AFGHANISTAN Afghanistan and the Defence of Empire: Diplomacy and Strategy During the Great Game, by Christopher M. Wyatt. London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2011. 336 pages. $99.
There is perhaps no more defining legend of Afghanistan's past than that of the "Great Game," the Anglo-Russian rivalry marking the latter half of the 19th century. Christopher Wyatt's new book, Afghanistan and the Defence of Empire, offers a serious examination of the Game and its peaceful ending.
Though Wyatt's title leads one to suppose Afghanistan will occupy a central role in the book, the story he tells is a profoundly British one. The work focuses on the high politics of empire as practiced by ambassadors, viceroys, and foreign secretaries. The characters inhabiting its pages are familiar to anyone who has studied the Edwardian epoch of the British Empire - Curzon, Balfour, Morley, and Minto. Examining the middle years of the first decade of the 20th century, the book documents how British calculations about the defense of empire, and more specifically Afghanistan's role in those calculations, changed during this time. Within this short four-year period, the British imperial establishment moved from an attitude of marked antagonism towards the Tsarist Empire to a negotiated understanding which would serve as the basis of their 1907 entente. Wyatt's thesis is that during this crucial period, the British abandoned a defense of their Indian empire based on military calculation for one based on diplomatic nuance.
Following a brief introduction with some basic background on Afghanistan and Russian expansion into Central Asia in the late 19th century, the book traces the evolution of British strategic thinking during this period by examining six different episodes in Anglo- Russian-Afghan relations. The chapters move chronologically, beginning with the Dobbs mission to Herat in 1903-1904 and finishing with the Anglo-Russian accord of 1907. The intervening chapters focus on internal British deliberations, including the Morley sub-committee regarding imperial defense. Throughout, Wyatt's critical gaze is solely fixed on the British and their own internal imperial concerns. Consequently, the reader is given a highly detailed rendering of the policy back and forth between London and Calcutta which marked the evolving strategies of imperial defense.
Wyatt's volume is a valuable work which offers a well-researched telling of a relatively over-looked, but important chapter of the Great Game. …