The race for empire in Central Asia

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Dec 21 08:25:37 MST 1999

The Law of Unintended Consequences

TOURNAMENT OF SHADOWS, The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central
Asia; By Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac; Counterpoint: 688 pp., $35


About a dozen years ago, I found myself in the Pakistani city of Peshawar
at the mouth of the Khyber Pass. It was in every sense of the word a
frontier town: a place full of Afghan fighters taking rest and recreation
from the long struggle against the Red Army. Every kind of weapon and every
sort of loot from the Soviets was on offer in the bazaar. Every male of
military age looked as if he would be at home on a horse, with a
long-barreled jezail rifle slung across his shoulders. My guides offered to
take me to see the British military cemetery, which was full of the bones
of those who had been so foolhardy as to invade Afghanistan.

American cold warriors of the day located Peshawar on a so-called "arc of
crisis," extending from Iran to Kashmir, along which geostrategic contests
were being fought. But I had been raised on a more ancient lore, that knew
of the Grand Trunk Road and Rudyard Kipling's poem "Arithmetic on the
Frontier," which had concluded ruefully with the thought that, in a contest
between modern armies and hardened hill men, "the odds are on the cheaper

The late George Dangerfield--who began his career writing "The Strange
Death of Liberal England" and ended it teaching at UC Santa Barbara--was
recommended to Oxford students by A.J.P. Taylor for his ability to relate a
scholarly narrative in the style of a novel. (A novel, not a thriller: I
hate it when modern blurb artists employ "thriller-writer" as a term of
approbation for historians.) In "Tournament of Shadows," not only do the
literary and historical styles come into an excellent novelistic concert
but the events themselves are borne back to us from the past and into the
light of our common and contemporary day. Chechnya, Daghestan, Serbia,
Palestine, Cyprus, Tibet, Afghanistan, Kashmir: I felt I had a better grasp
of all of them when I finished this enthralling book, which ought to be (as
reviewers sometimes almost say) on the denuded bookshelf of every Texas

Because American cosmology is somewhat defined by the Atlantic and the
Pacific, and because American ideological boundaries have been set by
European conflicts, it takes some effort of the imagination to think of the
Central Asian landmass as the shaping landscape of modern history. But
there is a sense in which recorded history begins with the Eastern
expeditions of Alexander of Macedon, and by the time the British and the
Russians squared off on the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush in the 19th
century, their soldiers were bewitched to find Hellenistic coins in the
sand as they fought for the ancient city of Bactria, where Alexander had
married Roxanne. In the alliances, betrayals, victories and defeats of that
epoch--which is only just past the threshold of living memory--an
intelligent reader may descry the origins of the Cold War and of much that
has been unlocked and reanimated by the Cold War's conclusion. As a bonus,
he may come to understand the sense of destiny that inspired the white
"races" for a century or so, as well as the sharp lessons administered by
history to any such idea of destiny.

 Throughout the 19th century and into the early part of the present one,
the rivalry between Great Britain and Imperial Russia on the Indian
frontier was one of the crucial subtexts of world politics. Originally
described as the "Great Game" by an imperial servant named Sir John Kaye,
it was immortalized under this name by Kipling in "Kim." The Grand Trunk
Road on which the action of this story occurs--an immense highway leading
from the borders of Afghanistan to Bengal--was (before partition) one of
the great economic and cultural arteries of the globe. The British, who
more or less controlled it, were perhaps sublimating, or as we would now
say "projecting," their own expansionist desires when they became obsessed
with the Russian menace to it. Nothing would do, it was felt, but a line of
buffer states to insulate India from the rapacious bear. This was the same
folie de grandeur that had animated the Mogul emperors, who wanted
frontiers on the Hindu Kush.

Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac, commencing with the nucleus of Afghanistan,
radiate their narrative outward in time and place. All British attempts to
penetrate and occupy Afghanistan, Tibet and other neighbors had the
precisely opposite effect of drawing Russia into a closer engagement with
its own southern tier. And Russian literature, too, became inflected by the
romance of empire and the "white man's burden." Dostoevsky was perhaps the
most fervent believer in Russian manifest destiny, while Count Leo Tolstoy,
who saw service as a soldier in both the Crimea and Chechnya, drew the
opposite conclusion that empire was corrupting of both rulers and ruled.

There's a romance and dash to the place names--Samarkand, Bokhara,
Trebizond, Erzerum, Lhasa--and also to the characters, mainly but not
exclusively English. Alexander Burnes, a relation of the poet who spelled
his name without the "e," became known locally as "Sekunder Burnes," the
name Sekunder being the Afghani corruption of the still-remembered
Alexander. He, along with an entire British expeditionary force, was put to
the sword by Afghan fighters, who established early on that their country
and people were indomitable. It took some time for this to sink in to
certain British skulls (and, later, certain Russian ones too).

There was a historic argument between Sir Henry Rawlinson and Sir John
Lawrence back in the 1860s. Sir Henry, a typical if unusually brilliant
member of the "Orientalist" faction--he deciphered the cuneiform script of
Mesopotamia and is regarded as the "father of Assyriology"--argued for the
virtual annexation of Afghanistan, to preempt Russian designs. Sir John,
who became viceroy of India, spoke to the contrary and said that Britain
should leave the Afghans alone. They would never tolerate British rule.
What, then, if the Russians should intervene instead? Why then: "In that
case let them undergo the long and tiresome marches which lie between the
Oxus and the Indus; let them wend their way through poor and difficult
countries, among a fanatic and courageous population, where, in many
places, every mile can be converted into a defensible position: then they
will come to the conflict on which the fate of India will depend,
toil-worn, with an exhausted infantry, a broken-down cavalry, and a
defective artillery."

* * *

Reading this was precisely like scanning one of the old hawk-versus-dove
debates of the 1960s. Sir John, who was as much an owl as a dove, lost the
argument. How history might have been altered if the Russians had been
humiliated in Afghanistan more than a century sooner. The late Sir Ernest
Gellner, one of the few authorities not cited in Meyer and Brysac's
voluminous book, once unearthed a report on Afghanistan commissioned from a
Bolshevik officer by the Soviet War College after 1917. (His conclusion,
based on a long study of the period, was that under no circumstances should
the Red Army ever become engaged there.)

Another element that puts one in mind of more recent conflicts is the
factor of deniability. Very often the empire would put out a feeler in the
shape of some glory-seeker willing to take the risk of an expedition. He
would be told before he left that, in the event of failure, he would be
disowned. This was the case with several early voyagers to Tibet, almost
none of whom made it as far as the Dalai Lama's capital. Then, just after
the turn of the century, Sir Francis Younghusband received official
permission, from the supremely arrogant and overconfident Lord Curzon, to
carry the British flag to Lhasa. He forced an entrance into the city,
having slain a number of Tibetans, and was probably the catalyst that
forced China to reassert its own rather vague claim to the country. Here
again we see the law of unintended consequences in operation. Meyer and
Brysac render an excellent account of this whole business, which,
incidentally, should be read with care by anyone who believes that, before
Chinese conquest, Tibet was any sort of harmonious Shangri-La.

The concentric circles of agitation and convulsion that resulted from the
"Great Game" included the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, which is properly
regarded as the precipitating event in the collapse of czarism, and the
growing interest taken by Americans in the region. I learned a great deal
from their chapter on William Woodville Rockhill, the first truly committed
United States envoy in the area, who in the 1890s made his own passage into
Tibet from his post in China and who was later instrumental in designing
Secretary of State John Hay's open-door trade policy. Rockville was an
explorer and anthropologist as well as a diplomat and might be considered
the first of the "China hands" whose long attachment to the Middle Kingdom
survived the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty only to be eclipsed by the
defeat of Chiang Kai-shek. Recovering his story for history and showing how
it meshed with the clash of other empires (and helped to make America a
successor empire of its own) is one of the achievements of this book.

Somewhat farther to the northwest, and a little further along in the tale,
Meyer and Brysac correctly stress the vital contingent fact that Stalin was
a Georgian. His roots, training and instinct were not cosmopolitan, like
most of the rival Bolsheviks of whom he so swiftly disposed. He thought
that all politics were local, and "local," for him, meant the Caucasus. He
was obsessed with recovering for Russia what the czars had lost. Recent
discoveries among his handwritten papers show him taking keen interest in
the southern front of his domain--often calamitously neglecting the German
and Polish borders as a result--and of scrawling the suggestive words
"Bolshoi Igra" in the margins of memorandums. This is the Russian term for
"Great Game."

"Tournament of Shadows" tends to confirm the theory that "Orientalism" is
indeed a scholarly appurtenance of empire and conquest. In a number of
sketches (of map makers like Sir George Everest and archeologists like Sir
Aurel Stein), the authors demonstrate that the arts of excavation,
taxonomy, translation and trigonometric triangulation were always
subordinate to the task of expansion. That many great museums in Europe are
stuffed with marvelous artifacts may be one of the more fortunate of the
unintended consequences yet, as Meyer also showed in an excellent earlier
volume titled "The Plundered Past," this haul was amassed at the price of
much destruction and depredation.

"Tournament of Shadows" makes one's self-education a pleasure, even as it
contains some important admonitions about the ironies of history. Just as I
was finishing it, Nepalese Gurkha troops were splashing ashore in East
Timor under British command and Taliban supporters were rocketing the
United States embassy in Islamabad. The game's not over yet.

- - -

Christopher Hitchens Is a Columnist for Vanity Fair and the Nation and the
Author of Several Books, Including "Hostage to History: Cyprus From the
Ottomans to Kissinger."

Louis Proyect

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