August 30, 2021   8 mins

Before the events of this month, the First Anglo-Afghan War was arguably the greatest military humiliation ever suffered by the West in the East. Britain’s entanglement with Afghanistan between 1839-42 was catastrophic, costly and entirely avoidable. Nothing until the fall of Singapore in 1942 was so disastrous for Britain.

The most infamous incident of the war was the retreat from Kabul, which began on the 6th January 1842. An entire army — 18,500 men — left the British cantonment, only to be annihilated by scantly-equipped tribesmen. In the myth of the war, only one British citizen, the surgeon Dr Brydon, made it through to Jalalabad six days later.

Brydon’s desperate escape on a collapsing nag became one of the era’s most famous images, in Lady Butler’s oil Remnants of an Army. Likewise, William Barnes Wollen’s celebrated painting of the Last Stand of the 44th Foot — a group of ragged but doggedly determined soldiers on the hilltop of Gandamak standing encircled behind a thin line of bayonets, as the Pashtun tribesmen close in — drummed home the terrible truth of the war. The world’s premier military nation had been brought low, it’s armies massacred or enslaved.

Defeat cast a long shadow. Perhaps it was that image of a desperate Brydon, half-alive outside the gates of Jalalabad, that deterred British policy-makers from further adventures.

“Remnants of an Army” by Elizabeth Butler portraying William Brydon arriving at the gates of Jalalabad as the only survivor of a 16,500 strong evacuation from Kabul in January 1842.

Writing just before Britain blundered into the Second Anglo-Afghan War 30 years later, George Lawrence, a veteran of the first conflict wrote, “a new generation has arisen which, instead of profiting from the solemn lessons of the past, is willing and eager to embroil us in the affairs of that turbulent and unhappy country . . . Although military disasters may be avoided, an advance now, however successful in a military point of view, would not fail to turn out to be as politically useless . . . The disaster of the Retreat from Kabul should stand forever as a warning to the Statesmen of the future not to repeat the policies that bore such bitter fruit in 1839–42.”

Lawrence’s warning was still echoing when Harold Macmillan told his successor Alec Douglas-Home “as long as you don’t invade Afghanistan you’ll be absolutely fine.” Sadly, by the time John Major was handing over 10 Downing Street to Tony Blair, Afghanistan was a distant memory. In 2001, soon after the catastrophe of 9/11 Blair signed up with Bush to invade Afghanistan yet again. What followed was a textbook case of Aldous Huxley’s adage that the only thing you learn from history is that no one learns from history.

Britain’s Fourth Afghan War was to an extraordinary, near-absurd extent, a replay of the first. The parallels between the two invasions were not just anecdotal, they were substantive. The same group rivalries and the same battles were fought out in the same places 170 years later under the guise of new banners, new beliefs and new political orchestrators. The same cities were occupied by troops speaking the same languages, and they were attacked again from the same high passes. In both cases, the invaders thought they could walk in, perform regime change, and be out in a couple of years. Ultimately, in both cases they were unable to prevent themselves being pulled into a much wider, bloodier conflict.

The First Afghan War was waged on the basis of doctored intelligence about a virtually non-existent threat: information about a single Russian envoy to Kabul was exaggerated and manipulated by a group of ambitious and ideologically-driven hawks to create a scare — in this case, about a phantom Russian invasion. As John MacNeill, the Russophobe British ambassador wrote from Tehran: “we should declare that he who is not with us is against us… We must secure Afghanistan.” Thus was brought about an avoidable war with all its astonishing resonances with our situation today.

Take the puppet ruler — Shah Shuja ul-Mulk — the British tried to install in 1839. He was from the same Popalzai sub-tribe as Hamid Karzai. His bitterest opponents? The Ghilzais, who today are the mainstay of the Taliban’s forces. Taliban leader Mullah Omar was the chief of the Hotaki Ghilzai, just like Mohammad Shah Khan, the warrior who supervised the destruction of the British army in 1841. These parallels were largely invisible to Westerners, but frequently pointed out by the Taliban: “Everyone knows how Karzai was brought to Kabul and how he was seated on the defenceless throne of Shah Shuja” they announced in a press release soon after he came to power.

We in the West may have forgotten the details of this history that did so much to mould the Afghans’ hatred of foreign rule, but Afghans never did. In particular Shah Shuja remains a symbol of quisling treachery in Afghanistan: in 2001, the Taliban asked their young men, ‘Do you want to be remembered as a son of Shah Shuja or as a son of Dost Mohammad?’ As he rose to power, Mullah Omar deliberately modelled himself on the deposed Emir, Dost Mohammad, and like him removed the Holy Cloak of the Prophet Mohammad from its shrine in Kandahar and wrapped himself in it, declaring himself like his model Amir al-Muminin, the Leader of the Faithful, a deliberate and direct re-enactment of the events of First Afghan War, whose resonance was immediately understood by all Afghans.

Hamid Karzai was particularly sensitive to these parallels. When I first published my book the First Anglo-Afghan War, Return of a King, in 2012, he called me to Kabul. Karzai quizzed me on the details over several dinners at his palace about the lessons this history can teach us. His view was that the US were doing to him what the British had done to Shah Shuja 170 years ago: “The lies Lord Auckland told Dost Mohammad Khan, that we don’t want to interfere with your country, that’s exactly what they tell us today, the Americans and all the others,” he told me. “Our so-called current allies behave to us just as the British did to Shah Shuja. They have squandered the opportunity given to them by the Afghan people. They tried to do exactly as they did in the 19th century.”

Karzai made it clear that he thought Shah Shuja didn’t stress his independence enough, and said he was never going to allow himself to be remembered as anyone’s puppet. After reading Return of a King, he substantially altered his policies to make sure he never repeated his forbear Shah Shuja’s mistakes. Hilary Clinton blamed his reading of my book for a chilling of relations between Kabul and the White House during the Obama years — according to a leaked email published in the New York Times after Wikileaks.

Ashraf Ghani, Karzai’s successor, was a noted academic anthropologist and economist. He’d stood on the TED stage in Berkeley, California and co-authored a well-received book on fixing “failed states”. Sadly he learned nothing from the lessons of history. Karzai was a skilful diplomat and an operator; Ghani was rude, lofty, impatient and arrogant. He pushed away tribal leaders with his lack of charm and politeness. He would tell clan elders who had trekked across Afghanistan to see him that they had “ten minutes” and he would take off his shoes, put his feet up on a stool and point them at petitioners — an act of huge rudeness in Indian and Afghan society. As we have seen, in the end, few were willing to die to keep Ghani in power.

For the Afghans, the First Afghan War changed their state forever: on his return in 1842, Emir Dost Mohammad inherited the reforms made by the British and these helped him consolidate an Afghanistan that was much more clearly defined than it was before the war. Indeed Shuja and most of his contemporaries never used the word “Afghanistan” — for him, there was a Kingdom of Kabul which was the last surviving fragment of the Durrani Empire and which lay on the edge of a geographical space he described as Khurasan. Yet within a generation the phrase Afghanistan existed widely on maps both in and outside the country and the people within that space were beginning to describe themselves as Afghans. The return of Shah Shuja and the failed colonial expedition which was mounted to reinstate him finally destroyed the power of the Sadozai dynasty and ended the last memories of the Durrani Empire that they had founded. In this way the war did much to define the modern boundaries of the Afghan state, and consolidated once and for all the idea of a country called Afghanistan.

“The last stand of the survivors of Her Majesty’s 44th Foot at Gandamak” by William Barnes Wollen, portraying a stand made by soldiers of the 44th Foot on a hill outside Gandamak during the retreat from Kabul in 1842. As late as 2010, the bones of the dead still covered the hillside.

If the First Afghan War helped consolidate the Afghan State, the question now is whether our current failed Western intervention will contribute to its demise. Afghanistan has changed beyond all recognition in the last twenty years. The cities have grown, people travel much more widely, thousands of women have been educated. Television, the internet and an ebullient media have opened many minds. It is impossible in such circumstances to predict the fate of the divided state of Afghanistan under renewed Taliban rule, even as the resistance begins to organise itself in the Panjshir Valley under the leadership of my old friend Amrullah Saleh, formerly the head of the NSD. But what the Afghan historian Mirza ‘Ata wrote after 1842 remains equally true today: ‘It is certainly no easy thing to invade or govern the Kingdom of Khurasan.’

For the truth is that in the last millennia there had been only very brief moments of strong central control when the different Afghan tribes have acknowledged the authority of a single ruler, and still briefer moments of anything approaching a unified political system. Afghanistan has always been less a state than a kaleidoscope of competing tribal principalities governed through maliks or vakils, in each of which allegiance was entirely personal, to be negotiated and won over rather than taken for granted.

The tribes’ traditions have always been egalitarian and independent, and they have only ever submitted to authority on their own terms. Financial rewards might bring about cooperation, but rarely ensured loyalty: the individual Afghan soldier owed his allegiance first to the local chieftain who raised and paid him, not to the shahs or Kings or Presidents in faraway Kabul. Yet even the tribal leaders had frequently been unable to guarantee obedience, for tribal authority was itself so elusive and diffuse. As the saying went: Behind every hillock there sits an emperor — pusht-e har teppe, yek padishah neshast (or alternatively: Every man is a khan — har saray khan deh). In such a world, the state never had a monopoly on power, but was just one among a number of competing claimants on allegiance. “An Afghan Amir sleeps upon an ant heap,” went the proverb.

The first British historian of Afghanistan, Mountstuart Elphinstone, grasped this as he watched Shah Shuja’s rule disintegrate around him. “The internal government of the tribes answers its ends so well”, he wrote, “that the utmost disorders of the royal government never derange its operations, nor disturb the lives of its people.” No wonder that Afghans proudly thought of their mountains as Yaghistan — the Land of Rebellion.

This is now the problem facing the Taliban. As the Taliban transforms its military command into a government for Afghanistan, alliances and tribal configurations that kept two rival Taliban factions together in recent years are already being tested. Factional divisions began to emerge between the Quetta Shura and militant commanders farther east on the ground after the death of Mullah Omar in 2013. The result was a far-reaching realignment among Taliban factions — particularly between hard-line groups like the Haqqani network that wanted to escalate fighting and more moderate Taliban leaders who sought accommodation with Kabul and Islamabad.

It is too early to see if, and how, the different Taliban commanders from East and West Afghanistan, the Quetta shura and the Taliban political wing manage in Doha manage to settle their differences and succeed in control Afghanistan’s naturally centrifugal polity — certainly the recent campaign appears to have had far more disciplined and coherent coordination than any of us expected. Only time will tell if the movement remains united or splinters into regional Taliban fiefdoms.

What is the longer-term strategic picture now? Few will now trust American or NATO promises and we have handed a major propaganda victory to our enemies everywhere. India has lost a leading regional ally and Pakistan’s ISI believe they have won a major victory — Imran Khan went as far as saying that the Taliban victory meant the freeing of the Afghans from the “shackles of slavery”. Meanwhile China has announced it will do business with the Taliban regime, and reopen the Mes Aynak copper mine which lies beneath a major Buddhist Silk Road archaeological site. The direction the winds are blowing in is clear.

Britain’s Fourth Afghan War has ended, like the First, in ignominy and defeat. There is no Lady Butler or William Barnes Wollen around today to paint the explosions outside Kabul airport, or the desperate crush around American C-130 transport planes inside its perimeter. A Butler or a Wollen is not needed — images of both have already travelled halfway around the world on social media. The words of the First Afghan War’s first historian, Rev. G.R. Glieg, are as hauntingly apt in 2021 as they were in 1843: “Not one benefit, political or military, has been acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.”

William Dalrymple is a Scottish historian, art historian, and photographer. Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan 1839-42, is published by Bloomsbury.