The Battle for Afghanistan

The way war is waged has significantly changed since the 1800s. One might assume the lessons for contemporary times from such a period would be limited as a result. William Dalrymple's telling of the British attempt to conquer Afghanistan in 1839-1842 convincingly show the opposite. In "Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan" (2013), Dalrymple tells the stories of battles long past in an engaging way, while also drawing allusions to present efforts of conquest in the country. The 567 page book tells the history of how the British army was devastated, and then their response following defeat – to toss away their own moral positions and engage in what we would today classify as crimes against humanity. In this post I focus on the linkages Dalrymple makes to the present, and have not attempted a summary on the attempted conquest itself. For those interested in Afghanistan, and conflict generally, this is essentially reading.

"I asked if they saw any parallels with the current situation. 'It is exactly the same,' said Jagdalak. 'Both times the foreigners have come for their own interests, not for ours. They say "We are your friends, we want to help." But they are lying' (p. 485). In a conversation with elders, Dalrymple recounts: one explaining "some American officers called us to a hotel in Jalalabad for a meeting. One of them asked me, "Why do you hate us?" I replied, "Because you blow down our doors, enter our houses, pull our women by the hair and kick our children. We cannot accept this. We will fight back, and we will break your teeth, and when your teeth are broken you will leave, just as the British left before you. It is just a matter of time."' (p. 487). The author recounts a visit to the "the Herat Museum of the Jihad: a collection of objects left behind by the various foreigners who have foolishly tried to conquer Afghanistan, ranging from British cannon from the First Afghan War through to Russian tanks, jets and helicopter gunships. It won't be long, one can be certain, before a few shot-up American Humvees and British Land-Rovers are added to the collection" (p. xxxvi).

Much like the Canadians, Afghanistan was an arena engaged not for its own sake, but for other self-serving military and political reasons. The British effort of the 1800s was similar: "it was also clear from this attempt to reach out to the Afghans that the British were not interested in cultivating Shah Shuja's friendship for its own sake, but were concerned only to outflank their imperial rivals: the Afghans were perceived as mere pawns on the chessboard of western diplomacy, to be engaged or sacrificed at will. It was a precedent that was to be followed many other times, by several different powers, over the years and decades to come; and each time the Afghans would show themselves capable of defending their inhospitable terrain far more effectively than any of their would-be manipulators could possibly have suspected" (p. 8). So too would the hypocritical rhetoric about independence, freedom and justice – applied as a means to promote agendas when in fact the actors themselves were often worse perpetrators of what was apparently the reason to go to war against another (see p. 77). Justifications would be supported with what Dalrymple describes as "doctored intelligence" (p. 490) with exaggerated threats "manipulated by a group of ambitious and ideologically driven hawks" (p. 490).

Much like the Americans, victory was declare prematurely, and new wars were started, resulting in weakened efforts to hold territory in Afghanistan: "rather than concentrating on consolidating Shah Shuja's fragile rule in Afghanistan, and providing the resources needed to make the occupation viable and secure, Lord Auckland – like more recent invaders – instead took the premature view that the conquest was already complete and so allowed himself to be distracted by launching another war of aggression in a different theatre" (p. 220). Dalrymple makes this point: "in 2001, the British and American troops arrived in Afghanistan where they proceeded to begin losing what was, in Britain's case, its fourth war in that country. As before, in the end, despite all the billions of dollars handed out, the training of an entire army of Afghan troops and the infinitely superior weaponry of the occupiers, the Afghan resistance succeeded again in first surrounding then propelling the hated Kafirs into a humiliating exit. In both cases the occupying troops lost the will to continue fighting at such a cost and with so little gain." (p. 482).

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