The Great Game and the Afghan Wars

Article excerpt

Jeffrey Meyers' Inherited Risk: Errol and Sean Flynn in Hollywood and Vietnam will be published by Simon & Schuster in June. He is now writing a life of Somerset Maugham.

The disaster of September 11, 2001, has focused the attention of the world upon Afghanistan, an impoverished country in the grip of the Taliban, a repressive, secretive, and extremist Islamic group at the center of the world's heroin production. It is also the haven of al Qaeda, a deadly terrorist organization made up of men from other Muslim countries: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Algeria. Afghanistan's huge refugee population, mostly in Pakistan, increases daily. Its educated class has been killed or exiled, its people are starving, its women are completely imprisoned in a savagely medieval purdah. It was immediately apparent, in the wake of America's outrage over the attacks on the World Trade Center, that there was no justification for punishing the Afghan people, who are now living among the ruins of the previous wars on their soil. And yet, the United States finds itself inexorably impelled to do what the great powers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries repeatedly did to their peril--invade Afghanistan. Such a move would surely be interpreted by Afghans and the surrounding Muslim populations as the beginning of a war against Islam itself.

To the western mind this remote region evokes many exotic associations: the Northwest Frontier and the Khyber Pass, the Pamirs and the Hindu Kush, Chitral and Waziristan. There was also the despotic if comic ruler of Swat, of whom the puzzled Edward Lear asked: "Who, or why, or which, or what / Is the Akond of Swat?" But Afghanistan is a country whose geography has been its fate. The most lawless country on earth has always resisted intrusion and caused grief. Easy to enter, it is almost impossible to escape. Like the insects in the ad for the Roach Hotel, the invaders--the only sure target in guerrilla warfare--check in, but they don't check out.

Afghanistan is a landlocked area the size of Texas, hedged around by Pakistan to the south and east, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan to the north, and Iran to the west. For centuries its borders have been ill-defined, its people a collection of warring tribes and clans. Traditionally they have made their living tending flocks of sheep and weaving carpets from the wool, farming in the mountain valleys, and trading along the ancient routes between central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Afghanistan was an unstable monarchy, headed by a succession of amirs, who began to call themselves kings in 1920. Shoot-outs in the royal palace were common, and when "bloodless" coups took place, only a dozen people were killed. Some amirs were blinded, others assassinated or publicly executed. Many sons rebelled against and even murdered their royal fathers. The luckiest amirs were quietly pensioned off in India. The last "king," living in Italy since 1973, has survived to a rare old age.

Divided by high mountains--beginning with the Hindu Kush, a 600-mile- long barrier of ice-covered rock--that are inaccessible in all seasons except through a few narrow defiles, the country was destined to be a gateway to India. The extreme temperatures, intensified by high winds, range from 15_F in the icy mountains to 112_ in the burning deserts. As early as 329--27 b.c. Alexander the Great reached the Oxus River on the northern border and crossed the Hindu Kush into India. In 1219 Genghis Khan, another conqueror, swept into the Afghan region with his Mongol army.

But this remote and hostile place did not attract the attention of the West until the early nineteenth century. While America followed its own manifest destiny and pushed westward to the Pacific Ocean, Afghanistan became the focus of a century-long rivalry between two great imperial powers, czarist Russia and Victorian Britain, which struggled for control of the forbidding country that divided their two empires. …