War, Death and Hubris

Edward Burke

Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan, by William Dalrymple, Bloomsbury Publishing, 608 pp, £25, ISBN 978-1408818305

British troops returned to Kabul at the end of 2001after the toppling of the Taliban regime. They soon did two things that aroused local comment and suspicion. The first was to name their main military base in the city Camp Souter, after Captain Thomas Souter, who had been captured by Afghan tribesmen in 1842, one of the few survivors of a disastrous retreat by the British Kabul garrison to the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad during the first Anglo-Afghan war. Souter famously wrapped “the colours” of his regiment – the flag of the 44th Foot – around his body during a last stand at the village of Gandamak. His life was probably spared because the attacking Ghilzai tribesmen thought that his bright clothing – the colours ‑ marked him as an officer of some particular importance.

The “last stand of the 44th” was commemorated in a famous painting by William Barnes – which one senior British diplomat in Kabul hung on his office wall in 2010. Colonial-themed parties in Kabul have been held where participants dress in British military and other costumes of the nineteenth century. Dinners have been celebrated by British ambassadors and senior military officers to commemorate nineteenth century battles in Afghanistan, often in the appropriately named Gandamack Hotel – which serves alcohol and is frequented almost exclusively by foreign diplomats and aid workers.

The renovation of the British cemetery in Kabul, the former garden of the British spy and diplomat Alexander Burnes, also aroused comment as to Britain’s objectives in returning to Afghanistan. Burnes was slaughtered in his house by an Afghan mob at the outbreak of the initial revolt against the British in 1841. Successive British politicians and military leaders have visited the cemetery and held Christian commemorative services there. One educated Afghan friend pointed out how important this cemetery seemed to be for British soldiers and diplomats today. As in Iran, there is a certain obsession and exaggerated belief in Britain’s enduring skills in espionage and meddling in the affairs of other nations. When I pointed out that Britain might not be as influential as it once was and that the United States was now in the driving seat of Western policy towards Afghanistan, my friend cut me short: “Britain is the father and America is the child,” he pronounced. And that was the end of the matter.

The British are good at remembering their history in Afghanistan. But neither have the Afghans forgotten theirs. The two versions are not easily reconcilable. In 2007, a year after British troops were deployed to the southern Helmand province, Afghanistan’s parliament issued a damning report on their behaviour there. One parliamentarian observed that the British were in Afghanistan solely “to avenge their ancestors”. In early 2013 a key insurgent leader, the elusive Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, broke his silence to condemn the British interest in their imperial past: “It seems that some British authorities still dream about the times of the eighteenth and nineteenth century and they want their ambassador to be treated like a viceroy and their prince to go out in uniform to hunt for human beings and play the satanic role that they used to play in the past.”

British officials have occasionally wallowed in a romantic version of the past. Such behaviour has not gone unnoticed. British diplomatic and military representatives have been careless in underestimating Afghan memories and grievances. Nor has the US been guiltless – I have attended conferences in Kabul where US military officers have quoted British colonial officials TE Lawrence and Gertrude Bell at confused Afghan officials who wonder what a brutal Western past has to do with their future.

But despite such occasional clumsiness on the part of the West’s current military and political representatives in Afghanistan, how far should we go in drawing parallels between nineteenth century colonial wars in Afghanistan and that of the present day? In a new book on the first Anglo-Afghan war the celebrated historian of Britain’s empire in India, William Dalrymple, argues that there are clear resemblances:

The closer I looked, the more the west’s first disastrous entanglement in Afghanistan seemed to contain echoes of the neo-colonial adventures of our own day. For the war of 1839 was waged on the basis of doctored intelligence about a virtually non-existent threat …

Dalrymple goes on to describe the first invasion of Afghanistan by a British force in 1839 as an “illegal war”, refers to a “dodgy dossier” (the doctored reports of deputy envoy Alexander Burnes from Kabul) and quotes John MacNeill, the British ambassador who urged the Governor-General of India, Lord Auckland, to make war so as to counter a perceived Russian threat to India: ‘We should declare that he is who is not with us is against us … We must secure Afghanistan.” – rhetoric unconsciously echoed by the Bush administration more than a century and a half later.

Dalrymple, however, mistakes Iraq for Afghanistan. “Dodgy dossiers” and “illegal wars” are more analogous to the toppling of Saddam Hussein than the removal of the Taliban. Nor would diplomats and soldiers of the early nineteenth century have had an equivalent sense of a war’s legality or illegality as we do today.

Dalrymple is right to criticise the US attempt to “engineer” success in Afghanistan – throwing billions of dollars and thousands of troops at eighty-two “key terrain districts” in southern and eastern Afghanistan, which served only to temporarily reinforce a rotten, corrupt Afghan polity. As one British police officer based in Helmand province said to me: “You don’t send for a mechanic if the driver is drunk.”

Some European countries despaired of the US-led “surge” early on. France quickly found that one of its most dangerous enemies in Kapisa province was the governor himself, who extorted the local populace and tipped off insurgents about the whereabouts and plans of French troops. In 2009 New Ansari, an investment agency closely linked to one of the country’s largest banks, Afghan United Bank, funnelled up to $2.5 billion of international aid out of Afghanistan to Dubai. Alarmed by the sheer scale of Afghan government corruption, in 2011 the IMF threatened to cut off funding. The US military were enraged and accused the IMF of interfering with their “campaign cycle” to train and equip 350,000 soldiers and police officers. The crisis was averted; funding was restored.

President Karzai’s days in power are numbered – he will give up the presidency in 2014. No candidate has yet emerged to replace him. Dalrymple believes the most recent Western invasion of Afghanistan is also about to end in tragedy. That remains to be seen. Much depends on the attitude of the Afghan national security forces, particularly the army, and whether it can stay united. The army ‑ particularly its elite units ‑ can and will continue the fight against insurgent groups. Meanwhile, senior generals are busy acquiring economic resources and influence – seeking to emulate other militaries in the region, not least that of Pakistan. But unlike Pakistan, the Afghan national army lacks sufficient professional cohesion; the loyalties of many of its senior officers are localised and clan-based. The future of Afghanistan may well be decided within its ranks.

Western elation at the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 has today given way to an almost total despondency. My Afghan friends often wondered at Western impatience and inconsistency – advisers in ministries would lurch from extreme optimism to dejection within weeks. But it is too early to give up on Afghanistan – NATO is on its way out but Afghan politics is only getting started.

For over a decade a dysfunctional coalition claimed to rule Afghanistan. Ministers did not need to raise revenue and were instead content to receive Western patronage. Many became hopelessly corrupt, alienating even their own supporters. Now with more limited, conditional Western funds available, only those leaders with sufficient support among the populace, the security forces or the insurgency will be able to consolidate a position of power. A more balanced government may yet emerge if key leaders show enough wisdom to strike a new deal on questions such as budgetary control and local versus centralised governance, instead of resorting to a war of attrition.

Despite an excessive tendency to draw neat comparisons, Dalrymple does point out some valuable lessons from the past for those who wish to intervene in Afghanistan. The first enduring lesson was articulated by Derry native George Lawrence, who served as a military assistant to the British envoy to Afghanistan, Sir William Hay Macnaghten, during the first Anglo-Afghan war of 1839-1842. Lawrence was alarmed that the British government could forget the lessons of the first Anglo-Afghan war by seeking to start a second war in that country in 1878. Writing to The Times, he issued this warning:

A new generation has arisen which, instead of profiting from the solemn lessons of the past, is willing and eager to embroil us in the affairs of that turbulent and unhappy country … Although military disasters may be avoided, an advance now, however successful in a military point of view, would not fail to turn out to be as politically useless … The disaster of the Retreat from Kabul should stand forever a warning to the Statesmen of the future not to repeat the policies that bore such bitter fruit in 1839-42.

Put simply, without a political plan a British intervention in Afghan affairs would be useless. The same is true of the current war; over 130,000 foreign troops could score tactical military victories against insurgents but they could not prevent the grand larceny of public money by a corrupt Afghan government that has steadily lost political legitimacy.

A second lesson was articulated by Sir Claude Wade, a leading spymaster during the nineteenth century “Great Game” that was played out by Britain and Russia in Central Asia:

There is nothing more to be dreaded or guarded against, I think, than the overweening confidence with which we are too often accustomed to regard the excellence of our own institutions, and the anxiety that we display to introduce them in new and untried soils. Such interference will always lead to acrimonious disputes, if not to violent reaction.

Lack of knowledge of local institutions among foreigners in Afghanistan in 1839 was almost as alarming as it is today. In both contexts powerful outsiders created new centralised institutions of government which upset local power balances and were not trusted by the populace. Despite scores of “rule of law” experts living and working in Afghanistan today, very few have any knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence or local customary law – the two systems of justice practised in the country for centuries.

The story of the first Anglo-Afghan war and the retreat from Kabul in 1842 has been told many times before. But Dalrymple does it better; he has spent years piecing together archival material in Delhi, Lahore, London and elsewhere. He has wandered the streets of Kabul looking for, and finding, traces of Afghan epic poetry on the conflict. Many of his sources are previously untouched by other Western writers and as with his previous books, his vivid prose is a joy to read.

Dalrymple is quick to point out the Scottish origins of Alexander Burnes and other influential figures such as Major-General William Elphinstone, the commander of military forces in Kabul who led the infamous retreat to Jalalabad. But a closer look at his cast of characters reveals that the Irish also played a critical role in the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. The man who first championed Alexander Burnes was Colonel Henry Pottinger from Co Down, regarded by many as the greatest intelligence chief of the Great Game. The Army of the Indus that first invaded Afghanistan in 1839 was led by General John Keane, who took Kabul following a successful siege of the Afghan stronghold at Ghazni (for which he was created 1st Baron Keane of Ghuznee and Cappoquin in the County of Waterford). The political envoy who accompanied Keane was William Hay Macnaghten of Bushmills, Co Antrim. India, especially the Political and Secret Service, was a popular destination for ambitious, educated Irishmen. Dalrymple prefers to use terms like “Ulsterman” and “Anglo-Irish” (interchangeably), thus missing the important Irish connection between key personalities – especially among those in the Indian Political and Secret Service. An “Ulster” identity was by no means as strong in the early nineteenth century as it is today.

But it was an Irishman with no experience of India who helped light the torch of Russophobia in London. Lieutenant-General George de Lacy Evans from Moig in Co Limerick published a polemic in 1828 arguing that a Russian invasion of India through Tibet or Afghanistan was imminent. After reading this book, the governor-general in Calcutta wrote to London warning that a clash with Russia in the Indian sub-continent was inevitable. De Lacy Evans’s views on the feasibility of such an invasion were largely fantastical – an invasion through Tibet was impossible ‑ but they gained currency among a British public that was becoming alarmed at the rise of “barbarous” Russia. A succession of young officers and political agents were sent to map and study those emirates that lay between India and Russian territories in modern-day Kazakhstan, including Alexander Burnes, who wrote a famous book on his travels in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Arthur Conolly, (descended from “Speaker” Conolly of Castletown House – Dalrymple adds an extra ‘n’ to their name) led the most daring of expeditions, making his way to India from St Petersburg in disguise.

In the end it was the promise of support to Kabul from Russia given by a young and brilliant Polish nationalist turned Cossack officer, Jan Prosper Witkiewicz, that prompted the first British invasion of Afghanistan and the toppling of the Afghan emir, Dost Mohammad Khan. The British were lured into consistently taking the side of the ruler of the Punjab, the Sikh Ranjit Singh, who wanted to keep Peshawar, which he had seized from the Afghans. Had the British convinced him to give it up, Dost Mohammad would have been a ready ally. Instead they told Ranjit Singh to make war on the Afghans. But Dalrymple points out that

as the negotiations inched forward, what had originally been planned as a Sikh expedition in British interests slowly began to transform itself over the course of several weeks into a British expedition to further Sikh interests.

Having committed themselves to war, even if initially by proxy, the momentum gathered pace and the governor-general’s Irish military secretary, Major-General William Casement (a cousin of Sir Roger), instructed the commander-in-chief of the British army in India, General John Keane, to lead a force of 20,000 men to seize Kabul and restore the rule of Shah Shuja, who had been deposed by Dost Mohammed three decades earlier. Shuja’s return to Kabul is the inspiration for Dalrymple’s title. The political lead for the expedition then fell to William Hay Macnaghten.

The invasion should have been called off shortly after it began. Diplomatic pressure in Europe had worked. The Russians had backed down – reneging upon their promise of support for the Afghans. But the wheels of war were already set in motion and Auckland wanted a victory. The governor-general, Lord Auckland, saw no reason why a short punitive mission should not be proceeded with. One regiment even brought its own foxhounds into Afghanistan in anticipation of good hunting.

The British planned badly – they barely survived the hardships of travelling through the Afghan mountains and desert. But, after a successful siege of the Afghan citadel of Ghazni, resistance melted away and Kabul was taken. General Keane received his baronetcy and returned to India. Meanwhile Macnaghten stayed to win the peace; he made a generous settlement with the Afghan nobility, who realigned themselves once again with Shah Shuja as their emir.

Gold was the principal means to keep the Ghilzai tribes in the east of the country loyal to their reinstated emir. But Auckland had another war with China going on – the infamous Opium War in China. A severe reduction of subsidies infuriated the eastern tribes, who in turn withdrew their support for Shah Shuja. But pride was also a factor, for Macnaghten was in control, not the shah. He had lofty ideas for a new civil service and a standing army, which challenged the traditional power of the Afghan nobility. The foreign power came to be blamed for all the country’s problems. The brilliant Kashmiri intelligence agent Mohan Lal, who had accompanied Burnes to Afghanistan upon the latter’s appointment as Macnaghten’s deputy, later wrote: “We neither took the reins of power, nor did we give them in full measure into the hands of Shah Shuja al-Mulk.”

Meanwhile British troops were gaining a reputation for atrocity. In the east the political agent in Qalat, Lieutenant Patrick Lynch from Partry in Co Mayo, seized (or seduced) the beautiful sister of a powerful local ruler. Stories of the rape of local women by British troops were widespread. Indeed it was a dispute over a woman that lit the torch of the revolt. An increasingly debauched Burnes, sidelined by Macnaghten, and in Afghanistan solely for pay and ambition, is alleged to have stolen the slave girl of a prominent Afghan noble. Dalrymple provides a fascinating account of the siege of his house in Kabul, Burnes’s subsequent brutal death at the hands of a mob, and the inept British military response. Within a week a mob attack of three hundred turned into a national revolt of thirty thousand.

Here Dalrymple lays into Macnaghten for his “preening vanity”, accusing him of not taking the initial rioting in Kabul seriously enough. This treatment of Macnaghten is unfair ‑ even if it is not new. The “political” were deeply unpopular in general among military men for their deep interest in local customs and respect for court protocol. Macnaghten was fascinated by Indian, Persian and Arab culture and languages. He was regarded as the most brilliant of the members of the esteemed Asiatic Society in Calcutta, having translated the classic Arab text One Thousand and One Nights from a scroll which had been acquired back by Captain Turner Macan (of an old Armagh family) on his travels in Egypt. Macnaghten was concerned about local protocol, not because he particularly enjoyed it, but rather because style and formula mattered in India (as it did in Europe) – to fail to apply such rules would lead to a loss of face on the part of a local ruler.

But Macnaghten was certainly guilty of promoting favourites – young Irish “political”, including his relations the Conollys and his military secretary, Captain George St Patrick Lawrence, were particularly championed by him. One of his sternest critics, Major-General Nott, who was in command of the garrison at Kandahar during the first Anglo-Afghan war, commented acerbically in a letter to his daughters (with a jibe at Macnaghten’s scholarship for good measure), “Thus it is to employ men selected by patronage. The conduct of one thousand and one Politicals has ruined our cause …”

Macnaghten did make mistakes. He wrote optimistic reports on the state of Afghanistan to Auckland in Calcutta. And he promised too much to the local potentates and was over-optimistic in his plans to reform and centralise the Afghan state. But, as Dalrymple makes clear, the military situation in the country would not have been so disastrous if a resolute commander had been in charge. In General Elphinstone the sources agree that the British had one of the worst commanders imaginable. He was sick and irresolute – unable to even mount his horse. His indecision infuriated Macnaghten, who was barely on speaking terms with either him or his deputy, the boorish Brigadier Shelton.

Dalrymple, who elsewhere relies heavily on the testimony of George Lawrence, omits to use him as a source for key events in Macnaghten’s last weeks. Instead he quotes General Nott (who was in Kandahar), Lady Sale, the wife of a general and who seems to hate all “politicals” equally, and more damning Afghan sources who had come to believe that Macnaghten was in complete charge of the British forces. British military sources agree in blaming Macnaghten as the very epitome of the political foolhardiness of their mission.

Macnaghten was not in military command, nor could he predict or control events such as the parallel resource-consuming war with China, the death of Britain’s Sikh ally, Ranjit Singh, and the descent of the Punjab into anarchy – thus restricting British supply routes and support. He urged Elphinstone to move the troops from the exposed cantonment to the fortress of Bala Hissar, as also counselled by the Afghan emir, Shah Shuja. Lawrence claims that Macnaghten also advised Elphinstone to act quickly so as to retake the city in the early days of the rebellion in Kabul. Elphinstone refused, preferring to talk of retreat but not doing so until his supplies and position had been weakened further. Meanwhile two Irish officers, Lieutenant John Haughton and Major Eldred Pottinger, nephew of Henry, were the only two men to survive a nightmarish siege of the seven hundred and fifty-strong garrison at Charikar.

Dalrymple criticises Macnaghten for the conduct of negotiations with the rebel leaders, headed by Akbar Khan, the son of the deposed Dost Mohammad, who was being held captive in India. He does not tell us that Macnaghten did not wish to engage in negotiations but to fight on. Retreat would be disastrous, he said. Or as Lawrence writes: “Elphinstone could not be persuaded otherwise but to retreat. He asked Elphinstone instead to fight. Macnaghten said that he had ‘no faith in negotiations’. Elphinstone said: ‘Macnaghten, I can’t. The troops are not to be depended on.’”

Macnaghten at all costs wished to avoid a retreat through the narrow passes to Jalalabad. When an opportunity arose for him to split the rebels by buying off some of their leaders, he seized it too readily as a means to avoid such a forced march. Dalrymple criticises Macnaghten for breaking faith with Akbar Khan, who had guaranteed safe passage to Jalalabad. The Afghan sources say that this was the key moment when Akbar Khan became enraged against British treachery. But Macnaghten knew that relying upon Akbar Khan’s word was a grave risk – he had already broken some of the conditions of their first agreement for a British retreat. Moreover, did he have the authority and the will to stop the Ghilzai tribes from attacking an exposed British column making its way through the Tezin Pass? Accepting Akbar’s word was too much of a risk.

When Macnaghten came out to negotiate once more with Akbar Khan he was seized by the rebel leader and murdered within view of the British cantonment, which had neither provided a cavalry escort nor responded to the initial violence witnessed by sentries against their envoy. Macnaghten’s head was cut off and his body dragged through the streets of Kabul before being hung up in the bazaar. Lawrence was taken prisoner, along with Captain Colin Mackenzie, an ancestor of Dalrymple. A number of other British prisoners had also been seized from outlying posts and here Dalrymple seems to confuse events and witness descriptions – according to Lady Sale, it was the prisoners Captain John Conolly and Captain James Airey who were taunted by a mob waving Macnaghten’s hand, not Mackenzie and Lawrence.

With the death of Macnaghten both Lawrence and Pottinger despaired for their survival. Elphinstone told the badly wounded Eldred Pottinger, now the most senior “political”, to go out and negotiate the retreat to Jalalabad. Pottinger acidly recounted the episode: “I was hauled out of my sick bed and obliged to negotiate for the safety of a parcel of fools who were doing all they could to ensure their own destruction.”

As predicted by Macnaghten the retreat was a disaster – much of the sixteen thousand-strong force and camp followers were slaughtered. Dalrymple is unsparing in his detailed description of the carnage that took place in the mountain passes to the east of Kabul. Only a few survivors, including a British military surgeon, Dr Brydon, some hardy Gurhkas and a Greek merchant, succeeded in breaking through to Jalalabad. The Indian soldiers, or “sepoys”, suffered particularly wretched deaths – many simply froze to death. Dalrymple reminds the reader that the Indian Mutiny of 1857 began among the same regiments that had been deserted by their British officers in the snows of the Khord Kabul pass in 1842.

When the news reached Lord Auckland in Calcutta, the governor-general “aged ten years in as many hours: he screamed, and raged, then took to his bed. He emerged partially paralysed, having suffered some kind of stroke. At night he would lie stretched on the lawn of the Viceregal residence, pressing his face against the cool turf for comfort.”

A punitive expedition was launched under the command of Major General Pollock. But it was too late to save General Elphinstone, who was overcome by the effects of gout and died in the tender care of a group of young officers and fellow captives, including Lawrence, who greatly admired his personal qualities if not his military command in Afghanistan.

Shah Shuja, abandoned by his British sponsors, succeeded in holding out for longer than expected in the fortress of Bala Hissar, until he was assassinated during a rare foray into the city of Kabul. Mohan Lal, representative of the type of brilliant native “intelligencer” to whom British rule in India owed so much, was abandoned by his British patrons upon his capture by Akbar Khan. He was tortured for weeks before being finally ransomed by a fellow native intelligencer in India – his pleas for help were ignored by the British authorities. The betrayal by the British authorities of faithful and brilliant agents such as Mohan Lal and the sepoys sold into slavery was symptomatic of a wider malaise of British rule in India. Mohan Lal was to die in poverty, “alienated from the society of both colonized and colonisers”.

General Pollock was sent for no political purpose to Afghanistan. His mission was simply to lay waste to the country. The new governor-general in Calcutta, Lord Ellenborough, had no intention of staying in the country. Pollock did his task well – destroying almost all of Kabul including allowing his troops to murder, pillage and rape the Hindu community – some of the few who had not fled in advance of his arrival in the city. On one occasion Afghan prisoners were burned alive; a British clergyman accompanying the force described Afghanistan as “a scene of former disgrace and present outrage”. In the end the government in Calcutta would agree terms with their captive Dost Mohammed Khan – a course recommended by Alexander Burnes four years earlier – and stay out of Afghanistan for more than three decades before a new generation of British administrators would forget the lessons of their predecessors.

Some British officers did achieve more than merely avenge their wounded empire. Lieutenant John Haughton went to extreme lengths to find and, in many cases liberate from slavery, 165 of his Gurkha soldiers who had been captured during the siege of Charikar. The toll of the Anglo-Afghan war was particularly severe for illustrious Irish families like the Conollys and the Pottingers. Three Conolly brothers died during the course, or in the aftermath, of the first Anglo-Afghan war. Eldred Pottinger perished in Hong Kong not long after his arrival there in 1843, worn out in body and spirit. His brother Thomas had been hacked down, his body desecrated, in the beautiful cypress gardens of Nimla in 1842, while Arthur was executed in Bokhara.

George Lawrence went on to be a celebrated general, one of a trio of famous Lawrence brothers including John and Henry, heroes the Indian munity of 1857 – Henry was cut down defending Lucknow but John, the “Ruler of Punjab” eventually rose to become governor-general of India. George ended his life worrying about Irish affairs – gravely concerned at the hardening of political opinions: “I have always considered it my greatest honour to be a citizen of Derry … Let Ireland alone – all we want is rest and peace.”

Dalrymple is a masterful narrator and his telling of the story of the first Anglo-Afghan war is no exception to the excellence of his work so far. The range of new sources employed adds more depth to an already complex history, yet he navigates deftly between British, Afghan, Indian and Russian sources without losing his thread. His occasional tendency to overreach himself in drawing comparisons with the present day and his slapdash treatment of William Hay Macnaghten cannot obscure what is on balance a gem of a book and one hell of a story.

Edward Burke is a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews and an associate at the Foundation for International Relations (FRIDE).

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