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Dr. William Brydon & The Great Game

November 20, 2009

Jesse Weathington

Remnant of an Army
Lady Elizabeth Butler’s painting ‘The Remnant of an Army’ depicts
Dr William Brydon, sole survivor of the British retreat from Kabul in 1842.

The Massacre of Elphinstone’s Army

By Christmas 1841, Britain’s two representatives in Kabul had been assassinated. Her Majesty’s government ordered the British garrison in Kabul withdraw to the relative safety of Jalalabad, 90 miles away.  4,500 soldiers and mercenaries, with 12,000 civilians, set out 6 January 1842 with the understanding that they had been offered safe passage south, through the Khyber pass, and on to British India. They were massacred over the next seven days.

In the deep snow, on 13 January 1842, twenty officers and forty-five soldiers, mostly of the 44th East Essex Regiment of Foot, found themselves surrounded on a frozen hilltop near the village of Gandamak. With a handful of serviceable muskets, pistols, and a few unbroken swords, the retreating English had no hope.  When offered arrangements for surrender, they replied: “Not bloody likely!”

Their captain was captured with a handful of men, wrapped wounded in the regimental colours. Of six mounted officers who managed to escape, five were shot along the road. Only one man survived to arrive in Jalalabad: East India Company Army Surgeon Dr. William Brydon, depicted above in The Remnants of an Army. His wounded horse collapsed dead upon arrival. Dr. Brydon only narrowly escaped death by dulling the blow from an Afghan sword with a copy of Blackwood’s Magazine, stuffed into his helmet for warmth. The incident dealt a severe blow to English ambitions in AfPak and marked a turning point in the First Anglo-Afghan war.

After the defeat of 1842, British forces launched a punitive expedition from Peshawar.  At Defence of the Realm, Dr. Richard North notes that the September 1842 capture and razing of Kabul was “that which actually put an end to the war, leaving the UK victorious and the dominant power in the region but one temporarily resolved not to interfere in the internal politics of Afghanistan.” Such was the English victory.

The Great Game

From 1807 to the Second World War, Imperial Russia and Britain waged power politics across swathes of Central Asia.  As Russian troops extended the remit of the Tsar eastwards, the British began to feel their interests in India were threatened; especially near the north-western border in Afghanistan. The First (1838-42), Second (1878-80), and Third (1919) Anglo-Afghan wars showed the ease with which a superior military force could overrun the remote country as well as the difficulty in subsequently imposing domestic order.

The modern history of Afghanistan has seen little tranquility. Since Persian authority had been rebuked and Afghanistan became a distinct nation, internal strife and foreign entanglement have been the rule rather than the exception. As Christopher Booker writes in the The Sunday Telegraph:

“What we are hardly ever told about Afghanistan is that it has been for 300 years the scene of a bitter civil war, between two tribal groups of Pashtuns (formerly known as Pathans). On one side are the Durranis – most of the settled population, farmers, traders, the professional middle class. On the other are the Ghilzai, traditionally nomadic, fiercely fundamentalist in religion, whose tribal homelands stretch across into Pakistan as far as Kashmir.

Ever since Afghanistan emerged as an independent nation in 1709, when the Ghilzai kicked out the Persians, its history has been written in the ancient hatred between these two groups. During most of that time, the country has been ruled by Durrani, who in 1775 moved its capital from the Ghilzai stronghold of Kandahar up to Kabul in the north. Nothing has more fired Ghilzai enmity than the many occasions when the Durrani have attempted to impose their rule from Kabul with the aid of “foreigners,” either Tajiks from the north or outsiders such as the British, who invaded Afghanistan three times between 1838 and 1919 in a bid to secure the North-west Frontier of their Indian empire against the rebellious Ghilzai.”

Sound familiar?  The peaceful periods read just as well. From 1880 to 1901 the Iron Amir Abdur Rahman Khan had succeeded in uniting all Afghanistan under a central government in Kabul.  To do so, he had:

… defeated all enterprises by rivals against his throne; he had broken down the power of local chiefs, and tamed the refractory tribes; so that his orders were irresistible throughout the whole dominion. His government was a military despotism resting upon a well-appointed army; it was administered through officials absolutely subservient to an inflexible will and controlled by a widespread system of espionage; while the exercise of his personal authority was too often stained by acts of unnecessary cruelty. He succeeded in imposing an organized government upon the fiercest and most unruly population in Asia.

As many Americans discovered in 2001, history did not end some two decades ago. The prevailing disorder in Afghanistan is not the result of 9/11 but a continuation of the centuries old Great Game.  Like the British, Tsarist, and Soviet empires, the imperial United States finds itself the hated interloper in a domestic disturbance. 2001 is 1979 is 1919 is 1878 is 1838. Mr Booker continues:

When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, after years of Durrani rule, it was to support a revolutionary Ghilzai government. But this new foreign presence inspired general Afghan resistance which was why, by the late 1980s, the Americans were supporting the almost entirely Ghilzai-run Taleban and their ally Osama bin Laden. In 1996 the Taleban-Ghilzai got their revenge, imposing their theocratic rule over almost the whole country. In 2001, we invaded to topple the Taleban, again imposing Durrani rule, now under the Durrani President Karzai.

We are hopelessly out of our depth when attempting to think strategically about the problems of Afpak. Our ignorance prevents the understanding and definition of victory.  Silence here is concession, so our foes define the conditions of victory. “It is fatal to enter any war without the will to win it”, as General Douglas MacArthur said.  Still more fatal to enter a war without knowing what winning means. Another famous soldier said: “knowing is half the battle.” (The other half is red and blue lasers.)

Dr North concludes, “Whatever our grand aspirations, our intentions and our broader strategic objectives, the Ghilzai Pashtuns are reliving their own history. It should thus come as no surprise that when earnest young coalition officers solemnly tell tribal elders that they are from “the government” – i.e., Kabul – representing a Durrani president supported by Tajik soldiers, the “hearts and minds” message rather gets lost in translation.”

Perhaps the Great Game is like a dollar auction.  The only way to win is not to play.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 13, 2016 3:59 pm

    Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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