The Great Game Rages On
Published: February 17th, 2017

WASHINGTON -- If the world today seems to you like a confusing or confounding place, you are certainly not alone. Sometimes it seems like a puzzle gone mad, with pieces jumping up and down on their own and leaving only a heap of unhappy and unrelated parts.

But think about it this way for a moment: The world -- and particularly our American part in it -- is actually a series of stories, and if you take those stories step by step and analyze them, those puzzle pieces can eventually fit together into something that makes sense.

A small piece of news, for instance, just jumped out at me. It hadn't gotten much attention. I speak of a respected American military officer, Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., testifying that outside powers, led by Russia, have increased their interference in the 16-year-old Afghan war in the past year.

Speaking before a Senate panel, the general said that Moscow has pushed a "false narrative" to "publicly legitimize" the Taliban. This band of bloody brothers is fighting bitterly against the Afghan government, which is supported by us and is most kindly described as "shaky," while the war itself is said to be, at best, a "stalemate," every day bringing higher and ever more unsustainable, disproportionate losses for the poor Afghans.

First let's look at the basic facts. To do that we have to go back to the Russians' disastrous entry into Afghanistan in 1979, an invasion that evoked mass hatred of Moscow among the Afghans and led to the Russians' humiliating defeat and retreat 10 years later. It was mostly the Taliban, a group of rabid Islamic puritans, who drove them out and then imposed a horrid terroristic regime.

But where did these perfervid Taliban fighters come from? Why, they were the direct result of our forming and arming what were then called the "mujahedeen" in the 1980s. Once the Soviets left, we left too, until we came back after 9/11 looking for the attack's al-Qaida instigators. Since then, we have been fighting the Taliban as well as the al-Qaida remnants -- and now the Russians are again in the "Great Game," as the European colonial fighters called the brutal, destructive Afghan wars of the 19th century.

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Just in case you're not up to snuff on that game (which is the predecessor of the games we are now playing), let's go back for just a moment to 1842. That January, 4,500 British soldiers, along with 12,000 Indian camp followers and 2,000 horses, camels and cattle, were "retreating" from Kabul to Jalalabad when they were attacked by Afghan "jihadis" (yes, the term was used then) and utterly destroyed, their blood coloring the ice and snow across the mountain passes.

The attack became famous not only for its bloody brutality, but for the fact that only one Brit survived, a Dr. William Brydon. Barely alive, he staggered into Jalalabad, where beacon fires and the sound of bugles had been used to guide any possible survivors. Days would pass, Afghan scholars wrote afterward, before the British realized that he was the only one to get through -- left alive to tell the story.

So now we see the Taliban, not dissimilar to those jihadis of nearly two centuries ago, having been formed by us, now fighting against us, and the Russians, who were also players in that old Great Game, now back in Afghanistan supporting the Taliban that drove them out. Or, as The Wall Street Journal wrote in one of the few articles on this development: "Moscow is befriending the heirs of the insurgency that dealt the Soviet Union its most humiliating military defeat and helped lead to its collapse."

One has to wonder: Does this White House and this president, Donald J. Trump, understand the nature of Vladimir Putin's "policies" or of these games you are veritably forced to play when you get into these desperate, tribal, borderless parts of the world? Is there any reason for us to be there, fighting the Taliban now and not al-Qaida? Will there ever be a way out, honorable or otherwise?

President Trump seems to think he can cut a deal with President Putin, but the Russian leader is playing a different game. There is no mystery about Putin's intentions or actions, from Libya, to Syria, to Yemen, to Bulgaria, to Afghanistan. As Brian Michael Jenkins, one of the top analysts of terrorism, put it in a recent speech, Putin is "rebuilding the Russian empire by bits."

And we? Ironically, and sadly, it is we who have provided him with every possible opportunity to do so. Virtually every single one of the supposed Russian "victories" these days is built upon our foreign policy blunders. In short, most of our problems in the world are self-imposed, and thus, could be un-imposed, if we only so chose.

We were born as a nation protected by two great oceans. But especially since World War II, we have crossed those natural protective barriers to play ugly games in the eternally doomed, borderless Afghanistans of the world, providing our enemies with opportunity after opportunity.

How many more, O Lord?

– Georgie Ann Geyer, NEA Columnist