Afghanistan: History Repeats Itself
By James Ottavio Castagnera
Jim Castagnera is a university attorney and author of Al Qaeda Goes to College [Praeger 2009].)
The generals are demanding more troops and the president appears prepared to oblige. For a sixty-something American male, this sounds ominously like Vietnam, Westmoreland, and LBJ. For historians versed in Afghanistan’s bloody modern history, the echoes sound louder and deeper.
Britain fought three Afghan wars in the 19th and early 20th centuries, all aimed primarily at halting hostile expansions southward toward Imperial India.
The first Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842) was highlighted by the massacre of a British army. Occupying Kabul, but surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered, 4500 military personnel and some 12,000 camp followers departed the city under a supposed promise of safe passage on January 1, 1842. Struggling through a frozen landscape and constantly harassed by hostile tribesmen, the entire contingent was either wiped out or enslaved with the sole exception of Dr. William Brydon, an assistant surgeon of the British East India Company.
The Brits rallied its forces, replaced incompetent commanders and returned to Afghanistan, cutting a swath of destruction all the way back to Kabul. They then, wisely returned home to India. In the succeeding years the Russian creep toward the gem in Victoria’s crown continued largely unabated by Britain’s Afghan efforts.
The Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80) was precipitated by the arrival of Russian envoys in Kabul. When a British demand for similar diplomatic recognition went unanswered, the Brits again sent occupying forces into Afghanistan. With the empire’s troops occupying most key locations in the country, the Afghan ruler was forced to sign a treaty. However, on September 3, 1879, the British diplomatic resident in Kabul was assassinated. Back trudged the troops over the high passes, occupying Kabul yet again and forcing the abdication of the Afghan ruler. Although this had the appearance of a victory, arguably wiping away the humiliations of 1842, the Brits realized that holding the city did nothing to control the hostile tribes outside its walls.
In 1880, the British government changed and the incumbent Liberals abandoned the so-called Forward Policy. Britain once again left Afghans to their own devices. Meanwhile, an estimated 2500 British and colonial troops and some 1500 Afghan fighters had died in this second confrontation.
The Third Anglo-Afghan War lasted a mere three months, commencing in May 1919 and ending in an armistice on August 8th. The brief clash was precipitated by an Afghan incursion into British territory. This was repulsed but the two forces fought to a standstill. Some Afghan cities, including Kabul, were bombed. The Afghan army pulled back and the armistice was signed. No clear winner emerged from the brief struggle, but British territory was cleared of Afghan troops. Thus, for all practical purposes, ended British military adventures in Afghanistan. Three armed conflicts across 80 years resulted in nothing more than the maintenance of a fragile status quo on the empire’s northwestern frontier.
Fast forward to 1979. Deployment of the late-great Soviet Union’s 40th Army into Afghanistan on Christmas Eve began the nine-year agony that finally ended with a Russian withdrawal commencing on May 15, 1988. Anyone who has read George Crile’s splendid book, Charlie Wilson’s War (2003), knows that the CIA played an important role in enabling the Afghan freedom fighters to bring down Soviet helicopters as a rate that emasculated the Russians of battlefield mobility and left their armor and other superior ordinance to the tender mercies of the mujahideen. Chopper losses totaled 333, along with another 118 aircraft of various types downed. Tank casualties totaled 147. The Soviet Union admitted to the loss of 13,836 troops. Other observers place the figure closer to 14,500. More than 600,000 Russian troops served in Afghanistan (though no more than 100,000 at any given time), during this doomed adventure.
Concludes Crile, “The story of (Congressman) Charlie Wilson and the CIA’s secret war in Afghanistan is an important, missing chapter of our recent past…. [T]he terrible truth is that the group of sleeping lions that the United States aroused may well have inspired an entire generation of militant young Muslims to believe that the moment is theirs.”
And, now, here we are, entering our ninth year in Afghanistan, having launched Operation Enduring Freedom on October 7, 2001. And our commanders are singing the same old song sung by William Westmoreland in the sixties: just give me more troops and I’ll bring home a victory.
We all know George Santayana’s famous statement: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Sad to say, while we all give that pearl of wisdom frequent lip service, we cannot seem to follow it, once the boots are on the ground.