Is history repeating itself in Afghanistan?

JR Webb Former U.S. Marine
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In 2006, I was serving as a Marine infantryman in Ramadi, Iraq during some of the most intense combat of the Iraq War. Local relations were at a low point, and violence was at a high. Early in 2007, we witnessed the “Sunni Awakening.” The attitude around us changed overnight, and we were suddenly welcomed with tea and food by local leaders who in previous months had engaged our patrols with violence. This turn of events did not immediately end the conflict, but it did remove our Marines from the lead in the fighting. Local Iraqis now bore the brunt of the combat. The insurgency could no longer blame Americans for the absence of peace. It was now primarily an Iraqi problem.

This is still not the case in Afghanistan, more than 10 years after U.S. troops first arrived there.

Afghanistan, where I spent time as an embedded photo-journalist in 2004, has a long history of repelling foreign powers. Although the first inclination among Americans is to compare our recent experiences in that country with the Soviet occupation in the 1970s and ’80s, it might make more sense to compare our experience in Afghanistan with the British occupation, which began in 1839 and ended in 1842. The British entered Afghanistan with the intent of stabilizing the country through a limited and Afghan-led conflict. Less than three years later, they were driven out after one of the greatest disasters in British military history.

The British incursion into Afghanistan began optimistically enough, as did our own a decade ago. Peter Hopkirk describes the arrival of the British in Afghanistan in his book “The Great Game”:

… A large and curious crowd turned out to see him, with the men thronging the streets and their womenfolk lining the rooftops and balconies. Flowers were strewn in his path and he was greeted with shouts of “Kandahar is free” and “We look to you for our protection” as he rode in triumph through the city.

The date was April 25, 1839. The British East India Company had taken Kandahar, Afghanistan without a fight. It was their first stop on the way to replacing Afghan King Dost Mohammad with exiled ruler Shah Sujah, who had promised to support British interests in the region. By the first week of July 1839, British-led forces had smashed Dost Mohammad’s principal garrison at Ghazni and were advancing into Kabul unopposed. Again without a shot, Sujah soon assumed the throne in Kabul that he had abandoned some 30 years before. But by January 1842, the British occupying force had been utterly destroyed in a bloody uprising against the British and their allies. Of the initial force of some 16,000 Britons, only one had survived.

Some may dismiss this incident as a mere historical anomaly. Others may view it strictly as a series of tactical errors, tantamount to military and diplomatic incompetence. But in my view the incident serves as a stern reminder of the differences between Afghan and Western cultures, and as a warning. History shows that every outside force that has invaded Afghanistan has failed to grasp key cultural differences, ultimately resulting in deep-seated and violent popular rebellions.

The British arrival in Kabul during the summer of 1839 was viewed with curiosity and caution, but not hostility. After all, British forces were small in number, comprising roughly one-eighth of the invading force. They were not viewed as a conquering force. These “curious” men from the West had a queen, not a king. They brought riches, technology and also Shah Sujah, who was viewed by Afghans as a legitimate ruler, and was returning to simply “save face.” Additionally, those who had confronted the British in the name of Dost Mohammad were either destroyed on the battlefield or were slaughtered in captivity by the Shah’s foot soldiers during attempts to avenge generations of tribal rivalries. Shah Sujah also possessed the most important denomination of Afghan currency: military might, along with the initial perception that his men were taking the lead.

The British stay in Kabul was not intended to be indefinite, and at first they largely remained in the background. The primary task of the British was to stand up a local Afghan army capable of defending and cementing the Shah’s rule. This had been accomplished in neighboring India with relative ease, and the assumption was that it would be no different in Afghanistan. However, it was soon apparent that this challenge was going to be quite different.

The British footprint in Kabul began to expand. As more Britons arrived from the neighboring sub-continent, Kabul became increasingly “Westernized.” Skating rinks appeared. Lavish parties were thrown. Whole bazaars emerged catering to the needs of Afghanistan’s English guests. This at first was embraced by the locals. The sudden influx of gold and treasure enriched local merchants. The Afghan elites in the capital now enjoyed influence, status and exponential expansions in individual wealth, much of which was paid out in “subsidies” by the British, as rewards for their loyalty. However, this legitimized form of corruption, and a seeming shift of the cultural values of Afghans, began to chafe the populace. Lower-class Afghans soon were “priced out” of goods which they could previously afford. The Afghan elites were viewed with increasing suspicion. They came to be seen as puppets of an occupier.

Afghans watched as these elites became increasingly detached and indifferent to the plight of the majority. They watched as the wealthy drifted from traditional Koranic values. The lavish parties held by the East India Company became the norm. Afghan and British partygoers alike enjoyed all the benefits of Western society, including alcohol and local women. In fact, many Afghan women left their husbands for the riches and status that could be attained by gaining a British husband. Two very different and separate cultures began to collide, and dissent began to bubble amongst the general population.

Meanwhile, the ineptitude of the Shah’s military force was beginning to complicate the ability of Sujah to govern his people. The force was not growing as planned, and had little power outside the gates of Kabul. As a result, the East India Company was forced to not only remain in the lead role of ensuring the loyalty of tribesmen outside Kabul, but also in enforcing the edicts of the Shah. Using a “carrot or stick” approach, the British would ride out of Kabul and visit people who we would today call local warlords. They would give these leaders two choices: either pledge loyalty to the new Afghan king, and become rich and influential as a result, or refuse and be forcefully subjugated at the hands of the British in the name of the Shah. Many of these tribes, which had been independent of central authority for centuries, did not embrace these options. From their perspective, they were being forced to corrupt their ideals and, more importantly, sacrifice their independence to a ruler whom they had not met, at the hands of an army that was not Afghan.

By November 1841 public dissent was palpable in Kabul, but still largely ignored by the Shah and his British allies. Across the country, mullahs had begun to preach to their followers about the need to expel the British. Tribal leaders began to look past centuries of blood feuds, concluding that all of the tribes faced a common threat to their way of life. The perception that the British were corrupting the Afghans’ Islamic values combined with resentment of the British military’s heavy-handed actions eventually caused the country to explode.

On the night of November 1, 1841, Sir Alexander Burnes, the principal disburser of “subsidies” to Afghans, watched as protesters gathered outside his Kabul residence. As the demonstration grew from dozens of protesters to hundreds, Burnes became increasingly uneasy. He had requested assistance from the Shah, believing it was necessary for the Shah to demonstrate his power and peacefully dispatch the protesters, but his men had not arrived, and the demonstration had grown by some estimates into the thousands.

Burnes tried to placate the crowd. He appeared on his balcony and offered the protesters sums of money in exchange for them going home. Incensed by the proposition, local mullahs whipped the crowd into a frenzy. A single shot rang out from the crowd, killing a British officer, and the mob stormed Burnes’ residence. It slaughtered all who were loyal to Burnes and torched his compound. The mob then turned back into the city and attacked the Shah’s approaching troops. Nearly two-thirds of the Shah’s 300 men were killed. News of the incident rapidly spread through Afghanistan, and within weeks the entire country was in outright rebellion. Afghans attacked the British and anyone deemed to be supportive of the “occupation.” A medical officer named William Brydon was the only Briton to survive the bloody onslaught.

This is not to say that the American mission in Afghanistan will end the same way the British occupation did, but the British experience should serve as a cautionary tale. Western values and Afghan values are vastly different. Some in this country may dismiss recent events in Afghanistan as isolated or irrelevant to our overall purpose in being there. It serves little purpose to list these incidents and then either condemn or defend them. But we should recognize that in Afghan eyes our military forces are increasingly being perceived as non-Islamic outsiders who are hostile to Afghan social constructs and values.

If we cannot enlist the support of the Afghans in their own cause after 10 years of warfare, thousands of American deaths and billions of American dollars, perhaps we never will. History proves that the Afghan people are capable of fighting. What is less certain is whether they are willing to adopt our view of their own future.

JR Webb was an embed combat photographer in Afghanistan in 2004, after which he decided to drop out of Penn State and enlist in the Marine Corps. He served as an enlisted Marine in Iraq in 2006-2007. He is now working full-time and also finishing up a degree at the University of Maryland.