August 22, 2013

Past as Precedent.

“Wer’e blondes out there, man.  Dumb and innocent as the day is long.” 
~American Special Forces “person”, concerning the American presence in Afghanistan.

Frenchtoast called and asked how much do I think the past as precedent?  He was reading “Kim”, Rudyard Kipling’s story of another era of the “great game”, the game of intrigue in the power struggle between East and West. The pieces on the board?  Street urchins, a horse trader, a jelly-backed Bengali, and “a very foolish Sahib, a Colonel Sahib without a regiment….” In that game, nations were the contestants, empires the prize.  Borders were drawn only to be tested, crossed, and redrawn by the victors.

International relations were like that then-  

Today all invasions must be called “temporary.”  They must be justified as hot pursuit, or legitimate and limited retaliation, or fraternal responses to official calls for help from the proper internal authorities. 

The new style of relations between nations is sometimes quite a strain.  One reason is that when the “great game” was abruptly halted and borders were frozen, some of those borders were remarkably arbitrary. In many cases, they were unjust and unrealistic to the point of absurdity.

For example, Israel, a great and ancient nation, had no borders at all.  The world was repeatedly divided by lines drawn in Europe.  That is imperialism’ bitter legacy. 

The suddenly frozen borders were particularly artificial and controversial in the Asian region where the Russians and the English both were building their empires.

The Russians first invaded Afghanistan in 1725. A kind of Afghan national consciousness had just begun to emerge after centuries of domination by Mongol warlords, Persian shahs, and Indian emperors. Then the son of the Afghan leader who had thrown off the yoke of a Persian governor found himself facing an army of Russians moving down from the north. His cousin Ashraf fought off both the Russians and the Turks, but Afghanistan remained unstable. 

Next, a Persian bandit chief made himself ruler over Afghanistan. He was passing through for a raid on India, in which he captured and brought back to Persia the famous Peacock Throne, enjoyed later by the deposed shah of Iran. The Indians whose wealth had been looted harbored considerable bad feeling against Afghans for this. They blamed the Afghans because, after all, the bandit chief was their ruler.

You may be sure it is remembered that the jewels and the throne (formerly treasures of the Mughal dynasty that built the Taj Mahal) vanished across the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. Today's political sympathies in that part of the world, as in other places around the globe, have quite a bit to do with yesterday's memories and conflicts.

By that time, the British were sufficiently well established in India to be alarmed and aroused. Their "great game" of espionage and intrigue used the greed, rivalry, and ambition among Afghan tribes-Barakzai, Baluchi, Pushtun, Ghilzai-to block Russia's designs.

In 1837 the Russians tried again, this time supporting an ambitious Persian ruler who invaded Afghanistan as a first step toward dominating India. The British responded to this aggression by invading Afghanistan also. This launched the first of three British-Afghan wars.

Afghan guerrilla tactics (there were guerrillas long before Mao, Giap, and Guevara) drove the British out with heavy losses. The Russian-backed Persians were repulsed as well.

Bungling the "balance of power" game-setting Afghan tribes against each other may have caused the British failure. But tribal rivalries often broke out without any outside help. This made the Afghans frequently vulnerable to subversion and invasion.

The Russians tried again in 1878. Starting with a successful diplomatic offensive, they persuaded the Afghans to break relations with the British and accept the promise of Russian protection. Taking the old-fashioned direct approach, the British invaded again.  But rather than occupying the country this time, they set up the friendly tribal leader Abderrahman as shah.

Afghanistan was united under him. He negotiated with Sir Mortimer Durand the border, still known as the "Durand line." After a short third war with the war-weary British from 1919 to 1921, Afghanistan gained absolute independence.

But the Durand line was bound to cause trouble. Pathans, living on both sides of the line, wanted an independent Pathan state. This caused friction with Pakistan when, after World War II and the fall of the British Empire, Pakistan became a nation. Baluchis also wanted an independent Baluchistan, but their land was divided by those frozen borders into sections of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran.

In 1963 the shah of Iran barely managed to stop a Pakistani-Afghan war over the Pathan quarrel and since it has never been be difficult to stir up these lingering ambitions and dreams.

Meanwhile the Russians never lost interest. Using a variety of tactics from diplomacy to assassination, they brought about shifts in Afghanistan from monarchy with a pro- Western prime minister to monarchy with a pro-Soviet prime minister; then to a republic with that same prime minister in charge. A still more cooperative prime minister followed, and then Afghanistan finally became a puppet regime. Direct rule by Russian invasion was merely the last and not so illogical step.

The U.S. had, of course, inherited the British mantle as leader of the West. American diplomatic efforts to loosen Afghanistan's tightening bonds with the Soviet Union were going so well that the American ambassador was kidnapped and killed.

With all this history on record, the surprising thing to me is that Washington is always so surprised by the latest invasions-especially as the CIA always knows.

Remember Frenchtoast, the Russians are masters also at chess, the game of great patience. If the horses are finally out of the barns, we should remember that Russia first began tampering with the door in 1725.