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British History No Guide in Afghanistan

David Ignatius resorts to history to suggest that we should limit our commitment in Afghanistan. He writes:

Reading Afghan history is sobering, to put it mildly. Peter Hopkirk’s narrative “The Great Game” documents the inability of the British Empire, with all its troops, wealth and imperial discipline, to subdue Afghanistan’s fiercely independent tribes. The book highlights the hubris of British hawks, who argued that potential threats to the British raj must be confronted with an aggressive “forward strategy” in the Hindu Kush.

There was a more cautious faction back then, too. They argued for a “backward” approach to defending India: Let invaders exhaust themselves on the way; if they made it past Afghanistan, proper defenses could be mustered in time. This was known as the “masterly inactivity” school, and it was probably right.

This misses the point entirely. The U.S. strategic interest in Afghanistan is vastly different from that of the Raj. The British were concerned that Afghanistan would fall into Russia’s orbit and could be used as a staging ground for an invasion of India (which included the present-day territory of Pakistan). They achieved their aim in the Second Afghan War (1878-1880), when, following a British invasion, the government of Afghanistan gave the British Empire control of its foreign policy. That arrangement lasted until 1919, by which time the Great Game was history.

The British made no attempt to subdue Afghanistan—at least not after the disastrous First Afghan War (1839-1842)—because they didn’t have to. They were perfectly happy to leave a small force on the Northwest Frontier to keep the Pashtun tribes (they called them Pathans) from getting too far out of line. For roughly a century (1849-1947), British and Indian troops fought, with the help of Pashtu militias, to limit the predations of the hill tribes and quell their periodic uprisings.

In those days it was simply inconceivable that backward tribesmen could pose a threat to London or other centers of civilization. It is no longer inconceivable. Thus our stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan is much different from that of the Brits. We have no interest in stopping a classic invasion emanating from Afghanistan. What we are worried about is that these ungoverned spaces will be used as launching pads for terrorism in the West. So we cannot afford to leave the Afghans and Pakistanis to their own devices as we did before 9/11.

We have no choice but to try to bring a measure of stability and security to these troubled regions, because if we don’t, we will pay a price far higher than the British Empire ever contemplated. “Masterly inactivity” isn’t an option for the U.S.—not unless we want to risk repeating the horrors of 9/11.



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