Past conflicts in Afghanistan offer lessons for U.S., allies

Factions seem to hate foreign troops more than they do each other

War On Terrorism

The World

November 20, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

When opposition military commander Ismail Khan returned to take control of his home base of Herat in Western Afghanistan last week, he had a message for the foreign forces who helped make it possible: Go home.

"We see no need for foreign forces like from the United States and Britain, but the presence of the Americans was effective here because it weakened the Taliban," said Khan, a guerrilla leader during the U.S.-backed proxy war against the Soviet Union. "We believe we must cleanse Kandahar of the Taliban, and we will pursue this with all our might."

Khan was merely repeating what outside armies learned in Afghanistan long ago. In a divisive nation where allies can turn to enemies overnight, there is only one thing Afghans seem to hate more than each other: foreign troops.

Afghanistan has long proved to be exceptionally inhospitable to outside armies. As U.S. and British leaders consider deploying more forces, the grim history of foreign intervention is almost certain to weigh on their minds.

In the 19th century, the British fought two Afghan wars at a horrendous cost, including the loss of about 16,000 soldiers and family members in one week. The Soviet army arrived in Kabul in 1979 only to retreat nearly a decade later after 13,000 deaths and 35,000 other casualties.

This time, the United States and Britain have used the Northern Alliance as a proxy army. But some lessons from past wars still apply. They include keeping a foreign troop presence small, discreet and brief. And when it comes to making alliances with Afghan military commanders - beware.

The British learned that lesson in 1842 during the long Anglo-Russian struggle known as "The Great Game." Britain feared that Russia would try to use Afghanistan to advance on India, the jewel of the British colonial crown.

"The Army of East Indus," which consisted of 15,000 British and Indian troops, set out in 1839 to block the perceived threat and place a puppet ruler on the Afghan throne. Using a tactic the Taliban would employ a century and a half later, the army made many of its advances by doling out bribes.

Distributing gold to tribal leaders, the British made their way north from Kandahar to Kabul. The army entered the capital without firing a shot.

Ruling Afghanistan proved more difficult. The Afghans had become Muslims when Arab armies came through during the seventh century. Within a couple of years of the British arrival, the Afghans had become fed up with their drinking and womanizing as well as the lavish lifestyle of their puppet ruler, Shah Shujah.

An uprising began in Kabul in 1841, and 30,000 Afghan soldiers converged on the capital. Overmatched, the British negotiated a retreat. In exchange for most of the British weapons, Afghan leader Mohammed Akbar Khan promised armed escorts would lead the British to safety.

On Jan. 6, 1842, a group of British and Indian soldiers as well as their families and servants headed east through the snow toward a British garrison in Jalalabad. The escort never materialized. Over the next six days, Afghan tribesmen on horseback armed with guns and long knives slaughtered thousands battling frostbite and hunger.

"This was a terrible march - the fire of the enemy incessant, and the numbers of officers and men, not knowing where they were going from snow-blindness, were cut up," wrote Dr. William Brydon, who survived a stabbing attack because he had stuffed a magazine inside his cap.

On Jan. 13, Brydon, suffering from gashes to his head and hand, appeared on horseback on the plain leading to Jalalabad. Of the 16,000 who had left a week earlier, only Brydon survived.

After fighting a second Afghan war (1878-1881), the British concluded that outsiders could not rule the country. To keep the Russians out, Great Britain struck a deal: Kabul agreed to restrict diplomatic relations to Britain in exchange for Britain's pledge not to interfere in Afghan affairs. A better understanding of the Afghan character and their traditional dislike of foreign forces might have helped avoid war in the first place.

"If intelligence had been better, they would have known that the Afghans wouldn't have Russians or British in there," said Denis Judd, a history professor at the University of North London and author of Empire: The British Imperial Experience from 1765 to the Present.

A little less than a century after the British left Afghanistan, the Soviets invaded. Afghan fighters were formidable as usual. They sneaked into camps at night, blockaded roads and controlled the countryside despite Soviet control of the cities.

But Afghan soldiers have faults as well.

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