taliban are daily increasing their control over the country, with the Government squeezed into ever smaller areas. Exactly what happened when after a decade in the country the Russians withdrew in 1989. Richard Spencer says of this current American withdrawal that it is another 'Saigon Moment'. Does it, he ponders, mark the beginning of the end of USA as a superpower as the Russian retreat marked the end of The USSR. We will have to wait and see.
The Great Game runs on:
a. The re-emergence of warlord militias in the north merely escalates the situation.
b. The Central Asian Republics, formerly part of The Soviet Union, have turned to Russia for help. Putin has already organised war games in Tajikistan. And, quite extraordinarily, Putin has offered the Americans Russian bases in the Central Asian Republics from which to continue monitoring The Taliban.
c. Current fears if The Taliban take full control:
i. A rogue state which will provide a base for Islamic Extremism
ii. The possibility of an Iran-Taliban axis developing
iii. A threat to the stability of Pakistan
iv. A fear in Beijing of The Taliban becoming involved in the Uyghur crisis. The Chinese have already opened up discussions with the Taliban leadership in an attempt to nip this potential problem in the bud.
The Great Game is afoot once more.