Thursday, 20 June 2013

The Battle For Afghanistan

If the art of diplomacy consists of persuading today’s enemies to become tomorrow’s friends, turning today’s allies into tomorrow’s enemies can only be an act of hubris.

Britain’s blundering in what we know as Afghanistan in 1839, alienating a potential ally who asked for our help, in support of a weaker rival, is a cautionary tale of how clever men, blinded by conceit, made enemies where they might so easily have made friends and in doing so caused the loss of much blood and treasure.

In 1843, shortly after his return from the slaughterhouse of the First Anglo-Afghan War, the army chaplain in Jalalabad, the Rev. G R Gleig, wrote a memoir about the disastrous expedition of which he was one of the lucky survivors. It was, he wrote, ‘a war begun for no wise purpose,carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, has been acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated

Reading William Dalrymple’s vivid chronicle of the First Afghan War, Return of a King, was almost like reading Con Coughlin’s analysis of current American foreign policy in Afghanistan in today’s Daily Telegraph.

But any chance we had of defeating them on the battlefield, and forcing them to submit to our terms, vanished the moment Mr Obama, with David Cameron’s active encouragement, opted for a policy of cut and run, thereby handing the advantage to the Taliban. Consequently, any deal made over the future of Afghanistan will be one that suits the Taliban’s interests, rather than those of the millions of Afghan civilians we have been fighting to protect.

Alexander Burnes, who travelled extensively in the region in the 1830s and wrote a best-selling book of his adventures, Travels in Bukhara, wrote: The Afghans cannot control their feelings of jealousy towards men in power: for the last thirty years, who has died a natural death? To be happy under government they must either be ruled by a vigorous despot, or formed into many small republics. Burnes, whose warnings were ignored by both the British Government and the East India Company bureaucracy, was butchered in Kabul during the 1841 uprising.

The practice of democratic politics, described pragmatically as the "art of the possible", must also allow for the law of unforeseen consequences. Yet what people do as protective reflex in their indivdual lives seems to vanish the moment they become a party, a bureaucracy or a government; or Governor General of India, in this case Lord Auckland, who ignored the advice of Burnes and authorised the 1839 invasion. His sister Emily drily observed: Poor, dear peaceful George has gone to war. Rather an inconsistency in his character.     


Edward Spalton said...

Of all the silly places to fight a war, Afghanistan must be the silliest - just about understandable when we had an Indian empire to defend but not at all now. Much of he infighting is between tribes which are clients of he Indian government and those which are in with the Pakistanis.

I would like to fasten "Dr" John Reid to the front of a troop carrier or the remainder of operations, so that he has time to reflect own his assertion that objectives innHelmand might well be achieved "without firing a shot"

And I would fastennGeoff Hoon to the other IDE for deliberately delaying the order of body armour so that trade unionists would not alert labour back benches that the decion to wage war had already been taken. Soldiers died to avert a little parliamentary unpleasantness for politicians.

Jim Greenhalf said...

Dalrymple's book is well worth reading. Sorry, I'm useless at superlatives, don't trust 'em', but this book's cracker, showing how an expedition in 1809 seeking to win friends and influence others, turned into a war of retribution. Why? Because the Government and East India Company refused to heed the warnings of those who knew better. Just like moddern times really.