Afghanistan and the Ghost of Kim

What the history of the “Great Game” can teach us about the war in Central Asia.

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Article created by Foreign Policy in Focus.

“He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher—the Wonder House as the natives called the Lahore Museum. Who hold Zam-Zammah, that ‘fire-breathing dragon,’ hold the Punjab; for the great green bronze piece is always first of the conqueror’s loot.”

So Rudyard Kipling opens his magnum opus—Kim—the tale of Kimball O’Hara, orphan of an Irish color-sergeant in England’s colonial army, then warring with the locals in India’s northwest frontier. It is a story of the 19th century “Great Game,” when the Russians and British blackguarded one another in remote villages and frozen passes, fighting for glory, empire, and the crossroads of Central Asia.

The Imperial War Museum in London still celebrates the men of the Black Watch regiment, the fusiliers, and the dragoons who fought a seemingly endless war along what is now the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. There are no monuments, however, to the real victims of the “Great Game,” the Pashtun, the Tajik, the Hazara, and the Uzbeks, pitted against one another in a deadly chess game played by men whose capitals lay half a world away.

The Great Game Revisited

How just like the old days it must be for British Lieutenant General David Richards, commander of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in southern Afghanistan. NATO, taking over from the United States, is pouring troops into Helmand Province, 8,000 of which will be British.

Speaking in Kandahar, not all that far from England’s old colonial fortress at Quetta, he announced, “I have the force, the rules of engagement, and the caveat-free environment to do everything I need.”

One wonders what Greek commander in Alexander’s army made that same speech, what Soviet general thought he also had “the force” and a “caveat-free environment” to do as he pleased.

In truth, General Richards holds exactly the ground he stands on—so long as it isn’t nightfall. After four years of war, the U.S.-led coalition is scrambling to contain a spreading insurgency, not only in the south, but the north and the east as well. In late May, Taliban insurgents overran a district capital in Oruzgan Province, and according to the Financial Times, a government presence doesn’t exist outside the Helmand Province capital of Lashkar Gar. Two weeks ago Kabul exploded, with tens of thousands of people stoning American military vehicles and chanting for foreign troops to leave.

This ground and history is familiar for the British. It will be, after all, England ‘s fourth war in Afghanistan.

The first (1838-42) was ignited when the Brits forcibly installed Shah Shujah as the Afghan king. That went rather badly, and riots finally forced the British out of Kabul in 1842. As the army was retreating to India, it was ambushed, overrun, and destroyed. The war ended when the English marched back, ravaged Kabul, burned the great bazaar, and killed 20,000 Afghans.

The second war was in 1878 when the British seized the Khyber Pass, and the third in 1919 when the Afghans had the effrontery to demand control of their own foreign affairs.

The current fighting is described as a “resurgence” by the fundamentalist Taliban, but one needs to be very careful when it comes to dissecting the sources of post-colonial wars. The “Taliban” are overwhelmingly Pashtun, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. What people don’t generally know is that while religion does play a role in all this, the present fighting is a case of nursing the pinion that impelled the steel. And who is better at that than the British?

When India and Pakistan were partitioned in 1947, the British Foreign Office insisted that the Pashtun had to choose between Pakistan or India, rather than joining their brethren in Afghanistan. The English—ever the masters at using ethnicity to keep people divided and weak—knew the Pashtuns would remain fiercely independent of the Pakistani government in the Punjab. At the same time, Afghanistan would be splintered between four ethnic groups, divisions Whitehall could always use to manipulate the politics of Central Asia.

What the British did not figure on was that in 2006 they would be fighting the same people who kept the colonial graveyards of India well populated with the young lads from Cork, Dundee, and Suffolk who came down from the high passes in wooden boxes.

While the government of President Hamid Karzai is quick to blame Pakistan for the current fighting, Pashtun coming across the border from Pakistan is hardly a new development. Every day some 15,000 people cross from Pakistan to Afghanistan through Chaman alone. It is a “border” drawn up in Whitehall, not Lahore or Kandahar.

New Rioting

The event that touched off the riots in Kabul was an auto accident between a U.S. military convoy and Afghan civilians. When angry people began gathering, U.S. troops opened fire. By the time the riots were over, almost 200 people had been wounded, and at least 20 killed.

But demonstrators were also protesting an air attack that killed 16 civilians in the village of Tolokan in Helmand Province. It was not the first such incident. At least 33 other civilians were killed in an air strike May 21, and villagers are reportedly streaming into Kandahar to avoid the bombings.

According to reporting by Seymour Hersh and Knight Ridder, the United States has dramatically stepped up the air war in Iraq, and it would appear “pacification by bombs” is also underway in Afghanistan.

U.S. spokesman Col. Tom Collins said the deaths in Tolokan were the fault of the Taliban. “The ultimate cause of why civilians were injured and killed is because the Taliban knowingly, willfully chose to occupy the homes of these people.”

If his statement is true, the Taliban would indeed be violating international law. So would the United States.

Article 48 of the 1977 addition to the Geneva Conventions, Part IV, states, “The Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.”

Article 50 is even more explicit: “The presence within the civilian population of individuals who do not come within the definition of civilians does not deprive the population of its civilian character.”

In short, if insurgents are mixed up with civilians, you can’t call in air strikes, period. Anyone who does should be hauled before the International Court at The Hague.

The bombings and the anger generated by the occupation are not the only things that fueled the Kabul uprising. The city has a 50% unemployment rate, and 40% of the population goes hungry. According to the UN World Food Program, unless there is an immediate infusion of funds, 2.5 million Afghans will not have enough food this winter, including 450,000 school children and their families.

There may not be money for food, but there is plenty for war. By the end of August there will be 32,500 foreign troops in Afghanistan. In a full-blown resurrection of the “Domino Theory,” Hekmit Cetin, NATO’s chief civilian representative in Iraq, said, “NATO can’t afford to fail in Afghanistan. If we don’t go to Afghanistan, Afghanistan will come to us, as terrorists, as narcotics traffickers.”

The drug trade is indeed a problem, but in large part because of the war. The Taliban initially suppressed opium production, but war, coupled with a failure to adequately fund a program aimed at weaning farmers off poppy growing, means Afghanistan is now once again the world’s largest producer of opium.

Opium profits not only fuel the insurgency, they fill the coffers of the U.S.-supported warlords who are once again in power. It was the corruption and violence of the warlords that originally laid the ground for the Taliban takeover. The only thing keeping the warlords in power today is the U.S. and NATO armed forces.

Zam-Zamman breathes fire no more, replaced by F-15s and AC-130U “Spooky” gun ships spitting artillery rounds and 40 mm cannon shells. The efficiency of death has evolved, but the “game” is the same and for the people of Afghanistan, it is a story as old as their origins.

Mullah Mohammed Kaseem Faroqi, the Pashtun Taliban commander in Helmand Province, recently told the London Times, “My message to Tony Blair and the whole of Britain is, ‘Do not send your children here. We will kill them’.”

And so they will, though dead Afghan children are likely to outnumber them. It is time to retire the “Great Game” to the pages of history and literature and bring the troops home.


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