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From Russia With Love

The Russians are coming, to paraphrase Paul Revere, or so we are told.
It is just the Great Game redux, of course. The Great Game, let us remember with profit in these confusing times, was a 19th century power struggle between the Russian Empire and the British one for control of Afghanistan, which both blocs saw as a buffer state – chronically poor, with no resources worth the name, populated by tribes living in the Middle Ages – but a strategically important pawn all the same.
We are speaking of 170 years ago, when a Russian lunge at India seemed all too likely, at least to fevered minds in London. It was an utter nonsense. The Czarist regime lacked any of the material resources necessary to mount an assault, while the logistics of supplying a necessarily enormous force would have had no real equal in history. In any event, the sheer vastness of India would swallow her armies, no matter their numbers.
Nonetheless, in the London of 1838 armchair warriors over-ruled plain common sense. Into the Afghan wilderness went some four thousand sepoys commanded by 700 or so dandy officers of the Indian Army, fancying that such disciplined power would make short work of babbling tribesmen armed, at best, with ancient muskets. Yes sirree, this was the great-great grand-pappy of The Surge. Wives and children traipsed along too, like a Victorian picnic outing, or the Washington gentlefolk who sallied forth with their hampers and champagne to watch the sport at Bull Run. La même histoire maintenant. Likewise the Kabul picnic party was the advertised slam dunk of the age.
Whatever it is they study at West Point these days, beyond the lunchtime menus of fried chicken and coke, it sure is not the history of the First Afghan War. Confident that a new diadem had added to the Great White Queen’s magnificent realms, the occupiers set about establishing a puppet government in Kabul, which lasted in historical terms about five minutes. There now followed a second great surge, this time to the exits. The retreating host, which included no less than ten thousand essential camp followers, was annihilated by withering fire aimed by the local Taliban of the times. No more than a handful of the entire expeditionary force survived the ordeal, but the best known is unquestionably Dr William Brydon, an army surgeon, who incredibly survived, barely alive after part of his skull was sliced off by an Afghan swordsman.
In marked contrast to British blustering, the Czarist Empire proceeded quietly about its business. Advanced formations pottered around plugging gaps and generally filling the regional power vacuum, the British licking their wounds far away. Into the Russian booty sack went Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara (of the famous Black Hole), in fact staking out the Silk Road as far as the Amu Darya (the Oxus, as we usually know it) river. Frustrated, the British re-surged for a second helping between 1878-1880, this time with 40,000 troops to make sure of things.
The Afghans astonished the invaders with highly competent artillery skills (an uncanny chime with the future Mujaheen rocket launchers used with deadly accuracy against the Russians) as well as their sophisticated wearing-down guerrilla tactics. Honed all those years ago, these skills were in marked evidence during the Russian occupation of 1979-89 and as we witness today, the repeat performance by the United States and her vassal NATO client states. How history loves an encore. One particularly vicious engagement of the Second Afghan War was fought in – no surprises – Kandahar.
The British have a weakness in prizing defeats in the name of victory (Dunkerque, the classic example, the Somme, Passchendale, belong in the same ancestral line). Afghanistan was no more conquerable the second time around than the first. In any event, any permanent military presence would eventually meet the same fate. All the valiant chiefs brought home from the Second Afghan War as some kind of comfort was another useless scrap of paper, which recognised the independence of the Kabul government so long as the Empire had the veto over foreign policy. It was, of course, completely unenforceable, like the Peace in Our Time pledge autographed by Hitler that Neville Chamberlain flourished at Croydon Airport on his return from Munich in 1938.
The Russians had all the leisure of selecting the choicest items, like weekend burglars in a jewellery shop. Astutely they avoided provoking the British, who, as it transpired, were already in retreat as a regional power. The British Empire was dissolving, even as its Russian counterpart was heading for the Pacific Ocean. Altogether not enough has been made of the Afghan escapades terminally undermining the British hold on their Asian jewels in the crown. By 1950, just seventy years after the last British adventure to subdue Afghanistan, the entire Indian subcontinent had broken free of imperial chains.
The message we can follow from the British collapse in Asia, and the Soviet implosion at the end of the 1980’s, is two-fold. First, time is always measured for any empire. And second, it is more than co-incidence that Afghanistan featured prominently in the decline and fall of both the British Empire and ultimately the Soviet Union. The last remaining global empire, the United States, has of all ironies now turned to the successors of the USSR for help, to turn the tide in its own disastrous intervention in a wild and at the best of times ungovernable land.
Russia’s game is really simple. She aims to weaken the straight jacket of Western containment devised by the American diplomat and historian George Frost Kennan and which, to his subsequent consternation, provoked the Cold War. From the Russian perspective, the United States is a late-stage empire, a political red dwarf, indifferently governed, burdened by massive arms expenditures and exhibiting signs of economic implosion and mass social disconnection and hysteria.
Russia, on the other hand, seems to be passing through a phase of rehabilitation after the collapse of the former system. Like the British Empire before it, Moscow is sure that American power is waning fast, while the issues raised by the latest Afghan War are specifically relevant to her own aims. One of these is her own policy of containment, which is to box up the Turks from interfering in the former states of Soviet Asia that both Russia and Turkey regard as their respective ‘near abroad.’ Turkey is also an aspiring nuclear power and commands enormous influence in the Middle East. For all these reasons and more, Russia must assert herself in the renewed Great Game.
She needs furthermore to neuter any further expansion of NATO, particularly in the Caspian Region, where oil issues are paramount, and curb the fortification of ex-Soviet satellites with increasing numbers of US troops.
Her trick is to sneak into NATO like the Trojan Horse. Make no mistake, that is what all the friendship pow-wows are about, especially the recent one in the big Pentagonian wig-wam. With his usual perspicacity, the clueless Grand Vizier of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has fallen for it hook, line and sinker. The self-promoting neocon Great Dane genuinely believes that the Russians are running up some kind of white flag because of NATO’s missile deployment threats. The old fairy teller Hans Christian Anderson himself would hardly have fallen for that one.
As Mikhail Gorbachev has hinted, Moscow has noticed that every time she kicks NATO, the beast flinches. Forked tongues are everywhere. The gullible US media, the British not far behind, have gabbled over ‘Russian troops’ returning to Afghanistan, when the most that Moscow has in mind is a few helicopters and possibly some trainers to stiffen up the Keystone Cops laughingly known as the Afghan Army. Moscow is in a light-hearted been there, done that, got the T-shirt frame of mind, because she has judged that the hostilities in Afghanistan are in such a terminal phase even an offer to let tankers pass across Russian soil looks to Washington eyes like a lifeline.
She judges that the Americans will try the old Ho Chi Minh trail ploy of taking the war into a neighbouring country, in this instance Pakistan, with disastrous consequences. Russians are great chess players. They know an end game when they see one. And what they see most of all is that without the United States, NATO has no existence and no super-glue to hold it together.
The appearance of the Russian premier, Dmitry Medvedev, at the Russia-NATO summit, is part and parcel of this thinking, the perfect consummation of Machiavelli’s advice to mellow one’s opponents into submission, not to say Sun Tzu’s prescription of winning wars without actually going to the trouble and cost of fighting them.
Moscow’s charm offensive aimed at NATO has as much substance as candy floss. She is actually engaging the alliance in conflict resolution war games which in ordinary circumstances might not proceed too far – but for the Afghan baited hook. The enlargement of the war, even if in a vestigial form, to include a Russian presence allows American policymakers to play to the public gallery of ‘winning the war.’ This is known as the strategy of limited horizon.
Not so the Russians. Hurling brickbats at NATO’s containment policies, the re-militarisation of Eastern Europe, expansionism in the Balkans and the Caspian Basin, worldwide development of defensive pacts, expansion into cyberspace, in all these areas the goldfish-bowl politics of outside looking in has yielded few positive results. If it takes a few easily-spared choppers, some modest manpower commitment to a hopeless conflict, a helping hand to keep the engines turning over, it is a small price to pay for a place at the table.
Afghanistan has sapped American energies to such an extent she faces a defeat that would far eclipse Vietnam. Thus far has she travelled down the road to the End of Empire. The wheel has turned full circle from the first Afghan war. Always remember as the NATO nuptials proceed, that Russia was strengthened and emboldened by the British calamity in a land where tears are rarely shed for invaders.