IT WAS THE FA­MIL­IAR STORY OF THE OC­CU­PIERS BE­HAV­ING BADLY

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - John Zubrzy­cki

the pop­u­lar ruler, Dost Mo­hammed, who was al­legedly lean­ing to­wards the Rus­sians, with the ex­iled king Shah Shuja. The states­man Mountstu­art El­phin­stone warned his su­pe­ri­ors that while a suf­fi­ciently large force might be able to take Kabul and place Shuja on the throne, main­tain­ing him in a poor, cold and re­mote coun­try among a tur­bu­lent peo­ple such as the Afghans was a hope­less un­der­tak­ing. In­stead of re­main­ing neu­tral to­wards the Rus­sians, the Afghans would be­come dis- af­fected and join any side that would drive the Bri­tish out.

Though this is pri­mar­ily a nar­ra­tive of colo­nial mis­ad­ven­ture and the ma­ligned mo­tives of its key pro­tag­o­nists, Dal­rym­ple draws par­al­lels with the first Afghan war and the USled mis­sion to drive out the Tal­iban af­ter 9/11.

The Army of the In­dus, as the Bri­tish force was dubbed, went into Afghanistan ut­terly un­pre­pared (one reg­i­ment em­ployed two camels to trans­port its stock of cigars, an­other trav­elled with a pack of fox­hounds). Hawk­ish mil­i­tary chiefs ig­nored the ad­vice of more sea­soned ob­servers on the ground. Although the ini­tial takeover was a rel­a­tively easy and blood­less af­fair, the course of the oc­cu­pa­tion was ham­pered by im­pe­rial hubris.

Once the Bri­tish found that Afghanistan brought lit­tle in the way of profit for the oc­cu­py­ing forces, they be­gan look­ing for an exit strat­egy. Bri­tain’s gov­er­nor-gen­eral in In­dia, Lord Auck­land, was in­structed to train up a lo­cal Afghan army to sup­port Shah Shuja, but the king saw this as un­der­min­ing the tra­di­tional net­work of pa­tron­age be­tween him and the no­bil­ity, who had their own cavalry. It also left un­re­solved the ques­tion of whose or­ders the army would fol­low, those of the ruler or their pay­mas­ter, the Bri­tish.

At the same time Shuja was in­creas­ingly tainted by his as­so­ci­a­tion with the Bri­tish in­fi­dels and the grow­ing per­cep­tion he was a pup­pet ruler. The mul­lahs be­gan omit­ting the king’s name from Fri­day prayers and Bri­tish troops came un­der spo­radic at­tacks. When the news came that Dost Mo­hammed had es­caped cap­tiv­ity in Bukhara by brib­ing his guard, the po­lit­i­cal agent in Kabul, Wil­liam Mac­naghten, wrote: ‘‘ The Afghans are gun­pow­der and the Dost is the lighted match.’’

Dal­rym­ple’s use of Afghan sources comes to the fore when nail­ing down the causes of the upris­ing. He draws on the work of the con­tem­po­rary chron­i­cler Mirza ‘ Ata Mo­ham- mad to show the trig­ger for the upris­ing was the grow­ing anger of the nobles with the Bri­tish oc­cu­pa­tion, in par­tic­u­lar the de­ci­sion to cut the al­lowances of the Ghilzai chiefs, the sidelin­ing of Shuja and the sack­ing of his vizier Mul­lah Shakur.

But it was the fa­mil­iar story of the oc­cu­piers be­hav­ing badly that would light the match that started the fi­nal con­fla­gra­tion. In the words of one con­tem­po­rary Afghan source: ‘‘ The English drank the wine of shame­less im­mod­esty, for­get­ting that any act has its con­se­quences and re­wards.’’

The most li­cen­tious of th­ese, the ex­plorer, sol­dier and spy Alexan­der Burnes, was the first to be killed, his head­less body ‘‘ left in the street to be eaten by the dogs of the city’’. Iron­i­cally it had been Burnes who had ar­gued most strongly against de­pos­ing Dost Mo­hammed. His neme­sis, the hawk­ish Mac­naghten, met an equally grue­some end, his sev­ered head dis­played on a spear in the Char Chatta bazaar.

Dal­rym­ple also re­veals that the Afghan re­sis­tance was far more frac­tured than com­monly re­alised. Some groups were pro-Shuja, but merely wanted to get the Bri­tish out. Oth­ers wrapped them­selves in the cloak of re­li­gion and ji­had.

In the end, how­ever, the Bri­tish never stood a chance. Their poorly de­fended can­ton­ment, built on a flat plain over­looked by en­emy for­ti­fi­ca­tions, rapidly ran out of food, water and am­mu­ni­tion. When the de­ci­sion to re­treat from Kabul was made, the re­main­ing troops, their wives, chil­dren and camp fol­low­ers set off across the snow-cov­ered passes that blocked the way to the Bri­tish gar­ri­son at Jalalabad. Those who didn’t drop to ‘‘ a ten-ru­pee jezail’’ died from frost­bite and star­va­tion.

The fi­nal with­drawal of West­ern troops from Afghanistan next year will be a more or­derly af­fair. A large, well-trained Afghan army and po­lice force will step into the vac­uum left be­hind by the US and its al­lies. Elec­tions next year will mark the tran­si­tion from the Hamid Karzai era to a more le­git­i­mate and, it is to be hoped, more com­pe­tent lead­er­ship.

But the lessons of his­tory laid out so dis­pas­sion­ately by Dal­rym­ple sug­gest that rather than be­ing the endgame, this lat­est war will be merely an­other chap­ter in the re­cur­ring nar­ra­tive that is Afghanistan’s tur­bu­lent his­tory.

(1879), by Elizabeth But­ler, por­trays Wil­liam Bry­don ar­riv­ing at Jalalabad in the first Afghan war

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