Monday, 15 November 2010

Death in the Hills

I'm drafting this blog entry on the day when the death of the 344th British soldier in Afghanistan since 2001 was announced.

We've been here before. Worse, even...much worse. But much is the same. We are the same, alike devising strategy on the basis of cultural myopia and wishful thinking in general. And the Afghans are the same too. They are just waiting for us to leave. They don't know how long that will take. But they know it will come.

In 1841, matters, it must be said, accelerated.

The immediate spur to the revolt against the British Army occupying Kabul that year was, in fact, the withdrawl of a bribe.

(In a tribal society, the withdrawl of a financial inducement is an insult, as well as an inconvenience. Tribal politics, as we know in contemporary Afghanistan, ARE politics - the balance of financial tribute with military capability is the mechanism of civic stability - the central state, in the European model, scarcely exists except as a power broker and funding channel, whether the money comes from heroin, guilty oil shieks, or the UN).

The Reverend George Gleig, Chaplain to the Regiment of General "Fighting Bob" Sale, who we've been hearing from previously, assessed the Afghan situation in 1841 as follows:

'Candahar with the whole of the territory to the Helmand, if not pacified, was quiet; while the tribes in possession of the passes...were at once mollified and rendered happy by the receipt of a sort of blackmail, which, to the amount of 8000 pounds a year, the British Government paid to them as the price of protection to its communications. Nobody therefore dreamed of danger...yet the spirit of discontent was very busy through the whole compass of the Doorannee empire... the whole of the troops, whether following the British standard or serving under that of the Shah, were fed and paid for at the expense of the Indian Treasury...the supreme government at Calcutta began to complain...instructions were given to the envoy that he should practice a rigid economy...Sir William Macnaghten seems to have met these instances with...every desire to fall in with the views of his superiors. He could recommend that the diminished...but he promised to reduce its expenses to the lowest practicable figure...Up to the autumn of 1841, [the Ghilzie chiefs] fulfilled their part of the treaty...but now it was decided to higgle with them about terms, and instead of 8000 poinds, 4000 pounds were offered. They indignantly rejected the proposal...and entered eagerly into the conspiracies which were everywhere maturing'.

He then gives us a flavour of what it was like to be stationed there...much as it is now, it seems.

' stray to any distance beyond the perimeters of the camp was never safe, and in more than one instance proved fatal, two British officers who had gone to fish the stream...were attacked...and one, Lt Inverarity of the 16th lancers, was murdered....while a body of not fewer than two hundred camp followers, when endeavouring to make their way back to Hindostan, were betrayed, disarmed and butchered to a man...the health of the troops began to give way...'

Then, in November, the storm broke in its full, hellish fury.

This is from a letter from James Burnes, Alexander's brother, (Alexander Burnes is the central figure in the early posts in this sequence) to James Carnac, 1 Feb 1842 (Wellesley 37313/135), and it's a translation of an intercepted message sent to Afridi tribesmen in the Khyber Pass.

'The fact is this, that on the third Tuesday of the blessed month of Ramadan in the morningtime it occured, that with other heroic champions stirring like lions, we carried by storm the house of Sickender Burnes. By the grace of the most holy and omnipotent God the brave warriors, having rushed right and left from their ambush, slew Sikander Burnes with various other feringees of consideration'.

Though they didn't know it yet, the British Army in Kabul, somewhere between twelve and sixteen thousand of them, including camp followers, was doomed.

Almost every single one of them...

Top image: 'Ko-i-staun foot soldiery in summer costume' taken from plate 12 of 'Afghaunistan' by Lieutenant James Rattray. Used by permission of The British Library.