Lady Elizabeth Butler’s rendition of the sole survivor Dr. Brydon entering Jalalabad, 1879.

Lady Elizabeth Butler’s rendition of the sole survivor Dr. Brydon entering Jalalabad, “Remnants of an Army”, 1879.

In reviewing Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple, and Games Without Rules: The Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan by Tamim Ansary, guest writer Michael Desai, who recently graduated from Brown University  with a degree in Political Science, paints a detailed portrait of how Afghanistan, standing at the “skirmish line of East and West”, has been invaded, sacked, burned and occupied, but never conquered. 

By Michael Desai

In 1839, the British “Army of the Indus” set out from Peshawar to conquer Afghanistan. A mere three years later, the sole survivor of this 25,000-strong force, Dr. William Brydon, staggered into the relative safety of Jalalabad. This well-known story was synonymous with disaster throughout the nineteenth century in books such as Patrick Macrory’s Signal Catastrophe and on canvasses like Elizabeth Butler’s Remnants of an Army. Yet despite the formidable reputation of the country after the massacre, the British invaded twice more, the Soviets made a fourth attempt, and we Americans have become only the most recent arrivals to the graveyard of empires.

William Dalrymple has joined a chorus of new commentators on Afghanistan in his new book Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-1842. He tells an old story with freshly translated sources that is nevertheless chillingly familiar, in its overall sweep if not in its particulars. Tamim Ansary extends the scope of this history beyond British and American involvement in his Games Without Rules: The Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan, providing a perspective on the country’s recent history that is refreshingly non-European.

Any story of Afghanistan cannot be told without acknowledging that it has lain on the line of scrimmage between East and West for millennia. Alexander the Great cut a swathe through the land that was then known as Bactria before being forced to turn back by his own men. Bactria became the Hellenized name for the ancient city of Balkh (outside of modern-day Mazar-e-Sharif). The city was renamed when Islam arrived in Central Asia, and sacked when Genghis Khan put Afghanistan to the sword, throwing its vast library into the Amu Darya and damming the river for three days. Despite the destruction, Marco Polo called Balkh “a noble city and a great seat of learning” while passing through on the medieval Silk Road. Babur launched his own invasion of India from his seat in Kabul, establishing the Mughal dynasty. The British used Afghanistan to play an extended game of diplomatic intrigue and war against the Russians throughout the 19th century. In our own time, the US and USSR funded dueling aid projects culminating in the decade-long Soviet invasion and occupation involving the mujahideen, the CIA, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, and the Red Army. All played a part in a conflict whose consequences we are still reaping today.

Dalrymple’s tale focuses on the First Anglo-Afghan war in the 1840’s and the preceding clandestine rivalry between Britain and Russia, which became known as “The Great Game” (or “The Tournament of Shadows” in Russian history). The paranoid British cabinet peddled the misguided belief that Russia had its eyes set on India, the source of British wealth, by way of Central Asia. This concern was not entirely without foundation, as their previous enemy, Napoleon had created a worrying alliance with the Sultan of Mysore before he was defeated in Egypt and forced to abandon the scheme. The vulnerability of British holdings was not easily forgotten, and thus they set about consolidating their borders. However, the first British envoy to Afghanistan, Alexander Burnes, published a widely read memoir of his adventures, which was translated into French and read with utter panic in Moscow. Seeking to head off a rivalry, the British instead precipitated it.

This would be only the first of many misbegotten decisions made by the British. The Afghan Amir, Dost Mohammed Khan, was besieged with entreaties for alliance from the Russians and the British simultaneously. But the British, against the advice of their agent Burnes, decided their position would be rectified if they simply replaced Dost Muhammad with a puppet of their own, the exiled prince of a long-defunct dynasty, Shah Shuja ul-Mulk. The British administrators in charge of these maneuvers were no amateurs – they spoke courtly Persian, the lingua franca of India and Central Asia, and they were planning to lead the armies themselves, to live or die on their success or failure. Yet they decided, much like the coalition forces in Afghanistan today, to seat a king on the throne who was amenable to their interests but had no personal following in Afghanistan at all.

The fruit of these doomed decisions did not take long to ripen. After occupying Kabul for three years, the Afghans revolted. Alexander Burnes was butchered outside of his own house, the diplomatic advisor McNaghten was beheaded by Dost Mohammad’s son. Shah Shuja fared little better – after holing up in his ancestral fortress, the Bala Hisar, he was betrayed and killed by a minor relative, and buried ignominiously in an unmarked grave. No territory was gained, no rivals displaced, no aim accomplished. The conflict was a colossal waste for all involved.

It is here especially that Dalrymple’s treatment of the war and its dramatis personae deserve special credit. He does not simply reuse the extant English sources that countless modern histories have relied upon. His use of Afghan sources, such as the works of two 19th century Afghan historians and one epic poem, as well as the autobiography of Shah Shuja himself – create, at last, a complete picture of the war.

Dalrymple’s tragedy has its Hamlet in Shah Shuja.  His autobiography must have been an illuminating resource, proving that the British account of his character as weak, corrupt, and guileless was utterly incorrect. The new portrayal of the hapless king invites comparison with Hamid Karzai, the current president. Dalrymple astutely notes their common lineage – Shuja and Karzai are both descendants from the same tribe – the Sadozais. In another resonance, the figurehead of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, is a Pashtun Ghilzai, the very same tribesmen who were the center of the resistance against Shah Shuja and slaughtered the Army of the Indus as it retreated from Kabul through the Hindu Kush in the winter of 1842. Today, the Ghilzai tribal areas are among the strongest supporters of the Taliban.

Tribal relations are not the only haunting comparisons to be made between the past and present. The commonly accepted characterizations of President Karzai are eerily similar to those made of Shuja by the British. Karzai is said to be corrupt, lazy, impotent, and even insane. In April he accused the United States of supporting Taliban attacks on his own regime (saying that “these attacks are at the service of the United States”). The Taliban, as well, emphasized the congruencies of Karzai’s situation with those of Shah Shuja’s 170 years ago. Taliban propaganda from earlier this year referred to Karzai “sitting on the throne of Shah Shuja,” who is still a widely reviled figure throughout Afghanistan for his complicity with the British. Another propaganda bid in 2001 asked the former mujahideen if they would be sons of Dost Mohammad or sons of Shah Shuja in the face of this new invasion. The similarities are not lost on Karzai, either. Upon reading Dalrymple’s book, he extended an invitation to him to come to Kabul for advice.

Our own military actions echo those of the British. Following initial success in the military campaign, levels of troops were drawn in Kabul to support the Opium War in China in 1842. An own overwhelming response in the wake of 9/11 was cut short when troops and resources were transferred to Iraq in 2005. There are key differences, of course. The presence of huge numbers of aid workers and NGO’s, a preponderance of drug trafficking and narcotic agriculture, and a neighboring state of questionable allegiance are all peculiarly modern features. But Tamim Ansary in Games Without Rules points out these differences of circumstance are overwhelmed by similarities in theme: an urban-rural divide, persistent ethnic tension, anti-foreigner religious fervor, and a longstanding debate about local versus national sovereignty.

Akbar Khan

Akbar Khan

The West seems to have willingly ignored this parable. But the story is hardly obscure. The First Anglo-Afghan war is one of the foundations of modern Afghan identity, akin to our own revolutionary war, with Dost Mohammad Khan as a kind of George Washington. His son, Akbar Khan, the subject of the epic poem featured throughout Dalrymple’s work, is an eminent Afghan national hero. His ruthlessness was infamous – while plying the British with reassuring words in Dari (which British Diplomatic officers spoke) at one moment, he commanded his soldiers in Pashto to massacre them in the next. The memories of this war have seeped into the features of everyday life. For example, the diplomatic district of Kabul, where the American embassy and International Crisis Group headquarters is located, is named Wazir Akbar Khan, after this very same man.

The enormous differences between the British and Afghan sources mirror the diverging narratives that we hear from Afghans themselves today. Incidents entirely ignored by one party are highly significant to the other. An incident of rape recorded in Afghan histories as the impetus for calls to jihad are nowhere to be found in surviving British accounts. Incredibly, many military and colonial historians believe that avoidable military errors and lack of resources were the cause of defeat, instead of the expected social backlash to invasion, the calls to jihad, and poor choice of allies. Both Dalrymple and Ansary capitalize on these discrepancies to show that there exist two parallel but diverging narratives of both the past war and the current one. The focus on resources and strategy as opposed to religion, issues of honor, and indigenous social hierarchy reflects the attitude of many ISAF commanders, diplomats, and development consultants in Afghanistan today.

We hear this argument in the media all the time – that failure in Afghanistan is merely a failure of will, effort, or insufficient funds. A British MP and former NGO chief, Rory Stewart, detailed how every ISAF commander from McNeill to McChrystal complained of an initial lack of “clear strategy and resources,” but that the coming year, whether it was 2004 or 2010, promises to be “decisive.” Every subsequent commander complains of these issues, and each promises a change to objectives informed by “classic” counterinsurgency strategy. Counterinsurgency (COIN) pretends to be largely straightforward, but in fact encompasses a uselessly wide array of strategies toward building effective government  – from obvious solutions like “[a] more capable and legitimate indigenous security forces (especially the police),” to the obtusely vague: “[a] better governance capacity for the local state.” COIN doctrine has become a catch-all solution for the problems of modern warfare. Its solutions are tautologies: to build a legitimate state, the Taliban must be defeated, but to defeat the Taliban, a legitimate state must be built.

These “new” strategies, feasibility studies, and budgets recite the same tired buzzwords of governance, sustainable rule of law, a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, gender-sensitive norms, and chains of accountability. This culture of buzzwords equivocates on the real goals of coalition forces. For example, a popular RAND report by veteran US diplomat James Dobbins entitled “The Beginner’s Guide to Nation Building” has become a core text of the COIN doctrine strategists and their civilian development consultant counterparts. Its recommendations are based on a “fictional model of a country of five million,” supposedly accounting for differences in culture, ethnography, geography, and language. It boasts of establishing “best practices” for future interventions, based on the unspoken and unquestioned assumption that one-size-fits-all. The unfortunate reality is that solo NGO and military initiatives have done little to strengthen the government’s authority. When the government is seen as a hapless bystander, faith in its administration of justice is undermined. Very little is ever said about what establishing “rule of law” would actually entail for specific villages or regions, or what plans made in Kabul have to do with administration in the perennially troublesome Helmand Province.

To be fair, the task we have set our soldiers and diplomats is nigh impossible, or at least beyond reasonable expectation. In Ansary’s history, this truth is self-evident: “The problem is not that Afghans unite and cannot be conquered, it is that they fragment and cannot be governed.” In other words, operating from a strategic framework of counterinsurgency versus counterterrorism will not necessarily have an effect on the Afghan government’s success in establishing itself as central authority. There are very compelling reasons for this difficulty. Throughout his book, Ansary notes the extreme cultural chasms between urban and rural Afghanistan. In one case, despite the construction of the hydroelectric Kajakai dam in Helmand less than twenty miles away, villagers remained unaware of its construction even ten years after the fact. Towards the end of his book, Dalrymple records his visit to Gandamak (the site of the last stand of the 44th Foot in 1842) where his hosts inveighed against the Kabul government for destroying their precious crop of opium. This was presumably part of a larger effort to curtail illicit heroin production, sanctioned by central planners (both Afghan and foreign) in Kabul. The elders of Gandamak were told they would receive compensation for their lost crop, but received nothing. Now they have little choice but to retaliate if their poppies were attacked again, forcing them to perhaps turn to the local Taliban for assistance. The technocrat administrators in Kabul may possess all the tools they need to stabilize the country’s currency or create a central bank, but agricultural policy, especially in rural Afghan society, cannot be dictated from on high.

The unfortunate truth is that urban Afghan life bears little to no resemblance to its rural counterpart. The Taliban has been successful precisely because it capitalizes on these discrepancies. In place of the corrupt courts administered by the Kabul government, Ansary reports that rural southern Afghans turn increasingly to religious courts set up by the Taliban, where they can issue judgments based on Shari’a, which to many Pashtuns is much more fair than paying bribes to venal judges.

The civic problems of Afghanistan are nothing new, however. The country has suffered a complete breakdown of its society over the past thirty years. Two invasions, two occupations, a long and brutal civil war, and a rapid exodus of refugees from the country have clouded its future significantly, even with whatever help America has to offer. In the past, it took exceptional men with great military and diplomatic skill to knit together the alliances necessary to govern the country. Today that prospect seems far off. The elections next year will see the first transition of power since 2001. A loya-jirga (meeting of tribal elders) is debating whether to agree to keep US forces in Afghanistan past 2014. But the entire southern portion of the country is under the control of Taliban-associated groups – the Haqqani network, the Quetta Shura, the Hekmatyars. The fact that Karzai, unlike Shah Shuja, plans to step aside is cause for at least some hope.

The old maxim of studying history to avoid its recurrence has found few adherents when it comes to Afghan history. Both Ansary and Dalrymple have laid out their respective warnings. My view is that history is always similar enough that it can be recognized, but different enough that we believe it will turn out for the better.

This is also a mental pattern indistinguishable from insanity.

Books reviewed:
-Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, William Dalrymple, Knopf, 2013
-Games Without Rules: The Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan, Tamim Ansary, Public Affairs, 2012

One thought on “Afghanistan: The Graveyard of Unlearned Lessons

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