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Why were we shocked by Afghanistan? The West has always been deluded about imperialism

At least the old imperialists took the trouble to find out about a country before they invaded (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

At least the old imperialists took the trouble to find out about a country before they invaded (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)


August 25, 2021   6 mins

The first time Western powers installed and backed a leader in Afghanistan, it didn’t end well. His name was Shah Shujah; when he was lured out of his palace, supposedly for peace talks with the Afghan forces that had been deposed by the West, they shot him.

That was some time ago. More recently, the last time the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, in 1996, they found a previous president, Mohammed Najibullah, at the UN compound in Kabul. He, too, had been a puppet leader, supported by the Soviets. The Taliban seized him and tortured him and his brother to death, castrating him at some point. Their naked bodies were dragged through the street and hanged outside the presidential palace, as a warning to the populace. As a considered insult, funeral prayers for Najibullah were forbidden in Kabul.

On August 16th this year, the American president Joe Biden gave a televised speech justifying his decision to withdraw his troops. Much of it was devoted to complaining about the conduct of the Afghans — the ones who had been left high and dry. “Afghanistan’s leaders gave up and fled the country,” he claimed. It would have been true with the addition of the word “some” — Hamid Karzai, for instance, stayed where he was, in Kabul. And if the president, Ashraf Ghani, took the opportunity to seek safety in the UAE, it may have been the memory of Najibullah’s grisly fate that encouraged him to flee. Or the fate of Shah Shujah. Biden, on the other hand, appeared entirely ignorant of how things go and have gone in Afghanistan. Ignorance is the general condition of many anti-imperialists in the West, and Afghanistan has paid heavily for it.

I am a novelist by profession. About twenty-five years ago, I found myself inexplicably possessed by a subject. I couldn’t understand it. I had very little interest in historical novels. I had never been to Afghanistan. But there was no alternative: I felt under a compulsion to write a novel about the First Afghan War.

The British invaded Afghanistan in 1839, replacing the Emir, Dost Mohammed (who fled) with Shah Shujah. Two years later, forces loyal to Dost Mohammed routed the British, killing almost all of them on their retreat. Dost Mohammed regained his throne and kept it.

Nobody, in the late 1990s, could understand why I was writing this. I could only shrug. I could see that something important was happening in Afghanistan while I was writing, but I submitted to the compulsion rather than investigate parallels. Very strangely indeed, at one point I had the unarguable conviction that my hero, in 1839, should look up into the sky and see jet planes flying westward. It made no sense, and it had to be done.

The novel was finished, and the bound proof was delivered. It was September 10th, 2001. The next day I switched the television on, and understood what The Mulberry Empire had wanted to say.

At this time, I’d also been writing a weekly column for the Independent, and though I seemed like an unserious person to the editors, they occasionally let me write something about Afghanistan if there was nothing else going on. These are curious to read now.

I wrote that, when the Taliban destroyed the 6th century statues of the Buddha in Bamiyan in March 2001, it was a harbinger of much worse acts of destruction. After the war started, mindful of Dost Mohammed’s tactics in the 1830s, it was absolutely clear to me that the Taliban had usefully melted into the mountains to regroup patiently. In an interview in March 2002, I complained with comic exaggeration that rather than an imperialist project, the West in Afghanistan was “going there for three months, sending sandwiches and then leaving again, which is a recipe for disaster”. Quite soon after, I wrote that in the end of our Afghan adventure, “when it comes to the point, we can evacuate in shame and dishonour”. And so it has proved.

All this was perfectly obvious to a fairly lazy novelist sitting in South London. Why the sequence of events has proved so astonishing to every Western commentator and politician is an interesting question, and unlike many things said to be an interesting question, this one has a fairly easy answer. They don’t know anything.

This is not much of an exaggeration, as Biden’s amazement at Ghani running for safety instantly shows. What has primarily driven all political decisions in the absence of understanding is something universally agreed upon. Imperialism was a very bad thing. No-one must ever be able to describe us, now, as imperialists. We must “start a conversation about Empire” — since this demand came fifty years after Jan Morris’s Pax Britannica was a bestseller, this did not quite mean what it seemed to.

There was plenty of very interesting work being done on empire, but not much of it seemed to enter into the “conversation” — neither Srinath Raghavan’s exceptional study of India’s transition from empire through the experience of World War II, nor Amartya Sen’s lucid understanding of how Empire both shaped and went on restricting India.

Instead, a soothing bromide like Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireland was much preferred by the lumpenintelligentsia, however ill-informed or misleading. Sanghera’s approach to his subject was summed up by his account of the “brutal truth” that the Koh-i-Noor diamond ended up in the Crown Jewels after being seized from Ranjit Singh. He fails to mention that Ranjit Singh’s family had owned it for all of 36 years, having seized it from Shah Shujah as the price of hospitality. Still, the evils of imperialism emerge consolingly from the half story Sanghera tells.

What lies behind Biden’s decision is a horror of what people might think of us. This is never going to lead to a stable position. People might think that an unstable and wicked foreign state needs to be dealt with. People might also think that putting things right by moving in and running is wicked imperialism. The end result is that the West decides to move in; after a while, they get bored and nervous of bien pensant opinion; their President declares that twenty years’ presence is a “forever war” and the only solution is to run away, and anyway, look how expensive it’s been. We tried to get them to do stuff our way for, like, forever, and my God they just wouldn’t. Their fault, obviously.

Since there is clearly no appetite for an open-ended imperial commitment, with a viceroy in the Bala Hissar, the only realistic option would have been never to have engaged in the first place.

“Hang in there, sisters,” a groovy Greek commentator advised the women of Kabul last week, and that seems to be about the limit of our interest. The old imperialists, appalling as they were to our eyes, at least took the trouble to find out about these cultures and talk to them. Sathnam Sanghera sneers at the limit of engagements of the imperialists who were to be found “dining on curry and arak, chewing betel and smoking hookahs, forsaking beef, donning dhotis and growing moustaches.”

I doubt Sanghera’s knowledge of Pushto and Dari is as confident as Alexander Burnes’s, however, or his Sanskrit up to that of William Jones. I suspect, on a lighter level, that those imperialists who dined on curry were a bit better informed than the commentator in the Washington Post who, from an impeccably bien pensant position, informed his readers this week that Indian food is “the only ethnic cuisine in the world insanely based on one spice”.

We are never, now, going to be able to have an honest conversation about Empire. It would now be quite impossible to say on paper, for instance, that Fiji tried to join the British Empire in 1852 and was turned down flat. Or to talk about the establishment of the medical school in Agra in the 1850s. Or to suggest, as I did, that the heroic ability to fight off imperial annexation, whether in the 1830s or the 2000s, may carry something of a cost.

The current confused state of affairs is that we are perfectly certain that wrong is being done elsewhere, and something must be done, and, also, it would be terribly wrong to do anything but run away in order to put that wrong right, or at any rate excuse ourselves from being called names.

I dare say that the Taliban are going to settle in for an extended period of rule after a certain amount of initial bloodshed, just like Dost Mohammed on his glorious return. There was always considerable tension between them — parochial, tribal, Afghanistan-focussed — and the sophisticated internationalists of al-Qaeda they found themselves hosting. They might not want to go down that path again, and the West will stick to mouthing platitudes and leaving the men, women and children of Afghanistan in the situation they find themselves in.

What’s the alternative? Learn something about the long history and culture of those men, women and children? Talk to them in their own languages? That’s never going to catch on.


Philip Hensher is the author of eleven novels and a Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University

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Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago

“We are never, now, going to be able to have an honest conversation about Empire.”
This, for me, is the stand out sentence from the article, because it points to so much – stifled debate, micromanaged expression, loaded touchiness, oppressive orthodoxy and ossified error – which characterises the current intellectual climate.
I also approve of the author’s use of the word “Empire” unqualified, because it allows that many societies have engaged in the practice, not just our own. And in this context, he takes a long hard look at Afghanistan, to which few are addressing themselves seriously. True, we should never have gone in. True, going in was part of the same casual-imperial madness which prompted our leaders to open our borders. True, we had to get out at some point – but since we were in; since control of international Islamist terror has become inextricably linked with maintaining peace in “diverse” modern society; and since we had spent twenty years trying to construct a viable client regime, our withdrawal should have been recognised as among the trickiest, most delicate, most important military and diplomatic processes in history. Instead of which, an idle, failing, senescent puppet just pulls out, leaving allies betrayed and enemies equipped.
And one of the reasons this has happened is because we are never, now, going to be able to have an honest conversation about anything, least of all public policy. This western fish is rotting, as usual, from the head.

Last edited 2 years ago by Simon Denis
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

“something universally agreed upon. Imperialism was a very bad thing.”

Not by me, Imperalism has been a force for good as often as not. There needs to be the term ‘Enlightened Imperialism’ used where it fitted, Like the British Empire, and others.

“and since we had spent twenty years trying to construct a viable client regime, our withdrawal should have been recognised as among the trickiest, most delicate, most important military and diplomatic processes in history.”

Not really, it is likely to pretty much end the same no matter how it was done – because we had made such a mess of it, there was no fixing it as good-bys were said.

I kind of get the writers gist, but not really sometimes. I know the old Raj somewhat, saw the trappings of it a great deal – and this Afghanistan debacle was in NO way anything like that.

This Afghanistan adventure was Military Industrial Complex, Impotent political lashing out at an unrelated thing for votes, (Al Qaeda, couldn’t do Saudi – so Afghanistan had to do – the voters needed some responce) – And Cultural Arrogance, and MSM driven -Post Modernist, Feminist-Woke NGO pure crazy. The worst of all we have, we poured in. A great many good Western people meant well, tried their best, suffered horribly for it – because the policy was all Post Modern WOKE, and sheer $$$$, and just inertia set from denying the Powell Doctrine of Never going in till the Exit Strategy has been worked out.

Marcus Scott
Marcus Scott
2 years ago

“Two years later, forces loyal to Dost Mohammed routed the British, killing almost all of them on their retreat. Dost Mohammed regained his throne and kept it.”

It is a myth that “almost all” of the British retreating from Kabul were killed.  British women and children were, usually, taken captive with the hope that they could be ransomed later.  Most were released or rescued.  Some of the Indian wives and children of British officers were married to or adopted by Afghan tribes.  These children were identified many years later having been raised by the Afghans as if they were their own children.
Following the disastrous retreat which, it is worth noting, began after Dost Mohammed’s son had assured the British of safe passage, the British did not meekly cower behind their battlements and shudder at the thought of ever again tangling with the doughty Afghans again.  Six months later, a British column known as the “Army of Retribution” returned to Kabul along the route of the retreat.  That army carried out severe reprisals against the Afghan villagers they held responsible for the killings.  Typically, if the British came across human remains that evidenced an encounter, they would move into any nearby villages and execute every adult male.  
In mid-September 1842 two British armies met outside Kabul.  A detachment destroyed the nearby town of Charikar where a Gurkha force had been massacred.  Kabul’s historic bazaar was destroyed and there was much looting and destruction of the city.
Dost Mohammed was in British custody and was permitted by them to “regain” his throne.  
The West cannot win a war in Afghanistan because we can’t or won’t do what is necessary to win.  By all means, win the hearts and minds of the locals by building medical clinics and handing out cricket bats to the kids.  That alone will not be sufficient.  You or your allies need to be prepared to act, when necessary, in an extremely punitive manner.  â€œPunitive” means, for example, “not needing a facility at Guantanamo Bay because anyone you capture that you even suspect is involved with the insurgency is never seen alive again.”  
ï»żIf you are not willing nor able to act in this manner then stay out of the country. 

Last edited 2 years ago by Marcus Scott
Mel Shaw
Mel Shaw
2 years ago
Reply to  Marcus Scott

You are right. Under this approach, the answer after 9/11 should have been to destroy all of the terrorist bases and then withdraw with the warning that the process would be repeated if they were reestablished. That is what a 19th century government would have done. No western government or political leader would do that today.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago
Reply to  Marcus Scott

Maj Gen Elphinstone was utterly useless in the 1842 Afghan War which caused the problem for the British.

Marcus Scott
Marcus Scott
2 years ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

It is true that Elphinstone was hopeless, he was the wrong man in the wrong place. Would the whole disaster have been avoided if a more competent commander had been in place? Maybe. With hindsight the decision to leave Kabul was the wrong one but the decision to stay put would not necessarily have led to a better outcome.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

Maybe not the right forum to say this as I know it will be about as popular as a fart in a spacesuit (not that I really give a fig about that): one British (ex-) politician who actually bothered to learn something about the people down on the ground in Afghanistan was Rory Stewart.
No matter what you think of him, “The Places in Between” is a great work. I read it several years ago and loved it. I might read it again, although it would probably seem less a chronicle of a journey through a fascinating country & culture now and more like an indictment of lost chances and Western political folly.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I can’t help feeling that Stewart romanticises his experience, from the last days of western security and prestige, which would have shielded him – back then – from the worst that Afghan society can do. I don’t imagine that strolling through that unhappy country today would result in the same levels of hospitality and welcome which he apparently enjoyed.

Ian
Ian
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Indeed. I also felt that his dog Babur came across more charismatically than he did in his book.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian

Every traveler who did Afghanistan through the ages – who came out intact has fallen under its spell. The people are the most strikingly Beautiful, not as a pretty thing, but just as raw perfection in their dress, faces, stance, and setting. The land is with the most strikingly beautiful on earth. It is a magical land.

sixteenth century, converting the Mosque of a thousand pillars to a Cathedral – Mzequita, Cordoba “While Charles V authorized the renovation he was dismayed when he saw the result, remarking “they have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city.”

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Hospitality is fundamental to Afghani Culture, it is paramount.

“Although not exclusive, the following thirteen principles form the major components of Pashtunwali.
The three primary principles:

  1. Hospitality (, melmastyā́) – Showing hospitality and profound respect to all visitors, regardless of race, religion, national affiliation or economic status and doing so without any hope of remuneration or favour. Pashtuns will go to great lengths to show their hospitality.”

The third is Justice and revenge though.

hugh bennett
hugh bennett
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

You might well have set out the pretext for the immediate future of Afghanistan when you wrote of, “Justice and Revenge”. Justice is a norm of coexisting within a society ? That is often linked with punishment? But you use the word revenge ( can you enlighten me further on that being part of their “code”)?
Their punishments can be dreadful but are usually set down in a framework and have the added effect of issuing warnings?
But revenge really lets loose the Dogs of base human destructive behaviours and the darkest of personality traits?

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  hugh bennett

Just do a search on Pashtunwali, the code of the Pashtun – get WIKI, that agenda driven thing, but it will run it through a rough outline.

Afghani society is Obsessed with ‘Justice’ where every slight must be met with revenge – so there are fantastic rules of every area having a set system of judges whose rule is law – no prisons, all is fines or death or severe beating – above this civil court, tribal law, is Sharia courts – but they are more metropolitan. (For a killing it is traditional to have to give a girl to be married to the other family, with money, as payment – or a generation long death feud results.) Every male must revenge any relative, this is the rule.

The revenge side says something as minor as a slap must be dealt with by killing – honour is all. The local courts may impose fines and a payment to the offended party and if both sides agree it is resolved that way.

Last edited 2 years ago by Galeti Tavas
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Time to read Caravans again. I must have read it 40 years ago at least.

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
2 years ago

A confirmation that Western Governments failed to think through their actions. Notable there was some awareness of the need to think about it. When Parliament debated invading Afghanistan in 2001 Charles Kennedy asked “Is the aim to remove the Taliban regime from power? What analysis has been made of the possible political and humanitarian consequences if they are driven out of power and, ultimately, what shape or form of regime are we striving to see established in Afghanistan?” I am not aware of any answer being given. Had anyone attempted to answer the question they would have recognised that the Taliban are a religious organisation intent on enforcing strict adherence to their understanding of the word of God. Military action could remove them from power but would not change their religion, their beliefs are not negotiable. It is clear from the age of the Taliban in Kabul that they have found new adherents over the last twenty years. If the West had wanted to permanently suppress the Taliban they have had to change the religious views of adherents in the villages.  However in the West meddling with religion is taboo. Labelling fundamentalists as terrorists is a way round this but it leads to naĂŻve solutions that unravel in time because beliefs have not changed.

Michael James
Michael James
2 years ago

You mean UnHerd’s engaging people who know something about the topic? Good gracious! Whatever next? Let’s stick with the ignorant loudmouths on social media.

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
2 years ago

There is a surreal sense of deja vu about the current situation — the British and Americans negotiating safe passage with Afghans who have beaten them, know they have beaten them, and find it increasingly hard to hide their contempt while not quite daring (yet) to move to outright massacre. The situation, and the feeling of unreality, are beautifully captured in George Macdonald Fraser’s ‘Flashman’, set in, you guessed it, 1839.

Nick Faulks
Nick Faulks
2 years ago

After the announcement of the US withdrawal, I am sure that pubs all over the country were full of groups of old codgers, who remembered the hideous newsreel from the fall of Saigon and assumed that the fall of Kabul would most likely be very similar. Not because we had deep knowledge of local conditions, but because in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, why would it not?
Furthermore, it requires only a cursory grasp of Afghan history to observe that foreigners have rarely come out in good shape.
Why it is that only the experts were certain that this time would be different?

Last edited 2 years ago by Nick Faulks
Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago
Reply to  Nick Faulks

In 2006 Lt Colonel Worsley, ex SAS spoke to tribal leaders who said they would fight foreigners. Worlsey’s comments were ignored by Blair and Bush.
Pashtuns will fight all those who enter their valleys who are not travellers. Travellers probably have three days to be gone, the usual time granted by Beduin to guests; no lingering after this period.
The aid money spent went to American companies; western employees of aid charities and corrupt Afghan officials; little went to the poorest.There was no coordination between organisations undertaking development.
Reconstruction requires undertaking the work locals want; ensuring the work can be done by them, using local materials, repairs can be done by them and that they are paid at the end of ther first week. Paying American contractors to design buildings from the USA, using Western techniques and craftsmen is a waste of money. Much Western NGOs involves westerners writing reports and undertaking work locals do not want. Any work becomes a source of revenue for corrupt officials.
Do not build schools; focus on training teachers, give them small motorbikes and blackboards. Give chalk and slates to children. Train the local midwifes as health visitors/nurses. Improve agricultural output by teaching irrigation, soil improvement and by using selective breeding of animals and plants in order to increase yield. If can increase protein, fresh vegetables and fruit consumption, then health will improve. If people lack protein, minerals and vitamins they are slower to learn; have more diseases and can do less work. A British Navvy could shift 20 T of soil a day because they had a beef, vegetable and beer ( b vitamins ) rich diet.Supply potable, sanitation and soap and diseases will plummet. Frequent infection from water borne diseases produce long term weakness and reduces ability to learn.
Very little of the above was achieved in spite of $Bs spent.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

What also happened during those 20 years was that vast numbers of children were born and became young men.

Mark Knight
Mark Knight
2 years ago

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (create by the US Congress), report of August 2021, states in the Executive Summary: Strategy: The U.S. government continuously struggled to develop and implement a coherent strategy for what it hoped to achieve.
All questions on what happened in Afghanistan over the past 20 years can be answered with one figure: US$ 2 trillion (300 million US$ per day for 20 years).   As the author points out, all the history of Afghanistan was known, but try standing in front of a money-power-hose with a pressure of US$ 300 million per day.  
The west’s engagement in Afghanistan achieved its purpose, it was just not the purpose that most people (paying the taxes and sending their children) thought it was, nor what the gullible politicians thought it was.  
US$2 trillion of unaccountable tax dollars was spend. Job done.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Knight

AND the Post Modernist, 5th wave Femists Academic trained NGO Bosses got to go mess with the women and mess the place up, under the approving eye of the MSM. This was the cover for the 2$ Trillion of insane spending, which as you say, was the real reason.

ralph bell
ralph bell
2 years ago

Great thought provoking article.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  ralph bell

Sounded all sort of ‘Close Encounters’

“I am a novelist by profession. About twenty-five years ago, I found myself inexplicably possessed by a subject. I couldn’t understand it. I had very little interest in historical novels. I had never been to Afghanistan. But there was no alternative: I felt under a compulsion to write a novel about the First Afghan War.”

‘I was fidgeting as I had my dinner in a distracted manner, and looking down I saw I had formed the mashed potatoes into a perfect map of Afghanistan’ ‘I then knew I had to write the book.’

hugh bennett
hugh bennett
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

no great intellectual offering… just thought i would tell you that you made me laugh over my fish and chip ( fries) supper with this comment!

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

In Biden’s inauguration speech back in January, he said that America ought to be “a force for good in the world”.
Maybe he meant a source for good.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

America ought to be a force for good, but modern Liberalism renders that impossible. A WWII era General given Afghanistan to rebuild would have built some roads, couple dams and hydro, some small factories, brought in some tractors, built a few clinics – and left in 3 years, with the good will of the people.

Deborah B
Deborah B
2 years ago

Or just a sauce perhaps. Ketchup maybe?

Charles Lawton
Charles Lawton
2 years ago

I think there are two shocks here, firstly the shock that after 20 years the imperialism has not worked, I am not shocked at all history tells us that it was unlikely to work.
The second shock the disorganised the withdrawal and Afghanis, who supported the US UK and Nato countries are at risk of slaughter by the Taliban. This shocks and appals many of us and is unforgivable.

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
2 years ago
Reply to  Charles Lawton

Yes, and Biden’s attempt to brush it off by blaming the Afghanis is shameful. Shameful.

Nick Faulks
Nick Faulks
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Weil

As his attempt to blame Trump, whose approach ( which you may or may not like ) has always been to dishonour any deal which was going in an unwelcome direction. If Biden didn’t like Trump’s agreement with the Taliban he had perfect cover to renege.

Last edited 2 years ago by Nick Faulks
Kathleen Stern
Kathleen Stern
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Weil

Looks like his old boss,Barack Obama had it right when he prophesied that Biden would be a disaster

David McDowell
David McDowell
2 years ago

This is all true, and refreshingly honest about the imperial legacy, but nothing said here or elsewhere gets us over the unavoidable fact that a war in Afghanistan is unwinnable.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  David McDowell

Everyone always wins at war with Afghanistan – the peace fails, Except the Greeks under Alexander. He had his generals left to rule (The Parthian Empire, I have a bunch of Alexander – Parthian coins from there) marry the local Kings daughters so the ruled would be under the Kings of Royal Bloodline by descent. Without this I doubt the Empire could have held.

hugh bennett
hugh bennett
2 years ago

have a heart, the poor darlings, they all gotta make a dollar….

David McDowell
David McDowell
2 years ago
Reply to  hugh bennett

You do when you have been reduced from a regular column in the Indeterminate to ‘Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University’ (whatever that means).

charlie.tryon
charlie.tryon
2 years ago

An insightful article, though I feel somewhat unfair on the rationale for getting embroiled in another Afghan quagmire.

In September 2001 the US sought revenge and justice from a horrific terrorist attack perpetrated by Al Qaeda, whose refuge was Afghanistan. The case for a brief war to substantially reduce or eliminate the capability of the then enemy remains strong.

What followed was an unforgivable mess, largely for reasons alluded to in the article and subsequent comments. The military planning and peace building initiatives that followed were naive, ill executed and ultimately hijacked by the American industrial military complex.

The misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 21st century have a common positive outcome – they made a number of US defense contractors exceptional wealthy. We should be concerned about where the US military machine lurches next.

andrew harman
andrew harman
2 years ago
Reply to  charlie.tryon

Eisenhower warned of it in 1961. Iron Triangles still dominate in American politics. Not going to change.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  andrew harman

But they now have an equally sized competator, elevated just last year to Superpower status – the Pharma/Medical industrial Complex. Togther they are equals of the anchient Banker/Fiance Industrial Complex, and the 4th member of that exclusive club formed in 2001, the Tech/Social Media Industrial Complex.

One brought you Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan wars, the massive Standing Military (which I approve of) etc – the other Lockdown and all that Trillions of Medical insanity, the other the Lockdowns and 30 Trillion $ Central Bank Debt over the plandemic, and the last – well all its owners gained a couple Trillion, and now own all the information Highways, and so allowed the Plandemic to run to the 30 Trillion, and so own your thoughts. They are now partners, and they own you.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
2 years ago

Excellent article, Mr Hensher. Thank you.
I too am not a military expert but, like you, became fascinated with the diplomatic and military misadventures through the region from the Great game onwards. (Reading Flashman as a 13 year old boy was the spark for me)
You mention Alexander “Sekunder” Burnes but, since his time and throughout the Great Game and up to our present debacle in this “Graveyard of Empires”, the same misapprehensions have repeated themselves over and over.
Those on the ground, in the areas in which our troops were fighting – as much in Burne’s time as in the present – quickly realise there’s very little sense of “The Afghans” or Afghanistan. Tribal loyalties and enmities have a far greater significance than any sense of an overarching nationality. Yet those devising strategies from afar seem oblivious to such concerns and so try to install “Afghan leaders” that will never command respect among those who are fighting a holy war against outsiders whilst also carrying on age-old enmity between different ethnic groups within the country as well as generational grudges within different families and tribes that go almost from valley to valley.
Being Pashtun, Tajik or Hazara carries far more significance than any sense of being “Afghan”, yet politicians and the media talk of the Afghan people and imagine yet another installed puppet leader can unite the country against, what only the west view as, a common foe in the shape of the Taliban. The “common foe” among the indigenous population is more likely to be the invader, rather than the warlord – which has always just been a fact of life there.
The closest anyone got to expressng the truth of it was Gen McCrystal when he noted “No one has an idea of the complexity of what we are dealing with.”
Having funnelled TRILLIONS into the country in a doomed attempt to nation-build, they ended up with a Potemkin village of a country. In the face of humiliating defeat it is only now occurring to politicians and journalists – aside from the author and a handful of others who’ve bothered to read the history of this benighted region – that nation-building was always, ALWAYS, going to fail.
I’ll admit that in the wake of 9/11 I supported our initial foray into Afghanistan. I supported the efforts to clear out the terror training camps and hunt for bin Laden – I also welcomed the clearing out of Taliban strongholds.
But although I agreed with troops being deployed there, I was unaware at the time that there was no definitive plan as to how we would achieve success – or even what would constitute success – and certainly no plan to get troops home once clearly defined objectives had been met.
Over Bush’s Presidency, then Obama’s, the operation turned into a wholly different conflict. Our troops were essentially engaged in a counter-insurgency mission and a manhunt for bin Laden at the start – the mission then radically changed into becoming an occupying force in a region that has famously and serially defeated large occupying forces through its history.
There was much talk of nation building, yet time and again commanders would come back saying that the situation on the ground was untenable and that there was no understanding of the country or the circumstance among those devising the strategy – as has happened throughout the many failed attempts to subdue and rule this region.
Beyond that initial involvement – which at least appeared to have a rationale behind it – we were at least 15 years past doing anything worthwhile there. So the withdrawal of forces seemed justified and long overdue, but not the manner in which is was done – one of the greatest humiliations the US has ever suffered.
The ‘Afghan’ forces that Biden has chosen as scapegoats for his own abject failure of leadership would have been unable to put up much resistance even if they’d wanted to. (Which, for myriad reasons, they were never likely to.)
They’d been trained and arranged around a very specific fighting model, that relied on overwhelming air and artillery support. Part of the failure of pulling out US forces, and (ex-military) “civilian” contractors, is that no provision was made for manning and maintaining air and artillery power.
Instead huge quantities of materiel and munitions have been left piled up and practically gift wrapped for the Taliban. How long before American-made and paid-for munitions are turned against US interests?
Biden owns this failure. Yet, once again, it seems people will largely give him a pass – just for “not being Trump”.
As time passes the west will identify and funnel money and arms to whatever tribal opposition to the Taliban emerges. And the same internecine struggles will continue on a family, clan and tribal basis until another “great” power decides to place its troops on the ground for long enough so that “the Afghans” will unite to draw them into another unwinnable “forever war” and, once they’ve seen them off, revert to earlier enmities.
Yet how many Politicians will read the history? Very few. And even fewer will learn the lessons from it.

Last edited 2 years ago by Paddy Taylor
Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
2 years ago

I don’t disagree with this article. However, it does fail to discuss some points. Most importantly that so many Westerners had a financial interest in persuading everyone else that a new Afghanistan was emerging. In the end they started believing their own lies. Then there is the media’s refusal to acknowledge religiously motivated crime by Muslims against Jews and gays – there were an example of both in the last week. Nor as far as Afghanistan is concerned did anyone ask why US neo-cons stayed in Afghanistan after giving the Taliban a bloody nose. Was it the planned oil pipelines through the country that the US has now lost interest in? Nor does anyone in the media question whether the US has decided that Afghanistan is insignificant in comparison to a possible war with China.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago

As so often happens, reference to the ‘massacre of the British army’ is made, as if it should be a lesson to us today. In reality, that expedition was foolishly decided upon, and a totally unsuitable leader appointed, who made numerous errors. Much of the army had already returned to India, and the remainder started out in winter, with a promise of safe passage. As was typical of armies in India at the time, there were vast numbers of non-combatants and relations, inadequately clothed and shod.
It is really quite a complicated and interesting misadventure, and what’s more, because of the shame, the British returned 6 months later and obtained retribution.
Most British in the area at the time knew very well what a tribesman of those regions was capable of; his fighting skill, cruelty, piety, and a unique code of honour which could include hospitality, loyalty and treachery, so a lesson wasn’t needed; it all happened because of stupidity at the very top. Oh, not so different to now, after all.

Last edited 2 years ago by Colin Elliott
Deborah B
Deborah B
2 years ago

I found this article disjointed and lacking in real explanation. Given the author did so much research for his novel, I was surprised by the comments contradicting his research. Are Unherd members better informed? Perhaps they should be writing such articles.

Zorro Tomorrow
Zorro Tomorrow
2 years ago

As an amateur viewer of history I often wondered at the lines drawn on maps worldwide. Were they where the battles ceased or the resistance to troop movements became too much? Where the wars ran out of energy to continue? A quick google of the Silk Road where presumably peaceful traders travelled from Italy to China: Looking at the map, Afghanistan is clearly avoided with forays into now Pakistan and Tajikstan and then on, skirting the Himalayas, to China. I was in Karachi once, speaking to a Pakistan Air Force Wing Commander. He told me India, or the sub continent, is much as it is because of the hostile lands to the North West and the impassable mountains to the North. The Romans traded extensively with India until their own empire fizzled out. I imagine, to the Romans and the Indians, Afghanistan was like Scotland; too much trouble for little gain. Looking to lay blame on the latest Afghan affair? Nobody blames Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein without whom this unwise adventuring and interfering would never have happened. People forget the Stinger missiles from the USA to arm the Mujahideen against the Soviets. The Mujahideen who, in turn, did a bit of adventuring in the Balkans. We may as well blame Frank Whittle. Or the Chinese, for gunpowder.

Jacob Mason
Jacob Mason
2 years ago

I enjoyed the article. Thanks!
The general condemnation of the ‘experts’ behind the current generation of western socio-political exports seems well warranted.
Self-delusion by our political leaders is going to be an elevated risk when the consequences for failed overseas dalliances are slim to none back home in the US…