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Why are Empires Buried in Afghanistan?

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First Anglo-Afghan War

Why are Empires Buried in Afghanistan?

by Major Mehar Omar Khan

Download the full article: Why are Empires Buried in Afghanistan?

Hubris hates history and the latter keeps thus getting an opportunity to repeat itself. Nowhere is this as true as the killing fields of Afghanistan. The sad saga of First Anglo-Afghan War shows how lives of so many were lost in the merciless gorges and blood-thirsty passes between Kabul and Jalalabad, mainly because of the strategic blunders, outright dishonesty and unforgivable chicanery of a few. The story of this war also reveals that, more than the fierce Afghan or his treacherous terrain, the inept and indecisive leadership of the empire was to blame for getting buried in Afghanistan and helping that land become the 'graveyard of empires'.

Some trivia to start with. The war lasted from 1839 to 1842. Amir Dost Muhammad Khan, a Durrani Pashtun, was the legitimate King of Afghanistan before being ousted by the Anglo-Indian army of occupation. The name of the puppet installed by the British was Shah Shuja -- a man expelled in disgrace years before the war and someone who could never hope to step beyond Khyber Pass without foreign assistance.

As seemingly ear-less wise men continue to blunder in that unfortunate land, here are some echoes from the past. Instead of counting the trees, I have focused on the big picture to see how a war that happened 170 years ago could shed some light on the one being fought today.

Download the full article: Why are Empires Buried in Afghanistan?

Major Mehar Omar Khan, Pakistan Army, is currently a student at the US Army Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. He has served as a peacekeeper in Sierra Leone, a Brigade GSO-III, an instructor at the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul, and as Chief of Staff (Brigade Major) of an infantry brigade. He has also completed the Command and Staff Course at Pakistan's Command and Staff College in Quetta.

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Mon, 01/04/2010 - 2:25pm

Major sahib, I hope you dont consider this note unpatriotic, but as a Pakistani civilian (now a Pakistani-American), I think the best hope for us is that the US stabilizes Afghanistan, the Pakistani army turns away from ALL jihadi proxies and a democratic regime in Pakistan tries to solve problems in a democratic manner (which usually involves give and take and compromise and sometimes the sausage making looks very ugly, but the results are longer lasting than the Pakistani army's short-sighted "solutions" to Balochistan and East Pakistan before that).
The Karzai regime has many problems, but anyone making comparisons with Shah Shuja is on very shaky ground. NATO is not the British empire, their operation in Afghanistan does not compare in any meaningful way with the interests and obsessions that drove the British viceroys in India. The differences between 1840 and 2010 are MUCH greater than any similarity.
Whatever happens (and many disasters are possible, I will grant you that), it will NOT be a replay of 1840. The Taliban are a religio-political movement with strong links to international jihadism (and therefore with the jihadi sections of the Pakistani army), not a "pashtun intifada". Can you supply some more information regarding your use of the term "Pakhtun intifada"?? The only intifada I am familiar with is the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation. Are you saying that NATO is an occupying force like Israel is in Palestine and that the Pakhtuns are honorably rebelling against this foreign occupation? IF that is what you are saying, then why is it OK for foreign occupiers to spread "inkspots" through the land? Why wouldnt an intifada be required against those inkspots?

Mehar Omar Khan (not verified)

Mon, 01/04/2010 - 1:51pm

Thanks for your comments. I have been consistently recommending the following:
- Work through a truly credible and legitimate local partner. The current 'Kabul cabal' is neither.
- Do not underestimate the damage that a locally inspired militant movement can do, both in the short as well as the long term.
- Initial successes should not be undone by subsequent failures in military judgment and political resolve. In Afghanistan, it's time for repairing and healing.
- The best way to delegitimize Taliban resistance (which is in fact a Pashtun Intifada (uprising)) is to create examples / islands of development and peace.
- The best course of action is to operate from 'center outwards' or 'hub-to-spokes', starting from a village, a tribe or a district or a couple of districts and expanding the good work outwards.
- Get out of Kabul now or you'll never get out of there. get to the places where there is deprivation and poverty and alienation and therefore anger and bloodshed.
- Military or kinetic part of the camaoign should now be lazer-focused on carefully-selected points of resistance and the bulk of the effort should be focused on development and peace-building.
- Start where Afghanistan currently is and not where we want it to be. We will ultimately get there but in small and sure steps.
We can talk about this more in future.
Let's hope someone is listening and doing that with enough sincerity.
Thanks again for taking time out to read.

Mark Pyruz

Mon, 01/04/2010 - 8:39am

The British fabricated the nation known today as "Afghanistan" out of 2 provinces of Iran (Bakhtar and Aryana). Treaty of Paris 1857.

Historically, Kandahar and Herat are Persian cities.

Furthermore, this territory known today as "Afghanistan" was never considered a "graveyard" for successive Iranian empires spanning the breadth of the past 2500 years.

Stanton, don't confuse short term surge costs to accelerate ANA/ANP capability with the quantity of U.S. forces and funds that will remain longer.

Which is cheaper: 10 more years at $40 billion a year, or two years at $80 billion followed by five years averaging $30 billion?

The total cost will still be far less than costs of Iraq in both loss of life and coalition treasure. The international formation of a trust fund to finance the ANA will further reduce our costs.

Funding the ANA at a reasonable wage provides an incentive in and of itself to do the job effectively. Fight or starve...a tough love that should yield results. Should their efforts fail, our funding is likely to stop. Provide them survivable bases and logistical infrastructure, and safe places for their families and families of government officials and civilian aid workers.

Let the ANA/ANP, government and aid workers, and village qawm become the strongest tribe providing services and a way of life less oppressive and more progressive than the Taliban would ever allow.

stanton (not verified)

Sun, 01/03/2010 - 11:25pm

War is a pastime and part of the histori-geographic landscape of Afghanistan vs the political expediency /strategy of US American military industrial complex. Who will win out and who will pay for the next 50 years in Afghanistan) with the present US depressed market conditions and economic coming woes?

When will the American people say they have had enough, or will they be cajoled into going along with this 50-100 year Afghan strategy, according to some elected officials. OR, is it better to pay for Americans without insurance, or put that same money into a foreign nation (Afghanistan) for which there may not be a return on investment (i.e.increased security, better pay for public officials, less bribery, (baksheesh!)
education for all citizens, etc)

How many tours of duty can servicemen accept without suffereing a complete phycholgical breakdown. Though military retention is stated to be on target, a recent report states close to 70% of military age US males lack the physical conditioning skills, or are obese.

Is it Islamic fundamentalism we are fighting or just barbarians using Islam (their main and only tool) to sow discord and mayhem through raw power, their only source of control.
Rational thought would demand equal power to be used to close in, engage and destroy those that institute such tactics!

Brilliant writing Major. Thank you for your country's and personal efforts to deny safe haven to extremists. If out there, wonder what your thoughts would be on forming a Pashtunistan with lands from both present day Afghanistan and Pakistan. After all, the Durand Line was formed out of nothing more than history.

Hubris may oppose history in some cases. However, historical inertia and national pride also explain the Durand Line's continued existence. What better example that many historical borders are problematic and breed more future violence rather than shared peaceful solutions.

If British motivation back then was the Great Game, and the Soviet motivation was a latter day extension, one hardly could say that was why we entered Afghanistan in 2001 and remain today.

No evidence exists of excessive coalition troops holding Kabul. Rather it is an excess of coalition contractors and civilian state department types and they, too, hopefully will disperse to help a broader cross-section of the nation or make room for Afghan contractors paid a more reasonable wage.

When we retaliated for being attacked, there was no slaughter of 25,000 civilians in Herat like when the Soviets invaded. There was no leveling of Kabul and innocent civilians when we bombed the Taliban in 2001. In contrast, during the Afghan civil war, many of the same Taliban parties like Gulbeddin Hekmatyr were responsible for such atrocities in the capital.

There is zero evidence of a plan for permanent colonial occupation by the scores of nations attempting to bring peace. Yet if the Taliban regained control, recent history indicates that governance would be anything but peaceful as parties from Pakistan attempted to occupy and wield influence in a country whose majority is not Pashtun...but rather is multi-ethnic.

There is also historical evidence that Afghanistan and many other nations made an attempt to modernize earlier in the 1900s before Islamic fundamentalism reared its ugly head. Given the regression in progress that Islamic fundamentalism has brought to that country and several others, one must question which is the true occupation force, particularly when non-Pashtuns want nothing to do with the Taliban.

Major Mehar Omar Khan has a point that current Afghanistan leaders are creating problems as they did in the past. But I wonder if he would admit that the ISI creates problems by encouraging the Taliban insurgency? Wonder if he can explain why the Pakistani Army is selective in which parts of its country it clears of Taliban and Baloch extremists? Given the problems these areas create for Punjabis and others in Pakistan, why is Pakistan so eager to hang on to those areas that appear not to want to be part of Pakistan?

Historians also neglect the impact of technology and social progress, and different party motivations in different theaters and times. Heck I recall graduating from a California high school that was 90% white in the early 1970s that now is 90% Asian. How could that happen given that history must prevail?

It wasn't too long ago that the governor of Alabama stood to bar entry to minority students into a college in Alabama. Now, I can show you several Alabama universities with some of the highest percentage of minorities in the country in their medical schools with Pakistani, Indian, Black, Asian, and White students studying side-by-side.

Funny how history can change and technological and social progress can change history if we provide environments that promote that change rather than encourage the Durand Line and religious fundamentalism do.

A very interesting read.

I am somewhat familiar with the First Anglo-Afghan War (don't know all of the details as MAJ Khan apparently does) and this provides what I thought was a great summary.

Your essay seems to imply that we (the US and coaltion partners...including the Pakistanis) ought to identify someone in Afghanistan who would be more amenable to the Afghan populace as their leader. Is this correct?

If so, how would you recommend that we do this?

If not, is the point of your article that we need to avoid the stupidity of the Imperial British (strategic and tactical), avoid the overly-focused efforts on establishing a legitimate central government and the wasted amounts of time, money, equipment, and sweat currently directed there, concentrating instead on the "ink-spot" method or creating "islands of security" at the village level (I believe that was the term you used)?