Afghanistan – The Great Game Review: Caught Between Two Empires

AFGHANISTAN – THE GREAT GAME: Monday 28th May, BBC2, 9pm

An arrogant Britain rushes off to invade Afghanistan, citing fabricated ‘national security’ concerns and not bothering to read up on any of the local culture. This scenario probably sounds very familiar to those of us who lived through George W. Bush’s Oil Wars (which unless you’re a particularly computer-savvy toddler, is all of us), but it would ring just as many bells to anyone residing in England circa 1842.

Yes back when the British Empire was in its pomp, it was decided that we needed to get our hands on the Middle East hinterland because otherwise the Russians might steal India. The British and Russian empires were four thousand miles apart, but no one allowed geography to get in the way of good old-fashioned jingoism. Consequently before anyone could say “We’re doing what now? Really?! But it’s a bloody desert!!” a culture of patriotic whisperings and imperial paranoia led both nations to imagine that the other was parking its tanks (or the 1800s equivalent) on their lawn. Pretty soon – and against the advice of their finest intelligence officer – the British blinked first and marched into Kabul. Only one British bloke ever walked out.

Drawing similarities between the British and American empires is easy, but the real strength of this excellent documentary lies with Afghanistan boffin Rory Stewart, who draws an excellent socio-political picture from the start. It’s easy to poke fun at Victorian foreign policy now, but our host really gets under the skin of the story, first by demonstrating how diverse Afghani society was, and then by then explaining what motivated two empires to start a phoney war or ‘Great Game’ as they called it, by filling the region with spies and war-mongering like Game of Thrones characters.

As an Afghanistan specialist and former diplomat, it’s not difficult to see where the clarity and precision of Rory Stewart’s analysis comes from. When we see snaps of him exploring the country in his youth, we realise that this isn’t just another history doc, it’s a programme that Stewart has been waiting to make for most of his life. The opening credits even say ‘A View From Rory Stewart’, which is unusual for programmes like this.

This knowledge helps him penetrate the complicated issues that so many generals and politicians over-looked or ignored before him, bringing us a portrait of a nation that has been invaded several times, but never conquered. “It’s really easy to get into Afghanistan, it’s the getting out that’s the difficult part” says one local historian. Apparently the word ‘Jihad’ meant nothing in Afghanistan until the British invaded (the first time). ‘What goes around’ and all that..

The second part of Afghanistan: The Great Game is on BBC2 next Monday.

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