Playing the Great Game in Central Asia

The Russians have romped through Georgia. When taken to task, they asked rhetorically, if Uncle Sam can invade Baghdad, why can’t the Bear invade Tbilisi. Secretary of State Rice retorted that this was not Czechoslovakia in 1968. With all due respect, Dr. Rice drew the wrong analogy. Cold War thinking isn’t helpful here.
To find an accurate historical analogy to today’s situation, she would do better to hark back to 1885. For decades British India and Tsarist Russia had been playing a chess game in Central Asia. The Russians had designs on a vast region, which they considered a natural part of their sphere of influence. Victorian Brits feared that Russian aspirations extended beyond the Caucasus and the Steppes. In their minds, India, the jewel in their queen’s crown, was the ultimate stake in the game.
Early in the game, Britain tried to control Afghanistan as a buffer to perceived Russian lust for the Indian subcontinent. The first Anglo-Afghan War (`1838-42) ended in an English disaster. From a column of some 16,000 British troops retreating out of Kabul, only one survivor emerged to tell the grizzly tale. The Brits later took their revenge, razing Kabul. The second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-81) was a win for the Lion.
Four years later, the Empire was ill prepared to counter Russian incursions in Central Asia. In 1884 General Sir Peter Lumsden, a member of the Joint Afghan Boundary Commission formed by the two “super-powers,” warned that the Russian Bear was stirring in the region once more. Then, in January 1885, came the news from a relief force sent south along the Nile from Egypt that Khartoum, capital of the Sudan, had fallen to a self-proclaimed Islamic Mahdi. Worse, the British icon, General Charles “Chinese” Gordon, who had organized the defense of Khartoum, had been killed. Although the British, who effectively ruled Egypt, had planned to abandon the Sudan in the face of the fanatical Islamic forces, Gordon’s death left them honor-bound to avenge him. Lumsden’s warning, that the Russians would be on the move “as soon as a large portion of our forces are locked up in Egypt and the Sudan,” proved itself prophetic.
The Russians seized some additional Central Asian territory, the British issued diplomatic warnings and marshaled troops along India’s northern border, and in the words of historian Peter Hopkirk, “the tremors of the crisis were being felt throughout the rest of the world.” He adds, “In America, where the news had rocked Wall Street, all talk was of the coming struggle between the two imperial giants.” However, no repeat of the 1854-56 Crimean War occurred.
In his 1992 book, The Great Game, Hopkirk — a London Times reporter who traveled extensively in Central Asia — referred to the 1979-89 Russian debacle in Afghanistan, when he introduced his account of the 19th century: “If [my] narrative tells us nothing else, it at least shows that not much has changed in the last hundred years. The storming of embassies by frenzied mobs, the murder of diplomats, and the dispatch of warships to the Persian Gulf — all these were only too familiar to our Victorian forebears. Indeed, the headlines of today are often indistinguishable from those of a century or more ago.”
Now, some 20 years after the Soviet Bear departed Afghanistan, tail between its legs, we are hearing the same echoes reverberate down the long corridors of history from those distant days when Great Britain — our only staunch ally today in Afghanistan and Iraq — fought a sometimes-cold, occasionally-hot, war for control of the vast land of the “Stans.” As in 1885, and in 1979-89, Western and Russian forces will not clash directly with one another. Rather, we will work to outmaneuver the Bear. Russo-Ursus will work just as hard to regain its earlier influence in those oil-rich lands, which broke free in 1989-1990, when the USSR crumbled like the Berlin Wall. The Great Game will go on, the 21st century continuing the patterns of geopolitical power struggle that characterized Central Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries.
[Jim Castagnera is the Associate Provost/Associate Counsel at Rider University. He is writing his 14th book, about terrorism’s impact on higher education, for Praeger.]


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