BBC2’s Superb “Afghanistan: The Great Game, A Personal View by Rory Stewart”.

Rory Stewart is the perfect guide to walk us through the last few hundred years that the people of Afghanistan have been forced to suffer through.

Not yet 40 and currently serving as a Tory MP, he was a star pupil at Eton where he actively supported the Labour Party, and then at Oxford and Harvard, before working as a diplomat in the Balkans, and as a senior coalition official in Iraq between 2004-5. But he is probably best known for his award winning book The Places in Between, which charts his 32 day trek across Afghanistan in 2002.

So he is naturally reluctant to draw any obvious parallels between the disastrous campaigns conducted in Afghanistan in the past, and those that the people there have been subjected to more recently. Which only serves to make those comparisons all the more conspicuous.

The first part of his BBC2 programme focused on the British and Russians as they fought for influence in the region during the 19th century, in what came to be known as the Great Game. Whilst the second looked at the Russians and the Americans as they fought for exactly the same reasons, in exactly the same region, and with exactly the same results, in the 1970s and throughout the 1980s.

One of the more interesting elements in Stewart’s measured yet impassioned programme was that, far from stumbling blindly into the region both the British and especially the Russians knew perfectly well how fraught with danger, politically and militarily, meddling in Afghanistan was. But they felt obliged to do so anyway, for fear of appearing weak to the competing superpower on the other side of the fence.

The results were, almost needless to say, disastrous. You can practically trace the dotted line linking the CIA’s clumsy and staggeringly miscalculated attempt to make up for the shame of Vietnam by arming the mujahedeen to the teeth in the 80s, and the destruction of the Twin Towers 20 years later.

America’s response of then stampeding blindly back into, where else, but Afghanistan was as predictable as it was, from America’s own perspective, tragic. That, of all things, a British prime minister should have been so impervious to history to have so willingly followed them in there is, again, almost beyond belief. God save us all from conviction politicians.

One of the things that this programme was particularly good at was reminding us all that, as bad as it was for the powers engaged there in their vain pursuit of influence, it was of course immeasurably worse for all the actual Afghans there caught in the resulting crossfire.

This is the sort of thing that the BBC still does so well. And Stewart is, demonstrably, something of a star.

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