Tony Blair has a lot to answer for. Taking nothing away from the vision with which he shook the Labour Party out of its post-Foot slumber and made it electable, there are unsavourary aspects of his legacy with which many are still having to cope. The least savoury of those is the bottomless pit known as Afghanistan.
Meaning no disrespect to the bravery and dedication of all British forces who have served or are serving in that far-flung, foreign and mountainous region, the question that is still asked all too seldom is: What the Hell do we think we’re doing there? Long before Camp Bastion was even a glimmer in Blair’s eye, that place had been a graveyard for foreign intervention. The mighty Soviet Army found that out when they piled in there thirty years ago, only to slink out of Kabul a decade later much, much the wiser.
What is especially galling is the the British—of all the global forces on this planet—ought to have known better than to stick their fingers back into that particular fire. For, long before the Russians, ‘way back when the Great White Queen (Victoria, not Elizabeth) had barely ascended the throne, the Afghans taught the Raj a lesson that the MoD at least seems to have forgotten.
Once India was conquered and settling into its role as “The Jewel in the Crown”, the ‘wider still and wider’ edict of empire drove the then-Governor-General of India Lord Auckland to take down the troublesome Amir of Kabul by force. The occupation was relatively easy at first (sound familiar) and left 10,000 British troops split into two main garrisons at Kabul and Kandahar. So easy was it that the Kabul cantonment was built with so little consideration for defence that the commissariat stores were placed some 400m away outside its perimeter.
To command this most far-flung, split-new conquest, Auckland sent the 60-year-old, gout-ridden, flatulent and incontinent Lord Elphinstone, who arrived to be told by the outgoing General Cotton that “You will have nothing to do here: all is peace”. No sooner had he left the country then communication with India was severed by Afghans in the hills, a relieving force chased into Kandahar and “Elphy Bey” found himself besieged in Kabul.
Almost immediately, his health broke down. But since he could not abide his abrasive second-in-command Brigadier Shelton he would not relinquish command to him. Nor would he make up his mind what action to take as the Afghans looted the stores and gave the clumsy, overdressed British infantry reacting to their raids a series of sharp lessons in both skirmishing and accurate musket fire. When the British formed squares to repel Afghan light cavalry, the accompanying sharpshooters found the obligingly large, bright red, mass targets impossible to miss, even at a distance.
With supplies gone, casualties mounting and the appallingly poor standard of British musketry (some officers took to throwing stones at the Afghans, so poor were their men at picking them off, the 44th Regiment of Foot being especially bad), Elphinstone waited until mid-winter before deciding on evacuation. “Everything is reverting to the old state of things” he said his last dispatch.
With snow a foot thick all the 100+km to Jalalabad and the safety of the Khyber Pass beyond, the 16,000 headed East, harassed all the way by tribesmen and even children who picked off exhausted soldiers and stragglers. Although of smaller scale, because of the totality of the result it rivaled Napoleon’s humiliating retreat from Moscow just 30 years before in the annals of military disasters.
The only European to reach Jalalabad and safety was Surgeon-Major William Brydon. Once the news reached Auckland, a punitive expedition was launched and the great bazaar at Kabul was burnt, which the bulk of Afghans cooly observed from the safety of surrounding hills. For the next 150 years, the perils of trying to occupy, pacify or even interfere with the internal affairs of Afghanistan were passed around the Army and the Foreign Office as career-ending gospel if they were to be ignored.
Unfortunately, those who feel the hand of destiny upon them rarely pay much heed to dusty lessons from a distant past. Any Man who would be King makes his own fate and, like Peachy Carnaghan and Daniel Dravitt of Kipling’s tale before him, drive on through the perils beyond the Khyber to make their mark on the world. Peachy and Daniel both paid dear for such temerity—as, more recently, have 400 British servicemen.
Meanwhile, the Man Who Would Be (and was) King now gets six-figure speaking fees and sleeps sound at night, untroubled by any nightmares of Elphinstone’s terrible legacy in its current incarnation.