Rudyard Kipling, 19th century British author, wrote the book “Kim”. In the story he coined the term “The Great Game”. The point of the story was the involvement of a young boy helping British espionage against the Russians in India about 1840. “The Great Game” became a metaphor for the centuries old use of the Khyber Pass located in the range of mountains known as the “Hindu Kush”. The pass connected Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan to India. India was “the jewel in the crown”. It was first conquered by Moghul raiders out of Central Asia and then much later became a prize for the British East India Company.
“The Great Game” was the back and forth of diplomatic strategies including war to protect India by gaining control of the Khyber Pass. Britain fought three wars known as the Anglo-Afghan Wars in 1839-1842, 1878-80 and 1919 all ending in defeat. The first Anglo Afghan War resulted in the massacre of some 4500 troops as they fled Kabul. The general in charge died in prison in Afghanistan. His body was returned to India and he was buried in an unmarked grave.
A second player in the “Great Game” is Russia. The expansion of Russian influence into Central Asia and the need to protect its borders made the British nervous for India. The bottom line of the Anglo-Afghan Wars was keeping an eye on Russian activities. Russia played a part in the “Great Game” with a nine year occupation and continual battle with Afghans, finally leaving in 1989 after being defeated by the mujahideen. A communist government in Afghanistan held control for three years before being driven out. Russian casualties were 15,000 soldiers and two million Afghans. Russia has never left “the game” as we see today.
The third player in the “Great Game” has been the United States. NATO forces also fought in Afghanistan all with the aim of ending the use of Afghanistan as a center for terrorist groups after the attack on the United States on September 11, 2001. After twenty years of fighting we see that occupation coming to an end. U.S. casualties were 2,448.
Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, constituting around 48% of the country's total population. They have been the dominant linguistic group in Afghanistan since the nation's founding. Pathans are Muslims and speak Pashto (or Pushtu). Historically, Pathans have been noted as fierce fighters, and throughout history they have offered strong resistance to invaders. They are an Iranian ethnic group native to Central and South Asia.
Three super powers have stepped into “the Great Game” in Afghanistan and each one has left without accomplishing the ends they saw as necessary. My father, a history teacher, began every school year with this quotation: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” May I add, over and over and over again.
The West has never taken the time to study Asian history — whether Southeast Asia, China, or Central Asia and Africa with its long history of tribalism and colonialism is another blank spot in our understanding. To brush off other cultures as unimportant to our understanding of the world in which we live is deeply near-sighted, but unfortunately our preference for isolation, racism and xenophobia (fear of people from other countries) have left us vulnerable. Diplomacy is a dicey game and many men and women have called themselves winners to their loss. There are always bigger stakes than just “losing face”. The threat of terrorism is a real one, but the game board of history is littered with those who never learned the rules.