Whenever Afghanistan rears its head, I think of how the Sherlock Holmes’ stories began, with poor young Dr Watson shot up fighting and then racked by disease on one of Britain’s futile campaigns across the north-west frontier of India, where my grandfather once worked as deputy superintendent of telegraphs in Karachi, servicing the communications links that ran from Delhi through to Persia and Europe.
We have noted recently on this blog (6 September) the arrival of the new Russian ambassador in Kabul, an unusual figure imbued with unalloyed optimism in a country where previously ebullient Russians arrived inappropriately equipped and promptly ran aground en masse in the 1980s because they refused to see reality and instead super-imposed their own hubris on an unwinnable war.
To Dmitrii Zhirnov Afghanistan is terra incognita, so for him it represents a mise en scène for a splendid piece of diplomatic theatre that could possibly propel him to the top of Smolenskaya or even, dare one suggest, to the highest elevations of the Kremlin. A kind of easy swagger leads him to quote a local joke in response to the Russian newspaper correspondent’s gentle suggestion that the American presence had not all been bad news for the country. An Afghan, a Russian and an American are travelling together in an aeroplane. Looking at the pile of money before him, the American boasts that there is a lot more available. The Russian, looking at his stash of caviar, says there’s plenty of it. The Afghan, turning from one to the other, throws the American out of the plane. We’ve lots more where he came from, he says.
Well, good for a Russian laugh over a beer, perhaps. But when the Americans are gone, the Russians will be sucked back in and then there will be plenty of them to spare; even if not in battledress. And it may be their turn to stand as the butt of the joke. A China man and not averse to multiple clichés, Zhirnov, suggests that for neighbouring China Afghanistan is a “black swan” on the “new silk road”; by which, of course, he means to say that at all costs the Chinese need to clear the trade routes of terrorist threats. The implication is that China and Russia, without conflicting interests, can act in tandem.
The material interests of Moscow and Beijing may indeed coincide. But the timing of that meeting of interests is, to say the least, somewhat uncertain. This new silk road is only music of a debt ridden future. Moreover, much Chinese trade goes by sea and those channels are increasingly rather than decreasingly important. Indeed, the latest talk is of a maritime silk route rather than the one by land. China also currently has its hands full at home and in conflict with the United States in the North China Sea and at war in trade. Whereas the Russians have pressing current problems with the inwave of drugs from the Afghan region and the pandemic of terrorism in from the area. If anyone, including the bumptious Mr Zhirnov, thinks this a land of glorious opportunity, he won’t be the last one to be disappointed.
Россия не соперничает с Америкой за Афганистан
По словам российского дипломата Дмитрия Жирнова, в афганских делах Москва и Пекин говорят на одном языке