Short heading: Hugely informative & very topical
Rating: 5 out of 5
Rudyard Kipling, the great British poet & novelist, introduced this extant term into mainstream consciousness. It referred to the strategic rivalry & conflict between the British & the Russian Empires for supremacy in Central Asia.
In comparing three “invasions” of Afghanistan viz the British in mid-19th century, the Russians in the 1978 & the Americans in 2001, Rory Stewart, the producer is guilty of disambiguation. Strictly speaking only the initial British forays into Afghanistan fall within the accepted definition of the Great Game.
Approximately one hour deals with the accepted definition of the Great Game when the British in India, which then encompassed what would become Pakistan on Independence, felt threatened by supposed Russian intentions of encroachment on British India.
Of course none of this had any basis in reality but nevertheless, in spite of wise heads’ words of caution, they were not heeded. The British occupied Afghanistan or more correctly Kabul, in 1839. Due to their disdain for the capabilities of these beturbanned backward infidels & their boundless confidence in their manifest destiny, they did not recognise the incandescent rage that was stirred up. When it broke, it caught the unfortunate British soldiers totally unawares.
An appalling choice was given to them: surrender their heavy arms & withdraw back to Jalalabad together with women & children or face annihilation. They chose the latter. Apart from the fact that they now lacked their heavy armaments, there was also the minor matter of sub-zero temperatures at night together with thick snow in the passes. The first casualties were incurred immediately as troops failed to wake up on the morrow. Without sufficient food or water for the nine day journey, worse was to befall them. As they entered the defiles & ravines of southern Afghanistan, the Afghan forces reneged on their undertaking not to harm the withdrawing troops. The British forces were mowed down by unseen gunmen in the crags & fastnesses.
After their harrowing ordeal, one person, a surgeon, survived to tell the tale. In retaliation the British invaded Afghanistan & burnt down the Kasbah in Kabul.
After a further defeat at Merwaid in Helmand Province, the British vacated Afghanistan for good.
The presenter connects all three invasions not via the title, the Great Game, but due to hubris & their inability to understand the Afghanis fierce desire for independence. What also becomes evident is how beguiling an invasion appears, but once in, how can one withdraw without the inevitable loss of face?
In order to provide greater understanding of Soviet invasion in 1979 in order to prop up an unpopular & crumbling Communist administration in Afghanistan, Rory interviews not only Russian foot soldiers but a Russian general.
This is superior production which sheds new light on the similarities between these three invasions & their differences but also the pitfalls of assuming that foreigners can dictate the future for Afghanistan.
Thought provoking & comprehensive, Rory Steward shines a light on a little known subject.