First Anglo-Afghan War
History

Why Is Afghanistan ‘The Graveyard Of Empires’?

Analysis: We take a look at the military history of Afghanistan and why forces in the region have faced similar trends

First Anglo-Afghan War

“Up there, complex paths emerge then disappear behind huge boulders and rocks. Every footstep that dislodges anything, a small rock, a pile of shale, seems like it might cause an earth-shaking avalanche. Stealth, we were told, must be our watchword on the high, quiet slopes...”

So says Marcus Luttrell in his book ‘Lone Survivor’. 

Anyone familiar with it, or the film of the same name starring Mark Wahlberg, will know that Luttrell’s four-man Navy SEAL team was compromised by three goat herders whilst on a covert mission in Afghanistan. An intense gunfight with the Taliban followed, an encounter that only Luttrell made it through alive.

Despite his palpable annoyance and anguish about the decision to let the goat herders go, it’s obvious that Afghanistan’s geography was just as much to blame for the botched mission. Even before going in, he says of his initial impressions in the briefing room:

“…Barren, treeless mountainscapes are no place to conduct secretive landings and takeoffs, not with Taliban rocket men all around… And if those mountain cliffs that surrounded the village were as rough and stony as I suspected, we’d stick out on those heights like a diamond in a goat’s ass.”

In this, Luttrell echoes exactly what every observer of Afghan military history has always said about the country, albeit without necessarily comparing foreign troops to diamonds on a goat. 

By all accounts, there are usually three principal antagonists in any Afghan war: foreign armies, the domestic force (or forces) resisting them, and the terrain.

Unfortunately, avoiding war in Afghanistan has also proved difficult for foreign powers over the centuries. In ‘Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History’, Thomas Barfield says:

“Landlocked Afghanistan lies in the heart of Asia, and links three major cultural and geographic regions: the Indian subcontinent to the southeast, central Asia to the north, and the Iranian plateau in the west. Geography may not be destiny but it has set the course of Afghan history for millennia as the gateway for invaders spilling out of Iran or central Asia and into India: Cyrus the Great, Alexander the Great, Mahmud of Ghazni, Ghinggis Khan, Tamerlane, and Babur, to mention some of the most illustrious examples. During this period, Afghanistan was part of many different empires ruled by outsiders and the center of a couple of its own.”

Stephen Tanner makes much the same observation in ‘Afghanistan: A Military History’:

“The historian Arnold Toynbee once suggested that upon viewing the rise of civilization from its center in Mesopotamia, the map of the Old World becomes startlingly clear. He distinguished countries between blind allies and highways, and among the latter he thought two held prominent place: Syria, which was the link between the civilizations of Europe, Africa, and Asia, and Afghanistan, which was the nodal point between the civilizations of India, East Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and thence Europe.”

Once foreign armies enter Afghanistan, it’s internal geography has also made a habit, it seems, of flinging everything it can at them. With the Hindu Kush mountain range running diagonally across it, through the (locally ignored, British co-drawn) 19th Century Durand Line into Pakistan, Afghanistan’s multifaceted climate is largely traceable to this feature. It explains why the east of the country has forests (because monsoon rains from India are caught by them when they drift north), why the lowest population density is in the south-west, near Khandahar (because the area is a desert), and why the other extreme – ice and snow storms – can also occur there.

One contemporary British observer who experienced this severe cold first hand was Rory Stewart, now a Conservative MP. 

In 2002, Stewart set himself the task of walking across the country to collect important information and wrote about his experiences in ‘The Places in Between’, including getting caught in dangerously cold weather whilst hiking in the north of the country with his companion, Babur:

“The weather was closing in again and the snow came harder. I leaned over (Babur). He was shivering and sucking air into his lungs in an asthmatic wheeze. I held him for two minutes while he trembled and panted and fought for breath, and then the fit passed and he was able to stand again. I thought we should turn down the hill, but I could see no promising path.

“We were both tired and cold and we would be pressed to reach Daulatyar by dusk. We were supposed to be travelling east so I set off on a traverse across the slope, dragging Babur behind me and hoping there were no crevasses. After half an hour of stumbling through more deep powder, we came over a lip. The fog lifted and I could see on the next ridge a line of footprints heading downhill. We began to follow the prints and a little later, to my delight, saw an arrow of dark purpose rock pointing into a village… 

“From the village, I kept moving east. I walked across two half-dozen streams, jumping the cracks, but Babur was reluctant and struggled to drag himself across the ice. We were now walking through hard sleet. Fog descended…

“We came to a vehicle track. Tyres had gouged a glutinous dark-brown strip twenty feet wide. My boots stuck to the mud, so I walked on the ice in the roadside ditches. This was better, except when the ice broke and my feet plunged into cold water. Babur was now coated in black mud. We had been walking for nine hours… my left foot seemed frozen to a cold iron plate…

“…at this point, I saw two jeeps, their headlights on, weaving slowly towards us through the fog… When they reached me, an electric window went down. It was the Special Forces team from the (nearby) airstrip.

“’You’, said the driver, ‘are a f**king nutter’. Then he… drove on, leaving me in the snow. I had seen these men at work when I was in the army and in the Foreign Office and I couldn’t imagine a better compliment.”

Rory_Stewart_MP
Conservative MP Rory Stewart

Geography has also shaped the structure of Afghan society, as Barfield explains:

“…there is a more profound binary division that is strongly marked in Afghanistan: the dichotomy between what the medieval Arab social historian ibn Khaldun labeled ‘desert civilization’ and ‘sedentary civilization’ in his Muqaddimah, or introduction, to a universal history that he began writing in 1375. Desert civilizations were those human communities based on subsistence agriculture or pastoralism that organized themselves along kinship lines under conditions of low population density… Sedentary civilizations were those human communities based on surplus agricultural production that sustained dense populations and created complex economies… Such communities were… divided by class and occupational structures with a considerable division of labor. They were centers of learning and high culture as well as markets for regional trade and international commerce…

“The two systems were not sealed off… (but rather) had intense interactions and close connections, particularly because of population movements. Ibn Khaldun contended that desert civilizations must have predated sedentary ones because they were less complex socially and simpler economically—a supposition confirmed by modern archaeology.”

The location of cities is also important: Herat, in the east, served as a vital link between China and the Iranian plateau. Even when the Mongols sacked it in 1222, it was still reborn as a centre of art and literature. 

Likewise, Kabul, in the northeast, is on the way to Peshawar in Pakistan, itself an important node in the trade networks running across the region:

“Peshawar is Janus-faced. Sitting at the eastern end of the Khyber Pass and west of the Indus River, travellers coming down from Kabul feel they have now truly entered South Asia. By contrast, travellers arriving in the opposite direction from Lahore or Delhi believe they have entered the first frontier city on central Asia. Closely connected to Kabul as its historic winter capital for many centuries, the city fell from Afghan control when it was lost the Sikhs in 1834. It became part of the British raj when it defeated the Sikhs.”

The British began eyeing Afghanistan with interest during the 19th Century because of its proximity to British India and to their competitor in ‘the Great Game’, Russia.

When they moved into the country in 1839, they, like the Americans almost two centuries later, walked into a thicket of complex geographical and social obstacles that had been around for millennia. As Stephen Tanner explains in ‘Afghanistan: A Military History From Alexander the Great to the War Against the Taliban’:

“In between enduring or resisting invasions from every point of the compass… the Afghans have honed their martial skills by fighting among themselves, in terrain that facilitates divisions of power and resists the concept of centralized control. The wonder is the Afghan people, who at this writing have experienced non-stop warfare for a quarter of a century, present the same problems to foreign antagonists today as they did 2,500 years ago… Afghanistan… remains the stage for not just clashes of armies but of civilizations.”

Alexander the Great came to Afghanistan because:

“Geography, as the Greeks knew it, had previously indicated that India was a thin line between the rest of the world and Ocean, the body of water that surrounded the earth. To Alexander, it (it was) the final stage of world conquest.”

In the process, Alexander led his men into the Hindu Kush, where they ran into the same weather as Rory Stewart in 2001, many freezing and being blighted by frostbite. 

After his death in 323 BCE, Alexander’s empire was divided amongst his successors, one of whom, Asoka, converted to Buddhism and helped spread its influence to Afghanistan. The Greeks left very little of their own culture behind – all that has been turned up from the period by archaeologists are coins bearing the likeness of various Greek rulers. 

Great Wall of China
Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China had an indirect influence on Afghanistan’s history (images: writer’s collection)

The next several waves of invaders came from the other direction. The Great Wall of China proved so effective at boxing in (or rather, boxing out) ‘barbarians’ from the Eurasian steppe that many were forced westwards. The first of these, the Scythians, appear to have forced out the Alexander’s successors, though, perhaps they didn’t disappear from the region entirely:

“To this day, in the nearly inaccessible mountain valleys of northeastern Afghanistan exist ancient communities of people with fair hair and blue or green eyes… These people are popularly considered descendants of Alexander’s men…”

Another theory is that these people may be indigenous, Aryan-looking people who migrated to central Asia before the later waves from Africa that later became fairer looking Europeans. Tanner posits that both ideas may be correct, and that Alexander’s men, in fleeing the conquering Scythians, chose to hide amongst people who looked like them.

There was also, some 2,000 years ago, the arrival of people with very different features:

“…south of the Hindu Kush and in today’s Pakistan across the Suleiman Range or White Mountains. Angular, dark-eyed men with heavy beards, fierce warriors with a love of individual freedom, their language clearly derives from an older Iranian group but with heavy influence over the centuries of Indian and touches of ancient Persian, Aramaic, and Greek. They absorbed influences from the native population while to a greater extent they supplanted the local culture with their own. These people are now known as Pashtuns.”

Then more light-skinned peoples arrived, although the ‘White Huns’ didn’t derive their name from their skin colour. According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, they were one of four groups coming out of the Eurasian steppe at this point dubbed either ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘red’ or ‘green/blue’ Huns.

In any case, their most striking feature wasn’t their light skin, it was their deformed heads, caused by the cultural practice of head binding during childhood.

Eventually, they too were replaced, a process likely involving the local population:

“Like their Scythian predecessors, the White Huns disappeared as kings, but remnants of their people remained on the land. Invaders of Afghanistan have never found it possible to exert control over all the territory with outside force alone. Local leaders or warlords needed to be recruited or enticed to support an invader’s program… some tribes in Afghanistan had never been conquered by invasion, even if they occasionally lent support to a government that in turn allowed their freedom. With the demise of the White Huns we can picture a similar process taking place: strong men in control of regiments of fierce warriors promising fealty to a new imperial power while helping to eject the old one, as long as they were otherwise left on their own.”

Barfield likens this to Swiss cheese because, he says, the holes represent the isolated portions of the country that can never be conquered or continuously controlled; as opposed to the cities and major highways, which, contrary to popular belief, have been conquered and held by numerous powers over the centuries.

The next conqueror was ideological as well as political – Islam. Though, as Tanner points out, this new religion on the block actually took some time to become fashionable in Afghanistan:

“As a whole, Afghanistan did not succumb quickly to the allure of Islam, and it can be surmised that the Arab invaders had to confine their activities to the major cities and flatter parts of the territory. The mountain tribesmen held to their Zoroastrian, Buddhist, or Shamanistic beliefs for decades longer, converting to Islam gradually through free will as much as through force.”

Afghanistan
A Pashtun man in Kabul (image: Jeremy Weate)

Barfield also says that, although it is considered deeply rude to acknowledge it, the historical record shows that the region most heavily populated by the Pashtuns in the east of the country was the one that resisted Islam the longest. In fact, as well as taking centuries to convert to Islam, once they’d done so, they preferred Shia Safavid rule from Iran to Sunni Moghal rule from India.

But as today’s dominant portion of the 30-million-strong population, this is not, well, ‘politically correct’ to acknowledge. 

The Pashtuns make up about 40 percent of the national mix, whilst Tajiks are about 30 percent, Hazaras 15 percent, Uzbeks and Turkmen together 10 percent, the Persian-speaking Aimaqs five percent and other smaller groups together comprising around three percent or less. Every group, though, apparently overstates their share of the national pie, and if their figures were taken at face value, the population would be 60 million.

This jostling, ethnic pride and competition interacts with the devout religious identity of most Afghans, who are 85 percent Sunni and only 15 percent Shia:

“Few peoples in the world, particularly the Islamic world, have maintained such a strong and unproblematic sense of themselves, their culture, and their superiority as the Afghans. In abstract terms all foreigners, especially non-Muslims, are viewed as inferior to Afghans. Although the great powers might have been militarily, technologically, and economically stronger, because they were nonbelievers, or infidels, their values and way of life were naturally suspect. Afghanistan’s Muslim neighbors, however, fared only slightly better in (Sunni) Afghan eyes. The Uzbeks must have been asleep to allow the Russians to occupy central Asia for more than a century; Pakistan is a suspect land of recent Muslim converts from Hinduism (Pastuns and Baluch excepted) that never should have become a nation; and Iran is a nest of Shiite heretics who speak Persian with a ludicrous accent.”

This observation by Barfield gives a sense of just how much history, culture, ethnicity and religion overlap in the country, and how differently people view the passing of time:

“An illiterate man in northern Afghanistan gave me a detailed (and historically accurate) account of the Mongol destruction there while excoriating the memory of that ‘pure infidel’ Chinggis Khan (who he claimed was an Uzbek.) He then described a great irrigation system that originally had six major canals, of which only three operated today: ‘Afghanistan was a much better place then; you should have visited us at that time’, he declared, as if I had just missed this golden age. I agreed, but knew that he was speaking of an age well beyond my own time horizon, since the Mongols had attacked in 1222. But by Afghan standards that was still recent enough to provoke strong emotion; an Uzbek listening to this story vehemently denied that his group had any relationship to the pagan Mongols.”

Another local told him simply:

“I have been a Pakistani for thirty years, a Muslim for fourteen hundred years, and a Pashtun for five thousand years.”

But even tribal loyalties can be confusing because although people are generally loyal to their qamm – tribe, kin, ethnic group, village – these loyalties are expandable, or contractible, depending on the situation:

“…(while) a simplified map of these ethnic groups at the national level is useful… it is also misleading… two groups in a local context may declare themselves distinct… but also accept… a common ethnic label at the regional or national level… Thus, the larger the ethnic category being mapped, the less meaning(ful it will be.)”

US Air Force
A village in western Afghanistan

Tribalism to this extreme may frustrate many-a-well-meaning nation builder, but it’s worth returning briefly to the end of movie Lone Survivor, which highlights the fact that there is a deeply honorable side to all this:

“The Afghan villagers who protected Marcus did so out of duty to their 2,000 year old code of honor, known as Pashtunwali.

“Pashtunwali requires a tribute to undertake the responsibility of safeguarding an individual against his enemies and protecting him at all costs.

“These brave men and women still thrive today in the harsh mountains of Afghanistan and their fight against the Taliban continues…”

Almost a thousand years ago, these same mountain tribes faced a far greater threat than the Taliban – the Mongols, who were themselves partly responsible for further entrenching the country’s stubborn tribalism. According to Tanner:

“The fact that today Afghanistan is considered a rough rather than a fragile country—inured to warfare rather than prone to passive resistance—stems largely from the wholesale destruction of its sedentary element (in the 13th Century). Towns and farms based on centuries-old cultivation techniques lay naked in the path of the Mongol hordes where as a large portion of the nomad population was able to avoid attack.”

The Mongols, he says, exploded like an atom bomb on Eurasia during this period and, as Steven Pinker has pointed out, caused more deaths as a proportion of population than the Second World War did in our time.

This wide-spread destruction was made possible by their lethal, military efficiency and organization. Just as the Romans had their legions, the main building block of the Mongolian army was the tumen, a unit of 10,000 men (thus, it was like a modern division.) Within these were ten 1,000-man ambans (battalions), one hundred 100-man jaghuns (companies) and one thousand 10-man mingghans (sections.)

Ghengis Khan statue in Mongolia by François Philipp
A statue of Ghengis Khan in Mongolia (image: François Philipp)

With these flexible, modular building blocks, made up of soldiers so skilled in archery they could fire deadly accurate arrows on horseback, they stampeded through the continent, including Afghanistan.

Yet even this unstoppable military force suffered its only defeat outside East Asia in Afghanistan, at Parwan, where:

“…the two sides met in a rock-strewn, sharply cut valley. It was poor ground for (the Mongolian) cavalry… At the same time, the Mongol’s usual tricks of feigned retreat and ambush, and their standard practice of encirclement, could not be employed… the native Afghans must have sensed their enemy’s vulnerability and clambered among the heights in order to shoot down at the invader, gravity assisting their shots with both velocity and range… A Mongol attack on the Afghan left wing wilted under a barrage of arrows, the men retreating in disorder. The Mongol general then ordered an attack along the entire front. The dismounted defenders were easy prey if the Mongol horsemen could close; but the attackers were hard-pressed to penetrate the wall of arrows and were forced by the terrain to wade into it head-on. Gradually the famous Mongol discipline began to come apart… (as they later retreated one) can picture the most casualties in defiles where the panicked Mongols became jammed, falling victim en masse to the pursuing Turkic and Afghan tribesmen.”

But as noted, in general, townspeople in Afghanistan would not escape the infamous brand of Mongolian cruelty. The wife of one local ruler who’d resisted them was made to supervise the mass executions of her subjects, and then stack the heads of men, women and children into three separate enormous piles.

A mural at the Genghis Khan Exhibit at the Tech Museum of San Jose in 2010 showing Mongolian siege warfare by Bill Taroli
A mural at the Genghis Khan Exhibit at the Tech Museum of San Jose in 2010 showing Mongolian siege warfare (image: Bill Taroli)

The Mongol or Tartar-descended Tamerlane was the next foreign invader. Like his forebears, he too destroyed vital infrastructure of the day, in this case the irrigation systems around the lower Helmand River. Tanner says:

“Already weakened by previous invasions, this area finally bit the dust, and today the dense patchwork of baked ruins are the only reminders of once-thriving communities.”

Following Tamerlane’s empire, Afghanistan became divided between a Safavid empire out of modern-day Iran and a Moghul one out of India; the Afghan people then becoming a collection of “indigenous warriors who could swing the balance of power among outside empires”. Then, in the 16th Century, “when firearms put a stop to marauding horse-archer armies from the steppe, the Afghan tribes beneath the Hindu Kush were finally able to emerge from their element”.

“…The most significant development during this period (by this point the 17th Century) was the growing strength of the Afghan people south of the Hindu Kush, who were divided into numerous tribes and clans, but who culturally and linguistically formed one ethnic group, the Pashtuns…”

One prominent leader was Khushal Khan, a kind of Afghan William Tell who simultaneously fought Moghul imperialists and rival tribesmen, whilst also composing poetry:

“If Mughal stand, then broken falls Pakhtun;

“the time is now, if God will that we die;

“The spheres of heaven revolve uncertainly,

“Now blooms the rose, now sharply pricks the thorn,

“Glory’s the hazard, O man of woman born!

“the very name Pakhtun spells honour and glory,

“Lacking that honor what is the Afghan story?

“In the sword alone lies our deliverance.”

This was the era of growing Afghan nationalism, accompanied by the development of the written form of the Pashtun language.

During the early 18th Century, indigenous tribes in the west revolted and took back control of Kandahar and the surrounding countryside. One of them, the Ghilzais, then plunged into neighbouring Persia to take on the Safavids directly. By this point, a man named Mahmud had emerged as their leader:

“The Ghilzais forged through Persian territory, taking cities or sometimes simply being bribed off, until they met the sultan’s army at Gulnbad. The Persians had 42,000 men and twenty-four cannon, the latter commanded by a French mercenary, Philippe Colombe; Mahmud had about 20,000 horsemen. But in the battle the Afghans overran the artillery and left five thousand Persian dead on the field, losing only five hundred of their own. The Persians then huddled within their capital, enduring a six-month siege in which nearly 100,000 people died, mostly of starvation. When the Ghilzais finally broke in, they so ravaged and terrorized the city that Isfahan was never able to regain its former stature.

“Mahmud would be considered a greater hero in Afghan history if he had not also turned out to be a madman, and his rule of the former Safavid Empire was short-lived. Having conquered Isfahan in 1722, he became suspicious of the Persian nobility and invited them to a conference. Once the doors had closed they were all slaughtered by his Ghilzai troops. Then, suspecting sedition among Sultan Husain’s children, he had them assembled in a courtyard, and, with two other warriors, proceeded to hack them to death. The old sultan grabbed up two of his small children in his arms and was slashed across the face by Mahmud, but then the Ghilzai chieftain seemed to calm down. At one point Mahmud entered a cave for forty days in order to commune with God, but when he emerged he was more wild-eyed than ever. His own men were as aware as anyone of his lunacy and in 1725 they killed him. In his last days, Mahmud had flagellated himself, cutting his own flesh, so there is a distinct possibility that he suffered from illness, p erhaps an advanced case of syphilis.”

His successor, his cousin Ashraf, son of an uncle Mahmud had murdered, also turned out to be a homicidal lunatic. So too did the next conqueror coming out of Persia, Nadir Shah, who slaughtered his way all the way through Afghanistan and down into the Moghul Indian capital, giving them a new word, ‘Nadirshahi’, ‘massacre’.

Within Afghanistan though, resistance to murderous brutes was beginning to stiffen:

“There is a sharp distinction that can be drawn at this point between rulers in the East in the eighteenth century and those in the West, where literate populations were already asserting individual freedoms in the face of monarchial rule. The populations of the West had been able to employ paper to unite themselves in common cause, disseminating beliefs or concepts of objective justice on such a widespread scale that monarchs feared to cross them. In the East, however, the sword or private intrigue still held sway.”

Both would hold sway over Nadir Shah. He suspected his men were planning to kill him (as Mahmud’s had him), and ordered his elite Abdali guard – an Afghan tribe incorporated into his army – to pre-emptively kill the suspected plotters. But the rest of the army heard about the anti-plotter plot and pre-empted the pre-empting Shah… by cutting his head off.

The immediate power vacuum was soon filled by the leader of the Abadis, Ahmad Khan. His coronation as ‘khan’ or ‘shah’, king of the surrounding tribes, was monumental in Afghan history. Referred to as the ‘Pearl of Pearls’, ‘Durr-i-Durran’, he henceforth was known as Ahmad Shah Durrani, and the Pashtun sub-clan he came from, the Abadis, became the Durranis.

The Hindu Kush by Ninara
The Hindu Kush, probably the most important single feature of Afghanistan’s geography (image: Ninara)

As well as this increased political cohesion there was a decline in the power and importance of adjacent Asian empires. The discovery of the new world and increase in the use of sea routes made Europe less reliant on land trade across Eurasia. This reduction in competition allowed the Durranis to flourish politically and militarily, and Afghanistan now became a power centre of its own, instead of being part of someone else’s empire:

“At it’s height in 1762, the Durrani Empire encompassed all of modern Afghanistan plus Iran’s Khorasan, nearly all of modern Pakistan, part of India, and the province of Kashmir. It stretched from the Amu Darya (river) in the north to the Arabian Sea in the south.”

This hadn’t come without effort, or mishap. In the west, the Durranis had been repulsed once and returned with the big guns, literally – their artillery:

“(Ahmad Shah’s) largest cannon, cast and assembled during the siege, blew up the first time it was fired, but its 500-pound missile created such havoc in the city that Nishapur promptly surrendered. Still stung from their previous defeat, the Afghans ravaged the populace, killing many citizens and enslaving others.”

In the east, the Moghuls in India concluded a deal with the Durranis whereby the latter would get the Punjab (a region comprising parts of today’s northern India and Pakistan) in return for no further trouble.

But they still had to reassert military dominance. The governor of the Punjab, Mir Mannu, who was supposed to have been simply funnelling taxes to them, was found to also be steering the Punjab back towards the Moghuls.

There was further mishap when Mir Mannu died and the Moghul emperor made his three-year-old son the next governor, and his two-year-old his vizier (political adviser). Though “(real) power was held by Mir Mannu’s widow, who made an utter mess of things ruling from her scandal-ridden bedroom”.

India Mughal empire
The Taj Mahal in India, a remnant of the Mughal (or Moghul) Empire (image: Mohammed Ali Abdo/Shutterstock)

Ahmad Shah again allowed the Moghul emperor to retain his throne but this time demanded the Punjab as well as Kashmir and Sind. His real concern, after all, wasn’t the Moghuls, who were fellow Muslims, but the danger posed by the Hindu Marathas.

He would fight them at Panipat in 1761, and because the Afghans won this battle, no powerful Hindu state came to rule northern India. This paved the way for the Sikhs, and later Europeans (most notably the British.)

“Ahmad Shah died in 1772 at age fifty after suffering from a horrible disease which might have been skin cancer. One visitor reported that late in his life he wore a silver nose, his original one have wasted away or perhaps been cut off in an attempt to stop the spread. By all accounts he was not only an excellent military leader but an admirable sovereign, who, while retaining his dignity, was solicitous of the concerns of his subjects. Like other pan-tribal leaders such as Attila and Genghis Khan, he was modest in his personal dress and habits while possessing an innate ability to draw the best efforts from others (and to) many, his accession to the head of the Abdali tribe in 1747 marks the birth of the Afghan nation...”

Some dispute Ahmad Shah’s nationalism. But Tanner points out that a poem dedicated to Afghanistan by Shah reinforces the notion that he was a patriot, rather than just another tribal imperialist:

“By blood, we are immersed in love of you,

“the youth lose their heads for your sake.

“I come to you and my heart finds rest.

“away from you, grief clings to my heart like a snake.

“I forget the throne of Dehli

“When I remember the mountain tops of my Afghan land.

“If I must choose between the world and you,

“I shall not hesitate to claim your barren deserts as my own.”

The Durrani line would run until 1973. Yet this endurance is surprising because, soon after Ahmad Shah, succession became a ramshackle affair. Although, as Barfield notes, in some ways this may have been typical of a pattern observed by Ibn Khaldun: 

“The tribal leader who established a dynastic line by conquest found himself in a new political environment with fresh opportunities. Ibn Khaldun called such a founder the builder of glory, a leader who through his personal struggles had achieved a success that he could rightly claim was the product of his own ability. He experienced the difficulties inherent in establishing his political dominance, and after obtaining power, retained those qualities that had allowed him to succeed in the first place. Having lived most of his life under rough conditions, he remained tough-minded and parsimonious, determined to maintain a simple life even when surrounded by luxuries. Stereotypically such a man would spurn the palace bedroom in favor of a tent pitched in a courtyard. He would dismiss his predecessor’s large staff of cooks, barbers, valets, perfumers, eunuchs, poets, and musicians to end unnecessary and wasteful expenses. His cheapness meant that the treasury’s tax receipts remained in surplus because such a ruler accumulated money but disliked spending it. He was often willing to share power with his immediate relatives, or at least seek their counsel on important decisions, because he still respected the bonds of kinship. On a larger scale, he would play the role of the generous chief by giving feats, minor gifts, and sometimes stipends to the people who helped him come to power.”

Afghan history
Shah Soojah, who the British later put on the throne of Afghanistan, in the Bala Hissar, Kabul (image: © British Library Board)

Ahmad Shah certainly seems to have been a strong leader who inspired loyalty. His first successor on the other hand, Timur, quickly angered Pashtun supporters by moving the capital city from Kandahar to Kabul. It was cosmopolitan and therefore not controlled by any one tribe. Tanner says:

“Timur ruled until 1793… beneath him his father’s concept of an energetic Afghan nation had fallen apart. He left behind over thirty sons, not counting the unofficial production of his harem, among whom he did not bother to designate an heir. The result was a lurid swirl of chaos.”

Again, this isn’t unlike the Ibn Khaldun description:

“The second-generation ruler differed from the first because he inherited leadership and did not have to struggle to create it. If the son of the founder seemed to lack the raw vitality and originality of his father, this was the product of his socialization and not necessarily an absence of innate talent. Groomed to rule, the son learned how to govern by observing his father rather than through direct experience. And growing up in a palace surrounded by wealth and luxuries he took for granted, he probably chafed at his father’s cheapness as well as lack of manners and culture, and grew bored listening to endless tales of how many miles of desert the old man had walked through in his youth. On taking power, second-generation rulers were characterized by the luxury of their royal courts and the establishment of institutionalized royal authority. This required the elimination, frequently by murder, of the old tribal elite that had previously expected to share power. The founder’s brothers and their heirs were particularly targets. After such a purge, the ruler appointed court officials from the ranks of men who had no independent power of their own and abolished the stipends paid to old tribal allies in favor of a greater reliance on the dynasty’s mercenary military force. This generation also devoted its increasing tax revenues to large public works projects, but the budget remained in balance.”

Perhaps because Ahmad Shah stepped into what had formerly been a bloody contest for power, but was accepted by other tribal leaders, his third-generation heirs don’t exactly fit the schema. Their rule was characterized by fracture, with power passing back and forth between them, wheras for Khaldun, the next phases played out as follows:

“Third generation leaders began a period of seeming greatness that disguised an institutional decline. Content with simple imitations and reliance on tradition, they lacked independent judgment. They habitually implemented policies even when they were ineffective or destructive. For all the pomp of their municipal projects and patronage of the arts, these rulers were cowardly, and dependent on sycophantic and corrupt advisers. Officials at all levels siphoned off the state’s revenue for themselves. The treasury started to run large deficits as expenses mounted but revenues declined. As a result, the fourth-generation successors were doomed to a bad end. Inheriting both a bankrupt treasury and a mismanaged government, they had none of the skills needed to reverse the decline. Instead, assuming the right to rule was theirs by birth, they demanded the automatic respect of their subjects, but their arrogance and misrule destroyed what little remained of their political base. When disaffection in outlying areas turned to revolt, the dynasty was without revenues to pay its troops, which promptly abandoned it. Now damned and defenceless, it was only a matter of time before some fresh ‘founder of glory’ swept in from the margins to begin the cycle anew.”

Here too the model differs slightly, because, once the original line of Durranis was gone, they were eventually replaced in 1826 by a man named Dost Mohammed. He was not promptly swept from power – well, not until the Brits arrived on the scene (see below), though he certainly did have to deal with a treasury depleted by his predecessors. 

history of Afghanistan
Afghanistan and surrounding countries in the 19th Century (image from ‘The Anglo-Afghan Wars’ by Gregory Fremont-Barnes © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

He also inherited a country that had fallen out of love with the nationalism of Ahmad Shah, and tribalism was again becoming prominent. 

But, as Tanner points out, and as Simon Schama has reminded us about fractured, early England, unable to unite without the continuous threat of Viking invaders:

“…if attacked, particularly by non-Islamic forces, the Afghans were capable of ad hoc unity in defense of their homeland.”

By now, it was the British who were doing the attacking. Firmly ensconced in India, they needed a firm buffer state between them and the disconcertingly close Russian bear. They also wanted Dost Muhammed replaced with his brother, Soojah, who was preferred by their man in the Punjab, Ranjit Singh.

As it was, many a British soldier may have preferred Dost Muhammed, since Ranjit Singh was the reason the British force that entered Afghanistan in 1839 did so from the wrong end.

Not wishing to offend their ally by marching troops through Singh’s Punjab terrority (8,000 soldiers, 38,000 camp followers and almost as many camels were hardly going to be inconspicuous, after all), the British soldiers were led about 800 miles in the wrong direction, approaching Kabul from the Bolan, instead of the customary Khyber, Pass.

history of Afghanistan
The British route into Afghanistan in 1839 (image from ‘The First Afghan War’ by Richard Macrory © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Given the arduous nature of the march, some of what was carried is surprising. Two camels were used solely to transport cigars, and one eccentric officer required 60 camels to carry his personal effects.

As they headed through the desert into Afghanistan, the British Bengal Column ran afoul first of the weather, having to march at night to avoid the 100-degree daytime temperatures, then of the water, which was deliberately contaminated. Their own stomachs turned against them when they ran low on supplies; then the stony, rocky terrain dogged their progress, as did snipers sent by Dost Mohammed to harass them.

Before passing through the next pass – the Khojak Pass – on the way to Kandahar, the Bengal Column linked up with Shah Soojah’s column and a Bombay column. All told, they’d accumulated thousands of camels to haul their stores, 3,000 of which perished in the five-mile defile, mostly by falling into ravines. 

This necessitated the abandonment of 27,000 rounds of ammunition and 14 gunpowder barrels. If only they’d known how much they were going to need it.

Fortunately, Kandahar at least fell rather easily, but there was another obstacle on the road to Kabul: the fortified city of Ghazni.

history of Afghanistan
Ghazni city around 1839 – 42 (image: © British Library Board)

To get inside, the British waited until nightfall before laying gunpowder at the gates and blowing them open. Shoving their way through the rubble, the British engaged in short-range gunfights and fought hand-to-hand for three hours amongst the narrow streets and passageways of the city. Their efforts paid off. When it was taken, they’d sustained only 182 casualties, the Afghans 3,000.

After that, resistance at Kabul melted away, with Dost Mohammed fleeing north, simultaneously embroiled in an uprising. 

Shah Soojah was put in charge and the Bengal column remained behind to protect him, though they were housed in cantonments two miles from the city, giving him the appearance, at least, of not being entirely dependent on foreign troops.

This emphasis on political over military considerations caused at least one British soldier, Lieutenant Eyre, to remark:

“…the position eventually fixed upon for our magazine and cantonment was a piece of swampy ground, commanded on all sides by hills or forts.”

Eyre’s observations could be read as a premonition of trouble.

In 1840, it looked as if things might kick off again when Dost Mohammed returned at the head of a group 6,000 Uzbek cavalry. That, at least, was a false alarm. With him unable to fully trust his allies, he chose to surrender to the British at Kabul and things quietened down again, for now:

“Life in the cantonments began to resemble the domestic colonial atmosphere in India. Officers’ wives, and children, were permitted to join their husbands, and horse racing, cricket, skating, tending gardens for growing vegetables, and amateur theatricals became the order of the day.”

The British were also impressed with the broad array of foods they found at the city bazaars, coming from as far afield as India, Russia and Britain itself. (Whilst today Afghanistan is associated famously, or infamously, with opium, in modern times it also continues to grow a wide variety of other things: rice, cotton, melons and citrus fruits in the lowlands; wheat and barley in higher altitudes).

history of Afghanistan
Char-Chatta Bazaar in Kabul, 1932, by A. Gh. Brechna

But the tranquil interlude ended in November, 1841, when 130 British soldiers marching between Kandahar and Kabul were attacked. It was the first of several uprisings.

Back in England, the new Tory government, led by Robert Peel, had come in determined to improve matters financially. They’d resorted to cuts of subsidies to tribes who’d effectively been paid off to accept Shah Soojah.

To be sure, some of the British reforms were effective, at least monetarily. Ever the incentive-minded capitalists, they’d given tax collection rights to fruit merchants, who prompted locals to grow more profitable crops, thus increasing tax revenues.

But as well as leaving the local chieftains short of the subsidies they’d come to expect, the presence of 16,000 comparatively rich foreigners around Kabul – 4,500 troops and 11,500 followers – led to serious inflation, a massive inconvenience to the poor locals. The fact that some of the British spent their money on prostitutes also didn’t help with relations in this highly conservative society.

One notable ladies man was the East India Company’s and British government’s man on the ground in Kabul, Alexander Burnes. A kind of 19th Century James Bond, Burnes was a spy who’d been dispatched to Afghanistan in 1831 on a fact-finding mission prompted by British paranoia about the expanding Russian empire north of British India.

Ironically, as the BBC documentary ‘Afghanistan: The Great Game – A Personal View by Rory Stewart’, makes clear, the book Burnes wrote about his travels in the region – ‘Travels to Bukhara’ – became a best seller. When the Russians saw a French translation, it spooked them into matching British espionage with their own. The Russian presence in Afghanistan, in turn, stoked British paranoia. The ‘Great Game’ was on.

Except that it probably didn’t feel much like a game to British soldiers and their families stationed there in 1841, even if it had when they’d arrived in 1839 with “camel trains piled high with mess silver, with odour colognes, with exotic wines – the 16th Lancers even managed to bring their own pack of foxhounds…”

Now, Afghans killed Barnes and began storming the cantonments and other fortified positions. The British, effectively going back to tribal leaders cap in hand, offered them bribes again in return for their assistance.

history of Afghanistan
Afghans storm the British cantonments outside Kabal in November, 1841 (image from ‘The First Afghan War’ by Richard Macrory © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

But even if they’d got it, poor leadership by some British commanders would also continue to undermine them. According to Richard Macrory in ‘The First Afghan War 1839-42’:

“Colonel of the 44th Foot, Brigadier Shelton, was appointed second-in-command of the forces in Kabul on the arrival of his regiment on rotational duty in 1841. A cantankerous man, he openly despised his commander-in-chief, (Major-General William) Elphinstone, and during the uprising would deliberately go to sleep during councils of war.”

For his part, Elphinstone, the son of a director of the East India Company and veteran of the Battle of Waterloo, was “(all) too aware of his own weaknesses (and) proved incapable of providing decisive military leadership once the insurrection in Kabul had broken out in 1841”. He would die of dysentery in prison after being captured.

Shelton was also a veteran of Waterloo, and at one point carried out a textbook manoeuver from that battle, drawing his men up in infantry squares. But the Afghans weren’t about to launch a conventional cavalry attack nor were they coming on like Zulu warriors, both of which would have been repelled by the squares.

Instead, they sniped the British with long-range jezails, muskets they used for sharpshooting.

But rather than closing in and killing the British, the various Afghan chieftains seemed willing to negotiate their departure and the return to the throne of Dost Mohammed. 

The British played along, but they also opened back channels to various tribal leaders, trying to bribe them into supporting Shah Soojah instead. One of these Afghan leaders, Akbar Khan, offered to meet Sir William Macnaughten, a civil servant posted in India who was the primary planner of the 1839 invasion that put Soojah on the throne. In this, he was at odds with Alexander Burnes, who’d favoured Dost Mohammed. But both men would share the same fate because when Macnaughten’s double-cross bribe attempt was exposed, Khan shot him dead.

After this, Khan did agree to the safe passage of the 16,500 British – 700 European soldiers, 3,800 Indian sepoys and 12,000 camp followers – to Jalalabad (near the border of modern-day Pakistan.) The catch was that the British had to hand over money and hostages.

Afghan history
The route taken by British forces as they fled Afghanistan in early 1842 (image from ‘The First Afghan War’ by Richard Macrory © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

After striking out, the British columns were continuously harassed when they passed through the mountain defiles. Akbar Khan sent messages offering to take more hostages he could protect – mostly women and children, but also, Elphinstone and Shelton.

Plodding on, the remaining British found the Jagdalak Pass blocked by holly oak and were reduced to hacking and tearing through it with their bare hands whilst being sniped from above by Afghans with jezails. By now it was January 12, 1842, so as well as battle casualties, men were dying of cold and sickness.

By the following day, on January 13:

“Of the remaining British forces, only some 20 officers, 45 infantry, and around a dozen cavalry managed to get through Jagdalak Pass. The officers and infantry reached the village of Gandamak, where they felt obliged to leave the road to take up a defensive position on a small hill just outside the village. They had only 20 muskets and two rounds of ammunition left.”

This was a far cry from thousands of men led by officers hauling an abundance of personal possessions on dozens of camels confidently striding through the Bolan Pass. How had it all gone so horribly wrong?

Whether the cost-cutting by Peel’s cabinet had fatally undermined the operation, or if the prior Whig government’s scheme was doomed from the start is hard to say. After all, if the British had been more subtle, with an eventual plan to leave – with their man left safely behind as king – perhaps they could have escaped the normal Afghan trap of gradually-mounting, incessant resistance. 

Barfield has at least pointed out that the corrupt system of payments clamped down on by the Tory government was actually a form of social glue holding the society together. One observer from the period, Captain R S Trevor, made a similar observation:

“We must not look on the Irregular Cavalry (that the British wanted to replace with regular infantry) as merely a military body. In that light 3 Regiments might annihilate it tomorrow, but as an instrument which enables H. M.’s (Her Majesty’s) principal subjects to appropriate a greater part of his revenues without making any return, and which has continued so long that its destruction would certainly be considered an invasion of private property.”

What is obvious is that the British had effectively made the same mistake as everyone who’d ever conquered Afghanistan: they’d taken the country, and then failed to hold it, just in a shorter time frame than was often the case.

What’s more, in the wake of the disaster, events would prove just how unnecessary and wasteful the whole expedition had been. To start with, they united the various disparate tribes against them. Barfield comments that the notion of the war being an Islamic-inspired quest to rid the country of ‘infidel foreigners’ was suspiciously propagandistic. Religion hadn’t been such a major issue before the British arrived and Muslims regularly killed fellow Muslims.

Sometime after they left, Soojah was also murdered and the British returned, sending the comparatively feeble Afghan army on the run, sacking Kabul and laying waste to the surrounding countryside. This time they didn’t stay, but left behind Dost Mohammed on the throne, who now they decided they could work with after all. 

history of Afghanistan
Route taken by the ‘Army of Retribution’ in 1842 (image from ‘The First Afghan War’ by Richard Macrory © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

But Dost Mohammed’s playing by the rules - staying passive during the Indian uprising against the British in 1857, for example - was not enough to keep the British away from Afghanistan again.

Paranoia about Russia didn’t go away, not least because of the 1854 Crimean War fought with them (and their 1877-78 war with Turkey.) And so the chess board of Afghanistan remained an obvious arena for another round of the Great Game.

Back home in Britain, defeat in the first Anglo-Afghan War had been spun into a heroic stand of lionhearted soldiers against barbarian natives who attacked women and children. The fact that the Afghans had gone out of their way to spare women and children from massacre by taking them as prisoners, and that some members of the British response force in 1842 murdered, raped and plundered Kabul, was left out of this version of the story.

In fact, like a movie of its day, Richard Macrory describes how the whole affair was dramatised for mass public consumption:

“Astley’s Circus in London was renowned for mounting spectacular reconstructions of famous military events. Their show in April 1843 was entitled ‘Afghanistan War’, and hyped up the invasion, the rescue of the prisoners, and the success of the Army of Retribution, while downplaying the disastrous retreat, and the political failures. The audiences cheered.”

Only fitting then that the sequel to this Hollywood extravaganza of the era should feature many of same, dare we say, hackneyed plot devices, epic backstory elements and heroic character arcs. As Rory Stewart explains:

“…in the late 1870s, Russians again appeared in Kabul. A new generation of British hawks decided the only response was again to invade. Again there was a public outcry, again, imperial paranoia triumphed, and once again, a British army, this time 40,000 strong, was marching into Afghanistan… a new envoy, Louis Cavagnari, another swashbuckling, multilingual officer, was installed in Kabul.”

second anglo afghan war
What was to be the theatre of operations for the Second Afghan War (image from ‘The Anglo-Afghan Wars’ by Gregory Fremont-Barnes © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Unlike, apparently, some of the politicians in London, Cavagnari had seen the first movie, and didn’t want to end up dead like Alexander Burnes. He lived inside a fortress, not amongst the locals, swore off the ladies, and, apart from riding in on an elephant, kept a low profile.

But fate had apparently cast Cavagnari in the role of unlucky hero anyway, and, like Burnes, he too became the focus of local ire – because his fortress was the Bala Hissar, a royal palace, and his presence here also caused offence. 

He too was killed, this being the ‘inciting incident’ for ‘Anglo-Afghan War Part 2’ as the conflict now swung into high gear, with General Frederick Roberts starring as the righteous avenger. He took Kabul, examined the mangled corpses of Cavagnari and his colleagues and promptly hanged 100 locals as punishment.

Like Rory Stewart, Robert Fisk also sums up the whole episode rather cynically in ‘The Great War for Civlisation’:

“In the second half of the nineteenth century, Anglo-Russian rivalry and suspicion had naturally focused upon Afghanistan, whose unmarked frontiers had become the indistinct front lines between imperial Russia and the British Indian Raj. The principal victims of the ‘Great Game’, as British diplomats injudiciously referred to the successive conflicts in Afghanistan – there was indeed something characteristically childish about the jealousy between Russia and Britain – were, of course, the Afghans. Their landlocked box of deserts and soaring mountains and dark green valleys had for centuries been both a cultural meeting point – between the Middle East, Central Asia and the Far East – and a battlefield. A decision by the Afghan king Shir Ali Khan, the third son of Afghanistan’s first king, Dost Mohamed, to receive a Russian mission in Kabul after his re-accession in 1868 led directly to what the British were to call the Second Afghan War.”

Likewise, in ‘The Anglo-Afghan Wars’, Gregory Fremont-Barnes notes that a string of British military victories in the years since the First Afghan War contributed to the sense of amnesia that let them slide into another one. Though he does point out that even if Russia was unlikely to have invaded British India directly, revolts on the northern frontier stoked by a Russian-friendly Afghan monarch were a theoretical possibility.

But as it would turn out, the British got far more than just theoretical revolts once they’d entered Afghanistan. Stewart says:

“While General Roberts sat in Kabul, the countryside was now in revolt. Suddenly a jihad had been called against them, and when they looked out on a winter evening from their small camp in Kabul they could see right along (the opposite) ridgeline 60,000 watch fires burning, from Afghans bent on their destruction.”

Roberts, though, wasn’t going to cut and run, and get cut down in rocky defiles in the process – he too had apparently seen the first movie. But while staying and fighting off the Afghans worked for him, it didn’t work further south, at the village of Maiwand, where the British force was overrun.

Reading England
A memorial to fallen of Maiwand in Reading (image: Jim Linwood)

Bucking the trend of the first war, Roberts marched south and, in September 1880, won the Battle of Kandahar, bringing the Second Anglo-Afghan War to a close. Appraising the situation afterwards, he said:

“We have nothing to fear from Afghanistan, and offensive though it may be to our pride, the less they see of us, the less they will dislike us.”

And then he left Afghanistan.

In this, he was clearly more astute than many who’d got themselves entangled in the country in years prior, and since. One can hear the words of Sir John Kaye, author of the 1851 ‘History of the War in Afghanistan’, echoed in contemporary observations. He said of the first conflict with regards to the British insistence on installing Shah Soojah on the throne:

“The expedition now to be undertaken had no longer any ostensible object than the substitution of a monarch whom the people of Afghanistan had repeatedly, in emphatic, scriptural language, spued out, for those Barukzye chiefs who, whatever may have been the defect of their government, had contrived to maintain themselves in security, and their country in peace, with a vigour and constancy unknown to the luckless Suddozye Princes.”

In ‘Bitter Lake’, the BBC’s Adam Curtis observes that, during the latest British intervention, many local Afghans didn’t see the overriding problem in Afghanistan as the Taliban. He points out that they were more concerned about what they said was the corrupt regional government that President Hamid Karzai had installed (Karzai himself having been installed by the Bush Administration in 2001* before officially winning the presidency in 2004.) When the British protected it, they saw this as the protection of their oppressors, a grievance that lay behind attacks on the British.

(*Karzai was selected to head Afghanistan’s interim government during the November 2001 Bonn Conference after the Bush administration’s first Special Envoy for Afghanistan, James Dobbins, lobbied for him. But one group at the meeting insisted that the former king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, be head of state. According to Theo Farrell in ‘Unwinnable’, Dobbins’ compromise was for “…Zahir (to) be given the privilege of nominating the chairman of the interim administration, provided that nominee was Karzai…” and that a Loya Jirga (a traditional meeting of elders) would follow in six months. Karzai, though, was light on security. Because of the factious nature of the emerging government, Farrell says this necessitated the creation of “a neutral security force provided by the international community” – hence, ISAF. According to globalsecurity.org, Karzai was also said to have been a consultant for the oil company Unocal, who were looking to build a pipeline through Afghanistan, an assertion made by ‘Le Monde’ and in the Michael Moore film ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’. But the site points out that, in fact, both Unocal and Karzai deny this, whereas what is true is that American ambassador to the Afghan government Zalmay Khalilzad was a former Unocal consultant. According to the ‘New Yorker’s’ Jon Lee Anderson, Khalilzad’s relationship with Karzai was seen by many Afghans as being too close. But even if this was the case, Dobbins’ original selection of Karzai is said to have been made simply on the basis that he had broad appeal across the various regional and internal factions. What he couldn’t do was gain legitimacy from those who were absent. Bonn conference chairman Lakhdar Brahimi later referred to the complete exclusion from the talks of the Taliban – which came to mean many Pashtun/Afghan nationalists who were not really synonymous with al-Qaeda – as an ‘original sin’ in the Afghan war).

Afghanistan
Royal Marines in Helmand

Furthermore, local tribal feuds began to work their way into the mix. As a young Army captain, Mike Martin, told Curtis:

“The dynamic was one of manipulation. They understood how we saw the conflict – they presented their local group conflict, their civil war between groups that had been going on for 35 years, they presented everything in that dynamic. So they came to us and said ‘Those people over there are Taliban. And we… went off and dealt with them. But actually, we were dealing with their previous enemies, so we were just creating more enemies for ourselves. And you ended up in a downward spiral where, because everyone was manipulating us, we ended up fighting everyone and then, in return, everyone who fought us, immediately became ‘Taliban’. The way that we decided (if someone) was Taliban or not, was whether (they) were firing at us… Post 2001, whereas we’ve understood the conflict as good, bad, black, white, government, Taliban, they’ve understood it as a shifting mosaic of different groups and leaders fighting each other, effectively over power. And the currency of power in Helmand is opium. That’s largely what the conflict’s about.”

Initiating attacks on the British, even external ones, is also not without historical precedent. 

The Third Anglo-Afghan War started in 1919 due to the British empire having been weakened by the World War 1. So what better time to declare Jihad, invade British India and enlarge Afghan territory? Britain though held onto her colony, at least until Indian independence in 1947 and the end of the British Empire.

That left the relatively new Soviet empire to make its own mistakes in Afghanistan, invading and fighting a war of its own there between 1979 and 1989.

They too were forced out, but not without significant cost to the Afghans. The subsequent civil war and rise of the oppressive Taliban makes a lot more sense in the light of this observation from Thomas Barfield:

“Unfortunately the successful resistance strategy of making the country ungovernable for the Soviet occupier also ended up making Afghanistan ungovernable for the Afghans themselves. While the Afghans had recovered from many earlier periods of state collapse, the body politic was now afflicted with an autoimmune disorder in which the antibodies of resistance threatened to destroy any state structure, regardless of who controlled it or its ideology.”

Although the 1979-89 war was outside of British military experience, it wasn’t beyond the eyes and ears of British journalists. Again, in ‘The Great War for Civilisation’, Robert Fisk recalls being a young war correspondent who saw the conflict whilst (accidentally) embedded with the Russians:

“Private Tebin from the Estonian city of Tallinn – if he survived Afghanistan, I assume he is now a proud citizen of the European Union, happily flourishing his new passport at British immigration desks – repeatedly described how dangerous the mountains had become now that rebels were shooting daily at Soviet troops. Captain Viktor wanted to know why I had chosen to be a journalist. But what emerged most strongly was that all these soldiers were fascinated by pop music. Lieutenant Nikolai from Tashkent interrupted at one point to ask: ‘Is it true that Paul McCartney has been arrested in Tokyo?’ And he put his extended hands together as if he had been handcuffed. Why had McCartney been arrested? he wanted to know. I asked him where he had heard the Beatles’ music and two other men chorused at once: ‘On the “Voice of America” radio.’ 

“I was smiling now. Not because the Russians were friendly – each had studied my passport and all were now calling me ‘Robert’ as if I was a comrade-in-arms rather than the citizen of an enemy power – but because these Soviet soldiers with their overt interest in Western music did not represent the iron warriors of Stalingrad. They seemed like any Western soldiers: naive, cheerful in front of strangers, trusting me because I was – and here in the Afghan snows, of course, the fact was accentuated – a fellow European. They seemed genuinely apologetic that they could not allow me to continue my journey but they stopped a bus travelling in the opposite direction. ‘To Kabul!’ Captain Viktor announced. I refused. The people on that bus had seen me talking to the Russians. They would assume I was a Russian. No amount of assurances that I was British would satisfy them. I doubted if I would ever reach Kabul, at least not alive. 

“So Lieutenant Nikolai flagged down a passing Russian military truck at the back of a convoy and put me aboard. He held out his hand. ‘Dos vidanya,’ he said. ‘Goodbye –and give my love to Linda McCartney.’ And so I found myself travelling down the Hindu Kush on Soviet army convoy number 58 from Tashkent to Kabul. This was incredible. No Western journalist had been able to talk to the Soviet troops invading Afghanistan, let alone ride on their convoys, and here I was, sitting next to an armed Russian soldier as he drove his truckload of food and ammunition to Kabul, allowed to watch this vast military deployment from a Soviet army vehicle. This was better than Mazar. 

“As we began our descent of the gorge, the Russian driver beside me pulled his kitbag from behind his seat, opened the straps and offered me an orange. ‘Please, you look up,’ he said. ‘Look at the top of the hills.’ With near disbelief, I realised what was happening. While he was wrestling the wheel of his lorry on the ice, I was being asked to watch the mountain tops for gunmen. The orange was my pay for helping him out. Slowly, we began to fall behind the convoy. The soldier now hauled his rifle from the back of the cab and laid it between us on the seat. ‘Now you watch right of road,’ he said. ‘Tell if you see people.’ I did as I was told, as much for my safety as his. Our truck had a blue-painted interior with the word Kama engraved over the dashboard. It was one of the lorries built with American assistance at the Kama River factory in the Soviet Union, and I wondered what President Carter would have thought if he knew the uses to which his country’s technology was now being put. The driver had plastered his cab with Christmas cards.

“At the bottom of the pass we found his convoy, and an officer –tall, with intelligent, unnaturally pale green eyes, khaki trousers tucked into heavy army boots –came to the door on my side of the truck. ‘You are English,’ he said with a smile. ‘I am Major Yuri. Come to the front with me.’ And so we trekked through the deep slush to the front of the column where a Soviet tank was trying to manoeuvre up the pass in the opposite direction. ‘It’s a T-62,’ he said, pointing to the sleeve halfway down the tank’s gun barrel. I thought it prudent not to tell him that I had already recognised the classification. 

“And I had to admit that Major Yuri seemed a professional soldier, clearly admired by his men –they were all told to shake my hand – and, in the crisis in which we would shortly find ourselves, behaved calmly and efficiently. With fractious Afghan soldiers, whom he seemed privately to distrust, he was unfailingly courteous. When five Afghan soldiers turned up beside the convoy to complain that Russian troops had been waving rifles in their direction, Major Yuri spoke to them as an equal, taking off his gloves and shaking each by the hand until they beamed with pleasure. But he was also a party man. 

“What, he asked, did I think of Mrs Thatcher? I explained that people in Britain held different views about our prime minister – I wisely forbore to give my own –but that they were permitted to hold these views freely. I said that President Carter was not the bad man he was depicted as in the Moscow press. Major Yuri listened in silence. So what did he think about President Brezhnev? I was grinning now. I knew what he had to say. So did he. He shook his head with a smile. ‘I believe,’ he said slowly, ‘that Comrade Brezhnev is a very good man.’ Major Yuri was well-read. He knew his Tolstoy and admired the music of Shostakovich, especially his Leningrad symphony. But when I asked if he had read Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, he shook his head and tapped his revolver holster. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is for Solzhenitsyn.’

Afghanistan war 1979 - 1989
Russian Spetsnaz (special operations) soldiers before a mission in Afghanistan in 1988 (image: Mikhail Evstafiev)

“I squeezed into Major Yuri’s truck, his driver and I on the outside seats, Yuri in the middle; and so we set off for Kabul. ‘England a good country?’ he asked. ‘Better than Afghanistan?’ No, Major Yuri did not want to be in Afghanistan, he admitted. He wanted to be at home in Kazakhstan with his wife and nine-year-old daughter and planned to take a return convoy back to them in three days’ time. He had spent thirteen of his thirty years in the army, had not enough money to buy a car and could never travel abroad because he was an officer. It was his way of telling me that life in the Soviet Union was hard, that his life was not easy, that perhaps Comrade Brezhnev was not that good a man. Had not Brezhnev sent him here in the first place? When I asked questions he could not answer, he smiled in silent acknowledgement that he would have liked to be able to do so. 

“Amid a massive army, there is always a false sense of comfort. Even Major Yuri, his pale eyes constantly scanning the snowfields on each side of us, seemed to possess a dangerous self-confidence. True, the Afghans were attacking the Russians. But who could stop this leviathan, these armoured centipedes that were now creeping across the snows and mountains of Afghanistan? When we stopped at an Afghan checkpoint and the soldiers there could speak no Russian, Major Yuri called back for one of his Soviet Tajik officers to translate. As he did so, the major pointed at the Tajik and said, ‘Muslim.’ Yes, I understood. There were Muslims in the Soviet Union. In fact there were rather a lot of Muslims in the Soviet Union. And that, surely, was partly what this whole invasion was about. 

“The snow was blurring the windscreen of our truck, almost too fast for the wipers to clear it away, but through the side windows we could see the snowfields stretching away for miles. It was now mid-afternoon and we were grinding along at no more than 25 kilometres an hour, keeping the speed of the slowest truck,  long vulnerable snake of food, bedding, heavy ammunition, mixed in with tanks and carriers, 147 lorries in all, locked onto the main highway, a narrow vein of ice-cloaked tarmac that set every Soviet soldier up as a target for the ‘terrorists’ of Afghanistan. Or so it seemed to the men on Convoy 58. And to me. 

“Yet we were surprised when the first shots cracked out around us. We were just north of Charikar. And the rounds passed between our truck and the lorry in front, filling the air pockets behind them with little explosions, whizzing off into the frosted orchards to our left. ‘Out!’ Major Yuri shouted. He wanted his soldiers defending themselves in the snow, not trapped in their cabs. I fell into the muck and slush beside the road. The Russians around me were throwing themselves from their trucks. There was more shooting and, far in front of us, in a fog of snow and sleet, there were screams. A curl of blue smoke rose into the air from our right. The bullets kept sweeping over us and one pinged into a driver’s cab. All around me, the Soviet soldiers were lying in the drifts. Major Yuri shouted something at the men closest to him and there was a series of sharp reports as their Kalashnikovs kicked into their shoulders. Could they see what they were shooting at?

“A silence fell over the landscape. Some figures moved, far away to our left, next to a dead tree. Yuri was staring at the orchard. ‘They are shooting from there,’ he said in English. He gave me a penetrating glance. This was no longer to be soldiers’ small-talk. I listened to the crackle of the radios, the shouts of officers interrupting each other, the soldiers in the snow looking over their shoulders. Major Yuri had taken off his fur hat; his brown hair was receding and he looked older than his thirty years. ‘Watch this, Robert,’ he said, pulling from his battledress a long tube containing a flare. We stood together in the snow, the slush above our knees, as he tugged at a cord that hung beneath the tube. There was a small explosion, a powerful smell of cordite and a smoke trail that soared high up into the sky. It was watched by the dozen soldiers closest to us, each of whom knew that our lives might depend on that rocket. 

history of Afghanistan
Men of 3 Para with two WMIKs (the vehicles) near Musa Qaleh in 2006 (image from ‘The British Army in Afghanistan 2006-14’ by Leigh Neville © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

“The smoke trail had passed a thousand feet in height when it burst into a shower of stars and within fifty seconds a Soviet Air Force Mig jet swept over us at low level, dipping its wings. A minute later, a tracked personnel carrier bearing the number 368 came thrashing through the snow with two of its crew leaning from their hatches and slid to a halt beside Major Yuri’s truck. The radio crackled and he listened in silence for a few moments then held up four fingers towards me. ‘They have killed four Russians in the convoy ahead,’ he said.

“We stood on the road, backed up behind the first convoy. One row of soldiers was ordered to move two hundred metres further into the fields. Major Yuri told his men they could open their rations. The Tajik soldier who had translated for the major offered me food and I followed him to his lorry. It was decorated with Islamic pictures, quotations from the Koran, curiously interspersed with photographs of Bolshoi ballet dancers. I sat next to the truck with two soldiers beside me. We had dried biscuits and large hunks of raw pork; the only way I could eat the pork was to hold on to the fur and rip at the salted fat with my teeth. Each soldier was given three oranges, and sardines in a tin that contained about 10 per cent sardines and 90 per cent oil. Every few minutes, Major Yuri would pace the roadway and talk over the radio telephone, and when eventually we did move away with our armoured escorts scattered through the column, he seemed unsure of our exact location on the highway. Could he, he asked, borrow my map? And it was suddenly clear to me that this long convoy did not carry with it a single map of Afghanistan. 

“There was little evidence of the ambushed convoy in front save for the feet of a dead man being hurriedly pushed into a Soviet army van near Charikar and a great swath of crimson and pink slush that spread for several yards down one side of the road. The highway grew more icy at sundown, but we drove faster. As we journeyed on into the night, the headlights of our 147 trucks running like diamonds over the snow behind us, I was gently handed a Kalashnikov rifle with a full clip of ammunition. A soldier snapped off the safety catch and told me to watch through the window. I had no desire to hold this gun, even less to shoot at Afghan guerrillas, but if we were attacked again –if the Afghans had come right up to the truck as they had done many times on these convoys –they would assume I was a Russian. They would not ask all members of the National Union of Journalists to stand aside before gunning down the soldiers. 

“I have never since held a weapon in wartime and I hope I never shall again. I have always cursed the journalists who wear military costumes and don helmets and play soldiers with a gun at their hip, greying over the line between reporter and combatant, making our lives ever more dangerous as armies and militias come to regard us as an extension of their enemies, a potential combatant, a military target. But I had not volunteered to travel with the Soviet army. I was not – as that repulsive expression would have it in later wars – ‘embedded’. I was as much their prisoner as their guest. As the weeks went by, Afghans learned to climb aboard the Soviet convoy lorries after dark and knife their occupants. I knew that my taking a rifle –even though I never used it –would produce a reaction from the great and the good in journalism, and it seemed better to admit the reality than to delete this from the narrative. If I was riding shotgun for the Soviet army, then that was the truth of it. 

“Three times we passed through towns where villagers and peasants lined the roadside to watch us pass. And of course, it was an eerie, unprecedented experience to sit with a rifle on my lap in a Soviet military column next to armed and uniformed Russian troops and to watch those Afghans –most of them in turbans, long shawls and rubber shoes – staring at us with contempt and disgust. One man in a blue coat stood on the tailboard of an Afghan lorry and watched me with narrowed eyes. It was the nearest I had seen to a look of hatred. He shouted something that was lost in the roar of our convoy. 

“Major Yuri seemed unperturbed. As we drove through Qarabagh, I told him I didn’t think the Afghans liked the Russians. It was beginning to snow heavily again. The major did not take his eyes from the road. ‘The Afghans are cunning people,’ he said without obvious malice, and then fell silent. We were still sliding along the road to Kabul when I turned to Major Yuri again. So why was the Soviet army in Afghanistan, I asked him? The major thought about this for about a minute and gave me a smile. ‘If you read Pravda,’ he said, ‘you will find that Comrade Leonid Brezhnev has answered this question.’ Major Yuri was a party man to the end.”

Like the First Anglo-Afghan War, there was also no Hollywood ending to Mark Luttrell’s book ‘Lone Survivor’, artistic license accounting for the film’s spectacle-filled finale.

And even events chronicled in the book are open to question.

Luttrell is highly critical of ‘the liberal media’ and restrictive rules of engagement that his enemies don’t follow - factors that he says could have led to murder charges for him and his comrades if they had decided to kill the goat herders who he says gave them away. Because the subsequent encounter with Taliban fighters killed his three comrades, he looks back with some regret about not having killed these Afghan civilians.

Luttrell’s point that many in the media does not understand what it is like to be locked in combat with ferocious, fanatical opponents is obviously a fair criticism. But he doesn’t point out the obvious fact that, at this point in history, western nations are more likely to be at war with groups that don’t follow the Geneva conventions or any rules of engagement precisely because they have such radically-different values. And he never explores the contribution of rules of engagement to winning the war for both Afghan and American public opinion, even from a cold and clinical perspective.

It’s interesting to compare Luttrell’s account of his mission with Andy McNab’s account of the Bravo Two Zero mission, which was similarly compromised by a child goat herder:

“Do we top him? Too much noise. Anyway, what was the point? I wouldn’t want that on my conscience for the rest of my life. Sh*t, I could have been an Iraqi behind the lines in Britain and that could have been (my daughter) up there… We could decide later what to do with him – to tie him up and stuff his gob with chocolate, or whatever… (but) the child had too much of a head start. He was gone, fucking gone, hollering like a lunatic…”

In the book ‘The Psychopath’s Guide to Success’, McNab reveals there was also an additional cold, military calculation to the decision not to kill the goat herder: that killing a local non-combatant, particularly a child, would have increased the odds that he and his men would face torture or execution if captured. So, in contrast to Luttrell’s arguments, not killing goat herders was both the right legal, humanitarian as well as the smart military option, at least in McNab’s opinion.

It’s also worth pointing out that the rules of engagement are meant to help prevent the mistaken or unlawful killing of non-Taliban Afghans, such as Mohammad Gulab, a local Afghan who saved Luttrell’s life.

And like the Afghan interpreters whose story of struggling to get British residency has just been covered by the Forces Network, Gulab’s life was also endangered by helping an American soldier, and he too struggled to get out of Afghanistan and into the US. 

In fact, according to Newsweek, Gulab’s friendship with Luttrell became strained in more recent years. This might have something to do with his own take on the story being different to Luttrell’s. His account has the SEALs being given away by their helicopter, not by the goat herders. Luttrell’s own account certainly supports this possibility: 

“This was my nightmare, ever since I first stared at those plans back in the briefing room: the four of us starkly silhouetted against a treeless mountain above a Taliban-occupied village. We were an Afghan lookout’s finest moment, unmissable… trapped in nature’s spotlight (a full moon) with nowhere to hide.”

And the size of the Taliban force that attacked the SEALs has also been estimated to have been far lower than the number given in the book. One figure quoted in Newsweek said it could have been eight to 10 individuals, not 80 to 100.

It seems possible that, if the number of enemy soldiers was exaggerated in later accounts, at least some of this might be accounted for by the intensity of fighting in rugged Afghan mountain terrain. One can see how 10 Taliban fighters armed with automatic weapons and RPGs ambushing American soldiers from above, with huge volumes of fire and explosions multiplied by ricochets and flying bits of rock might have made it seem like there were many more.

Whatever the actual details of the encounter Luttrell’s SEAL team had with their enemy in Afghanistan, the general trend seems to have been the same for them as every other military force that has gone into the country. 

What comes through most in any military history of Afghanistan is the continuity not only of Afghan tribal culture, but also of the strategic obstacle of Barfield’s ‘Swiss cheese’ model, with isolated areas protected by geographical obstacles that cannot ever be entirely mastered. Paul Kennedy explains in ‘The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers’ that the geography of Europe – its varied terrain, rivers, valleys, mountains etc – has always lent itself to multiple different kingdoms. Multiple defensible positions have made it difficult for would-be conquerors to subjugate anyone in their path, as opposed to the vast, open planes of places like China, which are more easily united under one ruler. In this sense, strategically, Afghanistan might be thought of as Europe in microcosm, not only Swiss cheese, but a central-Asian Switzerland, as it were.

On a tactical level, this meant Marcus Luttrell’s SEAL team, however many Afghans they faced off against, getting caught in rocky terrain, from above, by deadly Afghan sniper fire – just like the Russians, and so too the British.

But what was slightly different between Luttrell’s experience and that of the fleeing British columns in 1842 was the proportion of those who made it out alive. Luttrell was one of four SEALs who lived through their mission. For the British, after many had been taken prisoner, of the 65 foot soldiers and 12 cavalrymen who made it through the holly oak in Jagdalak Pass, most were killed or taken prisoner. Macrory explains:

“The dozen cavalrymen had tried to ride on to Jalalabad but six were soon killed, with the remainder reaching the village of Futtehabad, only 16 miles from their goal. Initially welcomed by villagers, they were then attacked and two were killed. The remaining four managed to escape, but three were killed just four miles from Jalalabad…”

This left assistant surgeon Dr William Brydon, trotting into Jalalabad on a wounded pony. There would be a few stragglers later, but for all intents and purposes, to those waiting in Jalalabad, Brydon was the only man out of 500 European troops and a force over 16,000 to make it out of Afghanistan without being killed or captured. 

He was Britain’s lone survivor.

For illustrated histories of the British wars in Afghanistan, read ‘The First Anglo Afghan War 1839-42: invasion, catastrophe and retreat’ by Richard Macrory, ‘The Anglo-Afghan Wars 1839-1919’ by Gregory Fremont-Barnes and ‘The British Army in Afghanistan 2006-14’ by Leigh Neville. Visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.

For more about the history of Afghanistan, read ‘Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the War Against the Taliban’ by Stephen Tanner, ‘Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History’ by Thomas Barfield, 'Unwinnable: Britain's War in Afghanistan, 2001 - 2014' by Theo Farrell, and ‘The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East’ by Robert Fisk, or watch ‘Afghanistan: The Great Game’ with Rory Stewart. For Marcus Luttrell's full account of his mission, also read 'Lone Survivor'. 

Images of Mongolian siege warfare and Genghis Khan statue from François Philipp and Bill Taroli; ‘Remnants of an Army’ from the Tate Gallery; the Maiwand Lion from Jim Linwood and the picture of a Pashtun man in Kabul comes from Jeremy Weate.

First Anglo-Afghan War
Britain’s ‘lone survivor’, Dr. Brydon, arriving at Jalalabad (image: ‘The Remnants of an Army’ 1879 by Elizabeth Butler © Tate Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)