Sunday, April 18, 2004

When Central Asia was the prize
Parshotam Mehra

Small Players of the Great Game: The Settlement of Iran’s Eastern Borderlands and the Creation of Afghanistan.
by Pirouz Mojtahed-Zadeh Routledge-Curzon, London. Pages 263. £ 65.

Small Players of the Great Game: The Settlement of Iran’s Eastern Borderlands and the Creation of AfghanistanOFTEN rated as the cold war of the Victorian era, the Great Game — the near-unending rivalry between John Bull and the great White Tsar for the mastery of Central Asia — raged at white heat for the best part of the 19th century. The Russians were steadily, if surely, edging south towards the Persian Gulf while the British, mortally afraid of the threat they posed to their fledging Indian empire, were determined to do all they could to stymie them.

In the event, the Safavi rulers of Persia then by no means in robust political health, were up against serious challenges. In the final count, the Game succeeded in creating Afghanistan and the Central Asian states in the eastern and near-eastern territories of what the author calls the old Persian federation. More specifically, it was the small players, the autonomous states of the amirdoms of Khorasan and others which allowed the Game to be played and whose local dynasties such as the Abdalis of Afghanistan and the Khozeimehs of Khorasan and Seistan were in the fray. While the Abdalis are better known, the role of the Khozeimehs who occupied the eastern borderlands of Iran has received little attention and one of the objectives of the book is to right this wrong.

The author underlines the fact that from its very inception, Afghanistan was an artificial construct "put together hurriedly" in the mid-19th century to give meaning to the ‘myth’ of the Afghan nation. More, its ‘patchwork’ of tribes and ethnic groups of conflicting nationalities refused, to compromise throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, before the British made them come together. In brief Afghanistan lacked the impetus for nationhood. Is it any wonder then that the UN and the Hamid Karzai government’s efforts to bring about a semblance of unity have, to date, drawn a near-complete blank?

The study draws a clear line between the British and Russain approaches to empire building. The Russians preferred outright "territorial expansionism and annexation" in the Caucasus and Central Asia which were dependencies of the waning Persian empire. The British, on the contrary, never acknowledge the fact the territories in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf in which they were meddling were dependencies of the Persian empire. In other words, by distorting the territorial history of the region, devised a history of their own in which the legal dominion of the Safavid federation in Central Asia, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf were conveniently ignored.

Nobody has influenced the political geography of these regions as significantly as the Khozeimeh amirdom which in the 19th century became entangled in the web of Anglo-Russain rivalries in Asia, and unintentionally assumed the role of a small player in the Great Game. Its territorial and political rivalries with the tribes and amirs of western Afghanistan have been a dominant factor in determining the present boundaries between Iran and Afghanistan and Pakistan. Boundary arrangement imposed on Iran by the British and the Russains resulted in the loss of many territories traditionally belonging to Iran and in some cases in actual Iranian possession. At least ten new countries, including modern Iran, have emerged out the territorial disintegration of the Persian Empire.

A few of the proper nouns used in the book jar: Dorranis for Durranis; Dust Muhammad and Shir Ali for Dost Muhammad and Sher Ali; Hirmand for Helmand/Helmund; Sistan for Seistan, and khanats for the more familiar khanates.

Pirouz Mojtahed-Zadeh is professor of geopolitics at the University of Tarbuat Modarres in Tehran and chairman of the London-based Urosevic Foundation: for years he has researched, and taught, the political geography of Iran and West Asia, the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea.