Rudyard Kipling, the great British poet & novelist, introduced this extant term into mainstream consciousness. It referred to the strategic rivalry & conflict between the British Empire & the Russian Empire for supremacy in Central Asia.
In comparing three "invasions" of Afghanistan viz the British in mid-19th century, the Russians in the 1978 & the Americans in 2001, Rory Stewart, the producer is guilty of disambiguation. Strictly speaking only the initial British forays into Afghanistan fall within the accepted definition of the Great Game.
Approximately one hour deals with the accepted definition of the Great Game when the British in India, which then encompassed what would become Pakistan on Independence, felt threatened by supposed Russian intentions of encroachment on British India.
Of course none of this had any basis in reality but nevertheless, in spite of wise heads' words of caution, they were not heeded. The British occupied Afghanistan or more correctly Kabul, in 1839. Due to their disdain for the capabilities of these beturbanned backward infidels & their boundless confidence in their manifest destiny, they did not recognise the incandescent rage that was stirred up. When it broke, it caught the unfortunate British soldiers totally unawares.
An appalling choice was given to them: surrender their heavy arms & withdraw back to Jalalabad together with women & children or face annihilation. They chose the latter. Apart from the fact that they now lacked their heavy armaments, there was also the minor matter of sub-zero temperatures at night together with thick snow in the passes. The first casualties were incurred immediately as troops failed to wake up on the morrow. Without sufficient food or water for the nine day journey, worse was to befall them. As they entered the defiles & ravines of southern Afghanistan, the Afghan forces reneged on their undertaking not to harm the withdrawing troops. The British forces were mowed down by unseen gunmen in the crags & fastnesses.
After their harrowing ordeal, one person, a surgeon, survived to tell the tale. In retaliation the British invaded Afghanistan & burnt down the Kasbah in Kabul.
After a further defeat at Merwaid in Helmand Province, the British vacated Afghanistan for good.
The presenter connects all three invasions not via the title, the Great Game, but due to hubris & their inability to understand the Afghanis fierce desire for independence. What also becomes evident is how beguiling an invasion appears, but once in, how can one withdraw without the inevitable loss of face?
In order to provide greater understanding of Soviet invasion in 1979 in order to prop up an unpopular & crumbling Communist administration in Afghanistan, Rory interviews not only Russian foot soldiers but a Russian general.
This is superior production which sheds new light on the similarities between these three invasions & their differences but also the pitfalls of assuming that foreigners can dictate the future for Afghanistan.
Thought provoking & comprehensive, Rory Steward shines a light on a little known subject.
on 30 November 2014
I agree with the other reviewers: this 2-part documentary is excellent.
The first part deals with the three Afghan Wars that Britain fought in the years of the Rajh (the first two in the19th century and the third in the aftermath of the First Word War). There have been many excellent books on these conflicts, but this is the only DVD I know of that deals with them. Rory Stewart does an excellent job in telling this story in only 60 minutes.
The second part deals with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and contains fascinating interviews with Afghan, Soviet and American eye-witnesses.
As the subtitle clearly states, this is a personal view and Stewart's sympathy (should I say love?) for the Afghan people shows through. Alongside with historical facts, he puts across his own feelings and views. I felt that he nicely separates both. Any reader who watches carefully will be able to distinguish between "hard facts" and Stewart's opinions (which one can share or not).
A word of warning, as it is not stated in the other reviews or the dvd description: this documentary does not cover the US Coalition War in Afghanistan and stops at the post-Soviet Afghan civil war that brought the Talibans into power. I half expected a third part dealing with this, but on second thoughts there would perhaps not be much added value, since the American War is covered in very many other works.
Stewart puts a clear message across, and having read a couple of books on Afghanistan before, I agree with it. Afghanistan posed no real threat to British India in the 19th century or to the Soviet Union at the end of the 20th century. The British and the Russians went in because they wrongly perceived the threat existed and then became stuck in a quagmire. Afghanistan does not have natural resources of any value and the invasions were not driven by economic interest.
Stewart obviously disagrees with the American occupation and the leitmotiv of the film is the warning: look at the lessons of the past and get out. However, he acknowledges that the US invaded because Afghanistan was a real threat: the Taliban government had given shelter to Osama Bin-Laden and Al Qaida.
Now, my own Personal View, which is similar but not identical to Stewart's:
No vital economic or geopolitical interests were compromised when Britain and Russia decided to put an end to their interventions. In addition to lost lives and treasure, there was a loss of pride and prestige but leaving Afghanistan alone did not compromise British India's or the Soviet Union's security. This is clearly not the case for the US and its allies, who cannot afford the country (or any country for that matter) to become a haven for terrorism. Thus, just getting out cannot be a solution.
In the 19th century, the British came to an accommodation with the Afghan ruler ... they indeed left the country alone, but this was possible because the Russian threat never materialised and the Afghans themselves kept Russian influence at bay. In our days, the only sustainable end to foreign intervention in Afghanistan will come when the Afghans themselves make sure that the West's enemies (either Afghan or foreign) cannot find shelter there. Afghanistan can only be left alone when it does not represent a danger.
Thus, the West could come to an accommodation with any Afghan regime that guarantees this. This could even be the Taliban. Realpolitik would demand that the West closes its eyes to the most egregious abuses and the most odious treatment of women. The West can, has and will continue doing this. The West does not go to war with, for example, North Korea or Iran because we do not like their internal politics. The West has had the most cordial relations and even supported the most unpalatable dictators.
The West cannot impose its interpretation of "Good" onto others, not because it is not desirable (and one can debate this), but simply because it is not possible.
As long as a country is not a threat to us, can we accept any regime, irrespective of what it does to its people? I don't have an answer to this. Very rightly, public opinion will challenge Western governments to "do something" ... But let us remember that Obama and Cameron were prevented by their legislatures from intervening against Assad on humanitarian grounds.
Stewart makes a case for getting out of Afghanistan, but does not expand on this. I would have liked to hear what he thinks the West should do concerning a successor government
on 25 September 2014
I have this on hard drive recorded from the terrestrial broadcast on the BBC a few years' back,
i won't be deleting anytime soon & often re-watch.
It's brilliant & gives you all you need to know about the country & it's people in terms of conflict
in the country, starting in the main with Britains' invasion in Victorian days of Empire, right up to the present
day. If you want the lowdown on what's going on in Afghanistan & why, get this.
on 11 September 2014
Rory Stewart is a master of his subject and presents an insightful pair of documentaries starting with the 1830's and Alexander Burnes and running right through our Imperial actions there; the Russian invasion of 1979, the subsequent civil war and up to the present day post 9/11. I can't recommend it highly enough, compelling viewing throughout.