June 17, 2010
In the final part of this fascinating dispatch from
Afghanistan, WILLIAM DALRYMPLE says that after nine years of war at a
cost of £50bn, we must accept Afghanistan is unwinnable.
first British war in Afghanistan ended in humiliating defeat in 1842
when thousands of tribesmen massacred our army.
in his first dispatch from the war-torn region, WILLIAM DALRYMPLE drew
startling parallels between the current conflict and the Victorian
Today he asks whether our modern commanders can
ever triumph against such an implacable enemy.
The defeat of the West’s latest puppet
government on the very same hill of Gandamak — where the British came to
grief in 1842 — made me think, on the way back to Kabul during my
recent visit to Afghanistan, about the increasingly close parallels
between the fix that Nato is in and the one faced by the British 170
then, the problem is not hatred of the West, but more a dislike of
foreign troops swaggering around and making themselves odious to the
very people they are meant to be helping.
On the return journey, as we crawled back up the
passes towards Kabul, we got stuck behind a U.S. military convoy of
eight humvees and two armoured personnel carriers in full camouflage,
travelling at less than 20 miles per hour.
Can we ever win a war against such implacable opposition?
Despite the slow speed, the
troops refused to let any Afghan drivers overtake them, for fear of
suicide bombers, and they fired warning shots at anyone who attempted
to do so.
By the time
we reached the top of the pass two hours later, there were 300
vehicles behind the convoy — full of Afghans furious at being ordered
around in their own country by foreigners.
Every day, small incidents of arrogance and
insensitivity such as this make the anger grow.
There has always been an absolute refusal
by the Afghans to be ruled by foreigners or to accept any government
perceived as being imposed on the country from abroad.
Now, as then, the puppet ruler installed
by the West has proved inadequate to the job.
Too weak, unpopular and corrupt to provide
security or development, he has been forced to turn on his puppeteers
in order to retain even a vestige of legitimacy in the eyes of his
President Hamid Karzai has accused the U.S., the UK and the UN of
orchestrating a fraud in last year’s elections.
He described Nato forces as ‘an army of
occupation’, and threatened to join the Taliban if Washington kept
Emir Shah Shuja did the same thing in 1842, towards the end of his rule,
and offered his allegiance and assistance to the insurgents who, in the
end, toppled and beheaded him.
Now, as then, there have been few tangible signs of
improvement under the Western-backed regime.
Despite the U.S. pouring approximately $80
billion (£54 billion) into Afghanistan, the roads in Kabul are still
more rutted than those in the smallest provincial towns of Pakistan.
There is little health care — for any
severe medical condition, patients have to fly to India — and a quarter
of all teachers in Afghanistan are themselves illiterate.
British missions in Afghanistan have a history of failure
In many areas, district
governance is almost non-existent: half the governors do not have an
office, more than half have no electricity and most get $6 a month in
servants lack the most basic education and skills.
This is largely because $76.5 billion of
the $80 billion committed to the country has been spent on military
and security and the remaining $3.5 billion mostly on international
consultants — some of whom are paid in excess of $1,000 a day, according
to an Afghan government report.
This has had other negative effects.
As in 1842, the presence of large numbers
of well-paid foreign troops has caused the cost of food and provisions
to rise and living standards to fall.
The Afghans feel they are getting poorer, not
richer. There are other similarities.
out: Afghan forces defeated the British in 1812
Then, as now, the war effort was
partially privatised: it was not so much the British Army as a
corporation, the East India Company, that provided most of the troops
who fought the war for Britain in 1842.
Today, the British and the Americans have
subcontracted much of their security work to private companies.
When I visited the British Embassy, I
found that many of the security guards at the gatehouse were not
military police, but from Group 4 Security.
The U.S. security contracts offered to
Blackwater/Xe and other private security forces under Dick Cheney’s
ideologically driven policy of privatising war are worth many millions
now, as then, there has been an attempt at a last show of force in order
to save face before withdrawal.
As happened in 1842, it has achieved little except
civilian casualties and the further alienation of the Afghans.
Prime Minister David Cameron shouldn’t expect to find easy answers in
As one of the tribal elders from
the village of Jegdalek asked me: ‘How many times can they apologise for
killing our innocent women and children and expect us to forgive them?
‘They come, they bomb, they kill us and
then they say: "Oh, sorry, we got the wrong people."
‘And they keep doing that.’
The British soldiers of 1842 met the
same reaction in their day.
In his diary of his time with the British Army of
retribution, which laid waste to great areas of southern Afghanistan as
punishment for the massacres on the retreat from Kabul earlier in the
year, a young officer, Captain N. Chamberlain, reported how his troops
inflicted horrible atrocities on countless Afghan civilians.
One morning he met a wounded Afghan woman
dragging herself towards a stream with a water pot.
‘I filled the vessel for her,’ he wrote,
‘but all she said was: "Curses on the feringhees [foreigners]!"
‘I continued on my way disgusted with
myself, the world and above all with my cruel profession. In fact, we
are nothing but licensed assassins.’
However, there are some important differences
between Britain’s first defeat in Afghanistan and the current mess.
death toll in the current Afghanistan conflict should be no surprise
In 1842, we were at least
reinstalling a legitimate Afghan ruler and removing one who could
genuinely be cast as an illegitimate usurper.
Shah Shuja, the chosen British puppet, was
a former ruler of the Sadozai dynasty, from the leading Pashtun clan,
and a grandson of the great Ahmed Shah Durrani, the first king of a
the traveller and pioneering archaeologist Charles Masson observed:
‘The Afghans had no objection to the match — they merely disliked the
manner of the wooing.’
time, we have been clumsier, and Nato has helped to install a former
CIA asset described by a high-ranking UN diplomat as ‘off-balance’ and
’emotional’, and whose continued ‘tirade raises questions about his
Karzai is a Pashtun of the Popalzai tribe, under his watch Nato has, in
effect, installed the Northern Alliance in Kabul and driven the
country’s Pashtun majority out of power.
The reality of our present Afghan entanglement is
that we took sides in a complex civil war, which has been running since
the Seventies, siding with the north against the south, town against
country, secularism against Islam, and the Tajiks against the Pashtuns.
We have installed a government and
trained up an army, both of which in many ways have discriminated
against the Pashtun majority, and whose top-down, highly centralised
constitution allows for very little federalism or regional
Afghan President Hamid Karzai finds himself being forced back towards
his own people
However, much as some Western
liberals may dislike the Taliban — and they have very good reason for
doing so — the truth remains that they are in many ways the authentic
voice of rural Pashtun conservatism, whose views and wishes are ignored
by the government in Kabul and who are still largely excluded from
It is hardly
surprising that the Pashtuns are determined to resist the regime and
that the insurgency is widely supported, especially in the Pashtun
heartlands of the south and east.
Yet it is not too late to learn some lessons from
the mistakes of the British in 1842.
Then, British officials in Kabul continued to send
out despatches of delusional optimism as the insurgents moved ever
closer to Kabul, believing there was a straightforward military
thought that if they could recruit enough Afghans to their army, they
could eventually march out, leaving that regime in place — exactly the
sentiment expressed by the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, on his visit to
Afghanistan last month.
In 1842, by the time they realised they had to
negotiate a political solution, their power had ebbed too far and the
only thing the insurgents were willing to negotiate was an unconditional
Afghan protesters during a protest rally in Kandahar, south of Kabul.
Their people will always resist invaders
Today, too, there is no easy
military solution to Afghanistan: even if we proceed with the plan to
equip an army of half a million troops (at the cost of roughly $2
billion a year, when the entire revenue of the Afghan government is $1.1
billion — in other words, 180 per cent of revenue), that army will
never be able to guarantee security or shore up such a discredited
despite the military power of the U.S.and Nato and the $25 billion so
far ploughed into rebuilding the Afghan army, security gets worse and
the area under government control contracts week by week.
The only answer is to negotiate a
political solution while we still have enough power to do so, which in
some form or other involves talking to the Taliban.
This is a course that Karzai, to his
credit, is keen to pursue.
He made it clear that his peace jirga – or assembly
— at the start of this month was open to any Taliban leader willing to
lay down arms, and that jobs and monetary incentives would be available
to former Taliban who changed their allegiance and joined the
still unclear whether the new Tory government supports this course —
Barack Obama certainly opposes it.
There is something else we can still do before we
pull out: leave some basic infrastructure behind, a goal we’ve notably
failed to achieve in the past nine years.
Yet William Hague and Liam Fox oppose this policy —
as Fox notoriously said in a newspaper interview last month: ‘We are
not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy in a broken
Tories could do much worse than to consult their own newly elected
back-bencher Rory Stewart, who served with the Black Watch and worked
for the Foreign Office.
He knows much more about Afghanistan than either
Fox or Hague. As Stewart wrote, shortly before he entered politics,
targeted aid projects that employ Afghans can do a great deal of good,
‘and we should focus on meeting the Afghan government’s request for more
investment in agriculture, irrigation, energy and roads’.
In the meantime, Obama has announced that
he will begin withdrawing troops in July 2011.
The start of the U.S. withdrawal is likely
to begin a rush to evacuate the other Nato forces: the Dutch have
announced that they will be pulling out of Uruzgan this summer, and the
Canadian and Danes won’t be far behind them.
Nor will the Brits — despite assurances
from Hague and Fox. A recent poll showed that 72 per cent of Britons
want their troops out of Afghanistan immediately, and there is only so
long any government can hold out against such strong public opinion.
Certainly, it is time to shed the idea
that a pro-Western puppet regime that excludes the Pashtuns can remain
in place indefinitely.
Karzai government is crumbling before our eyes and if we delude
ourselves that this is not the case, we could yet face a terrible replay
Lawrence, a veteran of that war, issued a prescient warning in The Times
just before Britain blundered into the Second Anglo-Afghan War in the
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,’ he wrote.
Although military disasters may be
avoided, an advance now, however successful from a military point of
view, would not fail to turn out to be as politically useless.’
• William Dalrymple’s latest book Nine
Lives: In Search Of The Sacred in Modern India won the first Asia House
literary award in may and is newly published in paperback (Bloomsbury,
His book on
the First Anglo-Afghan War is planned for release in Autumn 2012. A
version of this article first appeared in the New Statesman.