Martin Gerner, freelance journalist & correspondent, reports from Afghanistan
Freitag, 7. März 2014
Then and now: the Battle for Afghanistan
Hamid Karzai – western media speculate - does not want to be remembered as a kind of modern Shah Shuja in the records of history books. Being compared to the king who owed his throne to the dramatically failed intervention of the British Empire 170 years ago would be tantamount to treason in the eyes of his own people.
The first Anglo-Afghan war, historians agree, has left behind a good range of documents in British, Indian, Pakistani and Afghan Archives. Some of them are incorporated in the dari-speaking literature. But rarely so far have western authors attempted to systematically evaluate Afghan sources of the time, following to William Dalrymple. In his voluminous tome of 500 pages the author, whose ancestors fought in the Anglo-Afghan war, tells the story of the return of Shah Shuja on the Afghan throne and the battle of the British crown and the East India Company for Afghanistan.
Dalrymple draws differences and parallels with today's war and conflict, naming the intervention of 2001 as it developed itself an "occupation of the 21st Century”. Than as now in fact, political geography accompanied by short-lived military strategies have been put in place and failed strikingly. The same goes for the ignorance and absence of knowledge about Afghanistan's tribes, their reasons and motivations to take up arms.
// “The parallels”, Dalrymple writes, “are not just anecdotal, they aer substantive. The same battles were continuing to be fought out in the same place 170 years later under the guis of new flags, new ideologies and new political puppeteers. The same cities were garrisoned by foreign troops speaking the same languages, and were being attacked from the same rings of hills and the same high passes.”
The book turns around the relationship of Shah Shuja and William Macnahghten, the commander of the British troops and representative of the East India Company. Analogies between Hamid Karzai and the military leadership of ISAF do not seem accidental. At some point in the military campaign, Shuja is provided an own royal force, containing a lot of British officers:
“I am not personally acquainted with many of the officers in the force. Nor do I know the duties they perform. They do not even seem to know that they are my soldiers.”
The British finally march into Afghan land over the sidepathes of the Hindu Kush and from the South: thousands of officers with their servants, followed by 4,500 Indian sepoys and a 15,500-men staff. Each of the British officers with a dozen or more camels at their service, equipped with boxes full of tobacco, wine, brandy and other luxury goods. Similarities to today's way of western living in Kabul here again immediately come up.
// After entering the captial in early 1840 and Shah Shuja being re-inthroned as the new and old king,
the honeymoon quickly turns into blank refusal. One reason is due to the sheer size of the army and its followers, quickly turning their presence into a nightmare for the local population:
“Kabul already had a discreet red light district in teh quarter occupied by Indian musicians and dancers close to the walls of the Bala Hisar. But there were not nearly enough Indian rundis around to cope with the demand created by the garrisson of 4.500 sepoys and 15.500 camp followers, and a growing number of Afghan women seem to have made themselves available for a short but profitable ride into the cantonment. Indeed this became so common that the British began to compose rhymes about the easy availabiltiy of Afghan women: “A Kabul wife under burkha cover. Was never known without a lover.”
// Dalrmyple, according to his own words, has discovered a good deal of primary sources while walking through the markets of the Old City in Kabul for his research. He found several tomes of what turned out to be precious accounts on the Anglo-Afghan war at at small shops in the bazaar, he writes, accounts that Afghan migrating families of bourgeois or noble origin would leave behind in the 1970s and 80s. Based on these worksm the first Anglo-Afghan war should perceived somewhat different, the author claims:
'The Afghan side with clearly contoured leading figures, all human beings with feelings, individual viewpoints and their own proper motivations. Quite in contrast to British sources that represent the leaders of the Afghan insurgency as undifferentiated and as traitors, bigoted or fanatical.'
Far from depicting the Afghans as bloodthirsty savages, his book is precious for it portrays both sides with the look of the others. Something crucially missing today when it comes to analyze the history of the years after 2001 and how Afghan analysts and historians see it.
// Dalrymple lives in Delhi today, with a critical eye on the current conflict, a Great Game bis, after the big game of the Imperial powers in the 19th Century, with Afghanistan as a buffer zone between England and Russia.
And today?"Only when all are dead, the Great Game will be over. Not before", says Kim, the hero in Rudyard Kipling's novel. This can be long ahead. Towards the end of the book, Dalrymple recalls a meeting with a tribal elder of the Ghilzai Pashtuns who looks int 2014 any beyond: " These are the last days of the Americans. Next it will be China."
This is an independent blog on Afghanistan. I have been working regularly in Afghanistan as a freelance reporter and correspondent mostly with national German media in the past ten years. I've also been a trainer for a new generation of Afghan journalists and with organisations of the Afghan civil society, last not least an guest author with AAN Afghanistan Analysts network. All photos on this page are from the author, unless signaled differently. Reproduction in any illegal form is prohibited. This blog comes in English and in German language.
Dieser Blog versteht sich als ein unabhängiges Informations-Angebot zum Thema Afghanistan. Als freier Autor und Korrespondent arbeite seit Anfang 2004 regelmäßig am Hindukusch für deutsche Medien und ARD-Hörfunk, daneben vor allem auch in der Ausbildung afghanischer Journalisten/
-innen und der afghanischen Zivilgesellschaft. Der Blog versucht u.a. Stimmen von Afghanen stärker in die Debatte einfliessen zu lassen. Fotos in diesem Blog stammen sämtlich vom Autor soweit nicht anders gekennzeichnet. Das Reproduzieren oder die Verwendung in anderen Formen bedarf der ausdrücklichen Zustimmung.