ONLINE ONLY: Marching to Candahar

Butcher and Bolt by David Loyn

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Rooting round in a second-hand bookshop a few weeks ago, I came across a copy of the 1906 Boosey & Hawkes New National Songbook. Having a soft spot for this sort of thing, I took it down from the shelf and scanned the index eagerly. Amongst the old familiar favourites, such as The Vicar of Bray and Scots, wha hae wi’Wallace bled, my eye was caught by a number I hadn’t before seen, Marching to Candahar. It turned out to be by the once famous songwriter A.P. Graves. It had a stirring tune with an attractive Irish lilt, but the lyrics themselves were far more striking. “Marching and marching/ Away for Candahar/ They say she’s sore beset/ But thro’ the Afghan net/ We boys will break/ and no mistake/ And save the city yet.”

The song, which commemorates a famous exploit from the Second Afghan War in 1880, where British troops under General Roberts rushed from Kabul to Kandahar to save the south of the country after a terrible defeat, serves as a sudden and poignant reminder. This is not the first time we have been where we are now in Afghanistan. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, we were drawn to interfere with the country again and again. Many times before have British forces suffered at the hands of snipers, guerrilla fighters and suicide attackers in the wilds of Kandahar and Helmand. Names such as Jalalabad, Lashkar Gah and Waziristan were just as frequent in the Victorian newspapers as they are today. And for 200 years a string of British and foreign governments, making policy in haste without properly considering the history and nature of the place, have found themselves stymied in the mountains of the border and the deserts of the south.

Foreign intervention in Afghanistan is as old as history itself. King Cyrus of Persia in the 6th century BC, Alexander the Great, the early Arab Muslim armies in the 7th century AD all bear testament to this fact. 500 years after the Arabs, Genghis Khan was drawn into the region, and wrought infinitely greater damage on Herat and Bamiyan than ever the Taliban could dare. Most of these invaders were drawn to the region by Afghanistan’s crucial position in Asia. There was little in the country itself to attract them, but its central location meant that any empire, whether based in Iran, India or Central Asia, felt drawn to hold pieces of Afghanistan to act as a buffer or marcher territory for protection. The fact that Afghanistan is difficult to hold, and does not offer any ideal geographical lines along which it can be divided was the reason that so many of these outsiders ultimately came to grief. However, such was the perceived strategic imperative of shoring up one’s frontiers by controlling part or all of Afghanistan that none of its neighbours have been ever able to leave it alone.

David Loyn’s new book, Butcher and Bolt, is an account of foreign engagement in Afghanistan from the first appearance of a British diplomatic mission there in 1809 up to the present day. To tell the story, he draws not only from the established works of the Afghan historical canon but also on extensive personal knowledge of the country garnered as a BBC correspondent. This contrast between the use of historical material and on-the-ground experience lends an especial vividness to the sections of individual reminiscence. Particularly powerful are Loyn’s accounts of meetings with the Taliban hierarchy, and his harrowing eye-witness descriptions of murder, rape and ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Afghans against Afghans in the 1993 battle for Kabul after the fall of the Communist government. However, more important than his depictions of these individual incidents is his percipient analysis of the trends in foreign intervention in the country, and his comparisons between the earlier conflicts and that of today.

As the British Empire began to reach into north-western India in the early 19th century, the British began to worry, like their Mughal predecessors, about defending the frontier with Asia. Fearing that Russia might punch its way through Afghanistan to attack the Indian possessions, they thought it best to set up a puppet king in Kabul to prevent Russian influence from spreading south. They refused to make an easy deal with the paramount Afghan ruler of the time, Dost Mohammed, and were carried away with false intelligence that their own candidate, Shah Shuja, would be well received if Dost Mohammed were deposed.

The British invaded Afghanistan in 1838, and were easily able to put their man on the throne. However, he was received sullenly, and unable to command any authority. The British forces were unable to leave, but instead were sucked into an unplanned and expensive long-term occupation. They had not thought carefully about the form of government that should be adopted, how Afghanistan should be run, nor had they carefully considered the military and logistical requirements of the occupation. They were unable to rely on the Afghan government apparatus, riddled with corruption and veniality. They found it impossible to set up any viable army from the Afghan population. As discontent with the occupation spread, the British found themselves harassed by guerrilla attacks which closed the roads and made transport difficult. And yet, they complacently deceived themselves that the country was, in the words of one official “wondrous quiet from Dan to Beersheba.” The discontent ultimately exploded in a dramatic uprising in Kabul in the winter of 1841, leading to the destruction of the occupying force of 16,000 British and Indian soldiers and camp followers.

Many commentators have already picked up on the obvious similarities between this conflict, the First Afghan War, and the present day. President Karzai has already been nicknamed “Shah Shuja” after the unfortunate British puppet ruler. However, Loyn’s analysis goes far beyond these surface parallels. His account has been much influenced by a hugely important but much neglected source, the writings of Mohan Lal, the Indian secretary of a British envoy to Kabul, Sir Alexander Burnes. Lal, being a native and speaker of the Afghan languages, had a unique perspective of the effects of the British occupation on Kabul between 1838 and 1841. He was one of the only observers to see directly how British failures to recompense loyal service from Afghans led to their defection and hostility. He could see, as the British could not, the frustration amongst the Afghans about the lack of clarity as to who was genuinely in power, the Afghans or the occupying forces, and the consequent sense of humiliation; the sense of fury and injured pride over the haughty behaviour of British forces in Kabul; and also practical problems caused by the occupation, such as soaring inflation and terrible shortages of food.

Today, as then, Kabul has been ravaged by inflation, shortages and soaring property prices. People are discontented with the conduct of foreign troops and contractors, whether indiscriminately killing civilians or clogging up the city’s roads with their convoys. A proliferation of moneyed NGOs, sucking up much of the aid to the country with little in the way of visible results or improvements in living conditions has led to a sense of broken promises. Their function as a rival to the Afghan government has fed a feeling of paralysis and humiliation. Talented English-speaking Afghans are used for menial tasks by the NGOs and foreign organisations, preventing the government from employing the best people and building up its own capacity. On top of this, foreign governments seem intent on ignoring the sheer complexity of the problems, and pretending that all is well with the present strategy. It is a potent mixture, and one that we ignore at our peril.

Loyn’s narrative covers a great deal of ground – the three Anglo-Afghan wars, the drawing of Afghanistan’s controversial frontiers, the border disputes in the tribal areas with modern-day Pakistan, the Soviet invasion, the attempt by Pakistan using the Taliban to establish Afghanistan as a defensive hinterland like the British before them – elegantly and succinctly. He has a journalist’s talent for telling a good story, and with his work he has succeeded in describing this notoriously complex period of Afghan history with perfect clarity. He does not shy away from uncomfortable truths, for example debunking the oft-repeated canard that Afghanistan had no tradition of suicide attacks before the present conflict. Suicidal fanatics were certainly an element of the war in 1838, although I would hesitate to describe them as “Islamists” or “Wahhabis,” attributing to them a political agenda which I do not believe they would have possessed at that period of the 19th century. Despite this minor quibble, Loyn’s book makes an excellent and gripping introduction to this vital time in Afghan history.

One British official, Sir Claude Wade, analysing the aftermath of the First Afghan War wrote “there is nothing more to be dreaded or guarded against… than the overweening confidence with which Europeans are too often accustomed to regard the excellence of their own institutions and the anxiety that they display to introduce them in new and untried soils.” If Loyn’s book can prompt policymakers to remember and think about this message, then it will have performed an important and signal service.