Windham Life and Times – August 27, 2021

Afghanistan; The Graveyard of Empires

The last stand of the 44th Foot, in the first British-Afghan War, during the Massacre of Elphinstone’s Army in 1842. Painted by William Barnes Wollen in 1898. A Soviet tank taken by the Mujahideen in Afghanistan.

    So the withdrawal of U.S. troops and dependents from Afghanistan has been an unmitigated disaster. That rests at the feet of the Biden administration, however, we can thank the “brain trust” presidency of George W. Bush for putting U.S. troops into the “Graveyard of Empires” in the first place. After all Dick Cheney told him it was a great idea and Donald Rumsfeld, not satisfied to blow it once, as in Viet Nam, set us up for our current travails, and the enrichment of the Military Industrial Complex to the tune of trillions of dollars. Poor IKE must be rolling over in his grave, having warned us about this immoral cabal and what they were capable of doing for money and power.

     Of course, the fist empire that was destroyed in Afghanistan was the British. They fought three separate wars in the region, the last being in 1919. The First Anglo-Afghan War also known as the “Disaster in Afghanistan” was fought between the British Empire and the Emirate of Afghanistan. (Oh isn’t that now the new name given by the Taliban to Afghanistan?) “…the British successfully intervened in a succession dispute between emir Dost Mohammad (Barakzai) and former emir Shah Shujah (Durrani), whom they installed upon capturing Kabul in August 1839. The main British Indian force occupying Kabul along with their camp followers, having endured harsh winters as well, was almost completely annihilated during its 1842 retreat from Kabul. The British then sent an Army of Retribution to Kabul to avenge the destruction of their previous forces. After recovering prisoners, they withdrew from Afghanistan by the end of the year. Dost Mohammed returned from exile in India to resume his rule.” The occupation was abandoned in 1842: On 1 January 1842, following some unusual thinking by Major-General William George Keith Elphinstone, which may have had something to do with the poor defensibility of the cantonment, an agreement was reached that provided for the safe exodus of the British garrison and its dependents from Afghanistan. Five days later, the withdrawal began. The departing British contingent numbered around 16,500, of which about 4,500 were military personnel, and over 12,000 were camp followers. (sounds very familiar), Lieutenant Eyre commented about the camp followers that ‘These proved from the very first mile a serious clog on our movements’. Lady Sale brought with her 40 servants, none of whom she named in her diary while Lieutenant Eyre’s son was saved by a female Afghan servant, who rode through an ambush with the boy on her back, but he never gave her name. The American historian James Perry noted: “Reading the old diaries and journals, it is almost as if these twelve thousand native servants and sepoy wives and children didn’t exist individually. In a way, they really didn’t. They would die, all of them – shot, stabbed, frozen to death – in these mountain passes, and no one bothered to write down the name of even one of them”. The military force consisted mostly of Indian units and one British battalion, 44th Regiment of Foot. Dost Mohammad is reported to have said:

‘I have been struck by the magnitude of your resources, your ships, your arsenals, but what I cannot understand is why the rulers of so vast and flourishing an empire should have gone across the Indus to deprive me of my poor and barren country.’”

     In 1843 British army chaplain G.R. Gleig wrote a memoir of the disastrous (First) Anglo-Afghan War, of which he was not one of the few survivors as alleged by some authors such as Dalrymple, but in fact someone who interviewed the survivors and wrote his account as declared on the first page of his book which is described as an “Advertisement” but is in fact the preface. He wrote that ‘it was 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.’ ” This could be an accurate quote from 2021. And people have the gall to say that the liberal arts are dead; history is an important teacher and guide to those who would rule a nation.

    Later in the twentieth century, the Soviet War in Afghanistan lasted from 1979 through 1989. “They went in to shore up the newly established pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. In short order, nearly 100,000 Soviet soldiers took control of major cities and highways…Rebellion was swift and broad…Foreign support propped up the diverse group of rebels, pouring in from Pakistan, China, and the United States. In the brutal nine year conflict, one million civilians were killed, as well as 90,000 Mujahedeen fighters, 18,000 Afghan troops and 14,500 Soviet soldiers…” Many historians feel that the quagmire in Afghanistan was a major contributing factor to the fall of the Soviet Union. Within 30 years after of Third British Afghan War the British Empire was no more. One can only wonder, if this debacle is signaling to the rest of the world, if not to the sleeping and deceived citizens of the United States, the end of the American Empire. Its funny that President Biden recently made the statement that “insurrectionists would need a lot more than guns to take on the US government because it is equipped with a nuclear arsenal and war planes.’” Well the rag-tag, asymmetric fighters of the Taliban have elegantly proven him very wrong.”

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