Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Afghanistan and the lessons of history

I would never have thought that reflecting about my time in Afghanistan, and my fascination with a 19th century painting from the Anglo-Afghan war, would lead me to Tipperary and Meath.

Last week's suicide bombing and armed raids on a guest house frequented by UN staff in Kabul got me thinking, not for the first time, of this interminable part of the world. The UN bombing had been preceded a few days before hand by a suicide attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul that left at least 17 dead and dozens severely injured. Then, a few days after the UN bomb we had massive explosions in the crowded alleys of Peshawar's sprawling street markets that left more than a hundred civilians dead.

I remember back in 1999 when I had my Afghanistan time, the country - apart from a territory in the north - was presided over by the Taliban and an assembly of war lords. At that time there was no alcohol allowed, no women in the workforce (or anywhere else except mostly indoors), no television, no music - no fun basically. It was a tough time on many levels not least the psychological one. You have no idea how dreadfully depressing it can be to work with some twelve hundred colleagues all of whom are male with an average age of about 50! I longed for female company and I longed also for a cold beer at the end of the day.

Given the lack of social outlet and the very real security threats life was confined to work and (heavily gaurded) home - a good time to catch up on my reading and experiment with some herbal teas. At that time I became fascinated with the historical writings on what is know as the Great Game - the great rivalry between the British and Russian empires that lasted the best part of one hundred intriguing years ending in 1921 with a friendship treaty between the two great foes. The prize for the Great Game was the Indian sub-continent which Britain declared the jewel in its crown and feared mightily that Russia would conquer Afghanistan and use it as a launching pad to snatch India.

So, not for the first or last time in her long and illustrious history, the nation of Afghanistan found itself at odds - through no real fault of its own - with major military powers. A victim of its own geography. But, not being one to turn down a decent offer of a good fight, Afghanistan embraced the Great Game and played both sides off against each other, much like they did with Persia during the same period and of course the Americans and the Soviets in the 1980's.

Never conquered. Never Divided.
History will show that the whole of Afghanistan has never, not once, been controlled from the centre. And, while (in western eyes) treachery and deceipt are a frequent feature of their methods of warfare (rendering the Geneva Conventions culturally biased?) Afghanistan has incredibly remained solidly intact, never fragmenting along ethnic or religious lines and maintaining its borders since its inception. It clings fiercely to the origin of its name which is Sanskrit for "land of the allied tribes".

But, I digress. I did not intend a historical account, even a brief one. But it is necessary for the remainder of my tale. During those turbulent days back in 1999 we did manage to escape on rest and recreation every few months to Peshawar where the first destination was the long-established American Club - a place with cold beer, conversation with women and late night darts. At the entrance of this modest but grand old building, just before you climbed the stairs to the bar, hung a gilt-framed oil painting which always stopped me in my tracks and urged me to ponder awhile. It was an original copy of "Remnants of an Army" depicting a lone soldier, Scotsman Dr. William Brydon, at the gates of Jalalabad, which lie approximately half way along the 200 mile road between Kabul and Peshawar.

Brydon was reportedly the sole survivor of a sixteen thousand five hundred strong retreating British army that fled Kabul in 1842 - all but Brydon were mercilessly massacred with horrific efficiency by Afghan forces lying in wait (depicted above). The same Afghan forces, it should be mentioned, with whom they had been allied just a few days before - things can change very quickly in Afghanistan.

This effectively brought to an end the First Anglo Afghan War (1839 - 1842) and one of the lessons learned (for evaluation it seems was also a practice back then - makes you wonder if it is really possible to learn from our mistakes) was a telling and succinct recommendation whose relevance today is obvious: The First Afghan War provided the clear lesson to the British authorities that while it may be relatively straightforward to invade Afghanistan it is wholly impracticable to occupy the country or attempt to impose a government not welcomed by the inhabitants. The only result will be failure and great expense in treasure and lives.

From Tipperary to Afghanistan and back
Now, that painting (shown at the top of this post), as mentioned, fairly captivated me at the time especially as I was so enamored with Peter Hopkirk's writings of the Great Game that repeatedly recalled the resilience of the Afghans throughout their long and combative history. Staring at the forlorn figure of Brydon, the lone horseman, one didn't know whether to feel pity or pride. His form embodied defeat, set against an unforgiving and alien landscape; and such were the incredible odds against his survival that you were forced to wonder whether the Afghans let him loose on purpose - a barely living testimony to their military might.

The painting was the work of an artist called Lady Elizabeth Butler. When writing this post I could not remember her name so scoured the internet until I found it - and I found out a few other aspects which struck me as interesting. Elizabeth was born in Lausanne (Switzerland) but married an Irish soldier, writer and adventurer called William Francis Butler. William hailed from the impoverished famine fields of Tipperary and had risen to great heights in the British army. The couple returned to Ireland upon William's retirement and lived in Bansha Castle before moving eventually to the east coast of Ireland, settling down in Gormanstown Castle where they stayed till their final days and are buried at nearby Stamullen Graveyard.

Year's after my own Afghan adventure I tracked down some of Elizabeth's paintings at the Imperial War Museum in London, and I was not disappointed. I have heard that the painting of Brydon - the last remnant of a decimated army - now hangs at the Tate but will have to confirm that at a later date. It may be coincidence that a painting which had such a hold over me ten years ago somehow turned out to have strong Irish connections. Whatever the case, I'll be making my way to Stamullen cemetery the next chance I get to track down the last resting place of this incredible couple and pay them my respects.



  1. http://44th.webs.com/history.html

    all the fours !

    my old regiment, alas no more

  2. And who coined the phrase "The Great Game"? One Arthur Connolly, before he lost his head, rather literally, in Bokhara in 1842. No wonder you get the shivers P!

  3. Dear Paul

    How many times have I looked at that painting from a bar stool in the American Club between 1993-96 when I worked in Afghanistan ? And then we had Shaun, the Irish/Australian folk singer who as the evening wore on, would sing a haunting version of the 'Patriot Game,' a song I have heard from the black enlisted GI's bar in Vietnam in 71 to most of the wars since.
    " Ah, come all you young rebels and listen while I sing, the love of one's country is a terrible thing....."

    I have been wanting to write a piece, somewhat along the lines you have written, that no foreign power can ever win in Afghanistan as history is against them. " When will they ever learn, when will they ever learn?"

    Dear Dr. Brydon. A lovely story, but quite innaccurate as many others did finally make it back, especially a number of wives and children of the officers who were treated with such dignity and respect by our Afghan brothers.

    I worked there in 1976 for the League of RCS and have had 6 or 7 missions there over a 30 years period. I have a blog on Afghanistan and would appreciate your approval to run your article.

    Thanks for a delightful posting.

    Bob the builder

  4. Hi Bob - thx for the comments and no problem what so ever to repost on your blog -- liberate the content! About Brydon - the reportedly 'lone' survivor. I have read various accounts one of which says about 12000 died and 4000 (mainly women and children) were allowed to escape. Other accounts agree with this but say hundreds were killed trying to get back to base or onwards to Peshawar. The 16000 figure (killed) seems to figure most prominently - whatever the case, while trying to be true to the historical record (as scant and all as it is) the lone figure of Brydon, as represented in the painting, is for me a potent symbolic representation of the failure of Imperium in Afghanistan and this is the message that still resonates today. If I get to the Tate next month when I am in London I will try to get us both prints! And the next round is yours ;o)

  5. Dear Paul and Joe

    I have quite a collection on the great game, abd have fllowed it long before you lads were born. However, I would not say I am any more knowledgeable, rather, I retraced the footsteps of most of them including Alexander's great crossing of the Khawak Pass in 329 BC. He lost at least 20,000 men. Each player in the Great Game had their distinctive traits and character, but the greatest of all must be Alexander Gardiner. In his Scottish plaid twill trousers, jacket, turban and patu, he cut a fidure.

    For once you are right Joe, it indeed was Arthur Conolly, together with dear Stoddard, that coined the phrase in that hell hole in Bokhara. I visited the hole and said a silent prayer to those brave souls some years back.

    Keep up the good work lads.


  6. This is the first time I've come across the assertion that the word "Afghanistan" means "land of the allied tribes" in Sanskrit. I've read much speculation about the origins of the word "Afghan", but never this Sanskrit connection. Are you sure?

  7. Bob. I've been right before. Remember "Come on bob, stop staring in the mirror, time to go home"?

  8. Hi Yosuf - I just came across your comment now. I read alot about the etymology of Afghanistan and apart from the rather simplistic 'Land of the Afghans' (which doesn't really tell us much about real origins of Afghanistan) I find frequently quoted that the name Afghānistān, comes from the Sanskrit word Upaganasthan meaning 'land of the allied tribes'. It was a Hindu kingdom until the 11th century A.D. It's as close as I can get to 'fact' in this part of the world. For more on it's name you will find a good summary of various accounts in wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afghanistan#Origin_of_the_name -- thx for your comment, Paul.

  9. Hi Paul,
    Thanks for the info. Having grown up in Afghanistan, I am surprised that I never heard this theory about the origin of the name. This could be due to Afghan unwillingness to admit a Hindu connection, but there have also been many foreign scholars who have written on the subject. I did a Google search on the word "Upaganasthan" and came up with numerous hits, most of them containing the exact same phrase that appears on the Wiki page you cited. Curiously, most of these hits seemed to be nationalist Hindu websites.
    There is another Wiki page containing some alternate hypotheses about the origin of the word: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afghan_(name).
    The particular sentence you have referred to which appears under the heading of Etymology, makes a blanket assertion without any supporting references, which runs contrary to how the rest of the Wiki article is written. In fact, that single sentence seems out of place and a bit suspect to me. I wonder if someone has tampered with it. In any case, this is an interesting theory and I will look into it further. Maybe I have learned something new. Thanks.

  10. One more note..
    I examined the history of the Wiki article and found that the passage in question was added on September 26, 2009 by "Arl123wiki", who replaced the previous explanation that Afghanistan means "land of the Afghans" with his own. I also found that Arl123wiki is a rather prolific editor of Wiki articles with numerous additions and deletions over the past year. Among his edits: replaced the explanation that "Punjab" originates from Persian meaning five waters (panj + ab) with his own explanation that it comes from the Sanskrit word "Panchanada" meaning five rivers. He is probably correct about the ancient root of the word, but the Persian connection is more immediate and exact. However, this one wins a prize: on July 16 he replaced some historical notes about Hinduism with a passage that starts out with: "the history of Hinduism is 1.972 billion years since the start of the present kalpa". All of this does not prove that his statment about the origin of the word "Afghanistan" is wrong, but it does cast doubt.