The Dark Defile: Imperial Brits & Afghanistan

The aegis of Empire is now all the rage throughout England of late, given its contemporary demography Londistan (as Ms. Phillips would have it) is no longer indigenous to Saxsons, Celts or Norseman; all have fallen to the swagger that animates secular life.  Any glimpse of Walter Lacquer will fortify any doubt as to the trajectory that underwrites the reach and grasp of Downing Street.

Diana Preston’s The Dark Defile:  Britain’s Catastrophic Invasion of Afghanistan 1838-1842 (Walker Press, 307 pp., $28) is a dreadful earnest of what befell Empire long before Mountbatten met Gandhi.  Preston isn’t a historian who willingly falls for the trap of historicism, nor the cultural relativism that animates so much nonsense of American academia, she’s gone head-forth to unwind the intellectual errors that dominated the men at the helm of Downing.

The “Army of the Indus” began its northward expansion to Kabul from India in 1839.  The scarlet cloaks and plumed shakos that graced its officer corps found the arid geography from the Bolan Pass to the Hindu Kush inviting.  The British Crown invited itself to invade Kabul and replace the Afghan king simply because the British felt that Afghan relations were warming to Russian entreaties, London wished to preempt any emerging threat to the Jewel of India.  The consensus fell to the political officer responsible for Kabul, namely Sir Alexander Burns and his superior Sir William Hay Macnaghten.  The emerging threat opened in the spring of 1841 when Macnaghten’s corpse was hung from a butcher’s hook in a bazaar; on January 06, 1841 the British began its long retreat.  Some 15,000 British soldiers headed out on snow to their garrison in Jalalabad only to be picked off by muskets or swords.  The “Army of the Indus” was reduced to a single man:  Dr. William Brydon.  How can anyone explain this disaster?

Arnold Toynbee’s 12 volume study of the rise and fall of Civilizations mentions qualified insights into how the British could foul up retreat.  Civilian military relations were a disaster (military appointments were political) and incalculable tactical, strategic errors were multiplied in a dominion not pacified.  A clear strategy, good leadership, sufficient resources and enough troops were all deficient.  It fell to Lord Palmerson in the Commons to thwart any impending domestic political impact.  Specifically, the competency of England’s military officer corp were compromised.  I leave it to the reader to rummage through Cyril Northcoat Parkinson’s admonition that characterizes the overly promoted pretentious dilatants that ran the corps.

This is not to say that devoted scholars like Alexander Burns and Henry Rawlinson don’t deserve their praise, for they surely do; but the soft underbelly of Empire is rarely written of.

The uprising of Kabul claimed the lives of Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly, two of England’s best political officers, both thrown into a pit in Bokhara and then beheaded.  Eldred Pottinger, known as the ‘hero of Heart’ died of fever; Alexander Burns was hacked down in broad daylight in Kabul; William Macnaghten was killed by an Afghan prince in a private meeting; does this sound familiar?

To those competent political civilians that ran most of England’s campaigns throughout the Hindu Kush, it must be said that they too incurred strategic deficits regarding their commanding officers.  The British commanding corps were insufficiently bold in challenging insurgents or recapturing strategic positions, competent political officers pressed for these but were met with intransigence. England’s General William Elphinstone and John Sheldon were not up to the challenge of mastering insurgencies.

Rory Stewarts review of Diane Preston’s book reveals a startling insight that would only have helped NATO.  “Whatever decisions had to be made, British policy was doomed from the start.  A foreign army isolated in Kabul, propping up an unpopular ruler in the face of a growing insurgency could not succeed. To maintain security, the British 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.  The British relied on an enormous and unsustainable amount of foreign aid, which funded corruption.  Britain needed to win the support of the population if they were to defeat an insurgency and build civil society; but the population would not support a weak, corrupt state in the middle of an insurgency.  To reassure the nationalists, the British had to reassure Afghans that they were leaving; to reassure a domestic consensus the British needed to expound a public policy of hardened tenacity.”  All of this sounds familiar to anyone familiar with American policy in the AfPak region.  Given the trajectory of such an impossible political situation, why invade in the first place?

The decision to invade was made by the governor-general of India, Lord Auckland and Macnaghten, who was then foreign secretary to the Indian government.  This policy was championed in the House by Palmerson and John Hobhouse.  Remarkably, Auckland and his political civilians feared instability among the independent states of Sindh and were intimidated by the Sikh kingdom of the Punjab with its large professional army.  Afghanistan was perceived to be a weak, fragmented state intrinsically beneficial to the Czar.  Downing Street saw an expanding Russia overly familiar with Muslim Central Asia, a mortal threat to British India.  What was required was to create a buffer zone of pro-British rulers throughout Afghanistan and the Punjab.  The review of the “Political and Secret” department of reports submitted by British agents in Persia, Heart and Kabul all substantiate this policy process.

The Afghan king, Dost Mohammed seemed overly friendly to the Russians and too hostile to the Punjab for their purposes, so they replaced him with Shah Shuja, a former Afghan king living in exile in British India.

Any competent reading grounded in realism would expose how ideology fixated the policy wonks in India toward adopting this suicidal Afghan campaign.  Disraeli’s discrete geographical insight points to an effective piercing mind:  “British India is an Empire separated on the east and west by more than 2,000 miles of neutral territory, bounded in the north by an impassible range of rocky mountains; on the south by 10,000 miles of ocean.  Even the Russian attempt to cross the Khiva in 1840 led to the loss of an entire army.  Secondly, the infamous Punjabi kingdon was new and fragile; it too collapsed and was replaced by British rule.  Third, Alexander Burns private contact with Dost Mohammed was ignored, favoring an overtly ideological approach championed by Palmerson, for according to Burns, Dost Mohammed desired bi-lateral relations with Great Britain.  Forth, according to Lord Aberdeen in 1839, there was no legal or moral justification for invasion. 

An overly ideological bent on construction of foreign policy lead Britain to completely underestimate the practical problems of occupying Afghanistan.  According to the private papers of the Duke of Wellington, he firmly believed that Britain/s problems would begin after military operations had ended.

Perhaps the greatest authority on Afghanistan, Mounstuart Elphinstone was right to admonish the British that clever, well educated men in foreign policy were insufficient for the creation of policy.  All were seduced by superficial premises, inadequate reasoning and unjustified conclusions.

Lord Palmerson was able to avoid taking responsibility for the disaster and went on to create another Afghan/Indian Mutiny/Rebellion later.  The new government of Robert Peel completely pulled Britain out of Afghanistan, leaving Dost Mohammed on a British pension.

Robert Peel demonstrated a David Petraeus like fortitude in tackling dense tactical, regional security concerns Britain ever imagined.  Although Peel and his colleagues were brought up believing in Imperial rule, they contradicted the generals and withstood the criticism and humiliation that accompanied withdrawal.  They ignored populist rage of cowardice and national disgrace.  In so doing, Robert Peel avoided being trapped by the guilt, paranoia and irrational momentum of war.

Never forgetting how hyper-irrational domestic criticism had emboldened the opposition in the Commons.  Lord Palmerson could no longer stand any rhetorical challenge and set off legislative reforms of the British Indian civil service exclaiming that he would rather have second rate obedience than first rate independent minds.

For those trying to solicit the best account of Britain’s loss in its first Afghan campaign should try Sir John Kaye’s History of the War in Afghanistan, written when British partisans were still alive, it brings into relief much of what was thought by Disraeli, Aberdeen, Wellington and numerous others. Kaye was never studied by the policy wonks in Downing nor India, for Empire staggered again in Afghanistan in 1879.

Perhaps Harold Macmillan was right:  “rule number one in politics, never invade Afghanistan!”

About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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