The long view, in Afghanistan: Get out, while you can

Most everyone is familiar with how the Afghans kicked the Soviets out after years of bitter battle. I was less familiar with an earlier version of roughly the same story, almost 150 years earlier, when the British first decided to invade in order to put their own ruler on the throne, and forestall a largely theoretical alliance between the Tsar and Afghanistan on India’s borders.

The British army had little trouble sweeping over the initial Afghan resistance. It installed itself in Kabul, with an occupying authority, a local government propped up by British troops, and all the comforts of home (or Indian home) such as port, cigars, and imported prostitutes. A year or two passed in relative comfort, until the locals started rioting. They surrounded one of the top Briton’s homes, sent someone in to show him a “safe” way out, who then led he and his brother to their deaths in the crowd. Sporadic reisistance spread, until there was an actual Afghan army on the march, led by the former ruler’s son.

The British, under a wholly incompetent general, and unwilling to be pushed into actual discomfort, offered to withdraw. A negotiation proposal came from the young Prince: a secret agreement would be signed, allowing the Brits to stay for 8 months, and giving the prince a share in government, at the expense of other Afghan leaders. The top British official accepted, went to sign, was kidnapped and killed.

Forced out, the rest of the British force, and their huge accompanying crowd of servants, wifes, etc, (16,500 people in total) took march across the passes on Christmas Day, 1841. Afghan patriots harried them all the way back, killing most of them. A single soldier, an army surgeon made it back, charging on horseback to a fort on the Indian side of the border.

The incident, according to the ridiculously nostalgiac history of the Victorian Empire that I’m reading, is still remembered with glory. From the book, in an author’s footnote:

As for the retreat from Kabul, though largely forgotten in Britain, it is vividly remembered in Afghanistan: when in 1960 I followed the army’s route from Kabul to Jalalabad with an Afghan companion, we found many people ready to point out the sites of the tragedy, and recall family exploits. I asked one patriarch what would happen now, if a foreign army invaded the country. “The same,” he hissed between the last of his teeth.

But no worries, Afghanistan is wholly peaceful now. Everybody loves us. Nothing to see there.