Global Policy Forum

Will history repeat itself in Afghanistan?

By Dr. Huw Davies

July 15, 2009


General comparisons of Britain's first three wars in Afghanistan and the current conflict, are difficult and fraught with pitfalls and traps. However, if one compares the specific experiences of soldiers and officers, there is much to learn from Britain's history in Afghanistan. Many know that the British tried three times between 1839 and 1919 to subjugate Afghanistan, and each time they failed. But when dealing with the history of British military involvement in Afghanistan, and in the difficult business of looking for parallels between then and now, it is necessary to separate the general from the specific.

The reasons for the wars in the 19th Century were somewhat different and incomparable with the reasons for the war now. If general comparisons of the conflicts are made, without looking at the specifics, it might be easy to conclude that there is little hope for success in Afghanistan.The First Anglo-Afghan War broke out when Britain invaded Afghanistan because she feared Russian encroachment into Central Asia. The British were eventually routed and the 16,000 strong army forced to flee Kabul in the winter of 1841. Only one man survived the retreat.  Britain invaded Afghanistan again in 1878 for largely the same reasons. Despite a terrible defeat at Maiwand on 27 July 1880, the British were surprisingly successful elsewhere on the battlefield.

Unlike today, the Afghans showed an inability to adapt their tactics and the British dominated in several battles. Yet the British failed to achieve a political settlement and, as they were unable to occupy the country, chose instead to isolate it, while retaining influence in Afghan foreign affairs. The third war broke out when Afghanistan declared independence from this quasi-British rule in 1919. However, for Britain, the Bolshevik Revolution had reduced the Russian threat and, with military spending crippled in the wake of the World War I, interest in Afghanistan gradually waned.

General comparisons, then, suggest that Britain has neither the military capability, nor the political will, to complete or attain victory in a conflict in Afghanistan. Much has changed since 1919, though. The British Army has fought innumerable counter-insurgency campaigns elsewhere, the lessons of which are proving useful now. Technological advancements have also allowed swifter and more reliable analysis of intelligence, a critical aspect of any counter-insurgency campaign.


The Cultural Dimension

It appears that there is also a renewed focus on the importance of understanding the culture, traditions and customs of the Afghan population. It is here that the specific experiences of British officers and soldiers in 19th Century Afghanistan can prove useful. During the First Anglo-Afghan War, for example, certain British officers spent much of their time learning about the culture of the local populations. In doing so, political, economic and social solutions to violent problems were unearthed.

In 1839, the British military had the difficult task of convincing the Afghan population to accept the new ruler, Shah Shuja, as he was from a different tribe to that of the deposed ruler, Dost Mohammed. Shah Shuja's ascension to the throne in Kabul inevitably caused a shift in the balance of power, and those who had enjoyed political power under Dost Mohammed were cast aside and replaced with their rivals. This in turn caused widespread political disenfranchisement that manifested itself in violent rebellion.

The instinctive reaction of the British then, as now, was to meet violence with violence. But then, as now, commanders quickly recognised that violence was not necessarily the solution. Instead, the granting of some reasonable demands might buy off the support of those that were politically disenfranchised. Then, as now, the difficulty for the British lay in identifying and separating those who were die-hard supporters of the rebellion against British authority, from those who simply felt oppressed and whose loyalty could be bought. Cultural understanding proved critical for the British in reaching these conclusions. Inevitably, then, as now, there were those whose resistance to and hatred of the West could never be defeated without recourse to violence.

Why, then, did the British fail in Afghanistan in 1841, and will the same thing happen today? In 1841, those in political charge in Afghanistan and British India did not perceive this "cultural solution" as being worthy of any merit. Despite the efforts of a minority of officers and soldiers, the preferred British method was retaliatory violence. For most, the "cold, hard steel of the bayonet" enforced the authority of the British Empire. Ultimately, this almost indiscriminate use of violence alienated that segment of the population that might otherwise have supported Britain and Shah Shuja.

The difference now is that much more attention is being devoted to understanding the culture of Afghanistan and to finding solutions that do not necessarily involve military action. Efforts are being made, with some success, to incorporate cultural understanding in all military activities, from fighting to reconstruction. But with a resurgent Taliban, apparently committed to an extremist vision of Islam and harbouring terrorists, it will also be necessary and unavoidable to use military force. Awareness of the cultural dimension will not necessarily guarantee victory, but ignorance of it, history shows us, will guarantee defeat.


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