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Invading Afghanistan Remains a Historically Bad Idea

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by Xan Holbrook

It’s approaching cliche among historians and history buffs to say that Afghanistan is unconquerable. However, its reputation as the toughest nut to crack in geo-politics – from the Parthian Empire until now – is not meritless.

For most Americans, Afghanistan first permeated the national psyche during the Soviet invasion, in which CIA-backed guerillas fought the mighty Soviet army to a standstill, and eventually pushed it out of the country altogether. This was more than a mere underdog story – it was when the era of global insurgency began to outshine the Red Menace. Throughout the 1990s, the momentum of these groups against Western targets only increased, culminating in the events of September 11th, 2001. The NATO intervention – overshadowed and scuppered by the sheer idiocy and callousness of the Bush administration – has turned into another disaster for foreign armies on Afghan soil. 

The signing of a withdrawal deal with the Taliban this past week has been seen alternatively as either a skilled withdrawal, a grudging eventuality, or a betrayal of the Afghan people and the NATO and ANA soldiers who died there. 

Regardless of your view, I can say the following without running the risk of much controversy: it could have been much worse.

In The Flashman Papers, a series of rip-snorting historical novels by George Macdonald Fraser, the British imperial project is portrayed as the parade of nutters, boozers, chisellers and sadists it in fact was – with Flashman being the boozing, sniveling coward-in-chief. The first novel in the series has our recreant par excellence reminiscing about the first Anglo-Afghan War. His description of General William George Keith Elphinstone stands as one of the great character assassinations in the English language:

“But I still state unhesitatingly, that for pure, vacillating stupidity, for superb incompetence to command, for ignorance combined with bad judgment — in short, for the true talent for catastrophe — Elphy Bey stood alone. Others abide our question, but Elphy outshines them all as the greatest military idiot of our own or any other day.

Only he could have permitted the First Afghan War and let it develop to such ruinous defeat. It was not easy: he started with a good army, a secure position, some excellent officers, a disorganized enemy, and repeated opportunities to save the situation. But Elphy, with the touch of true genius, swept aside these obstacles with unerring precision, and out of order wrought complete chaos. We shall not, with luck, look upon his like again.”

Allow me to repeat myself – the British Empire, and all other European colonization, was a way for wealthiest people in the wealthiest nations to gain yet more wealth, nothing more. The invasion(s) of Afghanistan by Imperial armies was a way of dominating central Asia, and keeping any Russian moves in check. Spreading civilization, nation building, or any other notions of a common good are by-products of the main enterprise… if there were any other products to be had at all.

The US and NATO intervention was clumsy, but was not a war anyone actively sought to profit from. All talk of pipelines aside, the countryside is not particularly fertile and Opium is its only cash crop.

I mention all this to give the following catalogue of brainlessness context.

General Elphinstone moved from Jalalabad, the main British garrison, to set up a British post at Kabul. Between soldiers and camp followers, the total number of people was 12,000. Upon setting up in Kabul, the camp did little fortifying and instead preferred to hold dances, play cricket, and otherwise pretend that they were not encroaching on tribal lands. The man they had put in place of the exiled tribal leader Dost Mohammed – a cruel and dastardly puppet called Shujah Shah – angered the tribes, and seething hostility soon gave way to harassing East India Company convoys. I should mention that, with this escalating conflict, Elphy Bey ramped up his idiot dial. He started sending soldiers back to India and dismantling his defenses.

Ever helpful and prescient, the British Government thought that it was too costly to keep a force in Kabul, but, in order to afford keeping it there, decided to stop paying subsidies to its remaining tribal allies in the Khyber Pass. Kabul was essentially surrounded. Wazir Akbar Khan, son of the deposed Dost Mohammed, declared a general uprising

A mob stormed the house of Sir Alexander Burnes, and killed him and his staff. Elphinstone did nothing. A few days later, the same mob raided the British supply depot.

At the end of the same month, November 1841, Kabul was shelled by Afghan forces. A British force rode out to meet them and was massacred. At this point, the harsh Afghan winter had set in and any routes for reinforcement were now impassable. Elphinstone sent his advisor William Hay Macnaghten to negotiate with the Khan. His cavalry escort, perhaps feeling the trickle down effect of the morons who commanded them, were late and did not join them to the meeting. Macnaghten and his men were killed and their bodies dragged through the Kabul streets.

In a move which beggars belief, Elphinstone did not order punitive action and then sent another peace party, ignoring all the signals and the warnings around him as he had done for months. This time, experienced colonialist Eldred Pottinger was the envoy to Khan. The terms were suicidal – all the powder reserves, new rifles and ammunition were to be handed over to the confederation of tribes and Kabul was to be abandoned. In return, Khan granted safe passage. Pottinger was then taken hostage. For Pottinger, it would turn out to be a lucky escape, as Elphinstone accepted the terms and made hasty preparations for the garrison’s evacuation. His apathy had caught up with him (General Douglas MacArthur would later state that all military defeats can be summed up in the phrase too late).

The camp, and its followers, were left to fend for themselves in the frozen Khyber Pass. If hypothermia, frostbite and starvation did not kill them, then the tribes, fast closing in, would do the rest. 

It is now British military folklore that William Brydon, an assistant surgeon, was the lone survivor of the death march. In reality, 115 officers, men, women and children were kept as hostages and then released or freed. Even so, a major contingent of an experienced and well-equipped army has been obliterated. 16,500 people lost, due to the hubris and inaction of an officer class which sought to exploit the surroundings around it.

The NATO experience in Afghanistan has been one in punching the air, it seems. An amorphous and unwinnable experience, and one which is hard to let go of, seeing as what preceded it. But I cannot, and will not say, that it was an experience which was entered into with bad intentions. Poorly executed, perhaps. Overkill, it can be argued, given how Osama Bin Laden actually met his end. War as a miasma, holding truths which only time can reveal to us.

But it was not a war for the sake of having one. It was not a war marked by the atrocity and aggression of an invader, unlike those of the USSR and the British Empire. And it’s ending could have been way, way worse.

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