Sooner or later, commentary on Central Asia always resorts to solemn mention of the Great Game (thanks, Rudyard) and the nineteenth century imperial rivalry between Russia and Britain on the frontiers of their empires.

Listening to Gillard’s speech on the “process” of the gradual withdrawal of Australian troops from Afghanistan had me dusting off the history books plunging into cyberspace in search of the famous Gorchakov memorandum, the 1864 letter from Russian Foreign Minister Prince Alexander Gorchakov explaining the rationale for Russian imperialism in Central Asia. Gillard’s caveat about the terrorist groups based on Pakistani territory – “I am realistic about the threat that poses – realistic too about what can be done to limit that threat” – would have resonated with Gorchakov.

The position of Russia in Central Asia is that of all civilized states that are brought into contact with half-savage nomad populations possessing no fixed social organisation. In such cases, the more civilized state is forced in the interests of the security of its frontier, and its commercial relations, to exercise a certain ascendancy over their turbulent and undesirable neighbours. Raids and acts of pillage must be put down. To do this, the tribes on the frontier must be reduced to a State of submission. This result once attained, these tribes take to more peaceful habits, but are in turn exposed to the attacks of the more distant tribes, against whom the state is bound to protect them.

But of course, there are always more lawless nomads lurking just over the frontier, forcing the imperial power to establish more and more imperial outposts in order to tame more and more unruly nomads.

Such has been the fate of every country which has found itself in a similar position. The United States in America, France in Algeria, Holland in her colonies, England in India; all have been forced by imperious necessity into this onward march, where the greatest difficulty is knowing when to stop. (Gorchakov, quoted in Moss, A History of Russia Since 1855, vol 2)

As Gillard’s speech acknowledges, the coalition of “civilised nations” that has been attempting to tame the “half-savage nomads” of Afghanistan has decided that it’s time to stop, even while making unhappy noises about the barbarous tribes lurking on the frontier of the newly pacified territory. If the so-called bringers of civilisation have decided that they need to be “realistic” about the menace of these tribes, it is not only because these particular nomads are based in the territory of a politically fragile nuclear-armed state that has been further destablised by imperial incursions into its territory in the form of drone attacks and civilian “collateral casualties”. It is also because the imperialists have come to see their themselves as facing Gorchakov’s choice – whether to “give up this endless labor, and abandon its frontier to perpetual disturbance, or to plunge deeper and deeper into barbarous countries, when the difficulties and expenses increase with every step in advance.”

And the more news that filters in from the frontier, the more difficult it is to sustain the claim that the imperial coalition has acted as a bearer of civilisation. The frontier is ever-shifting, the rationale ever evolving, the endpoint ever more faint, even as the withdrawal from Afghanistan is underway.

When everyone is dead, the Great Game is finished. Not before. Rudyard Kipling, Kim, 1901

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey