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By Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University
Today, we often hear commentary on our longest war and continued involvement in Afghanistan. Many Americans probably do not realize that the British Empire was heavily involved in that region in a struggle with Imperial Russia during the 19th century.
In fact, British forces fought in three Afghan wars. Fortunately, the U.S. has evaded that fate.
Historical Background of British Involvement in Afghanistan
British interest in Afghanistan stemmed from the need to protect India, which was then the “jewel in the crown” of its colonial empire. At the same time, Imperial Russia was expanding eastward and Afghanistan was a vacuum between the two great rival empires.
The two nations clashed in war from 1839 to 1842. It was the first of the three Anglo-Afghan Wars.
Imperial Russian influence in Afghanistan was a threat to the British Empire. British leaders believed that Russia might launch an expedition into India through the Khyber Pass (now part of Pakistan) over the Himalayas. This suspicion let to the second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878 to 1880 and a third war from 1914 to 1919.
While the Russians never truly invaded Afghanistan in the 19th century, their modern counterparts certainly have. Soviet forces fought a merciless war there from 1979 to 1989.
The Soviet effort was thwarted by U.S. assistance to tribal groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The war was a contributing factor to the bankruptcy and collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Are We Seeing a Resurgence of ‘The Great Game?’ between Russia and the US?
The 19th-century clashes between Britain and Russia were called, “The Great Game.” Czarist Russians referred to it as “The Tournament of Shadows.”
Russia had agents working inside Afghanistan. The British had agents supporting their interests in Kabul as well.
The “game” was less about the Afghans’ welfare and more about securing the goals of the two conflicting empires. This “game” continued until the inconclusive end of the third Anglo-Afghan War in May 1919.
There are parallel examples of other nations’ involvement in Afghan politics that support the argument that “The Great Game” has returned. For instance, the Soviets’ supported a “puppet” Afghan president, resulting in their invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The U.S. also backed a controversial president, Hamid Kharzai, when American forces entered Afghanistan in 2001.
The Modern-Day Version of ‘The Great Game’
Is this a re-emergence of The Great Game with the U.S. replacing Britain? The political and historical website The State of the Century suggests that a new Great Game has already started.
Today, the Russian Federation is again active in that region. The Russians and the Taliban have reached a certain rapprochement based on ISIS in Afghanistan, which the Taliban consider the competition.
Some political experts suggest that Turkey and Saudi Arabia are behind the emergence of ISIS in eastern Afghanistan. Clearly, Afghanistan remains an area in which foreign powers seek to gain advantage for their own ends. The players in the Great Game may have changed somewhat, but the Game continues.
Using the Past to Understand the Present and Project into the Future
As my old mentor at the U.S. Military Academy observed, “History repeats itself – but never exactly.” Geopolitical issues tend to be complex.
Some nations might call the U.S. an “imperial power.” I disagree. We are no longer in the age of Manifest Destiny.
The great European powers of the 19th century were engaged in competition. They used other, less developed nations and peoples to feed their factories with raw goods. These raw goods were turned into finished products and sold back to their colonies. India was a perfect example of this system in practice during the time of the British operations in Afghanistan.
American Involvement in Afghanistan
The U.S. and its allies first became engaged in the region during the Cold War. The U.S. used Afghan Mujahdeen fighters as surrogates to prevent Russian expansion in Afghanistan. After the Soviet defeat and withdrawal, the U.S. abandoned Afghanistan. That presented the Taliban with an opening to take partial control of Afghanistan.
The terrorist attack of 9/11 provided the U.S. with the impetus to return to the region in search of Osama bin Laden, the presumed mastermind of the attack. In the process, U.S. forces fought alongside the Northern Alliance forces to overthrow the Taliban.
The U.S. decision to commit forces under the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to Afghanistan has resulted in the longest war in U.S. history, surpassing even the “Ten Thousand Day War” in Vietnam. Like their military predecessors, the ISAF veterans of today encounter the same Afghan tribes and the same age-old disputes, landscapes, villages and remoteness for which Afghanistan is well known.
The Joint Command ended its operations in 2014, but U.S. forces remain to assist Afghan military and police forces. The future is unclear.
How Long Will the US and Russia Play ‘The Great Game’ in Afghanistan?
Military operations in northern Afghanistan span an astounding period from the era of Alexander the Great (approximately 330 BC) to the present. In our time, we have seen the influence of great powers in Afghanistan, including the Soviet Union and now the Russian Federation.
While the Great Game is no longer about a potential Russian seizure of India, Afghanistan remains a pawn in the struggle between Eastern and Western ideologies. The British were heavily involved in Afghanistan for 90 years, from 1839-1929. It remains to be seen how long the Stars and Stripes will fly in this historic and volatile region.
About the Author
Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. He holds a B.A. in law enforcement from Marshall University, an M.A. in military history from Vermont College of Norwich University and a Ph.D. in business administration with a concentration in criminal justice from Northcentral University. Jeffrey is also a published author, a former New York deputy sheriff and a retired Army officer, having served over 20 years in the U.S. Army.
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