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The Rhyming History of Western Adventures in Afghanistan

November 3, 2008

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).

Artistic depiction of Afghan tribesmen slaughtering British and Indian troops, 1842 (image in public domain)

Artistic depiction of Afghan tribesmen slaughtering British and Indian troops, 1842 (image in public domain)

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.


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2 Comments leave one →
  1. corsullivan permalink*
    November 6, 2008 3:09 pm

    I read The Thirty-Nine Steps many years ago, in 8th grade English in Victoria, B.C. I enjoyed it at the time, but I really should go back for a second look – there were parts of it that I found confusing and difficult to grasp, at that tender age. I’ll look for Memory Hold the Door, too.

    By playing the game of tribal politics I basically meant acknowledging the importance of the Pashtun tribes and dealing with them as discrete entities. Perhaps our forces are already doing this, but it certainly hasn’t been apparent in the media. When was the last time you saw an article that even named a specific tribe, let alone discussed its leadership or political disposition?

    I realise that Pashtun tribes are unlikely to be monolithic, and that important ideological, religious and other differences will cut across tribal lines to some degree. Still, the media keep trumpeting the importance of tribal divisions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, without telling us anything about the actual tribes. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that we need to get smarter about this, as a nation. It would have been hard to win wars in 18th century Scotland without knowing the MacDonalds from the Campbells.

  2. reneethewriter permalink
    November 5, 2008 1:55 pm

    What a fascinating piece. A-stan will surely emerge now as the foreign policy issue on the horizon of Canada-US relations, perhaps even trumping free trade concerns and border security.

    On the policy front, my key question re: the expected NIE
    reports which I wrote about here (pls see earlier reports)
    Given the obstacles at hand as described in these very detailed U.S. Intel reports, how will Canada “play the tribal game” without adding substantially more troop power and how will that square with the Canadian public? And, for what end? Look forward to your thoughts, as always. R

    p.s.I had to smile to know from your column about Flashman being an old fav. Mine? John Buchan’s The Thirty Nine Steps, which i think is written in the same tradition. Buchan also wrote a completely different work, Memory Hold the Door, his account of life in Canada’s north, as GG. etc. The Empire has set but from the light of its rays…

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