By Arun Anand-
This multi-part series brings ‘The Taliban Story’ to our readers. You can share the feedback at [email protected]. Here is the third part
One often hears the term ‘The Great Game’ when it comes to bloodshed, violence, and powerplay by various countries and rival groups in Afghanistan. In fact, Afghanistan has been used as a pawn in what looks like an unending ‘Great Game’ and the country has hence paid the price.
Till this Great Game had begun, Afghanistan was a rich country and its people. Alexander Burnes who traveled to Kabul in the 1830s found it to be a beautiful city. He wrote, “There were peaches, plums, apricots, pears, apples, quinces cherries, walnuts, mulberries, pomegranates, and vines, all growing in one garden. There were also nightingales, blackbirds, thrushes and doves…and chattering magpies on almost every tree.
Lord Mount Stuart Elphinstone, a British official, visited the king of Afghanistan in 1809. He later wrote about what he witnessed at Amir Shah Shuja’s court, “In the center of the arch sat the king on a very large throne of gold or gilding. His appearance was magnificent and royal: his crown and all his dress were one blaze of jewels…’
In fact, such was the opulence of Afghanistan that when Amir Shah Shuja’s army was defeated by the forces of Shah Mehmood and Shah Fateh Khan in 1809 at a place called ‘Gandamak’, the Amir fled leaving behind a treasure chest of two million pounds. He lived in exile in Ludhiana in India.
The term ‘Great Game’ was first used by intelligence officer Arthur Connolly. Connolly was enrolled in the 6th Bengal Light Cavalry. He mentioned this term for the first time in a letter in July 1840. The letter was written to Major Henry Rawlinson. The latter had been appointed as a political agent in Kandhar (in Afghanistan). Conolly wrote, “You have a great game, a noble game before you”.
Though Connolly was the first one to use this phrase, it was British author Rudyard Kipling(whose full name was Joseph Rudyard Kipling) who established this phrase in public discourse as he wrote about his travel to Afghanistan,
Now a little bit about the Great Game. In the early 19th Century, till 1815, Europe had three major powers-France, Britain and Russia. From 1803 to 1815, France under the leadership of Napoleon was at war with several other countries in Europe. These years are known as the Napoleonic war years.
Till Napoleon was defeated, Britain was alarmed because of two reasons-a pact between French General Napoleon Bonaparte and Russian Monarch Paul -I and second Napoleon’s ‘India Plan’, Napoleon had planned to invade India with Russia’s help as he had heard great stories about its riches. In fact, India was somehow at the Centre of the origin of this Great Game. All European powers wanted to come and plunder India as they could see how Britain was using Indian wealth to build its own economy. The British were wary of such moves from other European countries as India was the ‘jewel in the crown’ in the sense that Britain was exploiting an extremely wealthy India to the hilt.
After Napoleon was defeated in the battle of Waterloo in June 1815 and France lost its influence, the power equation was reset in Europe. Now there were then only two major powers-Russia and Britain. Both of them were wary of each other. Especially Britain was wary of Russia’s designs about India.
That is why it started looking closely at Afghanistan. Till the last decade of the beginning of the 18th century, Afghanistan wasn’t a priority for Britain as its trade was primarily done from India through the sea route and the British navy dominated the seas as the most powerful naval force of that time.
During the Napoleonic war years, Britain started focusing on Afghanistan as the land route to reach India had to pass through Afghanistan. In a shrewd move signed a treaty with Amir Shuja Shah of Afghanistan in June 1809. According to the treaty, no other European would be allowed to enter Afghanistan. However immediately after signing this treaty, the Amir of Afghanistan lost the throne in a battle against Shah Mehmud. The power game between Russia and Britain continued in the context of gaining control of Afghanistan.
This was the beginning of the Great Game which lasted in its first phase for almost 100 years. This game was primarily played between Britain and Russia and lasted till Japan defeated Russia in 1907.
However, only after a decade or so did the second phase of the Great Game started with the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Till the second world war ended the second round of ‘Great Game’ took place again between Britain and Russia.
The third phase of this Great Game began post-second world war between the communist USSR and the capitalist US. This lasted till the collapse of the USSR and the communist block in the late 1980s.
Meanwhile, the Islamic terrorism that was nurtured by the US and the West to counter Russia’s presence in Afghanistan led to the rise of Al-Qaida leading to the 9/11 incident in the US. It was a major terror attack on the US by Al-Qaida which had made a formidable base in Afghanistan.
The hunt for Bin Laden started. Laden had made a strong base in Afghanistan surrounded by Islamic fighters. By that time ‘Taliban’ another Islamic radical outfit had also emerged in Afghanistan and it captured power for a brief period. Both Taliban and Laden got support from Pakistan and complemented each other.
The last couple of decades witnessed a fight between the US and allied forces and Taliban after Laden was killed in Pakistan by US forces and most of the top leadership of Al-Qaida was taken out.
Initially, the Taliban was cornered in Afghanistan but it has dug its heels and has been fighting back with Pakistani support. After the US and allied forces have started the final pullout from Afghanistan, the next round of the Great Game has begun. The Taliban toppled the democratically elected government of Afghanistan amidst i talks between the US and Taliban to reach a peace formula.
This is, however, just the beginning of another phase of ‘Great Game’. Pakistan, which has been a major beneficiary of this conflict in Afghanistan, in terms of the largesse it has received in lieu of the permission to allow its territory to be used by allied forces, would never allow the conflict to end and have a healthy democracy in its neighboring state. Pakistan is also a benefactor of the Taliban, hence it is trying to have a firm grip on this region through funding, aiding, and training the Taliban.
This provides it with the power to create unrest in India and blackmail the West for it would have control over one of the biggest hubs of Islamic terrorism that have become notorious for exporting terrorism impacting global peace dramatically.
On the other, the US and the West face the challenge to ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t become a hub of Islamic terrorism while keeping an aggressive Russia under the leadership of Vladimir Putin at bay! India too has a significant stake in Afghanistan as any consolidation of Taliban and other Islamic terrorist organizations would mean Pakistan having the greater capability to cause trouble especially in the border region of Jammu- Kashmir by pushing more terrorists in name of ‘Jehad’.
-The Balochistan Conundrum by Tilak Devasher, Harper Collins.
-Taliban: The Story of the Afghan Warlords by Ahmed Rashid, Pan books