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Brits Forgot Afghan History Lessons

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    Written Again in British blood Ben Macintyre http://www.timesonline.co.uk/newspaper/0,,174-2259708,00.html There should be no surprise at Taleban resistance in
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 2, 2006
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      Written Again in British blood
      Ben Macintyre
      http://www.timesonline.co.uk/newspaper/0,,174-2259708,00.html


      There should be no surprise at Taleban resistance in Afghanistan.
      History is simply repeating itself
      ON JANUARY 13, 1842, a lookout on the walls of Jalalabad fort spotted
      a lone horseman, weaving towards the British outpost, on a dying
      horse. Part of the rider's skull had been removed by an Afghan sword;
      his life had been saved only by the copy of Blackwood's Magazine
      stuffed into his hat to stave off the intense cold, which had blunted
      the blow. This was Dr William Brydon, the sole survivor of a
      16,000-strong force that had left Kabul a week earlier, only to be
      massacred in the mountain passes by rebellious Afghan tribesmen.

      Dr Brydon's dramatic escape was celebrated in Victorian print, verse
      and paint. Lady Elizabeth Butler painted a tableau of the injured
      surgeon staggering towards salvation. The retreat from Kabul was the
      single worst disaster to befall the British Empire up to that point,
      but the adept Victorian propaganda machine managed to extract a tale
      of heroism from the calamity.

      According to oral tradition in Afghanistan, however, Dr Brydon was not
      a heroic survivor but a hostage to history: the tribesmen deliberately
      let him escape so that he might return to his own people and tell of
      the ferocity and bravery of the Afghan tribes. Battered Dr Brydon was
      spared as a warning to the British: leave Afghanistan, and never come
      back. The British paid no attention, of course. Two more Anglo-Afghan
      wars followed. Now that we are effectively involved in a fourth, with
      3,300 British troops fighting to hold down the province of Helmand,
      the ghost of Dr Brydon rides again.

      On Wednesday Taleban fighters in Helmand killed another British
      soldier, the sixth to die there in the last three weeks. The response
      of the deputy camp commander of Camp Bastion was both sad and wise:
      "We thought we would play the `British not American' card. But it
      hasn't been so easy. There's a lot of history here." There is indeed a
      lot of history in Afghanistan. In Britain we also have a lot of
      history, but we treat it differently. In Afghanistan, history is not
      simply a story of past events, but a living, continual experience, to
      be carefully tended, its meanings, lessons and resentments preserved
      and nurtured.

      What happened in 1842 is as much a part of the present as the events
      of yesterday. In Pushtun tradition, no guest may be left unprotected,
      no offence left unpunished: the result is a web of feud and
      counter-feud, alliances and vendettas, embedded in time and tribal
      memory. That is the sense of history that Britain faces in
      Afghanistan: not a schoolbook past of dates and great men, but
      something far more organic and immediate. In many parts of
      Afghanistan, people still refer to the British as the "English
      tribes". We are woven into Afghanistan's tribal past. Playing the
      "British not American" card is an extraordinarily risky gambit.

      In 1839 subduing Afghanistan looked like a walkover, just as it did in
      2001. The "war" was won with ease and modern explosives (cannon), the
      ousted warlord emir took to the hills and we installed a ruler more to
      our taste. Victoria's Government blandly announced that: "In restoring
      the union and prosperity of the Afghan people, British influence will
      be sedulously employed to further every measure of general benefit, to
      reconcile differences . . . and put an end to the distractions by
      which, for so many years, the welfare and happiness of the Afghans
      have been impaired." This did not happen. Under-manned, underfunded
      and with no clear mission, the British in Kabul blithely brought out
      their memsahibs, staged tea dances and played polo. Their military
      intelligence was hopeless. Outside Kabul, resentment and resistance
      built steadily, despite large disbursements of cash to tribal chiefs.

      Four months before he was slaughtered with the rest of the British
      contingent, the government envoy in Kabul told London that the
      situation was "perfectly wonderful". That remark has an uncomfortable
      echo of John Reid's prediction, as Defence Secretary last year, that
      Britain could subdue the southern areas "without a shot fired". Then,
      as now, the enemy could be identified only vaguely: a mixture of
      fanatics, tribesmen, bandits and mercenaries, united only by the
      desire to kill those in British uniforms.

      Some of the same mistakes are being played out today. A force of
      3,300, with only six Apaches and six Chinooks, seems wholly inadequate
      for the task of controlling an area four times the size of Wales. That
      task is itself not easy to discern: to subdue, to root out the
      Taleban, to stop poppy cultivation, but at the same time to win hearts
      and minds, to pacify, to make friends. One billion pounds in aid has
      been spent in Afghanistan but, as ever, an uncounted proportion has
      ended up in the pockets of the warlords, while the drug trade thrives.

      British commanders seem genuinely surprised by the level of resistance
      they are facing in Helmand. The Ministry of Defence described the
      Taleban attacks as "unexpected". Unexpected? This is a country that
      has been battling foreign forces and their new- fangled weapons,
      almost as a way of life, ever since Alexander the Great arrived with
      his elephants. The Soviets were still being "surprised" by the level
      of Afghan resistance when they finally pulled out in 1989, leaving
      50,000 dead and a million dead Afghans.

      The British never ceased to be baffled by the arithmetic of
      Afghanistan, where their highly trained troops with expensive
      equipment struggled to contain shadowy Afghan insurgents lurking
      behind rocks and armed only with cheap muskets (jezails). Rudyard
      Kipling caught the British incredulity perfectly:

      A scrimmage in a border station —
      A canter down some dark defile —
      Two thousand pounds of education
      Drops to a ten-rupee jezail —

      Afghanistan desperately desires and deserves peace, but even with more
      men, more arms, and a clear policy, Britain may not be able to impose
      it. For the Afghans have a grim, semi- secret weapon: a wounded
      history, in which Britain played a central part that we have all but
      forgotten, and they have not.


      Ben Macintyre is the author of Josiah the Great: The True Story of the
      Man Who Would Be King

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