Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Britain at War in Afghanistan: The Historical Context

Is History Bunk or Simply Repeating Itself?

As the milestone of 200 British fatalities rapidly passes it must surely be important to note the historical context of British military involvement in Afghanistan. This is, of course, the 4th Anglo-Afghan war. Previous conflicts have all been started by the British with the same basic motivation; a desire to exert influence by ensuring a friendly government is put in place and maintained in Kabul.

The beginning of modern Afghanistan can be dated to 1747 but it was not until the next century when super power interest began to focus on the country, with the British Empire on one side and the Russians on the other. The Kipling ‘Great Game’ of rivalry between the British and Russian Empires was played out in large parts of central Asia and involved the first three British incursions into Afghanistan.

These Anglo-Afghan wars took place in 1838-1842, 1878-81, and 1919. The first war was instigated by the British to displace the ruler in Kabul, Dost Mohammed, who was seen as being too close to Russia. Attempts to replace him with a British nominated ruler failed and the British were forced to retreat from Kabul in 1842 with the loss of thousands of lives. Dost Mohammed regained the throne.

The second war was instigated by the British against Dost Mohamed’s third son, Sher Ali. The British achieved their immediate objectives and, following the death of Sher Ali, signed a treaty with his son in 1879. Later the same year however the British envoy and his entire staff were killed and Britain eventually had to accept the leadership of Abdurrahman Khan, a popular choice of the Afghan tribes.

The most recent war occurred in 1919 after the leader of the day demanded international recognition of Afghanistan’s full independence. After a brief conflict, the British again failed to meet their policy objective and ended up signing an agreement recognising the independence of Afghanistan.

The current war, which started in October 2001 when the US, UK and their allies removed the government in Kabul, has been running for longer than any of the previous conflicts. The conflict has escalated greatly in the last three years and British casualties are now running at the highest level during this 4th Anglo-Afghan war. Despite the forthcoming Afghan elections there appears to be little prospect of a reduction in fighting unless serious negotiations on power sharing are undertaken.

There are of course important differences between the current war and its predecessors; the decline of the British Empire and the rise of the US for one, the new strategic importance of a potential pipeline route through Afghanistan being another; the emergence of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as a regional alliance to counter balance NATO/US influence; and the association of some parts of the Afghan resistance with international terrorism. The renewed interest in Afghanistan is, according to some, part of 'The New Great Game'.

Given the legacy of previous failure, an examination of history is surely an essential prerequisite for any policy maker contemplating the future of British involvement in Afghanistan.

‘History of Afghanistan’
‘The Great Game’
‘Will history repeat itself in Afghanistan?’
‘Central Asia pipeline deal signed’