Britain’s fourth Afghan war is a replay of the first infamous retreat 170 years ago

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By William Dalrymple

The First Anglo-Afghan War was arguably the greatest military humiliation ever suffered by the West in the East. On the infamous retreat from Kabul, which began on the 6 Jan 1842, of the 18,500 who left the British cantonment, only one British citizen, the surgeon Dr Brydon, made it through to Jalalabad six days later. An entire army of what was then the most powerful military nation in the world utterly destroyed by poorly-equipped tribesmen.

A year later, the Rev GR Gleig wrote a history of Britain’s first disastrous, expensive and entirely avoidable entanglement with Afghanistan. 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 been acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.”

For many years the mass slaughter of the Retreat from Kabul acted as a deterrent to further adventures. As one veteran, George Lawrence wrote just before Britain blundered into the Second Anglo-Afghan War thirty years later, “a new generation has arisen which, instead of profiting from the solemn lessons of the past, is willing and eager to embroil us in the affairs of that turbulent and unhappy country…

Although military disasters may be avoided, an advance now, however successful in a military point of view, would not fail to turn out to be as politically useless… The disaster of the Retreat from Kabul should stand forever as a warning to the Statesmen of the future not to repeat the policies that bore such bitter fruit in 183942.” Even as late as October 1963, when Harold Macmillan was handing over the Prime Ministership to Alec Douglas-Home, he is supposed to have called the younger man to his office and passed on some reassuring advice, “My dear boy,” he said, looking down from his paper, “as long as you don’t invade Afghanistan, you’ll be absolutely fine.”

Sadly, John Major appears to have neglected to give the same advice to Tony Blair. In 2001, soon after the catastrophe of 9/11 Blair signed up with Bush to invade Afghanistan yet again. What followed – our fourth Afghan war – was in many ways a replay of the first. The same tribal rivalries and the same battles were fought out in the same places 170 years later under the guise of new flags, new ideologies and new political puppeteers.

The same cities were garrisoned by troops speaking the same languages, and they were attacked again from the same high passes. In both cases, the invaders thought they could walk in, perform regime change, and be out in a couple of years. In both cases they were unable to prevent themselves getting sucked into a much wider conflict. Not only was the puppet ruler the British tried to install in 1839, Shah Shuja ul-Mulk, from the same Popalzai sub-tribe as Hamid Karzai, his principal opponents were Ghilzais, who today make up the bulk of the Taliban’s foot soldiers. Mullah Omar was a Ghilzai, just like Mohammad Shah Khan, the resistance fighter who supervised the slaughter of the British army in 1841.

These parallels are frequently pointed out by the Taliban themselves: “Everyone knows how Karzai was brought to Kabul and how he was seated on the defenceless throne of Shah Shuja,” they announced in press release soon after he came to power. Then as now, the poverty of Afghanistan has meant that it has been impossible to tax the Afghans into financing their own occupation.

Instead, the cost of policing such inaccessible territory has exhausted the occupier’s resources. For the last twenty years the US spent more than $100 billion a year in Afghanistan: it cost more to keep Marine battalions in two districts of Helmand than the US provided to the entire nation of Egypt in annual military and development assistance.

In both wars the decision to withdraw troops has turned on factors with little relevance to Afghanistan, namely the state of the economy and the vagaries of politics back home. No one was more aware of these strange parallels that Hamid Karzai himself. When I first published my book the First Anglo-Afghan war, Return of a King, he called me to Kabul, quizzed me on the details over several dinners at his palace, and substantially altered his policies to make sure he never repeated his forbear Shah Shuja’s mistakes.

In a leaked email published in The New York Times after Wikileaks, Hilary Clinton blamed his reading of the book for a chilling of relations between Kabul and the White House during the Obama years. Sadly, his successor, Ashraf Ghani, learned nothing from the lessons of history. He had none of Karzai’s diplomatic skills and must bear a large share of the responsibility for the collapse of his own regime:

Ghani’s impatience, rudeness and arrogance alienated many tribal leaders and he entirely lacked the charm and politeness that made Karzai a much more popular and acceptable figure. As we have seen, very few were willing to die to keep Ghani in power. Meanwhile, the longer-term strategic picture is grim. Few will now trust American or Nato promises and we have handed a major propaganda victory to our enemies everywhere. In 2009, I met some tribal elders from the village of Gandamak, where the British troops made their last stand in 1842.

Already then, a decade before this weekend’s debacle, they could see the way the winds were blowing. “All the Americans here know their game is over,” said one elder. “It is just their politicians who deny this.” “These are the last days of the Americans,” said his friend. “Next it will be China.”

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