Thursday, 28 October 2010

Puppet Kings and Security forces: Afghanistan 1839

The Afghans do not appear to have the smallest prejudice against Christians.
'Travels in Bokhara' by Alexander Burnes, published by John Murray 1835

We've met Alexander Burnes who was a sensual, ambitious young Scotsman on the make, a talented linguist who argued for one policy...that of offering support to Dost Mohammed's rule in Kabul as a bulwark against the Russians, but who changed to supporting the Dost's overthrow when that became the policy of his superiors, and accompanied the Army of the Indus that overthrew Dost Mohammed in 1838, reversing the policy of containment, and pursuing what was then called "forward policy" in Afghanistan, denying it to the Russians through a military presence, rather as the 2001 invasion was supposed to deny the country as a base of operations to Al Quaida.

Entirely understandable from a careerist point of view...that way lay promotion...but it did identify him personally, among the Afghans, as a perjurer...perfidious Albion in a single pair of pants.

Later, once the army was in occupation of Kabul, it was his anxiety to be rid of his boss, Mcnaghten, and thus secure his own promotion, that led him to underestimate the danger faced by the British Army of occupation…If there was peace, then his boss would leave, and he’d get the top job for himself. So he told everyone, including himself, that there was peace, though he knew deep down this wasn’t true.

In the end, it was his ambition to be visible, combined with this last misjudgement that led him and his brother to their nemesis, and the long knives in the garden of his house in Kabul in November 1841.

Burnes murder was the start of an insurrection that was to drive the British out in ignominious, bloody defeat.

To continue my series of posts on Murray publications and its paralells with our more resonant military SNAFU, I'm handing over for a moment to the introduction written by Patrick Macrory (the author whose "Signal Catastrophe" inspired the first Flashman novel) to a book that called 'Disaster in Afghanistan' by Lady Florentia Sale, published by Longmans in 1969 in their Military Memoirs series, but which was reprinted from an original published by the firm of John Murray in 1843 in the immediate wake of said catastrophe.

This is his description of the situation in which the army of occupation found itself, Macrory as a proper military historian saying it better than I could.

'Kabul was entered on 7th August 1839, and Shah Soojah was restored to his throne. Dost Mohammed fled into the interior, where for some fifteen months he carried on a desultory guerilla warfare. He then made his surrender to the British Envoy at Kabul, and was sent off to an honourable exile in India. There he was presently joined by all his family, with the significant exception of his favourite son, Akbar Khan. Akbar preferred to live an outlaw's life somewhere out beyond the Hindu Kush and implacably bided his time.'

Back to me.

This is a picture of the court of the puppet King as rendered by Lt James Rattray, a friend of Burnes, reproduced by kind permission of the British Library.

The British and Sikh installed King proved to be unpopular, however...a bit like Mohammed Karzai today...but as with Karzai, the only alternative ruler was the enemy, so the Regime Change, which had been intended to be an Afghan only affair, required the continued presence of British troops.

I trust this is making you feel sick?

McCrory continues:

'Reluctantly the British decided that some of their own troops must remain in Afghanistan for Soojah's protection. So, when General Keane and the greatest part of the Army of the Indus marched back to India at the end of 1839, a division was left at Kandahar under General Nott and a force of two brigades at Kabul itself...Soojah, for reasons of prestige, opposed (their) being housed in the Bala Hissar, the great citadel...that contained his own palace, and it was decided to build cantonments on the plain a mile or so outside the badly designed as they were badly sited.'

So far so familiar...but then we get to some more Victorian touches and nuances...a bit of the old Raj...the women arrived.

'Before the end of 1839, MacNaghten, realizing the that the occupation was going to be indefinitely prolonged, sent for his wife to join him at Kabul. The sepoys too, were encouraged to bring up their families".

I do have to love how the Brits, no matter where in the world they are, still think they're in Surrey. I suspect this is the secret of their former success. Here, Mcrory describes their life in Kabul:

'Life in the cantonments was a gay butterfly existence. There were horse racing, hunting and amateur theatricals. When winter gripped the land, the British had skates made by the farriers and skimmed over the frozen lakes to the astonishment of the Afghans...the same could be said in summer of cricket.'

Finally, Macrory quotes Alexander Burnes, hero of my earlier posts in this series, now "British Resident", who had a courtyarded mansion in the city, saying that at his weekly dinner parties he could lay before his guests:

'champagne, hock, madeira, sherry, port, claret, suaterne, not forgetting a glass of curacoa and maraschino, and the hermetically sealed salmon and hotchpotch [veritable hotchpotch, all the way 'frae' Aberdeen], for deuced good it is, the peas as big as if they had been soaked for bristling'.

Good old Sandy...a party animal to the last...

Next...the Reverend George Gleig and his first hand account (published, naturally, by the Murrays) of the calm before the storm.

Interior of the palace of Shauh Shujah Ool Moolk, Late King of Cabul.
This lithograph is taken from plate 3 of 'Afghaunistan' by Lieutenant James Rattray. Used by permission of the British Library.

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