Britain. Disaster. Afghanistan. Words that are never far away from any news programme. And words that are also used quite casually by ill-informed commentators to suggest that the war in Afghanistan is doomed. Normally along with some reference to ‘the Russians couldnt do it’. We could be excused for thinking that the war currently being fought in Afghanistan at the moment is the first time that British troops have ever set foot in Afghanistan, and that the issues facing ISAF in Helmand and the rest of the country are completely new. Of course, we all know that the British Army first crossed the frontier into Afganistan way back in 1839, and this book by Jules Stewart sheds new light on one of the British Army’s biggest but least known disasters.
The ill-fated expedition into Afghanistan was conceived out of the broader picture of the ‘Great Game’, in other words the strategic contest between Russia and Britain for dominance over Persia and Central Asia. Britain was fearful of Russian expansion, and in particular feared that Russian success in countries such as Persia and Afghanistan might put India – the jewel in the crown of the British Empire – at risk.
As a result, the British Government ordered a military operation to occupy Afghanistan. The reasons are important to understand – there was clearly nothing to conquer in Afghanistan itself. The aim was rather to present a strong bulwark on the North West Frontier of India against the perceived Russian threat. The British Empire was built on trade rather than territory, and it would have run counter to all common sense to annexe Afghanistan purely for the sake of it.
21,000 British and Indian troops set out from India, commanded by Major-General William Elphinstone. Although the force managed to occupy Afghanistan with little trouble, it was only after the majority of the troops returned to India that the problems began. Surrounded by a plethora of hostile tribes, the British were forced to hole up in Kabul. Disaffected tribes flocked to the leadership of Akbar Khan. After a long and arduous siege, an agreement was finally reached with Khan to allow the remaining British troops and civilians in Kabul to return to India. Despite the promises of safe passage that Elphinstone had secured, the force was atacked in the snowbound passes. A massacre ensued, and only one man escaped.
The lessons in this book are not just interesting nuggets of History – after all the foreword written by General Sir David Richards, the current head of the British Army, and a former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan. And I feel that Stewart captures these running themes very well. Firstly, that Afghanistan is such a patchwork of different tribes and loyalties, that it is almost misleading to think of it as a nation in the usual sense. And secondly, that Afghans have a very different code of values to those that we have in Western society. If we want to succeed in Afghanistan, then we need to immerse ourselves in these factors and work within them. Thirdly, that a large Army marching into any country where the populace is less than 100% supportive is bound to have a tough time. And finally, rather than send a tiny force to begin with, and then a larger Army to avenge is massacre, might it have been more sensible to do it properly in the first place? For 1842’s army of retribution, read 2010’s surge.
Did the first Anglo-Afghan war deflect Russia from the country? It is impossible to tell without looking at Russian sources. That must surely be the measure of whether the 1839-42 war was a success. Although the massacre is bound to attract attention, the mere presence of British troops might have been enough to blunt Russian designs.
Perhaps this book, in its focus on the 1839-182 war, does give the impression that British involvement in Afghanistan has always been a failure. But although a punitative force did exact revenge for the massacre, and the later Afghan wars were more succesful, this is very much a cautionary tale based on the first confict. Jules Stewart has used some impressive research, including original sources, to shed new light on this important episode. I found it a gripping read, and it should be standard issue to officers preparing to go to Afghanistan.