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