Lessons from Afghanistan.

mmghosh's picture


I'm something of a fan of William Dalrymple, being interested in roughly the same kind of travel and history books. This one was quirky; I can vouch for the authenticity of the bits I know independently and I've recommended it here before on one of the (sadly) infrequent book diaries here on the Forvm.  


And this one was good too - From a Holy Mountain - travels among the Christian communities of the Middle East (his descriptions of Syria especially relevant now).


For his latest book, (he's doing the book tours - was here a few days ago) he's chosen a subject that has always fascinated me - the 1st Anglo-Afghan war (hopefully available on Flipkart soon).  Link to the wiki and another good link.


Excerpts from the interview of the book launch.

Almost 1,80,00 British troopers were annihilated on that fateful retreat from Afghanistan. How was the experience of retracing the 170-year-old journey for your book?

The route of the British retreat backs onto the mountain range that leads to Tora Bora and the Pakistan border — the Ghilzai heartlands — which have always been a Taliban centre. I had been advised not to attempt to visit the area without local protection and was accompanied by a regional tribal leader, who was also a minister in Karzai's government — Anwar Khan Jigdallick. He had earned a name as a Hezb-i-Islami Mujehedin commander in the Jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s. It was Jigdallick's ancestors who inflicted some of the worst casualties on the British army in 1842, something he proudly repeated as we drove through the same passes.


Once in Jellalabad, we went to a jirga, or assembly, of Ghilzai tribal elders, to which the grey beards of Gandamak 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, which revealed how a mixture of corruption, incompetence and insensitivity had helped give an opening for the return of the once-hated 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 promising full compensation. But the money never came. Finally, they planted poppy again, and when the troops turned up, the villagers were waiting, along with the local Taliban to assist.

The strange, intermingled tale of Dost Muhammad and Shah Shuja bears retelling.

The closer you look, the more astonishing are the similarities. The war of 1839 was waged on the basis of doctored intelligence about a virtually non-existent threat.


Shah Shuja, the central character in my book, was from the same sub-tribe as President Karzai; while his principal opponents were the Ghilzai tribe, who today make up the bulk of the Taliban. The same tribal rivalries and battles continue to be fought 200 years later under the guise of new flags, new ideologies and new political puppeteers. In both cases, western powers intervene for their own geopolitical reasons; establish their preferred puppet ruler, then find themselves caught helplessly in the web of pre-existing civil wars and tribal rivalries. From London and Washington, the motive for invasion might be the same. But on the streets of Kabul, the foreign foot-soldier soon finds himself at the mercy of the local tribal jealousies and alliances.

One of the major differences, though, is the situation in the Punjab.  Lahore then was the capital of the Sikh strongman Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who had just taken control of Peshawar, and bloodily suppressed the inevitable Afghan rebellion.  Today's Lahore and Peshawar are under the control of an uneasily balanced, weak and unstable military regime.  We think, post Zia, that Islamists are at the core of the present government but how much the Islamists are respected is revealed by the latest news that even Mr Laden had to pay a bribe for his residence in Abbottabad.


Another is that the British went on to the 2nd Anglo-Afghan War, fought much more sensibly, and with more secure results.  It does mean sticking it out, though. 


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Never get involved in a land war in Asia

HankP's picture

I blame it all on the Internet

Waterboarding Done Rough...Americans are Pussy Cats...


From your link on the 2nd Anglo-Afghan War:


Captured British soldiers

The British officer John Masters recorded in his autobiography that Pathan women in the North-West Frontier Province (1901–1955) of British India during the Second Anglo-Afghan War would castrate non-Muslim soldiers who were captured, like British and Sikhs.[7][8] They also used an execution method involving urine, Pathan women urinated into prisoner's mouths.[9] Captured British soldiers were spread out and fastened with restraints to the ground, then a stick, or a piece of wood was used to keep their mouth open to prevent swallowing. Pathan women then squatted and urinated directly into the mouth of the man until he drowned in the urine, taking turns one at a time.


Best Wishes, Traveller