Friday, January 18, 2013

Afghanistan: The old is new again . . .

I've written many times before about the situation in Afghanistan.  Some time ago I pointed out that Britain's experience on her colonial North-West Frontier was an ominous historical lesson for American forces there.  Now, in an opinion piece in the Telegraph, William Dalrymple makes that lesson clear.

Kabul remains one of the poorest and scrappiest capital cities in the world, despite the US pouring around $80 billion into Afghanistan.

We bumped along potholed roads, past the blast walls of the US Embassy and the Nato barracks that has been built on the very site of the British cantonment of 170 years ago, then headed down the zigzagging road into the line of bleak mountain passes that link Kabul with the Khyber Pass.

It is a suitably dramatic and violent landscape: faultlines of crushed and tortured strata groaned and twisted in the gunpowder-coloured rockwalls rising on either side of us. Above, the jagged mountain tops were veiled in an ominous cloud of mist. As we drove, Jagdalak complained bitterly of the western treatment of his government. “In the 1980s when we were killing Russians for them, the Americans called us freedom fighters,” he muttered as we descended the first pass. “Now they just dismiss us as warlords.”

We left the main road at Sarobi, where the mountains debouch into a high-altitude ochre desert dotted with encampments of Ghilzai nomads, and headed into Taliban territory; a further five pick-up trucks full of Jagdalak’s old Mujahideen fighters, all brandishing rocket-propelled grenades and with faces wrapped in their turbans, appeared from a side road to escort us.

At the village of Jagdalak, on January 12 1842, the last 200 frostbitten British soldiers found themselves surrounded by several thousand Ghilzai tribesmen; only a handful made it beyond the holly-oak hedge erected to block their way and on which many British soldiers impaled themselves. Our own welcome was, thankfully, somewhat warmer. The proud villagers took their old commander, now a government minister, on a trip through hills smelling of wild thyme and wormwood, and up through mountainsides carpeted with hollyhocks and mulberries and shaded by white poplars. Here, at the top of the surrounding peaks, near the watchtower where the stripped, naked and freezing sepoys had attempted to find shelter, lay the remains of Jagdalak’s old Mujahideen bunkers and entrenchments from which he had defied the Soviet army. Once the tour was completed, the villagers feasted us, Timurid style, in an apricot orchard at the bottom of the valley: we sat on carpets under a trellis of vine and pomegranate blossom, as course after course of kebabs and raisin pullao were laid in front of us.

During lunch, as my hosts casually pointed out the site of the holly-oak barrier and other places in the village where the British had been massacred in 1842, we compared our respective family memories of that war. I talked about my great-great-uncle, Colin Mackenzie, who had been taken hostage nearby, and I asked if they saw any parallels with the current situation. “It is exactly the same,” said Jagdalak. “Both times the foreigners have come for their own interests, not for ours. They say, 'We are your friends, we want to help.’ But they are lying.”

“Whoever comes to Afghanistan, even now, they will face the fate of Burnes, Macnaghten and Dr Brydon,” agreed Mohammad Khan, our host in the village and the owner of the orchard where we were sitting. Everyone nodded sagely into their rice: the names of the fallen of 1842, long forgotten in their home country, were still common currency here.

“Since the British went, we’ve had the Russians,” said one old man to my right. “We saw them off, too, but not before they bombed many of the houses in the village.” He pointed at a ridge full of ruined mudbrick houses on the hills behind us.

“We are the roof of the world,” said Khan. “From here, you can control and watch everywhere.”

There's more at the link.  Essential reading for anyone interested in the current conflict in Afghanistan, or who has friends or family serving there.



trailbee said...

I have never been able to understand why the United States wanted to go to that part of the world and park our tax dollars there. I guess I didn't read the correct books. The British, the Russians, the French in Vietnam - what is it about that part of the world that is so important that we would actually commit precious lives for so long and leave with our tails between our legs? I can understand a short war, if it were really necessary. But nation building in the mountains? Impenetrable mountains? I keep looking at the terrain, then looking at the photos of the people, then Karzai, and wonder if we are not crazy. No one has ever been able to tame that part of the world. I just have never understood the reasoning behind beating our all against impassible mountains and corrupt governments. The whole thing has been like a naive American nightmare. Could we have avoided this? Sorry for the rant, but someone rang my chimes.

Chris Carmichael said...

This plane is obsolete as it is already 10+ years old.