One of Afghanistan’s nicknames is “the graveyard of empires”.
A new book highlights Britain’s first attempt to intervene in that country, to protect its valuable possessions in India.
The book is called “The Dark Defile: Britain’s Catastrophic Invasion of Afghanistan, 1838-1842″, and, as you can tell, it did not end well for Britain.
Modern readers may find it interesting how some of the issues that faced the Brits back then have parallels today.
Author Diana Preston explains how after a relatively easy and successful initial invasion, beginning in 1838, a new more friendly regime was installed.
But the new regime struggled to win popularity; it was seen as dependent on foreign military power; its corruption alienated many; its armed forces were weak, and of dubious loyalty; and it was unable to manage complex tribal relationships.
The Afghans rebelled and forced the British to retreat from Kabul in mid-winter. Despite promises of safe passage, the army was massacred, along with all the support staff and even the soldiers’ wives and children. More than 16,000 perished in the ‘dark defiles’ on the road back to India.
Only one British man survived the disaster and escaped, Doctor William Brydon,
The British returned to Kabul in the summer of 1842 to exact retribution. They burned Kabul’s Grand Bazaar then abandoned Afghanistan to its fate.
Afghans still remember the war with a mixture of pride and anger, Preston says, as the first in a long series of failed attempts by foreign super-powers to dominate their country.
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Marco Werman: Many critics of the current US-Afghanistan policy often point to misadventures in years past by foreign troops in Afghanistan. Go back to the Soviet invasion in 1979, or go further back to the 1830′s. Britain was trying to protect it’s sizable investments in India, and occupying Afghanistan was one way of doing it. Diana Preston, that didn’t work out very well did it?
Diana Preston: No, it didn’t. It started off reasonably well, you know the British decided on regime change in Afghanistan. Because they were worried that the Russians were going to come storming in through Afghanistan, into British India. So they wanted to make sure they had a ruler on the throne in Kabul who suited them. So what happened was that they went marching in, deposed the existing, very capable ruler. Put their own candidate on the throne. And then very soon after that, it all started to fall apart. So what had gone very easily in the first instance, then became a very difficult and hazardous situation.
Werman: Now, Diana Preston, you’ve just written a book, The Dark Defile: Britain’s Catastrophic Invasion of Afghanistan 1839-1842. We’re talking about the first Anglo-Afghan war. Is that what this war was all about then?
Preston: Yes it was really to do with Britain wanting to protect her interests in Imperial India. You know, India at the time, her most important colonial possession.
Werman: Now as far as what the British did in this war in Afghanistan. None other than the great British General, the Duke of Wellington said that “there must have either been the grossest treachery, or the most inconceivable imbecility, and very likely a mixture of both”. What happened to get this kind of comment from the Duke of Wellington?
Preston: Yes, the Duke of Wellington predicted, absolutely accurately that Britain’s troubles would begin when Britain’s military successes ended. And he was absolutely right in pointing the finger at imbecility. The military leaders and the political leaders didn’t really understand the situation they had got themselves into. I was quite interested during the research to come across some comments by the leading British diplomat in Kabul. Who told off one of his colleagues for being very pessimistic about the British position. This colleague was starting to say that the British are in a very, very difficult, dangerous place, we ought to be withdrawing. And he wrote to this official saying, no, no, I must encourage you to look at things with more, what he called ‘coleur d’rose’. You know, looking at things through rose tinted spectacles. There was almost what I’ve called in the book, taken from a comment by a recent British ambassador to Kabul, something of a conspiracy of optimism. The stage was reached in Kabul where there were so many vested interests, you know the people that supported the policy in the interim. That they were very reluctant to tell the whole British government that it was all going wrong.
Werman: Now the British military finally decided to get out of Afghanistan in 1842. But, Diana, what on earth possessed them to agree to commence a retreat through savage mountain terrain in the middle of winter, without adequate supplies of food and fuel?
Preston: As you say, the British chose a very poor time to retreat with winter coming on. A really, really bitter winter with sub-zero temperatures. But you have to look at what had happened in the preceding few weeks. The senior British diplomat in Kabul who had been negotiating with the Afghan chieftans, had been murdered and his body hacked up and displayed in the bazaar. The British themselves were pinned down in very indefensible barracks outside the main city of Kabul. I think they really regarded withdrawal as one of the very few options left open to them. And they put their faith in the promises they were given by the Afghan chiefs that they would be given protection. The chiefs said, look so long as you withdraw out of our country, and you go back through the passes, and you withdraw from the other cities in Afghanistan that you’ve garrisoned, we will give you safe passage. That didn’t happen.
Werman: Right. 15,000 plus died on that passage. And only one survived the kind of getting across the other end of passes.
Preston: Absolutely. There was only one British survivor who actually made it through to the fortress at Jalalbad. Which is where they were aiming for. In the days that followed some Indian soldiers managed to reach there. And also during the retreat quite a number of Britains had been taken hostage. So they were later going to mostly survive. But of course, during the retreat through the passes you have this tremendous carnage. Particularly amongst the Indian troops. There were 4500 British troops withdrawing, of whom about 80% were Indian troops. Those Indian troops were not taken hostage they were mostly just cut down and left to die. And there were also 12000 camp followers, you know, men, women and children who were just really left to perish in the snow or hacked to pieces. The carnage was terrible. And when eventually British troops went back through the passes to Kabul, they describe how their gun carriages just rolled over mountains of bones and the remains of corpses.
Werman: Diana Preston, the mega-picture here is we’re talking about Britain coming into Afghanistan to try to invest power in a pro-British king. Fighting and failing to do that, and then retreating and losing. I mean the comparisons with the present day are not fully there yet, but are starting to look similar for the US. You don’t dig in deep into those parallels in the Dark Defile though, why not?
Preston: What I wanted to do is was to leave it for the reader to draw their own deductions. I think there are some very clear messages which come through about the unwisdom of not having a clear exit strategy for example. You know the British went into Afghanistan, with some idea of replacing one ruler with another. And they had never really thought beyond that. They didn’t know what was going to happen next. I think there are also messages about understanding better the culture and the attitudes of the people in whose country you’re intervening. And also in necessarily assuming that the institutions, the democratic structures, say that we all value in the West, that those will necessarily be understood and immediately welcomed by everyone. And it’s worth saying, and if you talk to Afghanis, they will see foreign interference in their country, whatever the motives, and however well intentioned it has been, as really just one long continuum. They see a clear relationship between what is happening today and what happened in 1838.
Werman: Diana Preston, the book is The Dark Defile: Britain’s Catastrophic Invasion of Afghanistan 1839-1842. Thank you very much Diana.
Preston: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you
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