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Futility in Afghanistan

September 9, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Kabul, First Anglo-Afghan War

[Lithograph from plate 5 of ‘Afghaunistan’ by Lieutenant James Rattray, showing the encampment of the troops led by General Sir William Nott.]

In mid-July, I wrote about William Dalrymple’s book Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, newly released at the time here in the US, though out about a year ago in the UK. After reading the review online that night that would appear the next day in the NYT, I decided to buy it, proceeded immediately to download the electronic version from Amazon, and started it. I haven’t gotten far, but I’ll get back to it soon.

Meanwhile, Dalrymple is at work on his next book, due in two years, about the First Anglo-Afghan War, fought between 1839 and 1842. In studying the war (or so I imagine), Dalrymple observed parallels between it and the current war in Afghanistan that formed the basis for an article that appeared last June in the New Statesman. I downloaded an electronic copy at the time and set it aside to read later, but forgot about it until we were flying to JFK this past Saturday. During the flight, I scanned my collection of saved articles and realized this was one I had been eager to read. Now I’ve read it, and I urge you to do so as well.

Early in the article, Dalrymple observes:

It is difficult to imagine the current military adventure in Afghanistan ending quite as badly as the First Afghan War, an abortive experiment in Great Game colonialism that slowly descended into what is arguably the greatest military humiliation ever suffered by the west in the Middle East: an entire army of what was then the most powerful military nation in the world utterly routed and destroyed by poorly equipped tribesmen, at the cost of £15m (well over £1bn in modern currency) and more than 40,000 lives. But nearly ten years on from Nato’s invasion of Afghanistan, there are increasing signs that Britain’s fourth war in the country could end with as few political gains as the first three and, like them, terminate in an embarrassing withdrawal after a humiliating defeat, with Afghanistan yet again left in tribal chaos and quite possibly ruled by the same government that the war was launched to overthrow.

And then there’s this sobering passage:

The following morning in Jalalabad, we went to a jirga, or assembly of tribal elders, to which the greybeards of Gandamak had come under a flag of truce to discuss what had happened the day before. The story was typical of many I heard about the current government, and revealed how a mixture of corruption, incompetence and insensitivity has helped give an opening for the return of the once-hated Taliban.

As Predator drones took off and landed incessantly at the nearby airfield, the elders related how the previous year government troops had turned up to destroy the opium harvest. The troops promised the villagers full compensation, and were allowed to burn the crops; but the money never turned up. Before the planting season, the villagers again went to Jalalabad and asked the government if they could be provided with assistance to grow other crops. Promises were made; again nothing was delivered. They planted poppy, informing the local authorities that if they again tried to burn the crop, the village would have no option but to resist. When the troops turned up, about the same time as we were arriving at nearby Jegdalek, the villagers were waiting for them, and had called in the local Taliban to assist. In the fighting that followed, nine policemen were killed, six vehicles destroyed and ten police hostages taken.

After the jirga was over, one of the tribal elders came over and we chatted for a while over a glass of green tea. “Last month,” he said, “some American officers called us to a hotel in Jalalabad for a meeting. One of them asked me, ‘Why do you hate us?’ I replied, ‘Because you blow down our doors, enter our houses, pull our women by the hair and kick our children. We cannot accept this. We will fight back, and we will break your teeth, and when your teeth are broken you will leave, just as the British left before you. It is just a matter of time.’”

What did he say to that? “He turned to his friend and said, ‘If the old men are like this, what will the younger ones be like?’ In truth, all the Americans here know that their game is over. It is just their politicians who deny this.”

I hope Obama, Gates, and Petraeus, smart though they may be, can develop some wisdom and historical sense as well.

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