John F. Burns is an outstanding reporter but his article in the New York Times, on rising opposition to the Afghanistan war in Britain, makes me question how much he or other Britons know about their own history. He writes:
Partly because of Britain’s 19th-century history of catastrophic military ventures in Afghanistan, when it sought to secure the outer defenses of British imperial rule in India, the government faces an uphill task in rallying public opinion to the current conflict.
I realize this fits in with the popular myth about Afghanistan being the “graveyard of empires,” but the historical record doesn’t live up to the hype. Britain had precisely one “catastrophic military venture” in Afghanistan. That was the invasion of Afghanistan in 1938, which culminated in the massacre of the British column on the retreat from Kabul in January 1842. More than 15,000 people — mostly camp followers and Indian sepoys, but also including some 700 Europeans — were wiped out by Afghan raiders and the bitter cold. But that was hardly the end of the story. An Army of Retribution soon came marching through the Khyber Pass. British soldiers briefly occupied Kabul and destroyed its Great Bazaar along with much else as an act of vengeance.
In 1878, another British army marched into Afghanistan and after some setbacks managed to emerge with what the British government wanted: a treaty that in effect made Afghanistan a British protectorate. Afghan foreign policy would henceforward be under British control and Afghanistan would become a buffer state between the British and Russian empires. That arrangement lasted until 1919, when following another brief uprising (the Third Afghan War), the British finally let Afghanistan go its own way — a move that had no detrimental impact on British security.
Was Afghanistan a nuisance to Britain in the nineteenth century? Certainly. Did Britain suffer a military catastrophe there? Yes. But that is far from saying that Afghanistan was the graveyard of the British empire or a place where the Brits were constantly defeated. That would be like saying that the United States had a history of “catastrophic military ventures” against the Native Americans because of the defeat suffered by Custer at the Little Bighorn or by General Arthur St. Clair in Ohio in 1791. Those were certainly serious setbacks (the Ohio defeat — little remembered today — was actually far more costly than Custer’s Last Stand) but they did not represent the entirety of the Indian Wars which, as we know, ended in a victory for the United States, not for the Sioux and Cheyenne.
Afghanistan is without doubt an extremely challenging place to fight in, and British, American, and other NATO troops have their hands full today with the Taliban and other enemies. But let’s not exaggerate the scope of the threat either today or in the past.