Last week, I toured the great Mogul compound of Fatehpur Sikri, near the Taj Mahal. My Indian guide mentioned in passing that in the late 1500s, when Afghanistan was part of India and the Mogul Empire, the Iranian Persians invaded Afghanistan in an effort to “seize the towns of Herat and Kandahar” and a great battle ensued. I had to laugh to myself: “Well, add them to that long list of suckers — countries certain that controlling Afghanistan’s destiny was vital to their national security.”
There were already plenty on that list before, and there have been even more since. As America now debates how to extract itself from Iraq and Afghanistan, it is worth re-reading a little Central Asian history and recalling for how many centuries great powers — from India to Persia, from Britain to Russia, and now from America to Iran, Turkey and Pakistan — have wrestled for supremacy in this region, in different versions of what came to be called “The Great Game.” One can only weep at the thought of how much blood and treasure have been expended in this pursuit and how utterly ungreat this game has been in retrospect. No one ever wins for long, and all they win is a bill.
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