The CIA Review Sikunder Burnes 60

Perhaps ironically, the most thorough review of Sikunder Burnes to date has just been published by the CIA, in cataloguing it for the CIA’s own library. I presume that they would not mind me reprinting it:

Sikunder Burnes: Master of the Great Game, by Craig Murray. (Birlinn, Ltd, 2016) 437, endnotes, bibliography, photos, maps, index.

The “Great Game,” a term popularized but not originated by Rudyard Kipling in his novel Kim, refers to 19th-century intelligence operations between Britain and Russia when the former saw a threat from the latter. Alexander Burnes was a British military intelligence officer, a gifted linguist, and an active participant in the Great Game. Sikunder Burnes tells his story.

Author and former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, learned of Sir Alexander Burnes while studying history at the University of Dundee. A great-nephew of the famed Scottish poet Robert Burns, Sir Alexander had an impressive record of his own: as a 15-year-old cadet, Burnes arrived in India on 31 October 1821 and before his death in Kabul just 20 years later, he would enjoy audiences with British monarch, be knighted for service to the crown, honored by the Royal Geographic Society, and write a best-selling, three-volume account of his travels from India to Bokhara and another book about his service in Kabul during the First Afghan War.[7]

Ambassador Murray acquired the details for his book by visiting long unexplored archives in India, Afghanistan, and London that revealed documents discussing Burnes’s travels on intelligence missions throughout India, Afghanistan, and neighboring regions. He often traveled in disguise while in unknown territory using the name “Sikunder Khan” (“Sikunder” is Persian for Alexander). Facilitated by his gift for linguistics, Burnes met with tribal officials on nominally political matters while collecting military and geographic intelligence. His reports included hand-drawn maps and fortress details that were sent to London and contributed to his growing reputation.

Perhaps the most surprising result of Murray’s research was his discovery of Burnes’s portrait in the Mumbai Asiatic Society archive; the portrait is included in the book. Burnes’s books featured a frontispiece of him in a turban, but this was not his true likeness: he had insisted on a distorted rendition to protect his anonymity. (128–129)
Burnes was not a solitary intelligence officer: Murray introduces the reader to a number of his espionage colleagues, while describing their often contentious relationships, exploits, and awkward communication methods.

Of his many assignments, Burnes’s mission to Kabul as liaison to the Afghan leader Dost Mohammed was the most challenging. He “recruited spies in the Afghan court” (204) to monitor the threatening alliances contemplated and formed with the Persians, Russians, and the region’s many factions. When the Indian government decided to replace Dost, rejecting Burnes’s recommendation to support him, Burnes reluctantly agreed and his friend Dost was replaced by a British surrogate. The result was the first disastrous Afghan war and Burnes’s violent death and that of his younger brother Charles, who had followed him to India, in the courtyard of Burnes’s home. Some historians concluded Burnes was killed because of sexual affairs with native women, but Murray explains that Burnes observed the Afghan rules about such matters and traveled with his own harem. (170)

There are two interesting sub-themes in Sikunder Burnes. In the first, Murray find parallels with his own foreign officer career and, from time to time, points them out in the narrative, which interrupts the flow a bit. Then there are his digressions concerning Alexander and his brother, James—a doctor, also in India for a while—and their connection with the myths that link the Knights Templar and Scottish Freemasonry. Murray ponders whether this connection supports the conspiracy theories of “Da Vinci Code.”

Sikunder Burnes is the first biography of Burnes’s extraordinary life. Whether, as some historians have claimed, there was no genuine Russian threat to India at the time, it is clear the British thought there was. What they did to counter it will confound those who follow events in Afghanistan today; there are many analogous mistakes. A fine and important book that reveals how intelligence was practiced “back in the day,” and, to some extent, how the practice continues.

Sadly the CIA appear not to have learned from the book the folly of occupying Afghanistan. But it would be delightful if they had learned that it would be helpful to send each of the 4,000 extra troops they are sending out with a copy of Sikunder Burnes in their back pocket, to increase their chances of survival.


I continue urgently to need contributions to my defence in the libel action against me by Jake Wallis Simons, Associate Editor of Daily Mail online. You can see the court documents outlining the case here. I am threatened with bankruptcy and the end of this blog (not to mention a terrible effect on my young family). Support is greatly appreciated. An astonishing 4,000 people have now contributed a total of over £75,000. But that is still only halfway towards the £140,000 target. I realise it is astonishing that so much money can be needed, but that is the pernicious effect of England’s draconian libel laws, as explained here.

On a practical point, a number of people have said they are not members of Paypal so could not donate. After clicking on “Donate”, just below and left of the “Log In” button is a small “continue” link which enables you to donate by card without logging in.

For those who prefer not to pay online, you can send a cheque made out to me to Craig Murray, 89/14 Holyrood Road, Edinburgh, EH8 8BA. As regular readers know, it is a matter of pride to me that I never hide my address.

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60 thoughts on “The CIA Review Sikunder Burnes

  • Ben

    Lol @ “… Which interrupts the flow a bit”, CIA obviously thought those sections hit a bit too close to home lol
    Your transgressions into your career were some of my favourite passages.

  • Node

    You’ve been reviewing the CIA’s work for years, Craig. It’s about time they returned the favour.

  • MJ

    “But that is still only halfway towards the £140,000 target”

    Don’t you think that setting your target as the amount you will have to pay if you lose is a bit defeatist?

    You only need enough to win.

    • craig Post author

      If we win they will appeal and it will all be even more expensive. I don’t think access to funding from the lobby is likely to be a problem for them. If we end up with more money than we need we will return the excess. That seems very improbable, sadly.

      • Robert Crawford


        Stop being so fucking negative! Fight, fight and fight again. We are with you whatever!

        • Robert Crawford


          Somebody out there knows something that will turn this around, there is always,always, always someone with the knowledge.
          All you wonderfully creative people out there start digging, you can find the answer to help Craig.

          I have read your wonderful links so many times, and ask myself “how do they know this?” You are great! Thank you for what you have done before to provide knowledge for us all.

          This is the BIG ONE! Your creative minds are needed more than ever now to help Craig, and, indirectly, to help yourselves. This will affect you if not stopped.
          I am now going to write to my M.P. Wee Johnny the barber. Now I will find out if he is worth a SNP vote.

          Come on, we can do it!!!

          • craig Post author


            Don’t misunderstand me I am going to fight harder than they can imagine. I am just pointing out that it is going to require a lot of funds.

            MJ I think that to base a fundraising appeal on the basis that I will win and they won’t appeal would be foolhardy. You have to consider who they are and why they are doing this in the first place.

          • glenn_uk

            The person(s) who could turn it around might be the intern(s) who quote-mined that reference which just happened to be jotted down that morning from a supposedly casual look over the blog. I can just imagine it, a sub-editor sits himself in front of a PC, taps away a few keys and is shocked – shocked I tell you! – to find a half-sentence which might be used it the manner he employed it.

            And that’s all because he just happened to be going to an interview at Sky, in which it was mentioned this particular chap was also attending, and by chance he had this blog. First thing he looked at, notepad and pencil in hand, was that 18-month old post. Of course it was.

          • Robert Crawford

            Glad to hear it Craig, you had me worried for a minute there.

            I met a woman who is homeless this morning, in Falkirk.
            She said because she is not pregnant or, just out of jail Falkirk Council can’t/won’t offer her a house.
            Great to live in Scotland?

            If you have a house, give it to her!

      • MJ

        It’s by no means a foregone conclusion that they would appeal. A suitably brusque dismissal of their claim by the judge at this stage would probably put them off.

        You first of all need a good legal team behind you. You’ve already raised enough money for that. Then you need to demonstrate that what did actually say was true and fair comment. There’s plenty of evidence around for that. Then you need to show that the claimant misrepresented your views and sought to smear you as a racist by doing so.

      • Neil

        The case against you is without merit. Any honest judge would summarily dismiss the case in a few minutes on the first day. The same would happen on appeal, again providing an honest judge were allocated.

        This case has absolutely nothing to do with ant-Semitism, except that it has always been part of military Zionism to stir up and promote anti-Semitism; military Zionism wouldn’t exist without it (anti-Semitism). In my view Jake Wallis Simons and his lawyer, in common with all military Zionists, have the effect of increasing real anti-Semitism because people are filled with revulsion by what the military state of Israel is doing to the Palestinians, and are then further revolted by the tsunami of hasbara (that is, lying) used to try to justify these atrocities.. Unfortunately some people will conflate military Israel with Jews generally, and blame the evil done by the former on the latter. Since Israel has always claimed to represent Jews worldwide, it shouldn’t be surprised if some people believe it.

        Since the case has no merit, I believe this case, and others like it, are nothing more than a money-making scam on the part of lawyers such as Mark Lewis. I think the actions of Mark Lewis and Jake Wallis Simons are doing immense harm to Jews generally. If I were you, I would seriously consider making a complaint to the Law Society for malpractice. In my opinion, he should be struck off the register (or whatever) of solicitors.

        Incidentally, you could take a look at Norman Finkelstein’s recent blog entries for an example of a pair of unscrupulous American attorneys engaged in a blatant money-making scam. When I read that, I thought immediately of your case.

        • Ian

          Pretty much sums it up. These people often rely on the unwillingness of people, even judges, to question their claims of anti-semitism, and consequently get away with this ridiculous blanket charge applied to anyone they dislike, or who is concerned with Palestinian rights, and deplores their military subjugation. However there are people in Israel who also oppose this ideological crusade, a shining example of which is Gideon Levy in Haaretz. His recent piece on the iniquity of zionism and its wholehearted opposition to human rights was scathing, much more so than you will ever read in any mainstream Western media. Zionism ““contradicts human rights, and is thus indeed an ultranationalist, colonialist and perhaps even racist movement, as proponents of justice worldwide maintain”.

          No-one calls this Jewish Israeli anti-semitic, so I don’t see why Craig can be charged with expressing the same sentiments.
          Unless, of course, judges unacquainted with the facts choose to believe the deliberately misleading statements of self-appointed anti-semitic witch hunters, who play fast and loose with ‘facts’.

          • Sharp Ears

            The AS meme has been fuelled by the likes of Pickles ( now out of parliament) and others in the Tory party.

          • Babushka

            “Pretty much sums it up. These people often rely on the unwillingness of people, even judges, to question their claims of anti-semitism, and consequently get away with this ridiculous blanket charge applied to anyone they dislike, or who is concerned with Palestinian rights, and deplores their military subjugation. ”

            I second both the above comments.

            Because we live in societies where generally speaking “God is dead”, the secular world gives some legitimacy to the concept of Judaism on the basis of the historical suffering of the Jews and because it is politically correct to do so.
            If we do not know who God is, how can we possibly justify and excuse the self-proclaimed people chosen by God in their inhumane treatment of their neighbours?

            The smug words of the lawyer acting for the claimant about having the power to “make a NAZI homeless ” in themselves are discriminatory and destructive. How is it that lawyers are free to throw around epithets about others, but “others” who do it face the full force of The Law?
            I suppose that becomes the eternal story of crucifixion.
            With all best wishes to Craig in this David and Goliath fight.

  • Ishmael

    Confession. I was quite encouraged by senator Paul’s recent remarks on the failure to create a country in Afghanistan. …Imagine, No country, it isn’t hard. I even had a celebratory cigar (fear not Craig, the next donation is still on the way).

    I’m not a formal scientist but after rudimentary consideration i’m far from persuaded country’s are good, on balance…

  • glenn_uk

    Craig – do you still have any first editions available? I wasn’t in the country when it first came out, and I neglected to get one upon returning. Would 100GBP cover the cost of it and postage to the EU?

  • nevermind

    With all the infighting and trumped up Trumpist gobbledegook that needs reviewing in the US media, the Collective Insurrections Agent provocateurs deserve a good read now and then, Craig

  • Trowbridge H. Ford

    I would certainly be most dubious of such extreme anonymous reviews where the subject is either “good and important” as in this case or disgusting traitors as in the list’s first review of the Edward Snowden book by Edward Epstein . You remember this Agency toady who conveniently made out in Legend that Oswald, a Russian asset, solely was responsible for assassinating JFK, and Snowden here was made to look like a Chinese and Russian source from the beginning.

    There never seems to be two sides to any story as they both turned on it when it tried to set them up falsely as wild subversives.

    Just looks like the CIA wants to review Craig’s book in a most favorable light to make it look even handed.

    • Ishmael

      What is wildly subversive is marking out area of land and claiming authority over everyone within it, & lives of those “outside” who are thus justified as threats given that order, even though without it those threats would have no motivation. .But such assumers of normal do not investigate themselves, and certainly don’t measure it against the rest of human history where it wasn’t an existing ideology.

      If they did I think legitimacy would crumble because the things they do a highly immoral at best. Though utterly insane and murderous would be closer to the mark imo.

      I can see where Snowden comes from. He most certainly is ideologically in their side. Ultimately I think his position is highly regressive and inevitably leads to more harm than good.

      • Trowbridge H. Ford

        Don’t understand what you are saying.

        I am claiming that both Oswald and Snowden turned on the Agency when it tried to make them dangerous spies, LHO as a Manchurian Candidate assassin of JFK, and Snowden as a Chinese Hawaii.

        • Ishmael

          Sure, I was just adding that state agency’s are the wildly subversive. In the wider historical traditional context (b4 nation states).

          Though I don’t think Snowden did turn on them, and he hasn’t.

  • Sam


    I have read your blog for well over a decade. It has consistently been insightful, informative, funny, and human. I have enormous respect for you telling it like it is, and risking you own career for what you believe, rather than taking the safe option. Occasionally I disagree, but usually this is down to your optimism: I watched your optimism for the Liberal Democrats rise and fall on roughly the same trajectory as the your optimism for the SNP seems to be following now 😉

    In all that time, I have never paid a penny for all the time you have spent writing your blog – and I know how much time it takes. So I’ve just sent you a donation to help towards the costs. I may be able to donate more later. I also realise that my office is next door to where you live, so I addition I am more than happy to buy you a pint any time you like.

    Good luck!

  • Geoffrey

    Craig, In the event of you winning this libel case,would you be able to claim your costs from what his name? It seems most inequitable if not.
    Just out of interest, my contribution can be kept either way,and I very much hope you win !

  • Sharp Ears

    A reference to Craig here –

    The Russian Hacking Story Continues to Unravel
    by Mike Whitney

    A new report by a retired IT executive at IBM, debunks the claim that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential campaign by hacking Democratic computers and circulating damaging information about Hillary Clinton. The report, which is titled “The Non-Existent Foundation for Russian Hacking Charge“, provides a rigorous examination of the wobbly allegations upon which the hacking theory is based, as well as a point by point rejection of the primary claims which, in the final analysis, fail to pass the smell test. While the report is worth reading in full, our intention is to zero-in on the parts of the text that disprove the claims that Russia meddled in US elections or hacked the servers at the DNC.

    Let’s start with the fact that there are at least two credible witnesses who claim to know who took the DNC emails and transferred them to WikiLeaks. We’re talking about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and WikiLeaks ally, Craig Murray. No one is in a better position to know who actually took the emails than Assange, and yet, Assange has repeatedly said that Russia was not the source. Check out this clip from the report:

    • Ishmael

      ‘sigh’ Are they still asserting this? I thought they where just taking the ‘hacking for information’ line now, As I imagine that probable (who doesn’t) And not this unsubstantiated claim.

      Clearly the problem of whatever faction of the American establishment is pushing this is (seems to me) patriots. ..

      ..Dispute my differences, imo you can’t help but respect those who set others before them, in such a real way, with their very lives. . .

    • Trowbridge H. Ford

      Must say that it is a pretty bad review, coming from the Agency. While I haven’t had a chance to read Craig’s book, It sounds like a really-ground-breaking one about intelligence gathering. Instead of Burnes just spring, doing surveillance on targets, and intercepting their messages, seems he really opened up targets for hard and soft power by covering the landscape for rivers, mountain paassages, sources of food and water, etc.for all kinds of operations, about which the review says essentially nothing of substance.

      Seems most important today with our covert spying vehicles which open up similar targets to attack. The well-educated man on the ground is vitally essential for their missions.

      Instead the CIA just gave him a book blurb as if he was just some book seller. Looks like it is going out of its way to show that it has no animosity for his own spying which is helping cause it all kinds of trouble.

      • Trowbridge H. Ford

        There can be no doubt that the review is most disingenuous after the Agency forced Harvard to withdraw its fellowship to Chelsea Manning because of complaints by its Director Mike Pompeo and former Deputy Directror Mike Morrell.

        It is scum and any action by it should just be dismissed as crap. And Harvard sucks.

  • giyane

    If the CIA are reaching out to opposition figures in case they later come to power, maybe they have a use for you later. But remember the fate of the Kurdish leader Sheikh Mahmood who refused to shake the hand of the British general circa 1918, covering his hand with his sleeve and saying:’ I don’t like to take power from the hands of my enemies. ‘ This is the purity of spirit that is still alive in Kurdistan today. Ex-President Barzani refuses to pay anyone’s wages from the billions he makes from Kurdish oil. So sad Trump has stopped his referendum for Iraqi Kurdistan’s Independence. Once the CIA finds a good pimp they carry on pumping him for money, then for land, then for air above the land. Please don’t sign a deal with Trump when he offers you a Pottinger-Solih helping hand.

    • Ishmael

      Forgive my reiteration. They don’t reach out to opposition in any meaningful way giyane, but to those who accept the game in which most peoples lives mean little regardless of sentiment. Facts on the ground, reduced to statistics, generalisations.

      I’m surrendering to “rules” I feel are set by human nature lately. Little can be done within such dictates, but perhaps in that small way more good than harm. Drops make an ocean. The facts of things that have re-progressed in recent history, only by peoples actions often in struggle with structures of domination & control speaks to this. To me the question is what force does one wish to be part of.


      …Anyway, as so illustrated above, my part here seems to be running it’s course, This blogs too big for me. I’m ok focusing on small actions, petitions, etc. But after getting back to tai-chi I feel Norman Frankenstein had a good points about too much thinking being like a sickness. I’m healing slowly. It’s done me the world of good & those around me are surly better off for it.

      I’ll try not to be a stranger. But not exactly easy online anyway, we’ll see.

      • Ishmael

        Or should I say, meaningful opposition, eg, given the big picture. They always end on the side of forces of control (it’s their job after all) even if initially spontaneous & Liberatory (as they often are). It’s very hard to objectify when your role is taken for granted. I don’t hate them, or think them “evil” anymore. Diffident worlds.

        Very unfair of me to have done so in the past come to think of it. & Previous comments should be taken with a pinch of development-in-progress. & “them” is never good is it…

        Even to “Tories” ….

        Dam I can’t believe I said that. Must be getting on.

    • Ian

      PS, also you might profit from counsel’s opinion on the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which is linked on the site, as it takes apart attempts to enshrine in law criticism of israel as antisemitic under this definition – a move your opponents are very likely to try to exploit.

  • cool math games

    I have never paid a penny for all the time you have spent writing your blog – and I know how much time it takes. This is the most awe inspiring thing I have ever read and feel truly overwhelmed with gratitude not just for your presence at the retreat but also your ability to put into words what it meant to you.

  • Ishmael

    Speaking of the CIA and control. I wish to make a humanitarian appeal regarding Wikileaks and Julian..

    IMO he is doing himself no favours with his odd takes “power” & “ruling the world” The use of fear & vague ill defined fantasies, that he simultaneity contradicts with reference to those backing Corbyn, Yet re-iterates against most of the French voting public, inferring they are all a bit like idiots manipulated into not voting Le,pen.

    In many ways using these tactics and being associated with wikileaks is not very different from Rupert murdock, the exaggeration of threats etc. No doubt he may believe them in his situation, & he may believe they work for him with public support, but as he elevates his personal stature to a god like persona I don’t think it helps him at all.

    It’s really an odd meme this ruling the world nonsense, id refer him to the Noam Chomsky “who rules the world now” interview (a question was put to him as a proposition by similar minded UK establishment types, where he rejects the notion).

    Failing him actually standing down (that I think may be best for Wikileaks, and him) & him being unable to see past his own situation, someone needs to let the poor guy out into the world beyond the few delusional control fanatics he seems to want to see himself as amongst, you can’t altogether blame him, were all susceptible to our environment to some extent that we cant help..

  • Sharp Ears

    What a worm. Publicly he invites Chelsea Manning to become a Visiting Fellow and then publicly withdraws it. He is the Dean of the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics at Harvard University.

    Statement from Dean Elmendorf regarding the invitation to Chelsea Manning to be a Visiting Fellow

    A commentary thereon:

    The CIA Wins: Harvard, Chelsea Manning and Visiting Fellowships
    September 16th, 2017
    It all began with an announcement, made public on the website of the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics at Harvard University. Chelsea Manning would be joining a curious array of Visiting Fellows, including Mr Disaster, Robby Mook, and Sean Bumbling Spicer. (Manning, Spicer and Mook has a curious ring to it, the name, perhaps, of an error-prone debt recovery agency.)

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