LOS­ING the GREAT GAME

A shat­ter­ing new book on the war in Afghanistan ex­poses the mi­rage of Bri­tish power, writes Frank Car­ri­gan

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

AFGHANISTAN has long been a bone­yard for Bri­tish sol­diers. There have been four Afghan wars. In the first, 1838-42, the Bri­tish oc­cu­pied Kabul to cre­ate a buf­fer zone to blunt the Rus­sian em­pire’s de­sire to an­nex In­dia.

In­stead of con­fronting the Rus­sian bear, Bri­tish troops faced Afghan tribes­men, de­scribed by one of­fi­cer as a ‘‘ race of tigers’’. The re­sult was Bri­tain’s most dis­as­trous mil­i­tary de­feat — not one sol­dier es­caped the mas­sacre, which shook the foun­da­tions of the Bri­tish Em­pire.

The sec­ond Afghan war in the late 1870s ended in stale­mate af­ter a bloody cam­paign that prime min­is­ter Ben­jamin Dis­raeli jus­ti­fied by the need again to check Rus­sia’s ex­pan­sion­ary plans. The en­demic An­gloRus­sian im­pe­rial ri­valry for supremacy in Cen­tral Asia was part of what Rud­yard Ki­pling termed ‘‘ the great game’’.

In 1919 the Afghan regime was con­fi­dent enough to in­vade Bri­tish In­dia. The Royal Air Force bomb­ing of Kabul was not only a ter­ri­fy­ing omen of mod­ern war­fare but it helped has­ten a truce.

Now these old foes are en­gulfed in an­other war. This time the Bri­tish are claim­ing to quar­an­tine terrorism. But ev­ery en­tan­gle­ment be­tween these two na­tions has been re­plete with con­flict­ing aims. Since the Soviet em­pire col­lapsed, the nat­u­ral re­sources of Cen­tral Asia have come into play and the great game has reignited with vengeance. Toby Harnden’s en­thralling Dead Men Risen foren­si­cally de­tails the mil­i­tary as­pect of the fourth Afghan war. His cri­tique of Bri­tish mil­i­tary strat­egy draws heav­ily from an im­pres­sive range of sources within the army en­gaged in the fight­ing.

The book’s main weak­ness is its lack of an in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary frame­work of anal­y­sis. Harnden re­ceived a first in mod­ern his­tory at Ox­ford but, in­cred­i­bly, he pro­vides no his­tor­i­cal con­text.

The se­cret of the empty con­cep­tual space at the heart of this book is that Harnden is an ex-Royal Navy of­fi­cer, and the ethos of the war­rior class trumps his schol­ar­ship. The mo­ment the bu­gle of war sounds he puts his boots on and lands wher­ever the Welsh Guards are stamp­ing their rule. He has cov­ered them in North­ern Ire­land, Iraq and here he fol­lows them into the char­nel house of Afghanistan. He is be­daz­zled by the mys­tique and mil­i­tary ethos of this band of fight­ing men, and in him they have found a great chron­i­cler of their ex­ploits.

Dead Men Risen has al­ready made its own his­tory. Vet­ted for four months by the Bri­tish Min­istry of De­fence, it passed their strin­gent tests un­til sharper eyes cast an un­for­giv­ing gaze at its po­ten­tially ex­plo­sive con­tent. Once the true and trou­bling im­pli­ca­tions of the nar­ra­tive were grasped, the pub­lisher and au­thor felt the full weight of the Bri­tish es­tab­lish­ment. Heavy cuts were de­manded on the grounds of un­nerv­ing al­lies, im­per­illing na­tional se­cu­rity and putting army per­son­nel at risk. All this is true and more. For this book in­con­tro­vert­ibly speaks the truth that dare not men­tion its name.

The first edi­tion was ready for sale when ev­ery copy was seized. To their credit the pub­lisher and au­thor would not budge, and the MoD then ex­acted its ret­ri­bu­tion by pulp­ing the book. Mirac­u­lously, the book that fi­nally has emerged for pub­li­ca­tion re­tains, de­spite the blanked-out sen­tences that dot its pages, its es­sen­tial grue­some pic­ture of a flag­ging cam­paign. It high­lights that, de­spite all the brav­ery, sac­ri­fice and courage of the guards, they are fight­ing not only against tigers, but also bungling at a po­lit­i­cal and strate­gic level that de­fies logic. The Welsh Guards have reaped a whirl­wind, and lost many of their finest in the process.

Harnden is un­stint­ing in blam­ing top mil­i­tary brass and their po­lit­i­cal mas­ters for the lack of de­ci­sive blows on the bat­tle­front. One of the first tragedies was that the war in­ter­sected with the feud be­tween Bri­tish prime min­is­ter Tony Blair and his chan­cel­lor Gor­don Brown. In late 2005 Blair com­mit­ted Bri­tish troops to Hel­mand Prov­ince, the most dan­ger­ous zone in Afghanistan. Blair was sure that Hel­mand would be a show­case for what Bri­tish troops could achieve. Brown was less rosy-eyed; and he held the purse strings. View­ing it as Blair’s war, he cut de­fence spend­ing, with dire con­se­quences for the Welsh Guards in Hel­mand. Spend­ing

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