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Global Voices: Author reflects on thwarted Afghanistan invasions

April 27, 2013|By Carol J. Williams
  • Author William Dalrymple's historical account of the First Anglo-Afghan War, "Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-42," evokes parallels with the current U.S.-led occupation of the country. Dalrymple has spent most of the past 25 years living in India and traveling through Central Asia.
Author William Dalrymple's historical account of the First Anglo-Afghan… (Karoki Lewis )

“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”

Nowhere has that admonishment by 18th century statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke been ignored with such disastrous consequences as in Afghanistan.

The imperial British army suffered its most inglorious defeat there in 1842, only to have the folly of invasion repeated by the Soviet Union in 1979 and again by the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

As tens of thousands of U.S. and allied troops prepare to leave Afghanistan after nearly a dozen years, Scottish writer-historian William Dalrymple’s new chronicle of the British debacle more than 170 years ago evokes comparison of the fates that have met foreign invaders.

In “Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42” (2013 © Alfred A. Knopf), Dalrymple traces the protagonists of today’s battles for power between U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai and Taliban mullahs to their clansmen of the First Anglo-Afghan War era. Karzai is descended from the same Pashtun sub-tribe of Popalzai as Shah Shuja, the exiled leader who was returned and installed by the British in 1839 to replace the Taliban forebear Dost Mohammed Khan, whom the invaders had ousted.

Dalrymple, in California for the next week to present his book in Los Angeles, Pasadena and the Bay Area, talked with The Times about his account of one of history’s most ill-considered occupations, and modern-day leaders’ failure to heed its lessons.

Q:  The British experience of invading Afghanistan was repeated by the Soviets 30 years ago and now by the United States and its allies. Why do the major powers not learn from each other’s failed attempts at imposing their development and governing models on this faraway country?

Dalrymple:  My personal theory is that it’s because it's not impossible to conquer Afghanistan. There have been powers in history that have very successfully ruled the country for years. It helps if you’re from the region and have the same religion. If you’re a Muslim you stir up less resistance. But it’s an extremely expensive place to occupy.

In the end what happens isn’t military defeat but the hemorrhaging of money into the country. It happened with the Soviets, and the Indians before them. They did what the Americans are doing now -- they began to cut the troops and train up an Afghan army.  They find themselves taking increasing numbers of casualties and, as they try to find a way around that, they give up rather than get defeated.

In no way have the Americans been defeated. Had they wished to, they could have hunkered down and hemorrhaged more money and blood. But, at the end of the day, they have decided it’s not worth it.

Q:  Didn’t the U.S. invasion in October 2001 have a different impetus from the British intervention in 1839? Wasn’t the original coalition mission aimed at eradicating Al Qaeda’s refuges in the country?

Dalrymple:   Sept. 11 was such a catastrophic knock to the system, such an astonishing event, that all other years of civil liberties work, lessons from history, careful planning of security operations just got thrown aside in this moment of blind panic and anger. There was very little George Bush could have done otherwise. He had to make a move in response to this catastrophic, life-changing attack.

The invasion in 2001 was justified. What we should have done, though, is very clearly demonstrate good intentions. There was an awful lot of goodwill among the Afghans initially. They hated the Taliban. But we should have built hospitals and schools, not impose a puppet on them.  We spent millions on security and nothing on the country. Even eight years after the invasion, there was still no proper road from the airport to the capital, Kabul. It was a lost opportunity. It could have been a time when the West and the Afghans made friends.

Q:  Do you see any chance of lasting Western influence on Afghanistan once the troops are gone? Will the national government model and recognition of women’s rights endure, or is the country likely to revert to the tribal conflicts and geographic divisions that existed before the invasion?

Dalrymple:  A lot has changed thanks to the U.S. intervention. There is all sorts of stuff that can never be put in reverse. There’s a whole generation of very wired, Internet-savvy younger people who know of the world and are aware of the situation of Afghanistan. The urban population has doubled in the past decade, and the population of Kabul is up by a factor of three. The Taliban remains an entirely rural movement. It’s very strong and oddly admired in the rural Pashtun south and is the authentic voice of the ultra-orthodox Pashtun villager. But I think it unlikely that the Taliban will be able to sweep out Kabul and Karzai straight away.

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