Jonathan Wright previews a new two-part series on Afghanistan
As troopers go through their ceremonial duties, the sun shines down brightly on Horse Guards Parade. In a corner of this grandest of London locations, Rory Stewart MP doesn’t have time to watch the pageantry. Instead, the former diplomat is busy recording links for The Great Game, his two-part series on Afghanistan.
We’re a long way from Kabul, where Stewart once lived as founder and CEO of the NGO Turquoise Mountain. Nevertheless, there’s a logic to filming so close to the heart of British government: the series explores the history of foreign interventions in Afghanistan – from the 19th century, when Britain twice sent troops in, to the 1980s – and the way Afghans have resisted successive invaders.
“Afghanistan was stuck between empires for the last 200 years,” says Stewart in a break from filming. “This is really the story of how Afghanistan became a buffer state between
an expanding Russia and an expanding British empire in India in the 19th century, and then later became a battleground in the Cold War.”
The irony, says Stewart, is that foreign powers have often overstated Afghanistan’s strategic significance – beginning with the ‘Great Game’ era itself when British strategists worried as tsarist Russia expanded its influence through Uzbekistan.
“The reality is, with the wisdom of hindsight, we can see that Russia was a very, very long way away from ever being able to take Afghanistan,” says Stewart. “They sent a couple of political agents down, they were fiddling around a bit on the borders, but this fear was hugely exaggerated.”
It’s perhaps no wonder, then, that ordinary Afghans down the decades have so often been “mystified” by the outside world’s interest, and stubbornly refuse to believe assurances that troops, such as those sent by Britain in 1839 and 1878, have arrived with the best of intentions. “They just don’t believe the foreigners when the foreigners say, ‘Oh, no, no, we haven’t really come to occupy you, we haven’t really come to colonise you, we’ve just come here in order to protect ourselves,’” says Stewart.
A second recurring theme in the series is Afghanistan’s dogged resistance to modernity. When the Soviets invaded in 1979, for example, one of the justifications was to protect women’s rights, to get rid of “horrible, evil, feudal, patriarchal structures”. Ironically, this might instead have helped to embed reactionary thinking.
“I think it’s actually very convenient for conservative forces, for tribal forces, for extreme religious forces to be able to see what are sometimes quite genuinely liberal, progressive ideas being somehow foreign ideas,” says Stewart.
Not that Stewart’s films are wholly about history and geopolitics. In 2002, he spent a month walking through Afghanistan, and he genuinely loves the country and its people. It’s perhaps telling that one of his personal highlights from filming was chatting with a former Mujahideen fighter, a man who was able to show Stewart a Russian tank he destroyed and “the ambush position from which he blew it up” before talking of the war-weariness that led him to contemplate a minefield suicide.
As to Afghanistan’s current situation, Stewart is downbeat. Unlike the 19th century, he says, we lack voices who know Afghanistan well – men such as Roberts of Kandahar, one of the commanders of the British invasion in 1878, who ultimately concluded that the less Afghans see of us, the less they’ll dislike us.
Afghanistan: The Great Game – A Personal View By Rory Stewart is scheduled to air on Monday 28 May on BBC Two at 9pm