I wonder if you’ve heard of the Durand Line?  This refers to the border that the British drew up between India (now Pakistan) and Afghanistan in 1895-6.  There is a complex history around this border, which needs a volume of articles let alone a short paragraph, but note that when this ‘line’ was drawn up after negotiations between Sir Mortimer Durand and the Amir of Afghanistan, there is evidence in a memorandum that the British did not originally intend the line to be an actual international border but act merely as a demarcation that helped everyone know where they stood, help the British police the warring and aggressive tribes in the area and act as a buffer to keep Russia from encroaching into British India.

Earlier this year I read that Biden announced that the US and NATO will withdraw its troops from Afghanistan on September 11 this year, which is of course, a significant date as it is twenty years since the Twin Towers tragedy.  This withdrawal is now happening, but at the time of the announcement I read a few articles, some from American journalists. Most of these articles lead to conclusions along the lines of, ‘that’s a good idea, but what a disaster it’s been, and where will the US absence lead, probably civil war.’  Previous failures in Afghanistan were noted in these articles, usually that of the Soviet Union’s ten-year intervention from 1979 to 1989.  But there seemed to be somewhat of a silence, actually a complete absence of any analysis of the three wars fought between Great Britain and Afghanistan and the consequent frontier warfare policies of the Army in India between 1914 and 1939. Maybe this was because this time the British haven’t been all that successful in Afghanistan and had to be rescued by the Americans a few times, what would they know?

But once upon a time, way back, we did know a great deal about Afghanistan. And we had first-hand experience of fighting in and administering remote tribal areas.

I have often wondered whether Western leaders in the US, Obama in particular with his idea of a ‘surge’ to end his war, which failed, of course, was ever advised by historians rather than the military. One historian I rate is William Dalrymple who said of the Afghan spirit, ‘fighting and war is to the Afghans like Catholicism is to the Pope’. You never, ever, win in Afghanistan, a point noted by the Guardian view on the current Afghanistan withdrawal. Apparently, Harold Macmillan told his colleagues that the first law of politics is ‘never invade Afghanistan’.

But Dalrymple is a historian and Macmillan? Why would the US government at the time it went into Afghanistan take note of an old buffer like Macmillan, if they even remembered who he was (Prime Minister of Great Britain 1957 to 1963, and rather liked by Kennedy). After all there was the wealth and might of the US which could conquer all, and especially a third world state like Afghanistan, surely The United States of America would prevail?  But places like Afghanistan are tricky.

Another phrase that is bandied around is The Great Game – had Bush or Obama studied this?  Did they know that Afghanistan has been the centre of conflict for centuries?  In this instance, the British Empire and the Russian Empire were at loggerheads politically and diplomatically throughout most of the 19th Century and into the beginning of the 20th Century. Britain was wary of Russia and its policy of expansion; would Russia invade India to add to its empire?  Britain was constantly alert and poised to protect those borders between Russia and India and the Great Game was the way Britain behaved towards Russia and Afghanistan, the latter a nation unfortunately positioned between India and Russia and therefore, in Britain’s eyes a key buffer state. Basically, Britain wanted to gain control over Afghanistan, and indeed much of the Ottoman Empire, the Persian Empire, along with the Khanate of Khiva and the Emirate of Bukhara as a buffer between India and the Russian Empire.  Meanwhile the Russians wanted Afghanistan and the area around it, to be a neutral zone and always denied they had any plans involving India. Consequently, from this divergence of policy and outlook there followed the First Anglo-Afghan War of 1838, the First Anglo-Sikh War of 1845, the Second Anglo-Sikh War of 1848, and the Anglo-Afghan War of 1878.

According to historians the Great Game ended in 1895 when the border between Afghanistan and India was defined by the Durand Line and the Pamir Boundary Commission protocols. (see below for more details).  However, that was not the end of the wars between Britain and Afghanistan as there was a third shortish war in 1919, and when my father joined the 2ndBattalion 9th Jat Regiment in 1934 three British officers in his battalion had fought in that war and as a result were considered experienced North-West Frontier officers.

This 3rd Afghan war was significant for three reasons: first, although the British technically won, it was hard fought and the use of modern, breech-loading magazine rifles by the Afghan army meant that the balance of military advantage was uncomfortably even between the two countries. Does that sound familiar?  A 3rd world country may well equal the might of a 1st world power through their sheer tenacity in fighting for their land, their country, and when the army of this 3rd world country is well-equipped the winning seems not quite as easy as imagined. You would have seen this same kind of ‘balance’ in Vietnam.

The second was that the RAF became a major factor in the protection of the North-West Frontier. And third, and perhaps the most far-reaching result of the 1919 war, was that tribes on both sides of the border had been aroused, and took months to subdue, leading to a punitive campaign in Waziristan in 1920, which nearly but not quite ended in defeat for the British.  However, Kabul never abandoned intriguing in the Tribal Territories as they were known then, so much so, that the British faced almost continuous instability among the tribes throughout the remaining years of its rule in India. And of course, this instability continues to this day.

I’m sure you all know that Afghanistan is mostly a tribal society, and that these tribes know no borders as they go beyond Afghanistan into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. Afghanistan’s population consists of numerous tribes including: the Pashtun who make up around 40% of the Afghan population and the Tajik who make up nearly 30%, then there are the Hazara, Uzbek, Aimaq, Turkman, Baloch, Pashai, Nuristani, Gujjar, Arab, Brahui, Quizlbash, Pamiri, Kyrgyz, Sadat and so on. When I read articles and see photographs of Afghan women playing netball and hearing of their improved status due to whatever, it would almost certainly be something happening in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, because the traditions of most (but not all) of these tribes do not ever include the emancipation of women.

In the days of the Empire, amongst the British, in what is now the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, there was a tradition of respect for the Pashtun or the Pathans, as they were known then, who were considered fierce and noble fighters. This romanticism was not reciprocated by the ‘wily Pathan’ (I have heard that phrase spoken so many times) who never accepted British rule. The area of the North-West Frontier (now Pakistan) was a turbulent, troublesome area where numerous British and Indian Army officers and troops fought and died through constant raids, sniping and occasional more organised attacks. Strategies in those days to deal with the tribes moved back and forth between a ‘hands off’ conciliatory policy to a more aggressive ‘forward’ policy and the whole area absorbed more troops than the rest of the Indian sub-continent.

During the time my father was in India British policy changed from administering the tribal areas at arms-length to constructing roads and setting up garrisons in tribal areas as permanent bases such as Razmak in Waziristan. My father eventually had a posting to Waziristan as General Staff Officer GSO-2 Waziristan District and one of his duties was the Road Open Days, which was about getting supplies on different days (never the same one, and never a pattern that could be detected by the tribes) to various garrisons either by lorry going flat out to avoid sniping or worse, or by judicious picqueting (pronounced picket). Indeed, picqueting was the mainstay of warfare in the North-West Frontier and was a complex, skilled and dangerous procedure, with positions often being sniped at or overrun. The picquet consisted of usually six men sent to a position to remain on guard building a simple fortification around them.  When the timing was right such as when the main body of troops or the lorries with supplies had gone further on, the picquet would rejoin the rearguard – at great speed. An excellent portrayal of the speed necessary when withdrawing a picquet under fire is in John Master’s memoir Bugles and a Tiger.

I remember giving a chapter of my father’s memoir to a friend who asked in surprise at the description of picqeting and the dangers therein, was this an actual war? And the answer is no, this was not a war, it was the normal daily life on the North-West Frontier where dealing with the tribes was dangerous and deadly.

And then the British left India and quite rightly too, but that’s another few thousand words on that topic. Because, of course, the Brits were on the North-West Frontier and managing the tribal population because they were defending an Empire, that was their sole purpose, they were not there to rid the world of Al Queida or the Taliban, or to bring democracy to a nation (I say that ironically) or a better life for women. And yet, once upon a time the British did have knowledge of how to manage a difficult area on the border of Afghanistan, and they did know, by my father’s time, after three wars, that you don’t invade Afghanistan as no government imposed by a foreign nation ever succeeds, it is always seen as a puppet of a foreign outside power.

As the Soviets learnt to their cost after ten years and now after twenty years it is the turn of the Americans to bite that bullet and leave.

And at last, finally, yesterday, I found an article (written by an Afghan academic now living in the States) that mentions the three Anglo-Afghan wars in his analysis of how Afghans always see the installing of a government by outside powers as illegitimate. To impose a government on Afghanistan is to fail. And yet, and yet, it is done over and over again.  What is needed, says this academic, is to leave Afghanistan alone to deal with the Taliban and while the Taliban may make many gains and while there indeed might be a horrible civil war, the Taliban is not Afghanistan, which can be liberal and can be progressive.  The energy that has been directed to fighting foreign powers should and could well turn to dealing with the Taliban.

So while there is much wringing of hands and petitions going round apparently to stop this withdrawal, Afghanistan is not a lost cause, and we sitting in our 1st world reading these articles and saying, how dreadful, how dreadful, shouldn’t we be doing x or y or something? No, just stop and let Afghanistan be.

I mean it may be a dark situation for a while and I do not know the answer. It’s been a very long game in Afghanistan.  See, I’ve invented another phrase, because, before anyone thinks that something might be/could be done in Afghanistan with another great ‘push’ or ‘surge’ or hey, ‘we need to get back there guys, things aren’t looking good’, and I’m speaking to you Obama for that past surge, and to present and future Presidents. Because ‘pushes’ and interventions have been done so many times before in Afghanistan and get you nowhere. What is more, it would be good if 1st world countries did not constantly think that they know the answer to x, (whatever x is, the lack of democracy, the treatment of women, the export of terrorism) and that intervention is the way to bring about peace, or stability or whatever. And whereas in the past I would be saying this to Britain and its handling of that area, in this case I’m speaking to America. Because intervention in Afghanistan Does. Not. Work.

Instead, let them be. And listen to the historians.

Penny Kocher, 13th July 2021

Further reading:

Tamim Ansary, History shows us that outsiders can never bringing peace to Afghanistan. The Guardian, 12 July 2021

John Masters, Bugles and a Tiger. My life in the Gurkhas. Cassell Military Publishers

John Hislop, A Soldier’s Story. From the Khyber Pass to the jungles of Burma. Newhaven Publishing.

The above is my father’s memoir of his time in India, copies of which, if you are interested, can be found here at Newhaven Publishing. I edited my father’s memoir over ten years ago – it’s quite well written although I say so myself but read the reviews on the Newhaven Publishing website for an outsider’s view on my dad’s memoir, of which one says, if you have an interest in the Indian Army it’s a must-read!  Wow! I was pleased to get that review, and btw, these reviews are from academic journals and associations plus one from Sandhurst so they are not just casual readers.

The Great Game, Wikipedia

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15 thoughts on “Afghanistan or do politicians ever get advised by historians?

  • 13th July 2021 at 15:15

    When Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated by agents of Al Queda on 9 Sept 2001, I felt nothing but despair for the Afghans. Massoud united the tribal areas, and was the link with ‘the West’. With Massoud the Northern Alliance would have co-operated to bring about fairer government by the Afghans in Afghanistan.
    Like your father, my father lived for years the North West Province. He loved the life, he knew the dangers, but it was ‘just life’. My father lived in a tent working as a forester for an Indian company based in Lahore. What the US never understood is Pashtoo culture. Yes, the men can be violent against other tribes, but they are also polite to strangers. If you ask for their help – they are bound to assist you.

    Massoud was one of them, and he also loved literature – he could see a way forward for the fractured aggression in the tribal areas. When he was assasinated it was back to the fractured tribes with no cohesion between them.

    The Taliban came from the Western supported Mujahadeen.

    You are correct -no one should fight the Afghans because we do not comprehend how they will act.

    • 14th July 2021 at 08:32

      No-one in high office in either the UK or the US seems to get the complexity of Afghanistan. Although perhaps they did in the past as my father acknowledged that it was better to have the tribes fighting amongst each other than fighting the Brits as a cohesive force. Afghanistan is a tragic country because of its geographical position – it really has to be left alone. And yes, I said so little about their tribal traditions which are rich and varied and not by any means all violent. In my father’s time there was a healthy but wary respect for them, but there was also an understanding that life could be dangerous and deadly along that border. Really all politicians need to do is study the history of this country to understand that you just don’t intervene.

      Btw, I think like your father, my father too loved the life he led in those pre-war days.

  • 13th July 2021 at 20:49

    What an informative article this is.
    Your perception of things is amazing.
    Thoroughly enjoyed reading it, time will tell what the future holds for Afghanistan.

    • 14th July 2021 at 08:59

      Thank you so much. A lot of my knowledge came from editing my father’s memoir. I had to get to grips with the military jargon, and get the context, so I did a lot of research of both military history (what exactly was the Indian Army then) and the background to the conquest of India and indeed the whole idea of Empire. Plus I looked back at the Great Game and the three wars with Afghanistan to understand why the life on the North-West Frontier was so dangerous.

      Oh yes, time and being left alone – let’s hope!

  • 13th July 2021 at 23:27

    I’ve just finished reading “Who Rules the World” by Noam Chomsky and recommend it if you’ve not read it already.

    • 14th July 2021 at 09:00

      Thanks – I’m a great admirer of Noam Chomsky but haven’t read that one – will get it!

  • 14th July 2021 at 13:11

    Thank you for this Penny. A very good read. I’ve often wondered about the West’s need to impose their version of democracy on the Middle East. It’s usually spurred on by the existence of oil in the country but I’m not sure that is the case here.
    Have you published this anywhere else? Maybe Twitter?

    • 19th July 2021 at 09:47

      Thank you Karen and apologies for not answering your comment sooner, I’ve been away. Afghanistan does have oil, lots of it, and there’s also pipeline challenges https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afghanistan_Oil_Pipeline

      And then don’t forget the poppies. Afghanistan is a very unfortunate country mainly because of of its position. It always has both its neighbours and empires fighting over it, and yet they never quite win – as history shows again and again.

    • 19th July 2021 at 11:12

      And P.S. No I haven’t published elsewhere – feel free to put it on Twitter or any other social media platform. I will tell the FFS blog followers when I post another blog – hopefully mid-week.

  • 15th July 2021 at 19:08

    Is your father’s memoir published Penny? If so could you give details ?
    Loved this informative article. Thank you.

    • 19th July 2021 at 09:53

      Thank you and apologies for not replying sooner – I was away. Yes, I edited the memoir (took 3 years) and published in 2010 selling quite well to the niche market of those who are interested in the Indian army and the Empire days. It even sold to a few actual members of the Indian Army in my father’s time, no less!

      Here’s the link to Newhaven Publishing. Do read the reviews – I was very grateful for their view of my dad’s writing http://newhavenpublishing.co.uk

      Thanks again

  • 24th July 2021 at 09:29

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article, Penny. Articulate, detailed, focused, and timely. I was one American who wondered about the U.S. withdrawal and the Taliban regaining their influence and strength in the area. I hear what you are saying about the ferocity of the tribal, nomadic people. My husband, a Vietnam Veteran, says the same of the Montagnards, the mountain people of Vietnam. Fierce fighters! He has admiration and respect for their strength. After reading your article, I better understand and appreciate the purpose/reason for withdrawal. Thank you.
    I am concerned about those Afghans who helped American forces and were being left behind to Taliban retaliation. May the U.S. honor their help and rescue them and their families.
    Charlene H

    • 25th July 2021 at 09:56

      I too wonder about the Afghan interpreters and others who worked for the American forces – I hope they get to safety. It may be a very difficult time for Afghanistan but nothing comes of intervention in that country – it always fails. For one thing, I don’t think in the west we get the scale of the country – it’s vast with so many different terrains, and of course, tribes. For a nation to succeed in intervening , and what does that mean anyway, the numbers needed to cover the entire country and beyond what is possible. I really do think that historians need to be there amongst the advisers of politicians. Thank you so much for reading this and commenting, Charlene, much appreciated.

  • 1st August 2021 at 20:12

    Yes very well written and informative. My only contact with Afghanistan is in history books and with this second hand knowledge it seemed to me at the time that when even the powerful Russian army invaded they would be in trouble, as indeed they were. This should have been a warning to the Americans.

    • 3rd August 2021 at 14:28

      Thank you Graham, actually like you all my knowledge has come from books, but you do wonder at how much politicians read, on the other hand I suppose that is not their role, their role is to make decisions on the advice given. But it does seem the advice does not come from historians!


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