Wood engraving depicting the British massacre in the first Anglo-Afghan War, 1838-1842
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william dalrymple in afghanistan
As the Great Game repeats itself, India must wake up to Karzai’s new moves

In 1843, shortly after his return from Afghanistan, an army chaplain named Rev G.H. Gleig wrote a memoir of the disastrous First Anglo-Afghan War of which he was one of the very few survivors. It was, he wrote, “a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, was acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated”.

It would be difficult to imagine any military adventure today going quite as badly as the First Anglo-Afghan War, an abortive experiment in Great Game colonialism that ended with an entire East India Company army utterly routed by poorly equipped tribesmen, at the cost of Rs 80 billion and over 40,000 lives. But this month, almost 10 years on from NATO’s invasion of Afghanistan, there were increasing signs that the current Afghan war, like so many before them, could still end in another embarrassing withdrawal after a humiliating defeat, with Afghanistan yet again left in tribal chaos, possibly partitioned and ruled by the same government which the war was originally fought to overthrow.

Certainly it is becoming clearer than ever that the once-hated Taliban, far from being defeated by the surge, are instead beginning to converge on, and effectively besiege, Kabul in what is beginning to look like the final act in the history of Karzai’s western-installed puppet government. For the Taliban have now reorganised, and advanced out of their borderland safe havens. They are now massing at the gates of Kabul, surrounding the capital, much as the US-backed mujahideen once did to the Soviet-installed regime in the late ’80s. The Taliban controls over 70 per cent of the country, where it collects taxes, enforces the sharia and dispenses its usual rough justice. Every month their sphere of influence increases. According to a recent Pentagon report, Karzai’s government only controls 29 out of 121 key strategic districts.

Last month marked a new low with the Taliban inflicting higher levels of casualties on both civilians and NATO forces than ever before and regaining control of the opium-growing centre of Marja in Helmand, only three months after being driven out by American forces amid much gung-ho cheerleading in the US media.

 
 
The Taliban are massing at the gates of Kabul, much as the US-backed mujahideen once did in the late ’80s.
 
 
Worse still, there are unsettling and persistent rumours that Karzai is trying to reach some sort of accommodation with elements in Pakistan that aid and assist the Taliban: the ISI head, Lt General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, has secretly been shuttling to and from Islamabad to meet Karzai, and last month, General Kayani, head of the Pakistani army, visited Kabul.

This followed the sacking of Amrullah Saleh, Karzai’s very pro-Indian security chief. Saleh is a tough, burly and intimidating Tajik with a piercing, unblinking stare, who rose to prominence as a mujahideen protege of Ahmed Shah Masood, the legendary, India-backed Lion of the Panjshir. Saleh brought these impeccable credentials to his job after the American conquest, ruthlessly hunting down and interrogating any Taliban he could find, with little regard for notions of human rights.

The Taliban, and their backers in the ISI, regarded him as their fiercest enemy, something he was enormously proud of. When I had dinner with him in Kabul in May, he spoke at length of his frustration with the Karzai government’s ineffectiveness in taking the fight to the Taliban, and the degree to which the ISI was still managing to aid, arm and train their pocket insurgents in Waziristan, Sindh and Balochistan.

Saleh’s sacking in early June merited much less newsprint than last month’s sacking of General Stanley McChrystal. Yet in reality, McChrystal’s departure reflects only a minor personnel change, no important alteration in strategy. The sacking of Saleh, however, gave notice of a major and ominous change of direction by President Karzai.

Bruce Riedel, Obama’s Afpak advisor, said when the news broke: “Karzai’s decision to sack Saleh and (Hanif) Atmar (head of the interior ministry) has worried me more than any other development, because it means Karzai is already planning for a post-American Afghanistan.”


US soldiers frisk an Afghan during a patrol in Shahwali Kot, in Kandahar, Afghanistan
(Photograph by AFP, From Outlook, August 30, 2010)

The implication is that Pakistan is encouraging some sort of accommodation between Karzai and the ISI-sponsored jehadi network of Sirajuddin Haqqani, which could give over much of the Pashtun south to Haqqani, but preserve Karzai in power in Kabul. The Americans have been party to none of this, and administration officials have been quoted as being alarmed by the news.

India’s expulsion from Afghanistan, or at least a severe rolling back of its presence, can be presumed to be a demand on the ISI shopping list in return for a deal. Under Karzai, India had increasing political and economic influence in Afghanistan—it opened four regional consulates, and provided around $662 million of reconstruction assistance. Pakistan’s military establishment has always believed it would be suicide to accept an Indian presence in what they regard as their strategic backyard, and is completely paranoid about the still small Indian presence—rather as the British used to be about Russians in Afghanistan during the days of the Great Game.

MEA sources say there are less than 3,600 Indians in Afghanistan, almost all of them businessmen and contract workers; there are only 10 Indian diplomatic officers as opposed to nearly 150 in the UK embassy. Yet the horror of being squeezed in an Indian nutcracker has led the ISI to risk Pakistan’s own internal security and coherence, as well as its strategic relationship with the US, in order to keep the Taliban in play, and its leadership under watch and ISI patronage in Quetta, something the Wikileaks documents amply confirmed.

 
 
The horror of being squeezed in an Indian nutcracker forces Pakistan to risk all to keep the Taliban in play.
 
 
If it is true that Karzai is tilting away from NATO and India, and towards Pakistan, it would represent a strategic victory for the Pakistani military, and a diplomatic defeat for India—though the ISI will have to first deliver the Taliban, who still say they are unwilling to negotiate with Karzai. It also remains to be seen whether Pakistan can be defended from the jehadi Frankenstein’s monster its military has created: the recent bomb blasts in Lahore at the shrine of Datta Sahib would seem further evidence to indicate not. The other question is whether India can succeed in its reported attempts to resuscitate the Northern Alliance as a contingency against the Taliban’s takeover of the south, possibly in conjunction with Russia, Iran and the Central Asian ‘stans’.

Either way, within Afghanistan, it’s a grim picture. Already, it’s now impossible—or at least extremely foolhardy—for any foreigner to walk even in Kabul without armed guards; it is even more inadvisable to head out of town in any direction except north: the strongly anti-Taliban Panjshir Valley, and the towns of Mazar and Herat, are really the only safe havens left for non-Afghans in the entire country, despite the massive troops levels all over. In all other directions, travel is only possible in an armed convoy. This is especially so around the Khoord Kabul and Tezeen Passes, immediately to the south of Kabul, where around 18,000 East India Company troops, many of them Indian sepoys, were lost in 1842, and which is today again a centre of resistance against foreign troops.

***

The trajectory of the current war is in fact beginning to feel unsettlingly familiar to students of the Great Game. In 1839, the British invaded Afghanistan on the basis of sexed-up intelligence about a non-existent threat: information about a single Russian envoy to Kabul was manipulated by a group of ambitious, ideologically-driven hawks to create a scare—in this case, about a phantom Russian invasion—thus bringing about an unnecessary, expensive and entirely avoidable war.


Pak PM Yousuf Gilani, Afghan president Hamid Karzai, then Afghan foreign minister Rangin D. Spanta and Pak army chief Kayani at a meeting in Islamabad, May 13, 2009
(PhotoGraph by AFP, From Outlook, August30, 2010)

Initially, the hawks were triumphant: the British conquest proved remarkably easy and bloodless. Kabul was captured in a few weeks, the Afghan army melted into the hills, and a pliable monarch, Shah Shuja, was placed on the throne. For months the British played cricket, went skating and put on amateur theatricals as if on summer leave in Simla; there were even discussions about making Kabul the summer capital of the Raj. Then an insurgency began which slowly unravelled that first heady success, first among the Pashtuns of Kandahar and Helmand, and slowly moving northwards until it reached Kabul, making the occupation impossible to sustain.

 
 
“In the ’80s when we were killing Russians for them, we were freedom fighters. Now we’re just warlords.”
 
 
What happened next is a warning of how bad things could yet become: a full-scale rebellion broke out in Kabul; the two most senior British envoys were killed, one hacked to death by a mob in the streets, the other stabbed by resistance leader Wazir Akbar Khan during negotiations. It was on the retreat that followed, on January 6, 1842, that the 18,000 East India Company troops, and maybe half that many Indian camp followers, were slaughtered by marksmen waiting in ambush amid the scree of the high passes, shot down as they trudged through the icy depths of the Afghan winter. After eight days on the death march, the last 50 survivors made their final stand at the village of Gandamak. As late as the 1970s, fragments of Victorian weaponry and military equipment could be found lying in the screes above the village. Even today, the hill is said to be covered with bleached bones.

Only one man lived to tell the tale of that last stand (if you discount the fictional survival of Flashman): an ordinary footsoldier, Thomas Souter, wrapped his regimental colours around him to prevent them being captured, and was taken hostage by the Afghans who assumed that an individual so colourfully clothed must command a high ransom. It is a measure of the increasingly pertinent parallels between that war and today’s that one of the main NATO bases in Afghanistan was recently named Camp Souter.

In the years following 1842, the British defeat became pregnant with symbolism. For the Victorian British, it was the greatest imperial disaster of the 19th century. For the Afghans, it became an emblem of freedom from foreign invasion, and the determination the Afghans have never lost to refuse to be controlled by any foreign power. It is again no accident that the diplomatic quarter of Kabul, the Afghan Chanakyapuri, is named after the general who oversaw the rout of the British: Wazir Akbar Khan.

For Indians, who provided most of the cannon-fodder, the war ironically became a symbol of possibility: although many Indians died on the march, it showed the British were not invincible, and a well-planned insurgency could force them out; a few years later, in 1857, India launched its own anti-colonial uprising, partly inspired by what the Afghans had achieved.

This destabilising effect on South Asia of the failed Afghan war has a direct parallel in the disastrous blowback from the war we currently see in Pakistan’s tribal territories. Indeed, the ripples of instability lapping out from Afghanistan and Pakistan have now reached even New York: when Faisal Shazad was asked by cia interrogators why he tried to bomb New York, he told them of his desire to revenge those “innocent people being hit by drones from above”.

***

Last month, while researching my new book on the disaster of 1842, I only narrowly avoided the same fate as my Victorian forbears. The route of the British retreat backs onto the mountain range that leads to Tora Bora and the Pakistan border, an area that has always been a Taliban centre. I’d been advised not to venture there without local protection, so had set off that morning in the company of a tribal leader who was also a minister in Karzai’s government: a huge mountain of a man named Anwar Khan Jigdalik, a former village wrestling champion who had made his name as a Hizb-i-Islami commander in the jehad against the Soviets.

It was Jigdalik’s ancestors who inflicted some of the worst casualties on the British army of 1842, something he proudly repeated several times as we drove through the same passes. None of this, incidentally, has stopped him from sending his family away to the greater safety of Northolt. Jigdalik drove himself in a huge suv; a pick-up full of heavily armed bodyguards followed. We left Kabul—past the blast walls of the NATO barracks, built on the very site of the British cantonment of 170 years ago—and headed down a corkscrewing road into the line of bleak mountain passes that link Kabul with the Khyber Pass.

 
 
They promised full compensation, and so were allowed to burn the opium...but the money never came.
 
 
It’s a dramatic, violent landscape: faultlines of tortured strata twisted in the gunpowder-coloured rockwalls rising on either side. Above us, the dragon’s backs of jagged mountain tops were veiled in an ominous mist. As we drove, Jigdalik complained bitterly of the western treatment of his government: “In the ’80s, when we were killing Russians for them, the Americans called us freedom fighters,” he muttered as we descended the first pass. “Now they just dismiss us as warlords.”

At Sorobi, where the mountains debouche into a high-altitude ochre desert dotted with encampments of nomads, we left the main road and headed into Taliban territory; a further five trucks full of Jigdalik’s old mujahideen fighters, faces wrapped in keffiyehs and all brandishing rocket-propelled grenades, appeared from a side road to escort us.

At Jigdalik, on January 12, 1842, some 200 frostbitten Company soldiers found themselves surrounded by several thousand Pashtun tribesmen. The two highest-ranking British soldiers went off to negotiate and were taken hostage, while a companion, James Skinner, son of Sikandar Sahib, was murdered. Only 50 infantrymen could break out, under cover of darkness.

Our own welcome was, thankfully, somewhat warmer. It was my host’s first visit home since he became a minister, and the proud villagers took their old commander on a nostalgia trip through low hills smelling of wild thyme and rosemary, and up through mountainsides of hollyhocks and white poplars. Here, at the top, lay the remains of Jigdalik’s old mujahideen bunkers and entrenchments. Later, the villagers feasted us, Mughal style, in an apricot orchard: we sat on carpets under a trellis of vine and pomegranate blossom, as course after course of kebabs and mulberry pulao were laid in front of us.


The bomb blast site near the Indian embassy in Kabul, October 8, ’09

During lunch, as my hosts pointed out the various places in the village where the British had been massacred in 1842, I asked them if they saw any parallels with the current situation: “It is exactly the same,” said Jigdalik. “Both times the foreigners have come for their own interests, not for ours. They pretend to be our friends. They say, ‘We are your friends, we want democracy, we want to help.’ But they are lying.”

“Since the British went, we’ve had the Russians,” said Mohammad Khan, our host in the village and the orchard owner. “We saw them off too, but not before they bombed many of our houses.” He pointed at a ridge full of ruined houses on the hills behind us. “Afghanistan is like the crossroads for every nation that comes to power,” said Jigdalik. “We do not have the strength to control our own destiny—our fate is determined by our neighbours.”

“Next it will be China. This is the last days of the Americans.”

“Each state in America is the same size as Afghanistan,” said Jigdalik, nodding in agreement with his villagers. “If they’d wanted to help us, they could have. But we’re still in a miserable state. All the money that came in: none of it was given to Afghans—just to their own contractors, or wasted in corruption. What has been done with all the millions sent here? Can you see any improvements? Now the moment has passed, their power is slipping.”

“So you think the Taliban will come back?”

“The Taliban?” said Mohammad Khan. “They are here already. At least after dark. Just over that pass,” he pointed in the direction of Gandamak and Tora Bora. “That is where they are strongest.”

It was nearly 5 pm before the final flaps of naan were cleared away, too late to head on to the site of the British last stand at Gandamak. Instead, we went to Jalalabad, where we discovered we’d had a narrow escape: the feast had saved us from walking straight into an ambush. It turned out there had been a huge battle that day between government forces and villagers supported by the Taliban at Gandamak, on exactly the site of the British last stand. In Afghanistan, imperial history seems to be repeating itself with uncanny precision.

The next morning in Jalalabad we went to a jirga, to which the grey beards of Gandamak had come, under a flag of truce, to discuss what had happened the day before. The story was typical of many I heard, and revealed how a mixture of corruption, incompetence and insensitivity had helped give an opening for the return of the once-hated Taliban.

As Predator drones took off and landed incessantly at the nearby airfield, the elders related how the previous year government troops had turned up to destroy the opium harvest. They promised full compensation and were allowed to burn the crops; but the money never turned up. Before planting season, the villagers again went to Jalalabad and asked for assistance to grow other crops. Promises were made; nothing was delivered. They planted poppy, informing the authorities that if they again tried to burn the crop, the village would have no option but to resist. When the troops turned up, about the same time as we were arriving at Jigdalik, the villagers were waiting for them, and had called in the local Taliban to assist. Nine policemen were killed, six vehicles destroyed and 10 hostages taken.

After the jirga, one of the tribal elders came over and we chatted for a while over a glass of green tea. “Last month,” he said, “some American officers called us to a hotel in Jalalabad for a meeting. One of them asked me, ‘Why do you hate us?’ I replied, ‘Because you blow down our doors, enter our houses, pull our women by the hair and kick our children. We cannot accept this. We will fight back, we will break your teeth, and when your teeth are broken you will leave, just as the British left before you. It is just a matter of time.’”

“What did he say to that?”

“He turned to his friend and said, “If the old men are like this, what will the younger ones be like?” In truth, all the Americans here know their game is over. It is just their politicians who deny this.”


(Dalrymple’s book on the First Anglo-Afghan War is planned for release next year. www.williamdalrymple.com)

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