Peter Hopkirk’s, The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia

great_game-193x300  The air in Kabul is dry this time of year, winter is turning into spring. Yet, an ever present threat looms over the city like the dust that seems to engulf everything. Just ahead, a small detachment of British soldiers leave their garrison fortifications for their daily patrol, entering into the sea of blue burkas.

That scene unfolded in early April 2010 in Kabul where I was helping start up a new USAID project. With but little imagination, it could easily have been 150 years ago, in the time of Rudyard Kipling’s hero, Kimball O’Hara, in Kim, a spy novel which takes place at the height of the Great Game era. It was then, as it is now, a theater of war led by intrepid young men keen to serve their countries.

“The Great Game” was coined as a term in the 19th century by Captain Arthur Conolly. It describes what might be understood as the first “Cold War” between Imperial Britain and Czarist Russia over who would control of the crown jewel of the former’s global empire, India. But if the goal was India, the battleground was Central Asia. In his book of the same name, Peter Hopkirk renders on a broad canvas a compelling historical narrative of “the vast chessboard on which this shadowy struggle between Russia and Britain” played and “stretched from the snow-capped Caucasus in the west, across the great deserts and mountain ranges of Central Asia, to Chinese Turkestan and Tibet in the east.”

Hopkirk narrates in wonderfully suspenseful prose the history of these two empires borne out by adventurous British and Russian young men who braved what was then un-chartered territory, and where in instances, no European had ever ventured. In more than a few cases these young men would never return.

The story of one of the British “young bloods,” Conolly, graces Hopkirk’s superb narrative. Hopkirk relates how in January 1831, while still a lieutenant, Conolly arrives at a remote village on India’s north-west frontier in what was then the territory of the British East India Company. On that day, Conolly appeared as “a bearded and disheveled figure in native dress;” he had been travelling for more than a year. The young lieutenant then barely 24 years-old had been sent to map the military and political no-man’s land between the Caucasus and the Khyber Pass through which a Russian army might pass. “Daring, resourceful and ambitious, Conolly was the archetypal Great Game player.” He would lead future expeditions to what he called the wild and lawless regions of Central Asia, but ultimately, in June 1842, met with a brutal death in the town of Bokhara.

While Conolly found two routes by which the Russians might pass on their way to India, he noted that “by either route an invader would have to pass through Afghanistan. The Afghans have little to gain, and much to fear, from letting the Russians enter their country” wrote Conolly, who was fully convinced of Russia’s expansionist aims. Over the course of the next few years, the British and the Russians would strive to win the allegiance of the Afghans.

Meanwhile, the Afghan leader, Dost Mohammed “had pledged himself to restore Afghanistan to its former glory” and win back from the ruler of the Sikh Kingdom of the Punjab, Ranjit Singh, “the rich and fertile province of Peshawar.” While the British and Russians strategized to win Afghanistan, Dost Mohammed pursuing his own interests, played the two against each other. However, says Hopkirk, Mohammed’s plan like everyone else’s was to backfire “disastrously.”

By 1903, Russia had annexed vast areas of Central Asia, which would only regain their independence after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Great Game of that era was brought to a close in August 1907 when the Anglo-Russian Convention was signed in St. Petersburg. Hopkirk relates that “Afghanistan the Russians formally recognized as lying within Britain’s sphere of influence and outside their own. They pledged themselves to send no agents there, and to conduct all political relations with Kabul through London, though they would be free to trade there. For their part, the British guaranteed not to change the political status of Afghanistan. Acknowledging, moreover, St. Petersburg’s fear of Britain and Afghanistan combining against Tsarist rule in Central Asia, the British solemnly undertook never to do so and also to discourage Kabul from ever behaving in a hostile manner.”

Hopkirk’s The Great Game provides a fascinating historical lens through which to understand the influence of past events on the current history of the Central Asian region.

-Amaury Cooper

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