The Rhyming History of Western Adventures in Afghanistan
Professional matters aside, the best thing about my nearly-concluded trip to the US has been the abundance of good English-language bookstores, which are rare in Beijing. One of the first books I purchased was an old favourite, the historical novel Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser.
Harry Flashman, the eponymous protagonist, is a dashing but cowardly cavalryman fighting foreign wars with the British army of the 19th century. When I first encountered Flashman as a teenager in the 1990s, it struck me as a rollicking, well-researched adventure story. Rereading the book a couple of weeks ago, I encountered a new undercurrent that was more serious and almost chilling. Most of Harry Flashman’s exploits, you see, are part of the First Afghan War, 1838-1842.
From the British point of view, the First Afghan War was all about securing the throne of Afghanistan for a friendly monarch, Shuja, in the face of local resistance. If this doesn’t sound sufficiently familiar, consider Flashman’s description (the book is in the first person) of the situation in 1841:
Our army prevented any big rising – for the moment, anyway – but it was forever patrolling and manning little forts, and trying to pacify and buy off the robber chiefs, and people were wondering how long this could go on.
In November 1841 there was a big rising, and the British army in Kabul was subsequently massacred while withdrawing under a supposed guarantee of safe conduct. Thousands of British and Indian troops, along with camp followers, were brutally killed (although Flashman slipped away before the army’s last stand).
Shuja was from the Durrani tribal grouping of the Pashtun people, and his chief opponents were from the rival Ghilzai. The current Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, happens to be Durrani – and the Taliban has its roots among the Ghilzai. As Mark Twain said, history may not repeat, but it does rhyme.
Canadian troops in Kandahar are not going to be butchered in 2008 as Britain’s 44th regiment was butchered in 1842. We have a greater technological edge, including the ability to airlift ourselves to safety if things get truly desperate. Nevertheless, Flashman’s fictional 19th century voice is well worth listening to. In order to avoid a “big rising” that could destroy much of our progress to date, we need to get beyond our “little forts”, destroy or subdue the “robber chiefs”, and play the game of tribal politics seriously and well.