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Lessons from Afghanistan

National Army Museum, London/Bridgeman Art Library
The storming of Kabul Gate by the British in 1839; nineteenth-century English watercolor

Diana Preston’s The Dark Defile describes the disastrous occupation of Afghanistan by Britain from 1839 to 1842. This is a well-known story—depicted in grand nineteenth-century canvases (Remnants of an Army), 1960s comedies (Flashman), and a flurry of books with Victorian titles, published or republished to coincide with our current Afghan mess: Signal Catastrophe, Crimson Snow, The Last Man, Retreat and Retribution, Butcher and Bolt. Most of the books remind us that the British “Army of the Indus” swaggered into Kabul from India in 1839; that the general’s personal baggage had been loaded on 260 camels; that behind the lancers in their scarlet cloaks and plumed shakos trotted a pack of hounds, which had been led through the arid horrors of the Bolan Pass in order to hunt foxes in the Hindu Kush; and that the Afghans were soon watching ice-skating and giving advice to British women on their geraniums.

The British had invaded to replace the Afghan king, because they felt he was becoming too close to the Russians, and that Afghanistan could have been used by Russia to threaten British India. By November 1841, Sir Alexander Burnes, the British political official responsible for Kabul, congratulated his superior, Sir William Hay Macnaghten, on the perfect tranquility of the country. A day later, Burnes was hacked down in the flames of his burning mansion; a week later, the British garrison was under siege; on December 23 Macnaghten’s mutilated corpse was hung from a butcher’s hook in the bazaar; and on January 6 the British army began its retreat.

Some 15,000 soldiers and camp followers marched out of their compound through the snow, heading for the British garrison at Jalalabad. Some died of exposure, others were taken hostage or escaped, but most were killed. Five thousand men, women, and children died as they struggled through a five-mile gully outside of Kabul, picked off by muskets or cut down with swords. On January 13, sentries looking for the Army of the Indus saw a single wounded man moving across the plain. Dr. William Brydon was what remained of the Army of the Indus.

This “signal catastrophe” is illuminated by an astonishing range of contemporary sources, far more than exist for any classical or medieval conflict, and indeed for many more recent campaigns. You can read Colin Mackenzie’s description of a naked Indian baby, wide-eyed and abandoned on the snow-plain, at the beginning of the retreat, and you can still admire Mackenzie’s full-length portrait in the British National Army Museum (he has curled mustaches and is wearing the robes of a Persian prince). You can read the diary of Lady Sale, whose tough, unblinking account of the retreat, written on tattered sheaves of cheap paper, with her own deletions to conceal stories of cannibalism, survives in the British Library. And in family collections and regimental museums you can peer at thousands of smudged and occasionally blood-stained letters, entries, and memoranda, written by the civilian and political officers killed during the uprising.

Preston makes use of many of these sources, providing a fair summary of the events. But she neglects the equally exciting Afghan accounts. They do not match the laconic realism of the British diaries—some include comic stories of sorcery and miracles—but they reveal Afghan perspectives, of which Europeans, then and now, seem to have been largely unconscious.

The only contemporary historian to use these sources to illuminate fully the Anglo-Afghan war is William Dalrymple, whose book will be published early next year.* Dalrymple’s dealings with the book dealers in Kabul led him to the memoirs of the Afghan king; contemporary Afghan chronicles; two serious works by nineteenth-century Afghan historians; and two contemporary poems, written in the sonorous verse of ancient Persian epic. Dalrymple has been able to describe many facts not contained in the British sources, the sophistication of Afghan court culture, and the clearly religious flavor of much of the resistance.

I was struck also by the emphasis in Dalrymple’s Afghan sources on a rape committed by a British soldier in Kandahar, which passes unnoticed in the British accounts, but to which the Afghans attribute much of their early rage. All these sources, however, focus on the mistakes made by the British, and tempt historians such as Preston to believe that the disaster was the result of two things: avoidable military errors and the pernicious interference of civilian “political officers.”

The first explanation might be described as the view of George Macdonald Fraser, whose fictional antihero, Flashman, says of the British commander:

If you had taken the greatest military geniuses of the ages, placed them in command of our army, and asked them to ruin it utterly as speedily as possible, they could not—I mean it seriously—have done it as surely and swiftly as he did.

This view was echoed in most contemporary British accounts, and reflects the fact that almost all were written by soldiers. (Lady Sale is the notable exception, though she has very military prejudices.) Almost all assert that the army could have avoided disaster if it had marched immediately into the city of Kabul, avenged the murder of the resident, and crushed the insurgency. It should, they say, have used night attacks to seize strategic positions and to defend its outlying forts and stores, moving its base to the more defensible royal castle, and holding out there, rather than retreating. In other words, they suggest that the situation could have been saved with a clear strategy, good leadership, sufficient resources, and enough troops. And they foster the idea—as the Soviet military did in 1988—not only that they were not defeated, but that they could have won outright if they had not been let down by bad planning, logistics, and tactics, and then been withdrawn by cowards.

Even at the time, this was a view highly appealing to the policymakers. The president of the India Council, John Cam Hobhouse, assured the House of Commons: “It is a military defeat—nothing more. It has nothing to do with the policy….” Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston added, “There is no reason [why] we shall not be able to recover in Afghanistan the same position as we occupied before the disaster happened.”

All the sources put the greatest blame for the British disaster, however, on the shoulders of the civilian political officers, in particular Macnaghten, the envoy, and his deputy Burnes. When the commander in chief of the Indian army (quoted approvingly by Preston) gave his reasons for the failure in 1842, for example, he blamed “making war with a peace establishment…giving undue power to political agents…[and] want of forethought and undue confidence in the Afghans on the part of Sir William Macnaghten.”

Macnaghten was criticized for cutting the subsidies to Afghan chiefs, for removing their influence over army recruitment, and for his contradictory attempts to bribe and eliminate rebel leaders. Burnes was blamed for seducing Afghan women. Both were blamed for having dragged Britain into the disaster, for undermining military goals for “political reasons,” and for ignoring the reports of the uprising that eventually killed them. Military witnesses saw this as the inevitable result of a British system in which overpromoted, pretentious civilians were allowed to interfere in military matters. As General William Nott, who commanded at Kandahar throughout the campaign, remarked: “If a man is too stupid or too lazy to drill company, he often turns sycophant, cringer to the heads of departments and is made a ‘Political,’ and of course puts the government to enormous expense, and disgraces the character of his country.”

But all of this was then—and remains—grossly unfair to men who, having been killed in the campaign, were unable to defend themselves. In fact, the political officers, in or around the Afghan adventure, were part of an elite cadre of highly experienced specialists. Macnaghten was an extraordinary linguist and a unique authority on Indian legal texts. Among other political officers, Eldred Pottinger led much of the brilliant defense of Herat against a Persian attack, and Henry Rawlinson rode seven hundred miles across Persia in six days, and was the first man to decipher Persian cuneiform. Almost all had undertaken solo journeys of exploration, opening entirely new routes into Central Asia. Alexander Burnes in particular was tough, endlessly curious, witty, imaginative, and courageous.

It is true that, to the fury of military officers like General Nott, the “politicals” who survived could not avoid a knighthood, a governorship, an honorary degree, a medal from a learned society, or even a parliamentary seat, but it was not easy to survive: in the few months following the uprising in Kabul, Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly, two political officers, were thrown in a pit in Bokhara and then beheaded. Eldred Pottinger (“the hero of Herat”) and Arthur Conolly’s brother John died of fever; Alexander Burnes and his brother were hacked down in Kabul; and William Macnaghten was killed at point-blank by a prince at a meeting.

But they did not die because of naiveté. Macnaghten’s whole later career had relied on a culture in which hosts protected diplomats and guests (it is still difficult to understand why the Afghan prince murdered the defenseless envoy). Burnes would have done better to withdraw from his unprotected residence. He remained at his post not because he was inexperienced but because he felt he could neither keep his reputation nor do his work if he fled when threatened.

All these men knew that the walls of the royal castle would have offered more protection than their pathetic camp. But it would have insulted Afghans, and made the king appear even more of a puppet, to place British troops among the king’s women in the royal palace. Ignoring such political and cultural issues and the king’s wishes would have inflamed resistance more rapidly. (And indeed when, in 1879, having “learned the lessons” from the first Afghan war, the next British envoy insisted on taking up residence in the royal castle, he was killed almost immediately.) It was not the civilian political officers’ fault that the British were insufficiently bold and active in challenging insurgents or recapturing strategic positions. The political officers pressed for all these things, arguing that decisive action was vital for the credibility of the occupation. They were continually overruled by General William Elphinstone and General John Shelton, whose professional military judgment was that it was too dangerous to fight in narrow streets, or mount night attacks, or to try to hold out in Kabul. Generally, the problem was not that the military placed too much emphasis on the advice of political officers, but too little.

It is a mistake, however, to put the blame for the disaster on either the generals or the political officers. Whatever decisions were made, there would have been no happy ending. A foreign army isolated in Kabul, propping up an unpopular ruler in the face of a growing insurgency, could not succeed. To maintain security, they needed to create a new Afghan army, which required taxation and expenditure. This created enemies and required a resource base, which Afghanistan did not have. They therefore relied on enormous—and unsustainable—amounts of foreign funding (which in turn fueled corruption).

  1. *

    Return of a King: The First Anglo-Afghan War and the Birth of the Great Game (Knopf, February 2013). 

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