Does Present Mimic Past? Afghanistan 160 years ago

The Argument

There are eerie, distressing parallels in the U.S. role today and Britain's in 1842

Books: The Argument

December 14, 2003|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff

Today we're playing a game called "Name That War." See if you can identify the following scenario:

The world's reigning superpower, fed up with the despotic ruler of an Islamic nation in the globe's most strategically crucial region, decides to cook up a war to depose him, despite advice to the contrary by its own intelligence officers. A well-connected corporation that does business in the region is all for it, of course, and as the shooting commences the superpower declares that its goal is to secure freedom and happiness for the despot's beleaguered subjects.

The fighting goes splendidly, with remarkably few casualties, and the capital soon falls. Mission accomplished.

Then things begin to go wrong.

The despot slips away into the hinterlands. The locals, who were expected to greet the conquerors with cheering, instead turn angry. The stooges hand-picked to run the new government prove unpopular and corrupt. Costs skyrocket. There are murders, attacks. But when the occupying army moves aggressively to crush insurgents, the populace only gets angrier. Soon a major disaster is at hand.

Guessed the answer yet?

No, it's not Operation Iraqi Freedom. It's the First Afghan War, 1839-42, as brilliantly detailed in a reissued 1966 gem by Patrick Macrory titled Retreat From Kabul (Lyons, 288 pages, $16.95). The superpower in question was Great Britain, the despot was Dost Mohamed, and the conquest of Afghanistan was part of Britain's storied Great Game versus Russia, as a hedge to protect colonial holdings in India, where the powerful East India Co. was the Halliburton of its era.

Despite initial success, the war soon ran into unforeseen complications, resulting in one of the greatest disasters in British military history -- the massacre of all but one of 4,000 troops (plus 12,000 camp followers) in Britain's Army of the Indus -- wiped out as they retreated from Kabul to Jalalabad in January 1842.

This is not to suggest that a similar fate awaits U.S. forces in Iraq. For one thing, several key differences are in play: Dost Mohamed, unlike Saddam Hussein, was reasonably popular; the weaponry of the two sides was fairly evenly matched in the Afghan conflict; and the British military command was debilitated by serious rifts.

But other aspects of the earlier war seem to eerily foreshadow current doings in Iraq, meaning that the British experience offers valuable lessons for any American leaders humble enough to learn. (None of whom will be, of course, as long as they keep acting like their arrogant forebears.)

The parallels can be found in the months before the first gunshots.

Once the British decided to get rid of Dost Mohamed, neither bad press nor flimsy reasoning was going stop them, even if it meant having to cook up a pretext for war. President Bush arguably took the same approach after reportedly declaring to aides months before any fighting, "We're going to take [Saddam] out."

Bush's pretext was a supposed Iraqi stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. The failure to find it has led some White House apologists to declare that Saddam Hussein, not nukes or chemical warheads, was actually the most menacing "weapon" in this arsenal. That, too, echoes the British approach. They cited the personal threat posed by Dost Mohamed as the greatest danger of all, even though Mohamed himself seemed intent on finding a way to accommodate them.

The British outlined their rationale for war in a document that became known as the Simla Manifesto, named for the town in which it was published. In it, Lord Auckland, governor general of India, declared that Dost Mohamed's hostile policy "showed too plainly that, so long as Caubul [Kabul] remained under his government, we could never hope that the tranquillity of our neighborhood would be secured."

On point after point, Macrory writes, the manifesto succeeded in "blandly ignoring where it did not falsify the recommendations of officers with first-hand knowledge of Afghanistan."

Sound familiar?

The manifesto also took pains, just as Bush has, to claim altruism as a prime motivation, stating, "British influence will be sedulously employed to further every measure of general benefit, to reconcile differences, to secure oblivion of injuries, and to put an end to the distractions by which, for so many years, the welfare and happiness of the Afghans have been impaired."

Not that Fleet Street was fooled by such claptrap. Sounding a bit like France and Germany in the lead-up to the Iraq War, the British press figuratively tore the manifesto to shreds, according to Macrory, who wrote, "It was damned as a collection of absolute falsehoods, a highly disingenuous distortion of the truth."

No less a figure than the Duke of Wellington, Macrory wrote, "commented laconically that the difficulties would begin where the military successes ended."

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