History repeats

Finished off a couple of books in the last few days, and about to knock off another. One of the books was The Return of the King, by William Dalrymple. It’s a history, charting the lead-up to, and the events of the Anglo-Afghan war of the early 1840’s.

For those who don’t know much about this era of intrigue then I recommend you look into it. It’s a fascinating, and often gruesome story in its own right. As the original of history repeating itself it’s even more instructive.

Very basically the British, who had long colonised India, had designs on Afghanistan, to further enhance their empire and to forestall any Russian ambitions. It’s a story of bungling and arrogance, incompetence, misjudgment and, ultimately, severe punishment on all sides.

Many will know about the British retreat from Kabul, surely one of the most miserable and devastating journeys in history. The force was almost completely wiped out travelling from Kabul to Jalalabad through the Khyber passes. Famously, though not entirely accurately, there was but one survivor of the journey – one out of about 16,000 soldiers and their families, plus about another 14,000 camp followers. They were murdered, sniped at from the hills or subject to swooping attacks by Afghan tribesmen. They perished in the cold or, left for dead, had their throats cut by ruthless Afghans. Captives were sold into slavery. It’s one of the darkest moments in British military history.

The awful thing about it is that it could have been avoided. On so many occasions there were opportunities to mitigate the scale of disaster, but seemingly on every occasion the dithering, deluded, or simply stupid British commanders made the wrong call – too many times to list here. There were individual stories of great bravery and resolution, but on the whole it’s a story of gross ineptitude.

That they were in this situation from the start is almost entirely due to their arrogant and patronising attitude towards a very capable and warlike Afghan people. Like their modern equivalents they believed they knew better than the backward natives, who in fact were a highly cultured, proud race. They pushed their own interests and sidelined Afghans who might have been supporters and allies had they been treated with justice. They were high-handed and blind to anything that did not suit their narrative. Then when it was time to act they failed to, handing the initiative to the Afghans who took heart from their inaction. When at the last they might have saved themselves by retreating into the fortress they instead set out across the bleak winter landscape to be massacred every mile of it.

McNaghten is culpable for much of this, but British policy and blithe belief in their immunity fostered it. Then there was Elphinstone, the bumbling, incompetent and ill commander of the Kabul force who failed at every turn. He meant well, but was put in a position he should never have been. There are very few who come out this looking good.

In the aftermath the British exacted a brutal revenge, so typical of western powers then and since. They murdered and raped, they lay waste to the villages and the monuments and infrastructure, then quit Afghanistan as a bad bet. Vengeance was theirs to be had, but little credit goes to them, and ultimately to retreat once more from that leaving their supporters – and many captives in slavery – was an act of moral cowardice quite consistent with the tenor of the time.

Ultimately it must be said the Afghans won, despite their terrible losses. Though they were desperately cruel and treacherous, they were also brave.

From far away it seems many of the mistakes, and arrogance of colonial paymasters, are being repeated in modern times, with similar results. One has to wonder what would happen if we treated these people with more respect, and if we provided them with the services and the infrastructure they crave. Rather than fund eternal wars with dollars that make their way to the pockets of corrupt officials, and impose upon a foreign people our western ambitions, would it not be more beneficial to plant the seeds that the Afghan people could nurture themselves, and find comfort in as they blossom?

The book, by the way, was great. A ripping read.

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