“A few of us, arguing about this in Kabul, guessed that ‘Afghanistan’ had actually begun in 1956.”

  • Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang, The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar (2007)
  • Artyom Borovik, The Hidden War: A Russian Journalist’s Account of the Soviet War in Afghanistan(1990)
  • Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game: The Race for Empire in Central Asia (1990)

The Great Game is the outlier here, written not as contemporary journalism but as narrative history. But the Great Game, as a long and tortured cold war across what is now Afghanistan, is the frame for the wars that have swept through since. The shift from game to war: The Great Game vs. The Hidden War vs. The Unexpected War. But the wars in question were not hidden in Afghanistan, nor were the wars in question unexpected in Afghanistan. But of course none of these are actually about Afghanistan at all.

Each of these accounts is written from the perspective of the invading nation and it is in the shifting perspective of the invader that we track the history. From the British Empire vs the Tsar, to the Soviet Union, and then to a quasi-NATO, post-Warsaw Pact, pseudo-peacekeeping force. Canada, then, is heir to the Soviets and the Raj insofar as imperial ambitions and political designs are considered. Britain was explicit in seizing territory in the name of the Empire. The Soviets invaded in the name of their people. Canada arrived in the name of the Afghanis.

This imperial angst is somewhere near the core of the desperate jingoism that Canada has tried to surround the Afghanistan ‘mission’ (not war) in – soldiers holding flags before puck drop at the Saddledome; Don Cherry saluting the dead each Saturday night on Coach’s Corner; a Tim Horton’s outlet opening on the base; the Stanley Cup in Kandahar. Our Prime Minister: Commander in Chief; Hockey Fan. Now, as the mission winds down, the army is selling off surplus gear, and each news story takes care to mention that included among the tents and grommets and windshields is a collection of hockey equipment, lightly used.

It is one version of Soviet history that stakes the start of the war in Afghanistan, Brezhnev’s invasion, as the start of the end of it all. The final, failed imperial excursion. The last gasp of the tsar. This is the history that sees Russian imperial angst travel in a straight line from the Tsar to the Comintern to Putin standing over his slain white tiger. Trace the same trail from the Great Game to the Boer War to Dieppe and finally to Canada, today, selling off a bag of hockey gear in the desert of Kandahar.

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