Hard Lessons of Afghan History

Two new histories of separate conflicts in Afghanistan show that both the Victorians and a young Churchill struggled at the North-Western Frontier

As the West prepares to withdraw from another bruising encounter with Afghanistan, two books appear which underline the dangers of going there in the first place. As every pub pundit knows, invading Afghanistan is probably a bad idea. Just how bad is evident in William Dalrymple’s history of the First Afghan War. The sensible approach is spelled out in Con Coughlin’s account of Winston Churchill’s 1897 encounter with the Pashtun warrior tribes of the North West Frontier. That is, that “the less the outside world interfered with the affairs of the frontier tribes, the less inclined the frontier tribes would be to interfere with the outside world” — a formula that could be applied usefully to the whole region.

Having said that, the spectacle of British armies’ repeated attempts to bludgeon, bribe and bamboozle the Afghan clans into submission makes for great history. The story of the march into Afghanistan in 1839 to oust the supposedly pro-Russian Dost Mohammed Khan and the traumatic exit three years later has been told many times, but never with the verve, wit and dramatic force that Dalrymple brings to bear. Books are shrinking, victims of busy lives and diminishing attention spans. This one is a heroic 500 pages, but the galloping pace of the narrative will keep you turning them eagerly. The tale is full of great British characters: the envoy William Macnaghten blinking behind his outsized blue spectacles, unable, despite his acknowledged abilities, to see disaster looming; his brilliant but fatally lascivious deputy Alexander Burnes; and the boorish Brigadier Shelton, whose military stupidities compounded Britain’s monumental political errors. 

Until now, though, we have not known much about the Afghans. Dalrymple’s researches turned up several previously unused Persian-language contemporary accounts that give a real feel for the character and motivations of the main Afghan players. They include some marvellous epic poems, rolling in rich metaphor, that give the view from the other side. The culture they reveal make it easy to understand why many Britons found the Afghans more to their taste than the Indians they had a much easier time ruling. To be sure, they were treacherous, ruthless and capable of appalling barbarity. But then so were we, as the numerous atrocities against the locals detailed in both books make clear. In their favour, the tribal warriors had a proper respect for good horseflesh and fine clothes and loved a fight, qualities that in the eyes of General William Nott made them “fine looking fellows indeed” and “quite the gentlemen”.

The British knew who they were dealing with. Many of the players of the Great Game were soldier-scholars, linguists, historians and anthropologists who had a deep knowledge of local cultures. This brought them to the sensible conclusion that it was unwise to meddle with the Afghan way of doing things. “There is nothing more to be dreaded or guarded against,” advised the spymaster Claude Wade, “than the overweening confidence with which we are too often accustomed to regard the excellence of our own institutions and the anxiety that we display to introduce them in new untried soils. Such interference will always lead to acrimonious disputes, if not to a violent reaction.”

The current occupiers had just those intentions in mind when they invaded Afghanistan but with nothing like the resolve or the understanding to see them through. Only a handful can manage more than a few words of Pashto or Dari. Con Coughlin discovered that to the Americans even recent history is obscure when he came across a briefing given by a US Marine officer for visiting diplomats in which it became clear that the speaker had no idea that the 1980s anti-Soviet Mujahideen had been America’s allies.

Sometimes history has no lessons to teach but in the case of Afghanistan it has plenty. As both authors point out, the parallels between these two stories and current events are almost uncanny, with the same battlefields, the same tribes and — above all — the same outcomes making repeat appearances. In the 1839 invasion and in the pacifying operations undertaken by the Malakand Field Force 58 years later the British benefited from greater numbers and superior weaponry. These advantages were not enough to achieve a meaningful victory, as some soon recognised. The Afghans exhibited the same love of independence that the British liked to see in themselves. “I really believe that the people of Afghanistan will not give up their country without fighting for it,” observed General Nott, shortly after arriving in the country. “I know I would not, were I in their situation.” 

But for much of the time the prevailing view was that with one more thrashing, the clans would see sense and lie down. This was the opinion of the young Winston Churchill, whose bumptious progress through the North West Frontier is detailed in Coughlin’s entertaining and enlightening book. Young Winston could be insufferable — conceited, brazenly self-seeking and, according to one who served with him, unable to “pass a mirror without inspecting himself or practising some speech or other”. He was undoubtedly as brave as a lion, both physically  — as he proved on many occasions — and intellectually, in his willingness to admit the brutality of British methods. He was, of course, also wrong. Force alone was only of use to create conditions for parley, compromise and deal-making. It was this approach, designed by Lord Curzon, that would keep the frontier reasonably quiet in the new century.

A truly realpolitik approach might have halted America before it plunged into what will be judged as a pointless war, with the Taliban likely to return to at least a share of power once we have gone. One of the chief lessons of these books is that for an Afghan, all alliances are temporary. With a little more time, threats and inducements might well have persuaded the Taliban leader Mullah Omar to bring George Bush the head of his guest, Osama bin Laden. What a lot of trouble that would have saved.

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