Reviewed by William Mills
Rory Stewart MP
Rory Stewart’s remarkable life story was enhanced by this excellent programme. The MP for Penrith and the Border, former regional governor of Iraq recounted Britain’s involvement with the Afghans, a truly fascinating and fiercely independent people.
Afghanistan first appeared on the European powers’ radar in the 1830’s. The British Empire’s greatest possession, India was situated to the south, with the Russians to the north, of this previously undiscovered mountainous land.
Britain and Russia
Both Britain and Russia decided the other was about to invade this strategically important crossroads. At least that’s how it looked on the map.
Britain’s thought train worked along the lines that India was the Crown’s largest source of income. Should it be lost England would no longer be able to afford its navy leaving itself open to foreign invasion.
Accordingly the hawks reasoned it was vital to conquer Afghanistan in order to save Britain from this immediate, imminent threat to its safety. Or so they thought.
In 1831 a gifted government employee, 28 year old Alexander Burns, was sent on a twelve month mapping expedition of this mysterious land. On his return to London he was an overnight sensation. His subsequent book Travels into Bokhara was widely regarded.
In 1836 he was sent back to Kabul where the British and Russians were spying on each other. The Russians referred to this as ‘The Torment of Shadows’ whereas the British called it ‘The Great Game.’
Duke of Wellington
By 1839 the British Government had convinced itself Russia was about to invade. Alexander Burns was emphatic Afghanistan should be left well alone. The Duke of Wellington called it ‘madness’, but by then the hawks had won.
The British Army crossed the Khyber Pass from India into Afghanistan with typical 22 year old officers leading camel trains packed with regimental silver and foxhounds, arriving in Kabul in April 1839.
Otherwise the garrison lived apart. It failed to appreciate the rich civilisation of its reluctant hosts. For instance the Afghans were masters of miniature picture painting.
The Afghans and Army of Occupation largely ignored one and another until in 1841 British women arrived in numbers and babies started to be born. The Afghans became worried, despairing the invaders would leave.
It was also clear their choice of puppet ruler was a failure. The British had interfered in local politics with a regime change. They had removed a popular ruler and replaced him with a previously toppled one.
Stories circulated around the bazaar like wild fire. Allegations were made of British men molesting Muslim women which the Afghans regarded as insulting.
In November 1841 the speed it all came to ahead shocked everyone. Burns, who spoke the language and whose house was in the centre of town, was chased home in fear of his life. He made a desperate roof top escape bid disguising himself as a native.
Next morning his head was being paraded through the bazaar.
Three days later General Elphinstone, the British commander, offered to surrender. His garrison comprised of around 4,500 troops and 13,000 civilians. He was ill and unable to plan coherently.
He decided to retreat in appalling winter weather towards the Indian border. Trapped in a bleak valley they were mown down by Afghan guerrillas with the 44th Foot making the last stand. But one man, a Dr. Brydon, was left alive to tell the sorry tale.
Rory Stewart gave viewers an excellent account of the blunders of history and how they seem to keep repeating themselves. He continued with how after a second Anglo-Afghan war in 1870, General Roberts, who hanged a 100 hostages, had remarked, ‘The less they see of us, the less they dislike us.’
The Russian General speaking of his country’s 1970’s disastrous invasion and war against the Mujahedeen was more blunt. ‘Leave now.’ was his advice.
A programme well worth watching.
It has been announced that British troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by December 2014. A book about the Army Air Corp actions in Afghanistan paid tribute to the Apache helicopter crews operating there. It stated that without their superior firepower and agility the Coalition ground forces would have had a much tougher time.
During the 1970’s invasion, the Soviets used their helicopter gunships to wear down the Afghan resistance. Then the American CIA supplied the Mujahedeen, and Osama Bin Laden among them, with shoulder launched anti aircraft missiles.
Once their helicopters were being shot down in numbers, the Russians found themselves in an unwinnable position and left.
It is rumoured the Americans tried to repurchase any unused missiles. However with the unstoppable advance of technology these weapons must become easier to manufacture and therefore more numerous.
If the Afghans have a secret stash of missiles saved for a rainy day one wonders which that day might be.
Accounts of America’s 1975 retreat from Vietnam paint a raw picture of a chaotic evacuation from the roof top of the Saigon US embassy by fleets of Aircraft carrier based helicopters.
One suggestion was once a decision to retreat militarily has been taken, the occupying power should leave quickly and unannounced.
Should the Taliban have a stash of anti-helicopter missiles, when better to use them than in the weeks leading up to a scheduled pull out from Kabul?
The resulting chaos would give the new rulers status as victors over the superpowers.
The British are not the colonial power granting final independence to an adoring peaceful former possession.
So why bother with flag lowering ceremonies? Surely better would be a ‘gone in the night job’, passed off as a strategic redeployment.