THE HISTORY OF Afghanistan over the past 200 years is too often a shabby story of desecration and destruction. Who doesn’t wonder for example, why the Western alliance is in Afghanistan today, killing and maiming, and being killed and maimed in return by a resistance group (Taliban) that comes straight out of the Middle Ages.
You’d think we would have learnt something from when the British first invaded Afghanistan in 1839. This inglorious story is now magnificently documented by William Dalrymple in Return of a King (Bloomsbury).
We may not have learnt anything since then but we at least know how to dress and equip our soldiers.
When the Dad’s Army of 20,000 British and East India Company troops poured through Afghani mountain passes in the Spring of 1839 they were led by lancers in scarlet cloaks and plumed shakos. They knew nothing of the tribal rivalries, let alone the growing schism between the Sunni and Shia sects, something that continues today.
The Brits were there to re-install the King, Shah Shuja, to his throne simply because he best supported the East India Company ambitions in Afghanistan. More significant was the mistaken belief that if the English didn’t move in then the Russians would. This was called The Great Game for the nonsense it created of political intrigue and rival threats of invading armies from east and west.
While Shah Shuja was at first re-installed, he was a poor politician in the clandestine world of Afghani tribal allegiances. The Brits then upset the locals by their licentious behaviour and within a couple of years Afghanis decided it was time to throw them out.
However, getting out of the country proved to be much harder than getting in.
The Afghan people rose in answer to the call for jihad and the country exploded into violent rebellion. As the British wound their way in winter through the high passes, they were slaughtered, butchered and tortured in their thousands.
The first Anglo-Afghan War ended in Britain’s greatest military humiliation of the 19th century: the entire army of the then most powerful nation in the world was ambushed in retreat and utterly routed by Afghan tribesmen.
Dalrymple tells this as a masterful storyteller, using diaries and accounts to reveal astonishing acts of bravery and ludicrous decisions by idiotic military officers who had no idea what they were doing.
As for history repeating itself, Dalrymple says, “there are of course striking parallels between the 21st century occupation of Afghanistan and that of 1839-42. There is real continuity in the impact of political geography on the evolution of both conflicts.”
But as one Afghani notes in the book, “Afghanistan is like the crossroads for every nation that comes to power… but we do not have the strength to control our own destiny. Our fate is determined by our neighbours.”
How true, and now let’s hope this book is never off the shelves of future military leaders and senior politicians, if only for Afghanistan’s sake.