The Disasters in Afghanistan

Front cover of Journal of the Disasters in Affghanistan, 1841–2 by Florentia Wynch SaleI have written before about the British experience in Afghanistan in the nineteenth century, but since then we have published more books about this mostly depressing topic, and, two weeks ago, the BBC put out a pair of programmes written and fronted by Rory Stewart, an ex-diplomat, military historian and now an M.P. (though we shouldn’t hold that against him) in which many of ‘our’ authors featured.

The first Anglo-Afghan war of 1838–42 (otherwise known as ‘Auckland’s Folly’, after the governor-general who sanctioned it) generated huge interest at home precisely because it was not only a political but also a military disaster: the first serious setback to the British army since the battle of Waterloo ended the Napoleonic Wars and left Britain as the supreme military power in the world. Russia appeared to be expanding in the direction of (British) India through a proposed alliance with the emir of Kabul, Dost Mohammed Khan. Misunderstandings (not the least on whether the Russian threat actually existed), bad advice, duplicity and incompetence subsequently led to slaughter on a massive scale, individual acts of almost unbelievable heroism, and a legacy of hatred and mistrust of the British which should have taught our government never to get involved with Afghanistan again, but which sadly hasn’t.

The plan was to replace Dost Mohammed Khan with Shah Shuja, who had been driven out of his country in 1809 and had since been maintained in India by the British. Unfortunately, he was seen as a puppet, and after an initially successful invasion to place him on the throne, the level of disaffection in the country increased. In 1840 Dost Mohammed attempted a counter-strike: he was defeated and exiled to India, but this had the effect of rallying more and more tribes against the British, who had isolated themselves (and wives, families, servants and foxhounds) in a fortified cantonment outside Kabul which was not in fact defensible by the number of troops inside it. Matters came to a head when Alexander Burnes, the very experienced British political officer (= espionage agent) who had lived in Afghanistan for years, loved it and its people, and had continuously advised the British government not to get entangled in it, was killed by a mob. The British were too weak, or badly commanded, to retaliate, and the downward slide continued when William Macnaghten, who had simultaneously been negotiating with Dost Mohammed’s son Akbar and plotting his assassination, was killed (along with three officers) by Akbar during a face-to-face meeting.

The British believed they could do nothing except seek a safe-conduct for withdrawal, and on 6 January 1842 this began: 16,000 people, of whom only about 4,500 were serving soldiers, began a ‘march’ though the snowbound mountain passes back to India. One man, Dr Brydon, survived the consequent attacks by tribal forces and arrived in Jalalabad, a scene later immortalised by the painter Elizabeth Butler. Some officers, women and children had been taken hostage before the exodus, and the diaries of one of these, Lady Sale (wife of the British second-in-command), written on scraps of paper concealed in a bag under her waist, were published in Britain in 1843. (Stewart showed us the manuscript, including excised passages which apparently were thought too horrific for publication.) The work was an immediate best-seller, and created a storm of indignation against the incompetence, both civil and military, which had led to such a disaster and humiliation.

Other books followed – further eyewitness accounts such as those of Vincent EyreGeorge LawrenceDaniel Mackinnon and James Outram, and, later, biographies of generals who as young officers had served in the resulting campaign of retribution, such as Outram and Charles James Napier (as well as the books which were weapons in the ongoing ‘warfare by other means’ between Outram and Napier). Perhaps the most remarkable of these is a biography of Dost Mohammed Khan, by Mohan Lal, who was attached to the British mission in Kabul. Dost Mohammed was set at liberty in 1842, returned to Afghanistan and reclaimed his throne. He allied himself with the Sikhs in the first Anglo-Sikh war (see Lawrence, Mackinnon and Cunningham on this), but in 1855  signed an offensive and defensive alliance with the British; when put to the test during the India Mutiny, he took no part.

And as a coda to all this, you can read the account of Sir Thomas Hungerford Holdich, who fought in the second Anglo-Afghan war (against Dost Mohammed’s son, over alleged Russian influence…) and later was instrumental in drawing up the final agreed boundary between Afghanistan and British India. How nice to think that the present governments in the UK and the USA might have read and pondered any or all of these works: the events of the last decade suggest that the previous governments in both places certainly didn’t.


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3 Responses to The Disasters in Afghanistan

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