The Great Game
27 Feb 2014: Russian troops begin the invasion of Crimea
18 Mar 2014: Crimea and Sevastopol are formally incorporated into Russia
22 Jan 2022: Russian troops mass on the border of Ukraine.
In 2003 I was in Northern Afghanistan, staying at a British military base. The story I had come to write was about the warlord, General Dostum, but then events took a turn...
The brigadier and I were sitting in his office with a couple of glasses of whisky. He was riffing on a favourite theme: the complex intrigues and adventures of The Great Game, that period in Afghanistan's history when plucky British officers could take off into the wild blue yonder dressed as Pathan tribesmen, returning months later with incredible tales of derring-do and information that would save the British Empire from the Russian Bear. The Good Old Days. Before body-cameras.
I thought the brigadier needed someone to talk to. His men were downstairs in the mess, but if he went down there, the room would go quiet. The Great Game to those lads was Middlesborough versus Sunderland.
The brigadier had brought lots of history books to his remote outpost in the north of Afghanistan and was ploughing through them. He clearly liked to think that the shared history of Britain and Afghanistan had created an understanding that still resonated on both sides. The mutual respect of warrior nations that reached back to 1838 when the British Raj in India decided that Russia was threatening its northern border. A sympathetic buffer zone - namely Afghanistan - was needed. When the ruler of Afghanistan was reported to be hosting dinners with Russian generals, the British were alarmed and The Times got in a lather: 'The Russian fiend has been haunting and troubling the human race...to the vexation of this industrious and essentially pacific empire.' Lord Auckland ordered an invasion of Afghanistan. After a prolonged warm-up with several cheerleading demonstrations, The Great Game had finally kicked off.
If the idea of military invasion as defensive action seems a little absurd, then also consider that the invading force was largely the armed wing of a business enterprise: the East India Company. The British took with them cultural artefacts that might impress the Afghans: a pack of foxhounds, several thousand cigars, a chandelier and plenty of wine. They also took a new puppet ruler who would be faithfully anti-Russian. But the plan failed. The British were forced to withdraw and subsequently massacred.
Over the next thirty years, the Russian Empire moved its border south, right up to the Amu Darya River, the northern limit of modern Afghanistan. In strategic terms, the British had managed to achieve the exact opposite outcome to the one they wanted, a common result in international diplomacy and war. In 1878 they invaded Afghanistan again, hoping to install a russophobe ruler. The man they chose was a promisingly brutal psychopath called Abdur Rahman Khan.
Back in the brigadier's office the phone rang.
The brigadier waved me to stay in my chair and answered the caller in non-commital refusals. "No, no. Tell him we can't help."
When he'd rung off, he explained. "There's been a suicide attack at the police station. Three men dead. The chief of police wants us to throw a cordon around the town to catch one attacker who escaped."
"So why don't you?"
He made a face. "It's not what we are here to do."
Next morning I went and found one of the army translators, let's call him Aziz, an intelligent and personable man who was vastly over-qualified for the job. He was drinking tea and politely fending off banter from the squaddies about his eating habits. No, he did not want a full English breakfast.
I asked Aziz if he could come with me to the police station. He agreed. Perhaps a couple of hours away from the military were a relief.
When we got there, it was as of they were expecting us. I wondered if the brigadier had called to warn the chief. The policemen on the gate showed us a pool of blood and told their stories. Yesterday evening, they explained, a young man had strolled up to the barrier and demanded to be let inside to speak to the chief. When the guards on duty refused, he took out a bayonet and stabbed one of them. The officer fell to the ground, bleeding profusely. Meanwhile an accomplice opened fire from across the road allowing the bayonet-man to run inside and stab two more policemen before he was stopped. The gunman had run away. All three stab victims had died. Could we see their bodies? No, they had already been buried.
We went up the steps and entered the chief's office. He was a huge bear of a man, sitting behind an equally large desk. On it lay a bayonet crusty with dried blood. The chief told the same story as his men: a suicide attacker, inspired by religious extremism and determined to undermine the rule of law and order, had struck. This was what his men faced every day. He needed more equipment, more guns and more money. "You must relay this message to the people of Britain," he told me, "And the brigadier."
I looked at the bayonet and wondered why the attacker had chosen that weapon, leaving his accomplice with the Kalashnikov? Didn't that seem strange?
"It was a concealed weapon," explained the Chief. "He wanted to get inside. I was the target."
It was when we were leaving, returning back down the steps, that I thought to ask about the attacker, the one with the bayonet. Had he also been buried?
The policeman who was taking us back to the gate chuckled. "But he's not dead. We took him prisoner."
I asked if we could see him. We were led out behind the police headquarters into a parade ground. In the centre, where the sun was now beating down, there was an iron grate in the dust. The policeman lifted it with some effort and went down some stone steps. We waited several minutes, then he reappeared with a young man.
His wrists were manacled together then connected by a sturdy chain to his ankles, also manacled together. His face was a swollen mess of bruises and blood. His clothes were torn and filthy with blood and dirt. He had obviously been severely beaten and could barely speak. It was then that Aziz took control. He stepped forward and spoke to the young man, bending his head to catch the muffled replies. Realising what he was doing, I turned to the policeman and distracted him with a few questions, hoping to delay the inevitable anxiety about what the young man was telling us.
We got about a minute.
Once we were out in the street, Aziz told me what he had learned. "That young man is a Hazara."
With that one word, I understood that things were not what they seemed.
Let's go back, for a moment, to The Great Game. When the British installed Abdur Rahman Khan on the throne in Kabul in 1880, he set about consolidating his rule. Afghanistan as a state did not really exist: it was a series of tribal areas, some of which had no interest in accepting the Pathan tribal leader, Abdur Rahman Khan, as their overlord. One of those areas was home to a loose tribal affiliation known as the Hazaras. They were different to other Afghans: they were Shiites for a start, spoke a strange dialect of Persian and while keeping themselves separate also had a gentler, more relaxed, approach to the lives of women and girls. In those days their precise geographical origins were a mystery, but they claimed to be descendants of Genghis Khan's army that had passed through in the 13th century. King Abdur Rahman Khan decided to occupy their lands. With British military support and money, he attacked and massacred the Hazara, selling thousands of survivors into slavery. Similar action today could put him in the dock on a genocide charge, but not then. From that day onwards the Hazara have been victimised and oppressed by Afghan rulers, notably by the Taliban who hate them on religious grounds. (Intriguingly, in 2019 genetic evidence showed that the Hazara were most closely related to another oppressed people, the Uyghur population of China.)
In the street I walked up and down, trying to work out if there had ever really been an accomplice. It seemed highly improbable that a well-armed, well-manned and fortified police station could not have dealt with one gunman in the street. There was nowhere for him to hide while they had a watch-tower with a machine gun.
Aziz was experienced in the complexities of Afghan life, and death. He sighed. "The boy said he wanted to kill the chief of police to revenge what had happened to his father. This was not terrorism, it was vengeance."
"What did happen to his father?"
Aziz shrugged. "His father had been murdered by the police. You know the Hazaras suffer a lot in this country."
"I know. Are you Hazara, Aziz?"
He laughed, avoiding answering.
The next day I was with Aziz in an Army LandRover on patrol. The squad in the car had insisted on driving up a lane in a village that their satnav told them was passable. Aziz had suggested that it was not. Anyone could see that the lane, hemmed in by mud-walled houses, was very narrow at its far end. But as the walls got closer and closer, the soldiers ignored what they could see. When the vehicle could go no further and was forced to halt, they began to grip their weapons tighter. If a gunman appeared on a rooftop now, we were sitting ducks. The side doors could not be opened.
A window slammed back and tension suddenly ripped through the men like a stray bolt of lightning. Two soldiers leaped out the back, ran back up the alleyway, and took positions. Suddenly this quiet back street was on the brink of chaos.
It was Aziz who remained calm. He shouted a greeting to the woman who had thrown open the shutter. He chatted to people who had appeared on doorsteps. He disarmed the situation. We reversed. The incident was forgotten by everyone, except me. I was left wondering what would have happened if a nervous soldier had unleashed a volley of fire. Perhaps in response to an innocent bang from one of the houses - a saucepan dropping or a child's balloon popping. Would that have then been recorded as a terrorist attack? In one of those historical ironies that The Great Game specializes in, had the Brits been saved by a Hazara translator?
I don't know what happened to Aziz. Some British Army translators were extricated from Kabul in the chaos of August 2021, some were not. When the last British and American soldiers left the airport, Afghanistan appeared to have finally left The Great Game. Since the Western withdrawal, Taliban attacks on Hazaras have continued and many have fled. If Afghanistan has ceased to be part of the Great Game, the repercussions continue and it looks like Ukraine has taken its place.
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