We hear from our political leaders that the British and Americans were taken by surprise by the advance of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the sudden and complete collapse of the Afghan forces, and by the Taliban’s surrounding of the airport at Kabul, where chaotic and tragic scenes are now unfolding. Apparently, our 20 years of first-hand involvement in the country – fighting the Taliban, training up the Afghan army, and ‘nation building’ – was insufficient to furnish us with the necessary intelligence to correctly appraise the situation. But we are assured that all is well, and that the evacuation of a few thousand of our remaining people, along with any of our Afghan collaborators who can break through the Taliban lines round the airport, is proceeding quickly.
The general view seems to be that 20-years work, countless billions of dollars, and thousands of servicemen’s lives, not to mention the honour and reputation of the West, have been needlessly sacrificed by the manner of our withdrawal, the consequence of the reckless decision of Joe Biden to suddenly ‘pull the plug’ on Afghanistan.
But according to Peter Galbraith, former UN deputy special representative for Afghanistan, the present chaos was 20 years in the making, the fruit of our ‘imbecilic’ strategy of trying to build a centralised Western state in an ethnically diverse country with entrenched local and tribal traditions. Instead of working with ‘local partners’ who had the trust of the people, we installed puppets of our own who were as corrupt as they were ineffectual.
Galbraith’s analysis is echoed by Bruno Macães in the Telegraph , who writes that the Afghan state and its army (theoretically 300,000 but more like 30,000 on the ground) were little more than ‘a fiction projected from Washington onto the screen of Afghanistan’, which though it depicted an idealised Western image of democracy, ignored local structures of power because they were regarded as ‘archaic and medieval’. Consequently, the ruling elite, now fled to the West, were regarded as nothing but foreigners installed by a foreign power.
The obvious lesson is that we should never have attempted the exercise of nation-building in the first place – on that, at least, Biden is right. The idea that Western liberal values could be exported to the tribal backwaters of Afghanistan, where medieval Islam reigns supreme, as if Kabul could be turned into Hampstead, is absurd. It is also hypocritical given that we are busy deconstructing our own Western cultural inheritance in the name of multiculturalism and drowning in a self-inflicted flood of hate crimes and microaggressions. We feign shock that Afghan women may have to wear the burka in Kabul while defending the right of Muslim women to do just that in our own country in the name of difference and inclusion.
Yet our forefathers, staunch British imperialists of old, handled matters very differently. We are often reminded of the First Anglo-Afghan War, which culminated in the terrible retreat of the British contingent from Kabul in 1842, nearly all of whom were annihilated in the mountain passes after having been granted ‘safe passage’ by the local emir. But we forget that retribution was swift. British forces dispatched from India fought their way back along the same route along which the British and Indian columns had earlier retreated, now littered with their skeletons, and crushed the Afghans. They retook control of Kabul, released the remaining hostages, razed Kabul’s celebrated great covered bazaar as retribution, and then withdrew back across the Khyber Pass.
We also forget that the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878-80 culminated in the brilliant victories of General Roberts, which restored British prestige in the region and installed a friendly ruler – Abdur Rahman Khan, known as the ‘Iron Amir’ for his ruthless methods of controlling his own tribesmen – on the Afghan throne.
The point is that British strategy was always to secure Afghanistan as a buffer state between Russia and British India, and in this limited objective, it was largely successful. The British managed Afghanistan’s foreign affairs, leaving internal affairs to client rulers, the stronger the better. There was no attempt to impose our values or interfere in local customs and traditions.
At one point of Roberts’ campaign, the British garrison of Kabul was besieged and, according to Peter Hopkirk (The Great Game), withstood ‘wave after wave of screaming tribesmen, led by suicide-bent Muslim fanatics known as ghazis’. Roberts estimated their numbers at around 60,000. After four hours of bitter fighting, ‘the Afghan dead piled up around the British positions’, Roberts’ cavalry pursued the remaining tribesmen into the hills.
Yet 150 years on, we depend on the modern descendants of the ghazis, the Taliban, to allow us safe passage as we fly our people out of Kabul, leaving the Taliban free to round up all those who put their trust in us, who collaborated, and massacre them.
No, the British imperialists of old would have handled things very differently; and, one suspects, they would have made short work of the Taliban.