H.D.S. Greenway

Afghanistan’s never-ending challenge

By H.D.S. Greenway
December 16, 2009

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ONE OF THE FIRST objectives of President Obama’s surge in Afghanistan will be to secure the city of Kandahar, which the Taliban threaten, and to reinforce allied troops fighting in Helmand Province - both names that Americans have had to learn in the lexicon of our latest war.

They were names that Russians also had to learn when they tried their hand at subduing the tribesmen of that hostile land. When the Russians invaded 30 years ago, the entire population of Kandahar took to the streets, and a great wailing ensued as they prayed to Allah to turn back the invader. And in time, with a little help from “Holy Warrior’’ tribesmen, Pakistani intelligence, and the CIA, Allah did just that.

One hundred and forty years earlier, Kandahar was the first stop for the British “Army of the Indus’’ during Britain’s first Afghan War. It was an easy conquest, but by January 1842, the British position had become untenable, and the entire army was wiped out when the 44th Regiment of Foot made its last stand in the passes between Kabul and the Khyber. Only one man survived death or capture. The British then sent what they called the “Army of Retribution’’ to settle the score.

In 1880, during the Second Afghan War, it was the 55th Regiment of Foot that made a last stand near the Helmand River, with few survivors staggering back to a besieged Kandahar. British school children learned of General Frederick, later Lord Roberts of Kandahar, the Stanley McChrystal of his time, who executed a storied forced march from Kabul to relieve the besieged city.

There would be a third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919, but by then there were airplanes to bomb the Afghans. And then there were the constant campaigns in places such as Swat, and Waziristan, Northwest Frontier - names that Americans have also had to learn. Today Pakistani soldiers fight over the same ground where their great-great-grandfathers fought for the British when Pakistan was a part of India.

The enemy, then as now, always rallied to the reliable call of “jihad’’ against the infidel invaders no matter who they were. Of all the tribes, those of the Pashtuns were the most feared.

The motives for fighting in Afghanistan were fear, prestige, and retribution. The British feared Russian expansion, and always sought to put their man on the throne to do Britain’s bidding. Retribution always followed military setbacks, and national prestige was used as the reason to fight on. British control over Afghanistan was thought necessary for the defense of India.

Russia followed the same scenario, fearing that if Afghanistan’s pro-Communist government should fail, it would endanger Russia’s Muslim regions.

The United States invaded Afghanistan out of fear of Al Qaeda, and retribution for 9/11. And today you often hear the national prestige argument that we cannot let the Holy Warriors believe they can defeat a second superpower. More and more, America’s Afghan policy is tied into protecting the stability of Pakistan, once part of British India.

Nineteenth century Britain’s “Forward Policy,’’ which basically meant preventive war in defense of the realm, sounded very much like George W. Bush’s preventive war doctrine. The Forward Policy would wax when Benjamin Disraeli’s Conservative Party was in power, and wane when William Gladstone’s Liberals took power. The imperial urge, so reminiscent of what the neoconservatives had to say in Bush’s day, was always stronger among conservatives in 19th-century Britain.

Yet liberals, too, would stumble into imperial misadventure, and Britain’s Afghan policy vacillated between what the author John Griffiths called “ half-hearted imperialists and ill-informed liberals.’’

One can sympathize with President Obama, whose views are more aligned with Gladstone’s than Disraeli’s, when he rails against the faults and weaknesses of our man in Kabul, Hamid Karzai. The British, and the Russians too, always found it frustrating when the Afghans they put in power did not act more like Britons, or Russians.

One can sympathize, too, with Obama when he says he wants to “finish the job.’’ The trouble is that, in Afghanistan, it is comparatively easily to send in more troops, but the job never seems to stay finished.

H.D.S. Greenway’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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