William Dalrymple: Lessons Too Late on Afghanistan

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The last stand at Gandamak of the British Indian Army -- surrounded, outnumbered and slaughtered in Afghanistan, 1842.

The British Indian Army at Gandamak — surrounded, outnumbered and slaughtered in Afghanistan, 1842.

For President Obama, William Dalrymple inscribed his history of Britain’s First Afghan War (1839 – 42), “I wish I’d written this ten years ago.” In truth it might have made no difference at all in 2003 to the Bush team, then diverting its military fire to Iraq. But for the rest of us this gruesome tale, Return of a King, might have clarified the clichés about Afghanistan the graveyard of empires — and the abounding cruelties, waste, hatred and blowback that come with invading it. For American readers, Dalrymple’s bloody, brilliant narrative of Britain’s greatest imperial catastrophe asks anew why our governments have followed the same arrogant course — how Britain can still be used to represent the lure of empire, not the sorrows and the price of empire. What if the rule had been: “wherever the US finds itself embroiled in a place with an English Cemetery: go home!”


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8 thoughts on “William Dalrymple: Lessons Too Late on Afghanistan

  1. Superb discussion. Ruthless brutality and unintended consequences ride posse to these sorts of adventures. So does it’s attendant seducer: willful mass amnesia. As for Neil Ferguson and the rest of the neocons, pish posh to those clueless wankers.. Thank you Mr. Dalrymple and Chris.

  2. How trite, but we can’t seem to learn from History, especially since our kids are seldom taught it in any other way but dry dates and places. Text books are worthless, written for the lowest common demoninator so all discussion or controversy is squelched.

  3. I could have sworn the “Charge of the Light Brigade” was written about this war; the spectacle of thousands of British troops on horseback charging down a valley with the ‘savages’ having the military advantage of the mountains on either side. Reminds me of the old cowboy/Indian westerns in its simplicity. Hubris again.

  4. Gave this another listen. Like great soups and stews, even better the second time.

    I wanted to point out that in recent U.S. political history, restraint is usually punished, not rewarded. Both President Carter and President Bush (41) showed some measure of restraint regarding Iran and Iraq, respectively. Both were punished at the polls in 1980 and 1992. There were other issues in play in both elections, such as economic recession and/or malaise, as well as, both ran against very skillful and charismatic candidates (President’s Reagan and Clinton). But, in my opinion, their military policy restraint made a significant contribution to their losses. The political calculation on these matters seems clear, take a beating up front and lose elections, or pass the problems on the successors.

    Thanks again Chris…

  5. The Afghan Church in Bombay is a terribly evocative memorial to the campaigns of 1838-43, “in memory of the officers and private soldiers, too many to be recorded who fell mindful of their duty, by sickness or by sword”. But of course this disaster didn’t deter the British from seeking to continue their military dominance of the sub-continent (or the Middle East, for that matter), and our modern day defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan are not likely to change us substantially, either.

  6. From Vietnam on it’s been clear that this nation has devised a perverse set of new definitions for what constitutes principled actions toward other countries and their citizens, and that this “Newspeak” has radically broken with the conventions of democratic conduct.

    The time to turn our country from the path of interminable, wholesale war-making, indiscriminate killing and destruction, was back then. But too many of us who remember that era made a pragmatic “adjustment” to America’s ginned-up, Great Power truculence. The consequences of that accommodation have blighted our national life in every day and hour of the new century.

    The crisis that has been building for forty-five years has broken over our heads repeatedly, but never more menacingly than now. Our self-appointed masters are NOT dissuaded by election losses, or by the popular will as confided to pollsters and expressed in petitions. Their “big tent” constituency is every variant of right-wing extremist, whose instruments are provocation, intransigence, hostility, and rejection of compromise. The extremist’s raw meat is crisis, which is never in short supply, and today is in surplus. Our “masters” are only too happy to appropriate these retrograde passions, since they provide the energy that powers the masters’ agenda.

    Wresting authority from the warmongers and tycoons and firebrand religionists and the rest of that incestuous canaille is a very late errand undertaken at a very late hour. It will require ideologizing and internalizing the democratic credo and fighting for its acceptance in precincts and wards where it’s been repudiated. (I know. Nothing native comes to mind that is more thankless or unglamorous.) It will mean working to convince people that their grievances don’t have a greater claim on their passions then their unmet needs, which can only be satisfied by working in concert with the national polity.

    Many of us are uncomfortable with ideological conformity since it violates the cherished spirit of free inquiry. But when core values of democracy itself are under attack, those values absolutely need to be politicized, and support for them campaigned for as with a candidate.

  7. I managed to listen twice only to feel twice that you find the most essential and interesting people to interview- which is why I listen.

    I have to say that I remember that after 9/11 I could not imagine that we would be even considering invading iraq after we already invaded Afghanistan. It seemed insane. I blame it on collective adrenalin beefed up by the Bush administration following the attack. This overshadowed any history lessons that learned people were trying to teach at the time. But the drumbeat towards war continued and so the Afghanistan project, such as it was, or if it ever was, was neglected. And so GW Bush was criticized for that. I remember too Sarah Chayes example: she had set up a cooperative I think near Kandahar, I think of women mostly, making soaps from local ingredients and exporting it. I have a basket of those soaps.

    The British Empire did not only do harm, they did a lot of good especially if you consider that we have been a globalizing world long before we started talking about it. But we can very well do without the war parts, n’est-ce pas?.

    I think there was indeed a lot of talk about the Brits in Afghanistan way back when, Rudyard Kipling and all that — the white man’s burden. I don’t think the Afghan complaints are 100% genuine either. Some wanted liberation from the Taliban hegemony. They wanted too and like their western improvements. I think Karzai is the perfect embodiment of this dual Afghan collective state of mind.

    Unfortunately, Obama’s weakness has been to give the military what it wants.

    I am also remembering your excellent series on Pakistan and the inherent problems there, starting with the partition.

    Thanks again for keeping my wheels upstairs going!

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