Afghan Wars, Strategic Necessity, Iraq

Afghan Wars, Strategic Necessity, Iraq -
Rereading The Great Game:

I've been a little preoccupied lately, but I did find time this week to reread a splendid book on 19th-century conflict in Central Asia - Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game - which I can't too highly recommend. This time through, I spotted some analogies I missed before, that might be of interest. (As I get older and busier, I increasingly appreciate the value of well-written history; if I can't read it speedily, I'll never have time to read it again, and I always miss so much the first time through.)

The Great Game itself (I'm going to eschew further Wikipedia links here; you know how to go there!) arose quite simply, though the course was fascinatingly complex. Great Britain held India, which was a major source of its wealth and prestige (whether it should've is a separate question; it did). Britain had a stragegic interest in keeping India free from invaders; and Russia, which was often at odds with Britain over one thing and another, had a strategic interest in being able to threaten India. Afghanistan and Persia were, by themselves, moderately dangerous (both had invaded India in the past, and many Afghan tribes were still warlike and fond of plunder) - but as invasion routes to India (particularly after the Russians seized the central Asian khanates that gave them long borders with Persia and Afghanistan) they were appallingly dangerous. Russian officers in central Asia were quite forthright that they were wargaming just such an invasion in the event of war (they also had a nasty habit of acting beyond orders in carrying out attacks; the Czar tended to be very forgiving in the event of success).

Responding to (or learning about) a Russian invasion only when the first of the Czar's troops crossed the Indian border would've been an extremely bad idea; and Afghanistan was not the kind of powerful, secure nation that could resist such a thing alone, even if it wanted to (a recurring theme in Russian plans was to encourage Afghanistan to join in, and share the plunder, as it had long before). This in turn gave Britain a strategic interest in the rulership and foreign policies of Persia and Afghanistan (or, to use one of John Derbyshire's phrases - Afghanistan was in India's strategic backyard).

A couple of examples of where this led, summarized brutally: in the 1830's, Persia was allied with Russia; Afghanistan and Punjab (not yet part of British India) were allied with Britain, but they had a large dispute with each other over a province that Punjab had seized, and the British refused to make Punjab disgorge. The king of Afghanistan (Dost Mohammed) began receiving Russian ambassadors (possibly to hint to the British that keeping him happy was much in their interest); the British responded by unseating him and placing one of his several rivals (Shah Shujah, who had no quarrel with Punjab) on the throne (controversial decision even at the time; the British agent in Kabul highly recommended leaving Dost Mohammed in place) (Around the same time, the Persians, with Russian advisors, besieged the border town of Herat - a couple of British advisors helped Herat hold out; and the Persians withdrew when the British dispatched a relief column.) Shah Shujah proved much less popular than the British thought; the natives ended up overthrowing him and massacring his British advisors. Britain, worried that it would appear weak and vulnerable in the faces of this, mounted a punitive expedition. A few months later, they allowed Dost Mohammed to return -- and he remained friendly to the British for the rest of his reign (they, in turn, let him seize Herat - which had been independent - without objection). Later, the British discovered the existence of viable invasion routes through Tibet; and they found it necessary to map Tibet secretly (the rulers did not allow it). Later still, having intelligence that the Russians were being received in Lhasa, the British invaded Tibet and won some extreme concessions from its rulers. Hopkirk dedicated a separate book, an excellent one, to that story. And he did not miss the tragedy of it all - for the British intelligence was false, the Russians had no significant presence in Tibet, and the Tibetans (unlike the Afghans and Persians) didn't exhibit a single foreign policy goal beyond simply being left alone.

The point, to me, is that dreadful and uncertain as these events were - as long as Britain held India, and had an interest in keeping it secure, the British could not simply ignore its neighbors or leave them strictly alone. "Should the current ruler of Afghanistan stay in power?" "How much control should we attempt to exert over him?" and "How strong do we let him grow?" were fair questions; "I don't care" was not a practical or permissibile answer. "How do we gain intelligence and advance warning in the event our enemies come through Tibet?" was a fair question. "Let's just stay in the dark" was not a practical answer.

In the end, the British and Russians settled their differences by treaty in 1907; agreeing that Afghanistan and southern Persia were in the British sphere of influence, and northern Persia (including Tehran) in the Russian; Russia would have no agents in Kabul but Britain would not "change the political status of" (i.e., annex) Afghanistan. (This wonderful, final settlement lasted all of ten years; the Bolsheviks took over, tore the treaty up, and started their own campaign to dominate Persia and Afghanistan, and eventually India - to which Hopkirk dedicated another book, which I haven't read.)

I think you can see the analogy I have in mind. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are to us as India was to Britain - a major source of wealth (though happily we've been wise enough not to annex them - no Sepoy mutinies for us - but simply to purchase what we need), and their neighbors are thus in our "strategic backyard." Iraq under Saddam was something like Afghanistan under Czarist control - a serious threat, with an interest in gaining prestige by controlling the wealth of the Gulf states and humiliating us. Those states had nothing like the power to defend themselves from what he could muster; and keeping an army in the Arabian desert (as we did during and after the first Gulf war) to defend them created extra problems for us. Creating spheres of influence in buffer states wasn't an option because there weren't any; attempting to end the threat by treaty (as we did in 1991) didn't work, because Saddam did not hold to his treaties. Our ultimate decision, and I think it was the best available, was to replace Saddam with something else - something that did not have an interest in threatening the neighbors. A democracy at least avoids the problem of picking Shah Shujah over Dost Mohammed - you don't have to guess which leader has the most popular support (and you can avoid at least some of the problem Shah Shujah faced - since he was seated and supported by foreign troops, he was an affront to national pride). Which isn't to say that, like all options available to us in 2003, it didn't have its share of problems, or of controversy, or require a massive amount of guesswork.

Whether we should've - let's say - long ago switched completely to nuclear power, so as to end our strategic interest in the Gulf states, is a completely separate question, and quite beyond the scope of what I'm writing here. What the Great Game analogy illustrates for me is this: as long as we do have a material interest in the Gulf states and who controls them, we cannot (much as we might wish to) simply ignore the question of who, or what, is in control of their neighbors. It's hugely tempting to adopt a viewpoint that says, "This is all stupid. It can't be worth it. If they're not attacking us, right now, let's just leave them alone." Or to insist that we can avoid messy entanglements, and stick with the Powell Doctrine or something like, while we have interests like that. If books like Hopkirk's were more often read, these temptations might be more often resisted, and foreign policy debates take place on a higher level.

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