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Afghan Memorial Day

What can the United States learn from three British Afghanistan campaigns?

May 27, 2002

What can the United States learn from three British Afghanistan campaigns?

When the Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan in 1979, fierce local tribesmen promptly took up arms against the infidel ferangi — or foreigners.

Soviet military commanders claimed at the time that some of the guns used against them came from the British arsenals captured by the Afghans as far back as 1839.

Whether or not this is true, there is no denying that the British had a bruising time of it in Afghanistan. After all, the U.K. fought three wars in that country during their colonial domination of India.

The first was by far the most brutal. An entire British Army stationed in Kabul — numbering over 50,000 fighting men, family members and camp followers — was wiped out.

As it was retreating from Kabul, the so-called Army of the Indus was ambushed at a mountain pass by local tribesmen — and then massacred to a man.

British mistakes in the first conflict fought in Afghanistan were understandable. They had had no previous experience with the Afghans — and underestimated their relentless war-like culture. However, Great Britain fought two more wars there, in 1878-1880 and then again in 1919.

The underlying cause of the wars was what the Indian-born English poet Rudyard Kipling called “the Great Game” — the rivalry between the Russian and the British Empires on the northern fringes of India.

The Russians were expanding into the Caucasus and Central Asia and hoping to break through to the warm southern seas. The British, for their part, were protecting India, which they viewed as the jewel of the imperial crown.

The dates of the three British attacks on Afghanistan match momentous events in Russian history.

For example, in 1877-1878, Russia fought a war against the Ottoman Empire, inflicting a major defeat on it in the Balkans — and, in the process, creating a vassal state of Bulgaria on the Black Sea.

The Brits found it a convenient time to send troops into Afghanistan.

And in 1919, of course, Russia was once again occupied elsewhere, since it was fighting a nasty civil war at home.

Once again, it seemed a good idea to the British to deal with the Afghans in the absence — temporary as it turned out — of their traditional rival in the region.

In fact, Afghans with an appreciation for historical parallels know that, in the 19th and early 20th century, the presence of Russian agents in Kabul would soon be followed by a British attack. To them, it was probably no surprise that, soon after the Soviet Army ignominiously withdrew from of Afghanistan in 1989, the Brits would not be far behind.

Of course, this time Great Britain has no Indian possessions to protect. British soldiers have arrived not as an invading army — but, ostensibly, as peacekeepers.

And even those UK troops that see action — such as special units trained to fight in mountainous terrain and extremely cold weather — do so under the overall leadership of the United States.

Still, the Brits are back in Afghanistan, and there are plenty of lessons to be drawn from their previous experience in that country. For instance, British expeditionary forces in the 19th century found that they could occupy Afghanistan easily enough.

In what is known in England as the First Afghan War, Kabul was captured without a single shot being fired. British generals and agents also built ready alliances with local chieftains.

Having promptly defeated and captured Afghan ruler Dost Mohammed, they installed a replacement of their choice, Shah Shujah.

However, holding Kabul proved much more difficult. Two years after capturing the Afghan capital, the British faced a rebellion, in which a number of their soldiers were killed. Unable to hold the city, the British army had to retreat.

On the way, tribes deemed trusted allies by the British suddenly turned implacable enemies. Their regional ally, Shah Shujah, was considered a British puppet — and duly assassinated by the rebels.

A similar pattern was followed during the next British invasion, which also resulted in a hasty retreat by the world’s top colonial power of the day. The third time, in 1919, the British were a lot wiser. Despite being much better armed than the ragtag Afghan regulars, they did not even try to hold Afghanistan.

In fact, the three Afghanistan campaigns fought by the British Empire all ended inconclusively. The only thing that the British successfully achieved in the end was taking revenge on the Afghans — for massacres of their soldiers and civilians.

Each time, after punishing the culprits and razing a fortress, the British thought it wise to return to India. American forces currently fighting in Afghanistan will do well to remember this checkered history.