Monday, April 19, 2010

The Brits in Afghanistan

The lessons of history reverberate across the ice-capped peaks of the Hindu Kush and through the windswept fields of the southern plains. Arguably, the set of circumstances that led to the wintry massacre of the “Army of the Indus” in the mid 19th century has similarly led Royal Marines to take and retake Taliban-controlled villages in Helmand Province. Fortunately Western troops today are better equipped than their colonial forbears, and Britain currently has about 9,500 troops in Afghanistan. But let’s look at some similarities between the present conflict and the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42).

The latter occurred at the beginning of the “Great Game,” the 19th-century contest between the British and Russian Empires to control territory and trade throughout Central Asia. In an effort to thwart Russian intervention in Afghanistan, the British propped up an exiled former king of Afghanistan, Shah Shuja, because they couldn’t work with the present ruler of Afghanistan and worried about a Russian occupation through client rulers in Persia (Iran). British Parliament agreed to fund the restoration of Shuja provided that no British troops were involved. In retrospect, the Brits erred in thinking that the Afghan populace would accept an unpopular puppet ruler. To add insult to injury, the Brits hoped that the Sikhs, enemies of the Afghans at the time, could help them install the king. Inevitably, Britain went beyond financial support and military training to commit troops to the campaign. Logistical problems and hostile tribes hindered them along the way, but, as it turned out, the Brits crossed the Indus, toppled the regime, and installed Shuja at Kabul with relative ease.

Unfortunately the early welcome from the population of Kabul quickly waned and the British were stuck. If they pulled out, the Shah’s power would wither and the country would fall apart at the seams. Because of unrest in India, as well as protests at home, the majority of the 20,000 troops returned across the Indus. Left behind was a token force in Kabul and Kandahar. Vulnerable and exposed in ill-conceived cantonments, British soldiers did not help their case by offending local sensibilities with alcohol and womanizing. The writing was on the wall when London cut funds and tribes no longer received their bribes. Rebellion ensued. In the winter of 1842 the retreating 4,500-strong British force suffered the worst defeat since the American Revolution. Only one wounded man reached the Jalalabad garrison.

The British intended to make Afghanistan a buffer zone between the Bear of the North and the Jewel of the British Empire, India. Similarly, OEF, a response to 911, has provided the United States with an opportunity to establish permanent airbases in Central Asia, an area up to that point untouched by U.S. military. At the backdoor of Russia and China, the aspiring rivals to U.S. global hegemony, airbases in Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan have key geostrategic value. Relatively speaking, the current war on terror in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world is child’s play compared to a potential conflagration between the great powers in 20 to 30 years. Russia is chomping at the bit to regain its place as a superpower in opposition to the United States. To be sure, the Kremlin has an interest in stabilizing Afghanistan to curtail drug trafficking and Islamist militancy, but the same geostrategic interest that motivated the Tsarist Empire during the “Great Game” is at work here too. Russia is resuming military aid to Afghanistan in order to maintain a presence in the region. Specifically, the former Soviet Union is keeping an eye on the U.S. and protecting its interests in oil and natural gas pipelines across the Caucasus and Central Asia.