Sunday, September 16, 2012

The First Anglo-Afghan War, 1839-1842 : Can We Learn the Lessons of History Before it Happens Again?

Apparently not, and apparently Obama also refuses to read his history lessons:  Four times – in 1839, 1878, 1919, and 2001 – Afghanistan has been invaded by a British army and four times they have had their asses kicked

Daily Mail
By William Dalrymple

Shortly after his return from Afghanistan in 1843, an Army chaplain, Reverend G. R. Gleig, wrote a memoir about the First Anglo-Afghan War, of which he was one of the very few survivors.

British had their asses handed to them by Afghans before - the definition of insanity is repeating the same mistake expecting a different outcome

It was, he wrote: ‘A war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government, which directed, or the great body of troops, which waged it.

‘Not one benefit, political or military, has Britain acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.’

It is difficult to imagine the current military adventure in Afghanistan ending quite as badly as the First Afghan War, an abortive experiment in Great Game colonialism that slowly descended into what is arguably the greatest military humiliation ever suffered by the West in the East.

An entire army of what was then the most powerful military nation in the world was utterly routed and destroyed by poorly equipped tribesmen, at the cost of £15 million (well over £1 billion in today’s currency) and more than 40,000 lives.

But nearly ten years on from Nato’s modern invasion of ­Afghanistan, there are increasing signs that Britain’s fourth war in the country could end with as few political gains as the first three.

Like them, it could terminate in an embarrassing withdrawal after a humiliating defeat, with Afghanistan yet again left in tribal chaos and quite possibly ruled by the same government the war was launched to overthrow.

               Afghan chieftains with Major Pierre Cavagnani, British deputy commissioner at Peshawar, 1897.

Certainly it is becoming clearer than ever that far from being swept away by General Stanley McChrystal’s surge, the once-hated Taliban are instead regrouping, ready for the final act in the history of Hamid Karzai’s Western-installed puppet government.

The Taliban have advanced out of their borderland safe havens to the very gates of Kabul and are surrounding the capital, much as the U.S.-backed mujahedin once did to the Soviet-installed regime in the late Eighties.

Like a re-run of an old movie, all journeys by non-Afghans out of the capital are once again confined largely to tanks, military convoys and helicopters.

British arrogance has led to successive military defeats in Afghanistan
The Taliban already control more than 70 per cent of the country, where they collect taxes, enforce sharia law and dispense their usual rough justice.

Every month, their sphere of influence increases. According to a recent Pentagon report, Karzai’s government has control of only 29 out of 121 key strategic districts.

On May 17, there was a suicide attack on a U.S. convoy in the Dar-ul Aman quarter of Kabul, killing 12 civilians and six U.S. soldiers.

The following day, there was a daring five-hour-long grenade and machine-gun assault on the U.S. military headquarters at Bagram airbase, killing a Western contractor and wounding nine soldiers, bringing the death toll for U.S. armed forces in the country to more than 1,000.

Then, over the weekend of May 22 to 23, there was a series of rocket, mortar and ground assaults on Kandahar airbase just as the British ministerial delegation was about to visit it, forcing William Hague and Liam Fox to alter their schedule.

"Glory" aside, getting hacked to death is a painful experience
Since then, a dozen top Afghan officials have been assassinated in Kandahar, including the city’s deputy mayor.

On June 7, the deadliest day for Nato forces in months, ten soldiers were killed.

Finally, it appears that the Taliban have regained control of the opium-growing centre of Marjah in Helmand province, only three months after being driven out by McChrystal’s forces amid much gung-ho cheerleading in the U.S. media. Afghanistan is going down.

Already, despite the presence of huge numbers of foreign troops, it is now impossible — or at least extremely foolhardy — for any ­Westerner to walk around the ­capital without armed guards.

It is even more inadvisable to head out of town in any direction except north.

The strongly anti-Taliban Panjshir Valley, along with the towns of Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat, are the only safe havens left for ­Westerners in the entire country.

In all other directions, travel is possible only in an armed convoy.

Please click to enlarge map

This is especially true of the Khord-Kabul and Tezeen passes, immediately to the south of Kabul, where as many as 18,000 British troops were lost in 1842, and which are today again a centre of resistance against perceived foreign occupiers.

Aid workers familiar with Afghanistan over several decades say the security situation has never been worse.

Ideas much touted only a few years ago that the country might become a popular tourist destination — a Switzerland of central Asia — seem to be dreams from a distant age.

The last stand of the survivors of The 44th Foot at Gandamak
Lonely Planet’s guidebook to Afghanistan, optimistically ­published in 2005, has not been updated and is out of print.

The war is following a trajectory that feels unsettlingly familiar to students of the Great Game.

In 1839, the British invaded Afghanistan on the basis of sexed-up intelligence about a non-existent threat.

Information about a single Russian envoy to Kabul was manipulated by a group of ambitious and ideologically driven hawks to create a scare — about a phantom Russian invasion — thus bringing about an unnecessary, expensive and entirely avoidable war.

Initially, the hawks were triumphant: the British conquest proved remarkably easy and bloodless.

Not much has changed over the decades except the weapons

Kabul was captured within a few weeks as the army of the previous regime melted into the hills, and a pliable monarch, Shah Shuja, was successfully placed on the throne.

For a few months, the British played cricket, went skating and put on amateur theatricals.

There were discussions about making Kabul the summer capital of the Raj.

Taliban fighters kicking back:  Time has always been on their side and they know it

Then an insurgency began and that first heady success unravelled, first among the Pashtuns of Kandahar and Helmand provinces.

It slowly gained momentum, moving northwards until it reached Kabul, so making the British occupation impossible to sustain.

What happened next is a warning of how bad things could yet become today: a full-scale rebellion against the British broke out in Kabul.

Same war, different era:  Drive out the foreign infidels
The two most senior British envoys, Sir Alexander Burnes and Sir William Macnaghten, were assassinated: one hacked to death by a mob in the streets; the other stabbed and shot by the resistance leader Wazir Akbar Khan during negotiations.

It was on the retreat that followed, on January 6, 1842, that the 18,000 East India Company troops, and maybe half that many again of Indian camp followers, were slaughtered by Afghan marksmen waiting in ambush in the high passes.

They were shot down as they trudged through the icy depths of the Afghan winter.

After eight days on the death march, the last 50 survivors made their final stand at the village of Gundamuck.

As late as the Seventies, fragments of Victorian weaponry and military equipment could be found lying in the scree above the village.

Even today, the hill is said to be covered with the bleached bones of the British dead.

One Englishman lived to tell the tale of that last stand (if you discount the fictional survival of Flashman, as described by the writer George MacDonald Fraser).

Will the royal Marines ever learn?  Probably not

An ordinary foot soldier, Thomas Souter, wrapped his regimental colours around himself to prevent them being captured and was taken hostage by the Afghans, who assumed that such a colourfully clothed individual would command a high ransom.

It is a measure of the increasingly pertinent parallels between the 19th-century war and today’s that one of the main Nato bases in Afghanistan was recently named Camp Souter after that survivor.

In the years that followed, the British defeat in Afghanistan became pregnant with symbolism.

For the Victorian British, it was the country’s greatest imperial disaster of the 19th century.

Yet the retreat from Kabul also became a symbol of gallantry against the odds.

Which will in the end, get them more of this

William Barnes Wollen’s celebrated oil painting The Last Stand Of The 44th Regiment At Gundamuck — showing a group of ragged, but doggedly determined British soldiers encircled behind a porcupine of bayonets as Pashtun tribesmen close in — became one of the best-known images of the era.

Remnants Of An Army by Elizabeth Butler depicted the wounded and bleeding Army surgeon William Brydon, who had made it through to the safety of Jalalabad on his collapsing nag.

For the Afghans, the British defeat of 1842 became a symbol of freedom from foreign invasion.

It is again no accident that the diplomatic quarter of Kabul is named after the general who ­oversaw the defeat of the British: Wazir Akbar Khan.

The route of the British Army’s retreat of 1842 backs on to the mountain range that leads to Tora Bora and the Pakistan border, an area that has always been a Taliban centre.

I had been advised not to attempt to visit the area without local protection, and so last month I set off for the mountains in the company of a regional tribal leader who was a minister in Karzai’s government.

Anwar Khan Jegdalek is a mountain of a man, a former village wrestling champion who made his name as a Hezb-e-Islami mujahedin commander in the jihad against the Soviets in the Eighties.

It was his ancestors who inflicted some of the worst casualties on the British Army of 1842, something he proudly repeated several times as we drove through the same passes.

‘They forced us to pick up guns to defend our honour,’ he said.

‘So we killed every last one of those b*****ds.’

None of this, incidentally, has stopped him from sending his family away from Kabul to the greater safety of Northolt, Middlesex.

He drove a huge 4x4, while a pick-up full of heavily armed Afghan bodyguards followed behind.

We left Kabul — past the blast walls of the Nato barracks built on the site of the British cantonment of 170 years ago — and headed down a corkscrewing road into the line of bleak mountain passes that links Kabul with the Khyber Pass.

It is a dramatic and violent landscape, with gunpowder-coloured rock walls rising on either side of us.

The jagged mountain tops were veiled in an ominous cloud of mist. As we drove, Anwar Khan Jegdalek complained bitterly about the Western treatment of his government.

‘In the Eighties when we were killing Russians for them, the Americans called us freedom fighters,’ he muttered, as we descended through the first pass. ‘Now they just dismiss us as warlords.’

At Sorobi, where the mountains give way to a high-altitude ochre desert dotted with encampments of nomads, we left the main road and headed into Taliban territory.

A further five trucks full of Anwar Khan Jegdalek’s old mujahedin fighters, all brandishing rocket-propelled gren­ades and with faces wrapped in keffiyehs (traditional scarves), appeared from a side road to escort us.

At the crest of Jegdalek village, on January 12, 1842, 200 frostbitten British soldiers found themselves surrounded by several thousand Pashtun tribesmen.

The two highest-ranking British soldiers, General Elphinstone and Brigadier Shelton, tried to negotiate, but were taken hostage.

Only 50 infantrymen managed to break out under cover of darkness.

Our own welcome was, thankfully, somewhat warmer.

It was my host’s first visit to his home since he had become a minister, and the proud villagers took their old commander on a nostalgia trip through hills smelling of thyme and rosemary.

There, at the top of the surrounding peaks, lay the remains of Anwar Khan Jegdalek’s old mujahedin bunkers and entrenchments.

Then the villagers fed us, Mughal style, in an apricot orchard.

We sat on carpets under a trellis of vines and pomegranate blossom as course after course of kebabs and mulberry rice was laid in front of us.

During lunch, as my hosts casually pointed out the places in the village where the British had been massacred in 1842, I asked them if they saw any parallels between that war and the present situation.

‘It is exactly the same,’ said Anwar Khan Jegdalek. ‘Both times the foreigners have come for their own interests, not for ours.

‘They say: “We are your friends, we want democracy, we want to help.” But they are lying.’

His views were echoed by Mohammad Khan, our host in the village and the owner of the orchard where we were sitting.

‘Whoever comes to Afghanistan, even now, they will face the fate of Burnes, Macnaghten and Dr Brydon,’ he said.

The names of the fighters of 1842, long forgotten in their home country, are still known there.

‘Afghanistan is like the crossroads for every nation that comes to power,’ said Anwar Khan Jegdalek.

‘But we do not have the strength to control our own destiny — our fate is always determined by our neighbours. Next, it will be China.

'This is the last days of the Americans.’

I asked if they thought the Taliban would come back.

‘The Taliban?’ said Mohammad Khan. ‘They are here already! At least after dark. Just over that pass.’

He pointed in the direction of Gundamuck and Tora Bora. ‘That is where they are strongest.’

It was nearly 5pm before the final pieces of naan bread were cleared away, by which time it had become clear that it was too late to head on to the site of the British last stand at Gundamuck.

Instead, that evening we went to the relative safety of Jalalabad, where we discovered we’d had a narrow escape.

It turned out there had been a huge battle at Gundamuck that morning between government forces and a group of villagers supported by the Taliban.

The sheer scale and length of the feast had saved us from walking straight into an ambush. The battle had taken place on exactly the site of the British last stand.

The following morning in Jalalabad, we went to a jirga, or assembly of tribal elders, to which the greybeards of Gundamuck had come under a flag of truce to discuss what had happened the day before.

The story was typical of many I heard about the current government, and revealed how a mixture of corruption, incompetence and insensitivity has helped give an opening for the return of the Taliban.

As Predator drones took off and landed incessantly at the nearby airfield, the elders related how the previous year government troops had turned up to destroy the opium harvest.

The troops promised the villagers full compensation and so were allowed to burn the crops. But the money never turned up.

Before the planting season, the villagers again went to Jalalabad and asked the government if they could be provided with assistance to grow other crops.

Promises were made, but again nothing was delivered.

The people planted poppy, informing the local authorities that if they again tried to burn the crop, the village would have no option but to resist.

When the troops turned up, about the same time as we were arriving at nearby Jegdalek, the villagers were waiting for them — and had called in the local Taliban to assist.

In the fighting that followed, nine policemen were killed, six vehicles destroyed and ten police hostages taken.

After the jirga was over, a tribal elder came over and we chatted over a glass of green tea.

‘Last month, some American officers called us to a hotel in Jalalabad for a meeting,’ he said.

‘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.”’

What did he say to that?

‘He turned to his friend and said: “If the old men are like this, what will the younger ones be like?”

‘In truth, all the Americans here know their game is over.

'It is just their politicians who deny this.’

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