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AFGHANISTAN IN FOCUS – PART ONE: ‘THE GREAT GAME’ AND THE SAUR REVOLUTION

Blog Politics

Paul Antonopoulos

Writer at Indus News
The author is the Director of Multipolarity Research Center. He regularly appears on Indus News, RT, Sputnik and PressTV.
Paul Antonopoulos

A quick Google Images search with the word Afghanistan will immediately yield results of unexploded bombs, local armed groups, foreign soldiers and/or maps that help us locate where the latest catastrophe mentioned in the news occurred. 18 years of continuous war with the United States adds to the internal complexities of the country, complexities that we can trace from the Soviet Union’s intervention in the country that began 40 years ago and would last for ten. And if we go further, right to the times of Alexander the Great, we will find more conflicts. It is this rich tapestry of civilization, culture, and unfortunately, conflict, that Afghanistan is known as “The Graveyard of Empires.”

But why is this country that stands at the foot of the Hindu Kush permanently consumed by war? We could go back to different times, as far back as the conquests of Alexander the Great who sprang out from the Hellenic World in the 4th Century BC. However, this week’s “Afghanistan in Focus” will concentrate on the ‘The Great Game’ and right up until the Saur Revolution. If you did not read last week’s Introduction to Afghanistan, quickly back track and read it before reading here.

Professor Herfried Münkler explains that empires see themselves “as creators and guarantors of an order that ultimately depends on them” who have self-appointed themselves the “role of defender of order against disorder”. He is effectively emphasising that empires view themselves as the deciders of good and evil, acceptable and unacceptable, barbarism and civilisation. However, he goes onto explain that “Empires have no neighbours which they recognize as equals, that is, as possessing equal rights.” It is a system that is meant to subjugate other states and peoples and conform them into their own vision of an order. Professor Michael W. Doyle defines Empire as “a system of interaction between two political entities, one of which, the dominant metropole, exerts political control over the internal and external policy – the effective sovereignty – of the other, the subordinate periphery.” With his understanding of empire, there is no doubt that from Alexander the Great’s conquest to the American intervention, Afghanistan has consistently been a land sought after by the Persian, Hellene, British, Russian and American empires, to name but a very few.

The origin of the term “The Great Game” is generally attributed to Captain Arthur Connolly (1807-1842), an agent of the British secret service who used it to describe the rivalry between the Russian and the British Empires in its struggle for power in Central Asia and the Caucasus throughout the 19th century. Why was this mountainous region so important however? For the Russians it was the door to the Indian Ocean and its riches, and for the British it was the wall that defended the East Indies from Russia.

It is generally considered that the Great Game began on January 12, 1830 when Lord William Bentick, Governor-General of India received the order to establish a new trade route to the wealthy Emirate of Bukhara, located in present-day Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. To make this route possible it was necessary to control the Hindu Kush mountain range and establish the Emirate of Afghanistan as a protectorate of the British Empire. The Russian Empire was of another opinion, especially when considering that the Hindu Kush would be a better buffer zone than the northern region of Central Asia. This led to numerous conflicts and events such as the Russian annexation of Bukhara, Khiva and Kokand, and the Anglo-Afghan wars. But finally, after the last Anglo-Afghan war of 1919, Afghanistan would remain mostly isolated until the coup d’état of Daud Khan and the subsequent Saur Revolution.

However, the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842), despite seeing Britain initially securing Afghanistan before the Russians, came at the immense cost of 4,700 dead British Empire soldiers and a further 12,000 camp followers, demonstrating that containing the state was no easy feat. William Dalrymple explains that:

The entire [British] army of what was then the most powerful nation in the world was utterly destroyed by poorly-equipped tribesmen. On the retreat from Kabul, of the 18,500 who left the British cantonment on 6 January 1842, only one British citizen, the assistant surgeon Dr Brydon, made it through to Jalalabad six days later.

Although there is a discrepancy in numbers, it is mostly agreed that between 16,000 and 18,5000 soldiers and camp followers were on this expedition and all were vanquished bar Dr Brydon, leaving Afghanistan with no British presence.

The Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880) yielded much different results with ‘only’ 10,000 British dying, mostly from diseases. The war ended when the British were finally victorious over the Afghans, but not without strict concessions outlined by the Treaty of Gandamark. The Treaty ensured that all troops of the British Empire withdrew from Afghanistan, with Afghan tribes maintaining local rule and law enforcement, but the British controlling the country’s foreign relations to guarantee Afghanistan served as a buffer state to the Russian Empire.

The power structures that controlled the foreign policy of Afghanistan during this period were maintained in Calcutta and New Delhi. However, the Afghans were also successful in maintaining a high level of autonomy, more so than the different regions of the British Raj. Renowned Hebert Sidebotham explained that although Afghanistan was “independent and enjoyed the right to import arms and munitions from India,” it had “no windows looking on the outside world, except towards India,” demonstrating the master-servant relationship that occurs when empires border so-called independent states.

Pushing for full independence, including over its foreign policy, the Emirate of Afghanistan launched the Third Anglo-Afghan War (May 6 – August 8, 1919), finding immediate success and forcing the British to draw the Durand Line. The Durand Line demarcated the political borders between Afghanistan and the British Raj, and then Pakistan when it attained its independence in 1947, however, it took no consideration to ethnic boundaries, and as a result, split the Pashtuns, the major ethnic group in Afghanistan and a significant minority in Pakistan, from being united in a singular state. It also split Balochs and other ethnic groups. The ramification of this ‘divide and rule’ policy has lingered to the contemporary with former Afghan president Hamid Karzai stating in a tweet in September 2017 that Pakistan has “no legal authority to dictate terms on the Durand Line” and that “While we wish freedom for the people of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas [Fata] from Frontier Crime Regulation [FCR] and other repressive measures, we remind the Government of Pakistan that Afghanistan hasn’t and will not recognize the Durand line”.

The series of wars between the British and Afghans was the first modern attempts to fully subjugate Afghanistan, with the best result the British could attain was control over Kabul’s foreign policy. Rather, the British attempts to subjugate Afghanistan was based off an exaggerated belief that Russia had plans to invade the Indian subcontinent. The British however were to take no chances, and the so-called Great Game was rather a classic example of Vladimir Lenin’s theory of inter-imperialist rivalries. Lenin explained that the world was partitioned among imperialist powers who were engaged in an intense rivalry with other finance capitals, in this case London and Moscow, to enlarge and/or defend their spheres of influence. When analysed through Lenin’s scope, The Great Game in the context of the Anglo-Afghan Wars is a classic example of the inter-imperialist rivalry between Moscow and London to not only secure, but expand their spheres of influence.

After decades of isolation, a revolution led by the Soviet-backed People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), known as the Saur revolution, went against the rule of President Mohammed Daoud Khan on April 27–28, 1978 who only came to power after overthrowing the monarchy, who were ironically members of his own family, in 1973. The moderate wing of the party had supported Mohammed Daud Khan in his coup against the monarchy, but soon after it turned against him, imprisoning and subsequently assassinating several political leaders. This would set the fire of the Saur revolution.

On April 17, after Mir Akbar Kaibar, the leader of the moderate Parcham faction of the PDPA, was killed in a Kabul prison by a rival faction, thousands of people demonstrated in the streets, who were subsequently repressed with more than two hundred dead. The Afghan armed forces were supplied by the Soviet Union since the 1950’s, with Afghanistan being the country that received the most help from the Soviet Union per capita, which had generated great sympathy for the communist movement among its ranks.

This would help explain the scant resistance that the pro-PDPA troops would encounter when they revolted on April 27 during their assault on the presidential palace where Daud took refuge, and would die the next day with his entire family, including grandchildren. On April 30, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was born.

The newly proclaimed republic was recognized internationally by members of the communist bloc and capitalist bloc, but the inclination of it would be definitively determined when, on December 5, 1978 the Soviet Union and Afghanistan signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation in Moscow that, that in reality, left Afghanistan totally in the sphere of Soviet influence.

Watch this space next week as we finally go into how the Cold War arrived in Afghanistan, leading the way to a US-backed mujahideen insurgency against the Soviet Union that eventually culminated with the Taliban takeover of the country. Last week’s and this week’s “Afghanistan in Focus” provided the necessary context so that we can then explore contemporary Afghanistan with greater understanding and discover why the US invaded, the significant opium industry, the Great Power Rivalry between Russia, the US and China in Afghanistan, the regional rivalry between Pakistan and India over Afghanistan, and all other critical subjects related to the country.

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Paul Antonopoulos
Paul Antonopoulos is the Director of Multipolarity Research Center. His main research interests are the International Relations and Political Economy of the Middle East and Latin America, Multipolarity, Eurasian Integration and anti-imperialism. He regularly appears on Indus News, RT, Sputnik and PressTV.

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