The “Great Game” is the term commonly used to describe the competition by the great 19th Century Empires for influence and control of Central Asia, especially Afghanistan. There are many observers who would prefer to leave the “Great Game” in the annals of 19th Century history and interpret current events in Central Asia and Afghanistan through the lens of different paradigm than Nationalism and Imperialism. In truth, there is much that is laudable in such a view; primarily, that globalization and increased awareness of Human Rights have advanced mankind to the point where advantaged nations have an obligation to support development and the pursuit of prosperity in disadvantaged nations because the future of the world may hang in the balance. However, championing idealistic values, even ascribing a universal quality to them, does not engender automatic recognition of the benefits those values may have to those who do not currently enjoy the fruits of the hard lessons learned by those who do champion those values.
But, let us not mince words, the West, the United States and Europe, learned the lessons of globalization and the importance of protecting individual rights the hard way – through the crucible of multiple world wars and an exhausting, titanic struggle known as the Cold War. Two other world civilizations, the Chinese and the Islamic, while they did not emerge from the same struggles unscathed, also did not arrive at the end of the 20th Century with the same understanding of these modern concepts. The 21st Century has opened with a festering conflict, for a time called the Global War on Terror, which seems more akin to another term those same idealists (or ideologues?), who want to forget the Great Game, would prefer scrapped to the annals of history – a “Clash of Civilizations.”
Cautiously, respectfully, setting aside the argument that a clash of civilizations is too deterministic, too simple and arbitrary, let us briefly examine the current global struggle from the perspective of those caught in the midst of a maelstrom of realpolitik, modernization and development, and facing a scarcity of peace, prosperity, and profits from the competition for resources to fuel reforms and advancement. Central Asia and Afghanistan lie at the nexus of very different civilizations – the West and Russia, China, India, and Islam. They have captured the world’s attention for a moment and whether idealists choose to recognize it or not, Central Asia, Iran, and Afghanistan are once again the focal point for a Great Game of competition between rival powers.
It is altogether possible that this phase of attention on Central Asia may be interupted by other, more dramatic, headline-capturing crises or conflicts, as it has been before and as is already happening with the Arab Awakening. However, it is also just as likely that this current phase of the Great Game may become the center stage for the “Greatest Game” – world domination by the West or the dismantling of Western hegemony through the failure of its desired values to take root and grow into reality for the rest of the world.
Make no mistake, the struggle for the future of the “Stans” is analogous to the fate of mankind in this age of globalization. The suffix “-stan” means “land of”, and each of these lands is home to distinct ethnic or national groups that lend the nations their very names. In school we learn that the flow of rivers has guided the foundation of civilization and interacted with the steppes of nomadic peoples. Harsh terrain, however, has resulted in the development of hardy, strong cultures with a mystical perception of man’s struggle with nature. There is a pathos to these peoples that transcends interaction with man as almost secondary to interaction with the land – there is a spiritual, emotional component to the history and future of these lands. It is with good reason that these lands bear the name of the occupants. The future of these people and these lands may define the future of humanity on this planet. Either the important values the West believes intrinsic to all people will be proven pre-eminent over nationalistic or economic competition, or the roots of conflict that have riven the Earth for centuries will prove that mankind is still divided into rival civilizations and systems that preclude the hope of world peace from being realized any time soon.
Many in the West perceive that these nations are behind the experiential learning curve of modernity – that Central Asia lacks experience is a delusion. Indeed, Central Asia has such a history of blending and syncretizing cultures and ideas, even religions, that it may be that what is best about the West may be preserved in Central Asia, even if Europe and America dissolve under economic collapse and social chaos, fading into history like so many other great or powerful civilizations in history. Every day life in Central Asia is replete with cultural reminders that civilizations with intent and aspirations to stand for millenia eventually crumble into broken brick, dusty mortar, and colorful fragments. Is it any wonder that Central Asians pause to consider critically the promises of the West, when history and experience have piled up around them monuments to man’s progress? It is possible that the differing experiences in Central Asia between Americans and Europeans will eventually divide the West, contributing to a normalizing around the planet from a unipolar hegemony by America and its closest allies, into a multi-polar international system. Should the future bring a multi-polar world, Central Asia will once again be placed in the middle of competing, rival systems – the geographic proximity of some of these powers is also enough to give Central Asian states second thoughts about how readily they accept suggestions or demands from the West about how to govern, interact, or even live.
Allow me to urge you to temporarily set aside your preconceived notions of the “way the world is” and take the time to explore Afghanistan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. These nations along the Silk Road can draw the imagination of mankind as few other geographic notions can. These people define, and at the same time defy, ethnic and national stereotypes. Their history and struggles are passionate and intense, their dreams and lives are familiar and foreign, and their future is inextricably linked with our own. Whether you are an idealist or a realist, globalist or nationalist, an understanding of Central Asia will not only broaden your perspective, but may shape your actions, policies, and more importantly – how you play the “Greatest Game.”
That’s why it matters… if we don’t approach Central Asia wisely and with due respect for its past, what remnants of our own civilization might remain there a few centuries from now? If we can’t demonstrate to a region characterized by its amalgam of cultures that our civilizational ideas have real value then truly a pivot in priorities to other parts of Asia might need to be reconsidered.