Geography and Destiny For centuries, scarce resources and difficult terrain have required people in the Hindu Kush region to develop unique solutions to survive. But while geography has brought challenges, it has also offered opportunities. In Afghanistan, geography is a multi-sided destiny.
Identity and Perception Local, tribal, and religious identities in the Hindu Kush region have always shifted depending on one’s point of view. As Afghanistan decides what it means to be Afghan, it faces a kaleidoscope of moving perspectives.
Tradition and Modernization Afghans have always had to be flexible. At times, this flexibility has brought people together, and at other times it has torn them apart. Reconciling tradition and modernization means making sense of what’s at stake when people change--and when they don’t.
Traces and Narratives History is not always written. Much of what we know about Afghanistan comes from scattered artifacts, symbols, and oral traditions. Understanding these traces means piecing together the narratives that history leaves behind.
Geography & Destiny
Tradition & Modernization
Allahdad, Nara. Urozgan Province, Tirin Hotel. Field Recordings: Hiromi Lorraine Sakata. Sakata Music Collection, 1966, Cassette.
In the early 19th century, Afghanistan became a playing field.
Sandwiched between Tsarist Russia and British India, the emerging nation was maneuvered by its neighboring empires. Afghans, historians, and anthropologists have compared the country to the national Afghan sport of buzkashi.
Buzkashi requires players on horseback to capture the carcass of a dead animal. Players must drag the carcass into a designated ring, and in the traditional game, a match can go on for days.
Meanwhile, the rich owners of the horses watch the players from the sidelines, hoping that their own prestige will rise in the event of a win. They are perhaps the real players of bukhashi.
And so there are varying levels of manipulation and competition in the game, varying spheres of influence as the game unfolds upon the playing field. And like all games, there is more at play than just what’s on that field.
Buzkashi is an apt metaphor for describing the politics of Afghanistan. Early in the 19th century, Russia and Britain began a long struggle to best each other on the playing fields of the Hindu Kush. This struggle, which would last well into the 20th century, would be known as The Great Game.
The concept of the Great Game is an interesting one and very 19th century in the way in which it was framed as a game….You can think of the Great Game in Asia of the 19th century as similar to the Cold War in the 20th century, in the sense that in both cases you had great imperial powers who were trying to improve or to create greater leverage, create greater influence over countries that were, to this point, independent in Asia–small countries like Afghanistan.
And like the Cold War, the Great Game never involved direct conflict between the empires.
In the 20th century the Cold War was played out through development projects, through modernization schemes, through dams, hydroelectric power, other ways in which the West, the U.S. in particular, and the Soviet Union tried to demonstrate their superiority. In the 19th century the Great Game was also not played out with armies, but rather with spies, with secret agents. And I think this is one of the ways in which they call it a game, because it was not a war per se, but these great powers were definitely competing with each other.
But while the empires never warred directly with each other, they certainly did with the Afghans. The British fought three wars against the Afghans, and the Russians continually tested the strength of the Afghan border.
It’s easy to see the Afghans as victims.
But perhaps, like a game of buzkashi, the issues are a bit more complicated. Afghan leaders also played the empires off of each other in order to secure their own spheres of power.
Who exactly was the player and who was the pawn, who was playing from the sidelines and who was playing from the field?
The Afghan national sport of Buzkashi—which involves kicking an animal carcass across a playing field—is often used as a metaphor to describe The Great Game.