The British called it the Great Game. The Russians called it Bolshoya Igra. The playing field was, and still is, Afghanistan. In great games, individuals exist on the same level as grains of silver in a photograph. In the extreme close-up, the integrity of the picture no longer holds, but we can appreciate the shape and features of individual crystals.


In the winter of 1823, in the Polish-Lithuanian town of Kroz, a group of high school students who called themselves the Black Brothers were arrested by the czarist police for conspiring to circulate poetry resisting the Russian occupation. They had not managed to post a single poem, but they were tried and sentenced to death. Later their death sentences were reduced to lifetime service in the army of the czar, and one of the convicted conspirators, Jan Witkiewicz, who was fifteen years old, was posted as a private soldier to Orenburg on the Ural River at the frontier of the Russian empire, beyond which lay lands ruled by Kazakh and Kyrgyz tribes.

Jan Witkiewicz belonged to the impoverished gentry (his father was a court official in the Duchy of Samogitia, in the western part of Lithuania). He was well educated and spoke several European languages. He quickly picked up a number of Kazakh dialects, as well as Pashto, Persian, Arabic and Turkmen, and within a few years had produced several handwritten dictionaries, and he became indispensable as an interpreter for the local army command and the czarist bureaucracy. When Witkiewicz was twenty-one, in the fall of 1829, the celebrated Prussian explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (“the most famous man in Europe” except for Napoleon, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica) journeyed across Russia. In the course of his search for diamonds and other possible riches in the Ural Mountains, he stopped in Orenburg and was surprised to find one of his own books on the table in the local military headquarters. The book was Essai Politique sur le Royaume de la Nouvelle Espagne, an account of his Mexican sojourn, and it belonged to Private Jan Witkiewicz. Witkiewicz was out on patrol but Humboldt inquired about him and was moved by his story to write two letters to Czar Nicholas I, recommending him for promotion (both let­ters, ele­gantly rendered in French, can be found in the Military Historical Archives in Moscow). Witkiewicz was raised to the rank of master sergeant, and then lieutenant. In 1836, at the age of twenty-eight, he was transferred to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and dispatched to Persia and Afghanistan as a Russian agent.


On his arrival in Kabul in Afghanistan, Witkiewicz learned that the British had already installed an agent of their own, a Scot named Alexander Burnes, who had been there for several months. Witkiewicz’s arrival and then his stay in Kabul, where he lodged in the house of Abdul Samad, minister to the emir, were reported to be the cause of the migraine headaches that Alexander Burnes began to suffer in that year.

The source of the migraine headache intelligence was James Levis, a deserter from the British army posing as an American traveller named Charles Masson, and who had been recently employed as a spy for the British East India Company. Levis’s real talent was not spying; he was an amateur archaeologist who had discovered the vast ancient city founded by Alexander the Great on the plains of Bagram north of Kabul, a site that, although only partially excavated, has yielded thousands of ancient coins and artifacts of Hellenic, Roman, Chinese and Indian origin. Today a good part of Bagram Plains lies buried under a massive air base built by the Russians in 1980 and abandoned by them in 1989. Americans took it over in 2002 and since then it has grown at least twice as large.

The objective of the British agent Alexander Burnes was to keep Afghanistan within the British sphere of influence. The objective of the Russian agent Jan Witkiewicz was to draw Afghanistan into an alliance with Russia and possibly Persia. The objective of the emir of Kabul, Dost Mohammad, putative ruler of Afghanistan, was to play off the British and the Russians against each other. 


In May 1838, Jan Witkiewicz travelled from Kabul to Kandahar and then Tehran, Iran. A year later, in 1839, he arrived in St. Petersburg and reported to his bosses at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who promoted him to the rank of captain. Two weeks later, Jan Witkiewicz was found in his hotel room, dead from a gunshot wound to the head. He was thirty-one years old.

The official cause of Witkiewicz’s death was suicide, but the pistol found in his hand was fully loaded: no shot had been fired from it. The dead body of his servant lay in the next room, the skull having been split open by an axe or a sword. All of Witkiewicz’s papers, diaries and handdrawn maps had disappeared. On the desk lay a note of farewell to his family, written in an unknown hand in Russian, not Polish.

Three days before his death, Witkiewicz had encountered Alexander Zan, an old friend, in the street in St. Petersburg, and in the conversation that ensued, he mentioned the gifts that he had brought from Afghanistan and spoke of his debriefings at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “If the English ever got me in their hands,” he said to Zan, “they would tear me apart.”

By this time, the British were moving to depose Dost Mohammad, emir of Kabul, from the Afghan throne and to replace him with a puppet leader content to cooperate only with them. The governor general of British India issued a proclamation calling for an intervention to protect Afghanistan “against foreign interference and factious opposition.” An army dispatched from Punjab marched on Kabul in August 1839, and Dost Mohammad fled north­west to the hills of Bamian.

A new emir, Shah Shujah, scion of another branch of the ruling house, took the throne, but it was soon evident that he was incapable of controlling the network of tribes and clans beyond the city of Kabul. His only support was the British Army of 4,500 men who settled into the city with their camp followers: some 12,000 servants, suppliers, entertainers, sex trade workers and family members, along with a “vast quantity of baggage… One brigadier required sixty camels to carry his personal kit and junior subalterns went to war with anything up to forty servants apiece,” wrote Lady Florentia Sale, an officer’s wife. Most of the British occupiers took up residence in a cantonment on the outskirts of Afghanistan, a militarily indefensible position at precisely the same spot occupied today by the NATO's International Security Assistance Force. Fox hunting, polo playing and horse races were the popular pastimes of the British in Kabul in 1839.


Within two years, the British military and political position in Afghanistan had eroded as they gradually lost control of Kabul to tribal warriors and got encircled in the cantonment. On November 2, 1841, Alexander Burnes, the British agent who suffered migraine headaches, was killed by Afghan warriors in his residence in the city. British accounts of his death say that he tried to fight off his assailants with the help of his Sepoy guards, but they don’t make clear why Burnes had stayed isolated in a city overrun by warlords, instead of moving to the cantonment. Afghan accounts suggest that Burnes tried to hide from the attackers among his harem, which was the second largest in Kabul (the emir’s harem was the largest).

In December 1841, Sir William Macnaghten, the official British envoy, opened negotiations with some of the rebel chiefs, to whom he offered bribes in return for their support of the new emir. At the same time, he opened talks with Akbar Khan, the son of the deposed emir, Dost Mohammad. Akbar Khan suspected Macnaghten of doubledealing. When they met on December 23 in a field outside the cantonment, he shot Macnaghten dead, appar­ently with a pistol that Macnaghten had recently given him.

Now the Afghans cut off supplies to the cantonment, and the British began to run out of food. They prepared to withdraw to Jalalabad, a fortified town with a British garrison, 145 kilometres to the east.

On Thursday, January 6, 1842, in a column several kilometres long, more than 16,000 British soldiers and civilians marched out of Kabul. The British believed that they had secured passage for the retreat in return for the £190,000 left behind in the treasury, but Afghan warriors began attacking the column as soon as the British rear guard exited the cantonment. “The day was clear and frosty, the snow nearly a foot deep on the ground; the thermometer considerably below freezing point,” recalled Florentia Sale, who was taken prisoner by the Afghans.

A week later, on January 13, Dr. William Brydon, the sole survivor of the retreat, straggled into Jalalabad. When asked where the army was, he replied, “I am the army.” Later, in his account of the retreat, he wrote: “I was pulled off my horse and knocked down by a blow on the head from an Afghan knife, which must have killed me had I not had a portion of a Blackwood’s Magazine in my forage cap. As it was, a piece of bone about the size of a wafer was cut from my skull… seeing that a second blow was coming, I met it with the edge of my sword, and I sup­pose cut off some of my assailant’s fingers, as the knife fell to the ground; he bolted one way, and I other, minus my horse, cap and one of my shoes …” What became known as the First Anglo-Afghan War was nearly over.


Blackwood’s Magazine, a copy of which Dr. Brydon had stuffed in his cap as pro­tec­tion against the cold, was founded in 1817 in Edinburgh by William Blackwood. It was published continuously for 163 years and was always popular with Britons abroad. (Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was first published in three consecutive issues of Blackwood’s in 1899.) The magazine was notorious for its scathing literary reviews and acerbic political commentary; it was a Blackwood’s reviewer who denigrated the poetry of John Keats, Leigh Hunt and William Hazlitt by labelling it the “Cockney School.” An essay in the June 1835 issue condemns members of the House of Assembly in Lower Canada as “penniless demagogues whose command of the pen extends no farther than to make the mark of the cross.”

In the years of the First Anglo-Afghan War, subscribers to Blackwood’s were offered essays on “The Chartists and Universal Suffrage,” “French Literature of the Eighteenth Century” and “The Life of a Speculative German.” The author of “War with China and the Opium Question” wrote in response to the Chinese ban on imports of opium manufactured by the British in India: “Option for peace there is none, unless we consent to drink the cup of degradation and infamy to the very dregs, so deeply drained during a century almost of prostrate meanness and abject submission.” Three months later, in June 1840, another writer, in “The Opium and the China Question,” described China as “an inorganic mass—something to be kicked, but which cannot kick again.”

In May 1842, four months after the disastrous withdrawal from Kabul, Blackwood’s carried a review of The Narrative of the Campaign of the Army of the Indus in Sind and Kaubool, in which R. H. Kennedy tried to come to terms with the disaster. “Indian character, in its native state,” he wrote, is “altogether perfidious.” The Persians he described as “naked wretches,” “horse-eaters,” “ragged robbers” accompanied by a “wretched crowd of frost-nipped and foot-sore Russians.” The Afghans who destroyed a British army are consistently referred to as “robbers and beggars.” In a significant pastoral aside, Kennedy describes a “noble orchard” (without naming the orchardists) in which the British army rested during the invasion and march to Kabul: “Fine standards of the size of foresttrees, apple, pear, peach, apricot and plum, were surmounted and overhung with gigantic vines, which, wreathing round the trunks and extending to the remotest branches, festooned from tree to tree in a wild luxuriance of growth, such as I had never dreamt of seeing in fruittrees and the vine. It was the first month in spring, and they were covered with blossoms which perfumed the air, and presented a feature of horticultural beauty surpassing description.”

In the fall of 1842, a second British army marched into Kabul and remained long enough to rescue a few British prisoners and to destroy the Great Bazaar in the centre of the city by burning it to the ground. Dost Mohammad, the emir deposed by the British in 1839, returned to his throne in Kabul in April 1843.


In the decades following the First Anglo-Afghan War, the Russians extended their sphere of influence southward toward Afghanistan. They absorbed Tashkent in 1865 and Samarkand and Bukhara three years after that. Khiva became their protectorate in 1873. By this time the Russian expansion stopped at the northern bank of the river Amu Darya, a more or less natural geographic frontier of Afghanistan. During the same period, the British advanced on Afghanistan from the south, absorbing territories some of which had historically been part of the Afghan domain. They took control of Sind in 1843, Kashmir in 1846, the Punjab in 1849 and Baluchistan in 1876.

The Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878 – 1880) took a now familiar course. Russia sent an uninvited diplomatic mission to Kabul, and the British responded with an uninvited mission of their own. A new emir of Kabul, another of Dost Mohammad’s sons, tried to shun both the Russians and the British. Britain sent another army to march on Kabul. On July 20, 1880, near the village of Maiwand, north­west of Kandahar (the biggest city in southern Afghanistan), a British force of 2,500 was severely mauled and forced to retreat. The victorious Afghans, whose casualities were perhaps three times higher than those of the British, took possession of the British baggage train and abandoned guns.

One of the casualties of the battle of Maiwand was a white mongrel dog named Bobbie, owned by a sergeant in the 66th Regiment. Bobbie recovered from her wounds and returned to England, where she was decorated (along with human survivors) by Queen Victoria, with the Afghan War Campaign Medal, in a ceremony in Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Bobbie died soon after in a traffic accident. Stuffed and mounted, with her silver medal, she can be seen at the Regimental Museum in Salisbury, Wiltshire, where she is listed in the catalogue under “relics.”

The Afghan War Campaign Medal—engraved by Randolph Caldecott, the well­known illustrator of children’s books—displays Queen Victoria’s profile on one side and, on the other, an elephant carrying a gun and accompanied by cavalry.

Britain’s defeat at Maiwand was embedded in the public imagination of the country to this extent: the wound that caused Dr. Watson, Sherlock Holmes’s amanuensis and friend, to leave India and take up residence at 221b Baker Street, was sustained while Watson was serving as the surgeon of the 66th at the Battle of Maiwand.

The British won several battles in the Second Anglo-Afghan War but were nevertheless forced to leave Afghanistan again, and in April 1881 the last British troops marched out from Kandahar. For the rest of the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries, until the Russian invasion in 1979, Afghans were able to keep their internal affairs more or less under their own control. 

The Battle of Maiwand is commemorated by the world’s largest cast-iron lion, sculpted by George Blackall Simonds and unveiled in 1886 in Forbury Gardens, Reading, England, where it can be seen today. The ten-metre beast strides awkwardly over the top of a cenotaph. A minor controversy erupted when claims were made that “lions don’t walk like that.”

In Kabul, the battle of Maiwand is commemorated by a street named Jaid-e-Maiwand, at one end of which a commemorative pillar designed by Ismatulla Saraj was erected in the 1950s. It was several storeys high and carried bronze plates on all four sides. The monument, Maiwand Avenue and most of Kabul were destroyed when the American-supported Mujahideen armies, having defeated the Russian-supported regime, began fighting among themselves.


In the years of anarchy that followed Russia’s withdrawal in 1989, civilians were routinely murdered, raped and looted—not just in Kabul and Kandahar, but right across the country. After several years of mayhem, the Taliban movement formed in Kandahar in 1994 and their forces began moving against the fragmented Mujahideen. Two years later, Kabul fell into Taliban hands.

Ghullam Hazrat owns a kite shop located in the ruins of a three-storey building of which only the front wall remains standing, about a hundred metres from the site of the Maiwand battle monument in Kabul. In the summer of 2003, he said he believed that defenceless folks would always choose any kind of order over unrestrained violence and chaos. That’s why, he said, a lot of Afghans supported the Taliban. After the reign of the Mujahideen warlords, the disciplined and godfearing fundamentalists of the Taliban (who condemned and almost eliminated the opium industry) seemed to offer relief.

The “noble orchards” of Afghanistan eulogized in Blackwood’s Magazine by R. H. Kennedy in 1842, once famous throughout southern Asia, have disappeared in the decades of violence triggered by the Russian invasion of 1979. Maiwand Avenue, bridges, factories, whole villages, schools, libraries and hydroelectric plants have disappeared as well, and with them have gone the ancient irrigation systems.

In 2001, American-led forces deposed the Taliban regime and installed a new president but were unable to establish a lasting peace or to carry out reconstruction on a meaningful scale. Most of the warlords ejected by the Taliban were permitted to reclaim their domains. The country sank into a sea of corruption.

Today, poppy cultivation is aggressively promoted by Afghan warlords allied with Americans; at the same time it is discouraged by the Americans, the new Afghan government, the British and the Canadians. The Taliban has retreated into areas of the country beyond the control of the government, and it too has taken up the cultivation of the poppy. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has estimated that in 2007 the production of illicit opium in Afghanistan will exceed world demand.

Joma Khan, a farmer in Helmand province in the south—once considered Afghanistan’s breadbasket— complained in February 2007 to a representative of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting: “The government is telling us not to grow poppy but they’re not helping us. They promised to give us saffron seeds, but they never delivered.”

Villagers in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan reported that unmarked planes sprayed their fields with defoliants to kill the poppies. The spraying also made them sick and killed their livestock. The U.S. denied any knowledge of this activity, though it controls the Afghan air space.


On Saturday, March 4, 2006, in the impoverished village of Shinkay in Kandahar province, not far from the Maiwand battlefield of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, a group of Afghan villagers met with a detachment of Canadian and Afghan soldiers. Shinkay was the fifth or sixth village the Canadians had visited that day. Lieutenant Trevor Greene of the Seaforth Highlanders, a Vancouver regiment, removed his helmet and put down his weapon before sitting to talk with village elders. Moments later a young man approached him from behind, pulled an axe out from beneath his robe and struck Greene in the back of the head. The Canadians gunned down the attacker instantly.

“We have launched an investigation into the case, and we want to get complete information about the attacker,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Hope to reporters.

The villagers said nothing.

Weeks later, some of the villagers talked to an Afghan journalist with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Haji Mohammad Esa said that the man who attacked Greene was Abdul Karim, the sixteen-year-old son of a poor cobbler, a quiet boy and a loner. Esa suggested that Karim might have been angry. “Our village has been searched more than forty times over the past four years,” said Esa. “Foreigners accuse us of being Taliban and al-Qaeda. The Taliban and al-Qaeda accuse us of having links to the government. We do not know what we are being punished for.” Another villager, Ghulam Mohammad, said: “They just break down the door and enter the house. That has made people very upset.”

Neither Ghulam Mohammad nor Haji Mohammad Esa saw any difference between the Canadians, the British and the Americans.

Trevor Greene was flown to the town of Landstuhl, Germany, at the edge of Pfälzer Wald, the largest remaining forest in western Europe, where the American military hospital is located. Later he was taken back home to Vancouver, where he is recovering from extensive brain injuries. Greene has a degree in journalism, and he speaks Japanese and French. He has written a book about homeless people in Japan and another about the vanishing sex workers of Vancouver, published in 2001, in which he predicted much of what has come into the news during the investigation and trial of Robert Pickton.

On February 26, 2007, suicide bombers tried to assassinate Dick Cheney, the U.S. vice-president, during a visit to the American air base at Bagram (site of the ancient Alexandrian city discovered by James Levis in the early 1800s). Three Americans—two soldiers and a contractor—died in the attack, along with twenty other people who were working at the base. In his analysis of events leading up to the attack, the British-Pakistani writer Tariq Ali stated in CounterPunch.com that Ahmad Wali Karzai, kid brother of Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-backed president of Afghanistan, “has become one of the largest drug barons in the country.”

—Christopher Grabowski, Stephen Osborne, Geist, 2007