Christoph Baumer: The History Of Central Asia, Vol. 4

Cover of The History Of Central Asia Volume 4 by Christoph Baumer 

After the Soviet occupier and its vassal Najibullah were defeated, it was not long before the loose partnership of convenience among Afghan resistance fighters disintegrated along ethnic divides. The Pashtuns rallied around Hekmatyar, Khalis and Sayyaf; the Tajiks around Massoud, Rabbani and Ismail Khan; the Uzbeks around Dostum’s Junbesh-e Milli Islami (National Islamic Front) party; and the Shiite Hazaras around the Hezb-e Wahdat alliance. Their sponsors, respectively, were Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates for the Pashtuns, India for the Tajiks, Uzbekistan for the Uzbeks and Iran for the Hazaras.

This is the final volume in Christoph Baumer’s monumental history of Central Asia. The publisher, I.B. Tauris, has done good work in maintaining the look and feel of these books, over six years and four volumes. I have previously reviewed the first three volumes, and this one has the same solid heft, the same glorious images, and the same sweeping scope.

Subtitled The Age of Decline and Revival, it takes up where Volume 3 left off. At the start of the sixteenth century, the Mongol and Turkic nomads who had dominated vast swathes of central Asia were entering a period of decline. The wealth that had flowed along the Silk Roads was now being moved, increasingly, by sea, and the economy of Central Asia suffered as a result. The empires of Genghis Khan and Timur disintegrated into squabbling successor states, albeit spawning the short-lived Mughal dynasty in India. Russia encroached from the north, China from the east, and the British Empire from the south, each of them exploiting the shifting allegiances of the warring khanates and hordes, while attempting to secure their own borders and pursuing a larger geopolitical game. While I was familiar with the Great Game played out in this area between Russia and Britain during the nineteenth century, I was unfamiliar with many of the more ancient machinations Baumer describes. The Chinese, for instance, actively promoted the dissemination of the pacifist Buddhist religion among their Mongol neighbours during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in an effort to curb some of the Mongols’ notorious warlike tendencies. The policy backfired on them when the reincarnation of the Third Dalai Lama was identified, not in Tibet, but in Mongolia. This Fourth Dalai Lama, Yontan Gyatso, was a descendant of Genghis Khan through both his mother and his father. Suddenly China faced the threat of a Buddhist-Genghis-Khanid theocracy that could pull together all the bickering Mongols and unite them with Tibet. Perhaps no surprise, then, that the only ever non-Tibetan Dalai Lama met his death early and “under suspicious circumstances”.

Baumer is good at pointing out how the machinations of the Great Game foreshadowed many things we think of as modern political inventions. For instance he quotes Palmerston, writing in 1853:

The policy and practice of the Russian Government has always been to push forward its encroachments as fast and as far as the apathy or want of firmness of other Governments would allow it to go, but always to stop and retire when it met with determined resistance, and then to wait for the next favourable opportunity to make another spring on the intended victim. In furtherance of this policy, the Russian Government has always had two strings on its bow—moderate language and disinterested professions at St. Petersburg and at London; active aggression by its agents on the scene of operation.

Sound familiar?

And he tells us how the British invasion of Tibet in 1904 was approved by Lord Curzon on the basis of “fake news”—a report by a Scottish missionary that the Tibetans had gained access to Russian weapons and military support. But, after the invasion, it transpired that:

In Tibet, there was neither trace of Russian weapons nor of Russian Cossacks or agents, nor was there a Russian-Tibetan Friendship Treaty.

Those pesky vanishing Weapons of Mass Destruction.

The second half of the book takes Central Asia through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. There’s a flicker of the potential for independence in Central Asia as Russia undergoes its Communist revolution, but it doesn’t last long.

Baumer’s description of Afghanistan’s bleak recent history is excellent, teasing out both the complexities of internal alliances and disputes, and the motivations of the geopolitical players who stir the pot in this revival of the Great Game. (The illustrative quotation at the head of this post is the opening of Chapter VIII: Afghanistan Forces the Three Major Powers to Engage in a Joint Struggle against Islamic Extremism.)

The final chapter, dealing with the five Central Asian republics that became independent with the fall of the Soviet Union, is also exemplary. The web of interdependence maintained by the USSR fell apart, and had to be cautiously rebuilt. The mountainous states of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan control the water that downstream farmers in Uzbekistan need—but if they release water in summer, to water Uzbek fields, they will not have it in their reservoirs in the winter, when they most need hydroelectric power for domestic consumption. The oil and gas produced in these states can only flow along pipelines that pass through Russian territory—Russia can potentially throttle the flow to hold either the Central Asian producers or the European consumers to ransom. So the Central Asian producers would prefer to be able to get their product to the sea, to be loaded on to tankers—but the USA, keen to isolate Iran, will not countenance a pipeline through that country; and the alternative route, through Afghanistan, is fraught with difficulties.

All in all, it’s a fine concluding volume to a very fine series—clearly written, beautifully illustrated, and handsomely produced. If you have any significant interest in Central Asia, and a vacant five-inch space on some stout bookshelves, you should be feeling the urge to invest in the whole set.

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