Another Perspective

The Myth of Afghanistan

Picking up where Kipling and Lady Butler left off, lefty scribe Robert Fisk heedlessly distorts Britain's long record of success in controlling this historic buffer zone.

By 3.1.07

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The myth of a series of Western defeats in Afghanistan in repeated invasion attempts has become pervasive. British journalist Robert Fisk wrote with what seems like glee in the Independent several days ago:

Hands up any soldiers who know that another of Britain's great military defeats took place in the very sands in which your colleagues are now fighting the Taliban. Yes, the Battle of Maiwand -- on 27 July, 1880 -- destroyed an entire British brigade, overrun by thousands of armed Afghan tribesmen, some of whom the official enquiry into the disaster would later describe as "Talibs." The Brits had been trying to secure Helmand province. Sound familiar?

Australian journalist Geoffrey Barker (it is notable that both Mr. Fisk and Mr. Barker lean decidedly to the left) has written recently under the title "The Long Shadow of the Past," of "the devastating defeats suffered by British forces in the 19th Century" -- "defeats," plural, note. And of course "devastating." The very word "Afghanistan" has come to mean something like "graveyard of invading armies." Type "British Defeat Afghanistan" into Google and you will come up with about 3,360,000 entries.

It is a myth the British themselves largely created. It is ironic that it seems to owe much to Rudyard Kipling, the great poet of the British Empire, and the distinguished military artist Lady Elizabeth Butler, otherwise famous for her depictions of heroic British cavalry charges.

The British have always tended to revel in their disasters rather than their victories (when history was taught in British schools, all knew about the hopeless charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava; hardly any knew of the astoundingly successful charge of the Heavy Brigade the same day, both the subject of poems by Tennyson). Lately, of course, the adversary culture has seized avidly on any mythology that tends to discredit and demoralize the West and Western civilization.

However, the facts are somewhat different. The relatively few British adventures in Afghanistan, apart from one-off punitive expeditions, were, like the allied campaign today, basically attempts to support or set up friendly governments and then get out, not to conquer and annex or occupy the country. They had limited objectives and were for the most part successful.

They were unlike the Soviet invasion of 1979-88, which was an attempt to make Afghanistan either a communist country or a Soviet province and impose a permanent and irreversible communist and therefore atheist ideology. This largely united the Afghans against them, and the Afghans had modern American weapons as well.

WITH ONE EXCEPTION, THE BRITISH experiences show Afghanistan's reputation as a graveyard of foreign armies to be at least overstated. The exception, the disastrous retreat from Kabul in the winter of 1842, was not really a campaign at all. It was the massacre of a small, badly-equipped garrison force -- barely an army in more than name -- that was trying to get out of the place and had no aggressive intent. Further, the British were handicapped by a commander of unusual incompetence in Major-General William Elphinstone.

The British garrison at Kabul had been intended to support a friendly and reputedly anti-Russian ruler, Shah Shuja, and protect the British diplomatic mission there. In December, 1841, Sir William MacNaughten, the British political chief, was murdered, leaving the British Army with no political direction or source of orders.

Elphinstone had fought well at Waterloo in 1815 but by 1842 he was 60 years old, sick, and mentally worn out. His folly and constant indecisiveness suggests he may have been suffering from premature senility. The army he commanded was far weaker than its nominal strength of about 17,000 suggests. About 12,500 of these were civilian camp-followers and bearers.

The few soldiers were nearly all Indian Sepoys from the East India Company, acclimatized and equipped for campaigning on the hot Indian plains, not for an Afghan winter in the mountains. There was only one British infantry formation, a battalion of the 44th Regiment -- less than 700 men. The presence of British officers' wives and children must have been a further handicap. The most sophisticated transport was horses and bullock-drawn carts and carriages.

In January, 1842, in the depths of winter, Elphinstone, instead of holing up in the strong Kabul fortifications for a few weeks and waiting for spring, ordered a retreat across the blizzard-swept Afghan passes. By his general indecisiveness and passivity after the murder of MacNaughten and other political officers earlier he had demonstrated weakness to the Afghan tribal and religious leaders who wanted to oust Shah Shuja.

The British left Kabul peacefully after an agreement with the Afghans, but as soon as they were strung out in column they began coming under attack. Apart from the Afghan leaders (who may not have been fully in control of events) probably playing a complicated double game, Russian agents probably encouraged and bribed Islamic fanatics to rouse the tribesman.

Both sides were armed with muskets, swords, and lances. The British cannon had to be abandoned. The wretched East India Company Sepoys and camp-followers were soon cut to pieces and the baggage and transport animals carried off. The handful of British troops struggled in several feet of snow through more than 40 miles of treacherous gorges and passes -- perfectly positioned as ambush sites and killing-grounds -- under constant attack.

When on 12 January the last 65 British troops made a stand at Gandamack, refusing to surrender, they had only about a dozen working muskets. They were more than 100 years too early for helicopters to lift them out. The force was wiped out with the exception of Dr. William Brydon and possibly a few other stragglers. Some others, including some wives and children, survived, having been made prisoners earlier. (The bones of the men of the 44th were found among the desolate rocks of Gandamack in 1979.).

A dramatic painting executed in 1879 by Lady Butler, of Brydon reaching the British lines at Jalalabad -- this sole exhausted man and foundering horse being captioned with stark eloquence "The Remnants of an Army" -- became a famous icon of Imperial heroism and tragedy. A painting of the last stand at Gandamack also became famous and has been displayed recently in the National Army Museum in London. Such works helped create the impression that Afghanistan was the place where invading armies perished. Perhaps it was also thought that such images would give the Russians a message too, and therefore had some official encouragement. In recent times George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman novels brought the horror of the 1842 retreat vividly home to new generations of readers.

THE ENDURING POTENCY OF THE MYTH is demonstrated by a story which appeared in the British press just a few days ago:

I was sent an e-mail yesterday from an old military friend depicting the famous picture by Lady Butler -- painter of Victorian military heroics par excellence -- of the lone nag carrying the exhausted frame of Dr William Bryden into Jalalabad, the sole survivor of the retreating column of 16,000 [sic] British and local troops....The picture, is the "Awful Warning" poster of British involvement in Afghanistan, which has involved no fewer than three [sic] full-blown wars, punitive expeditions, and bombing by the early RAF...

Robert Fisk's version is as follows:
One of the greatest defeats of British forces anywhere in the world had occurred more than four decades before Maiwand, on the Kabul Gorge in 1842, when an entire British army was wiped out by Afghan fighters in the snow.

His description of the small shambolic force with its 600-odd British troops as "an entire British army," speaks for itself as a guide to the inner workings of Mr. Fisk. In fact the affair did not prove much militarily. It was a one-off, and it was a failure not of fighting ability but basically of a single leader who should never have had such a command. The British counter-attacked with a large and well-led army and reached Kabul without great difficulty, destroyed the citadel and city centre in retaliation for the previous treachery, rescued British prisoners, and wiped out resistance. It then returned to India because Shah Shuja had been assassinated and the British East India Company thought it unprofitable and pointless to continue to occupy the barren country.

Further, the British government and authorities in London, including the Duke of Wellington, wanted to preserve an independent Afghanistan as a buffer-state between British India and Russia.

Naturally the Afghans made the most of it. A distinguished Australian author told me the following story of Afghanistan in the 1970's:

I was somewhere in Kandahar....There was a heap of what seemed to be haphazard rocks in the middle of the rutted intersection, some muzzle-loading cannon (mostly without carriages) and poles with bits of black, red and green bunting. There was a tiny oompah band dressed in USAF tunics over their long robes, all very informal except that it seemed as if a ceremony was happening. My host gave me the biggest toothy smile as he said something like: "This is Victory Day!"

"Oh? Victory over whom?" (The Russians were still a few years into the future.)

To which the reply was, quite simply: "You. The British!" It all clicked into place.


In 1878 the British returned with about 40,000 men to forestall what was seen as a Russian takeover bid. The Afghans by then had some well-handled modern artillery and the British took casualties in skirmishes, the biggest being at Maiwand. Maiwand was an Afghan victory but a Pyrrhic one -- the British lost less than 1,000 dead, the Afghans several times that number, and were not able to field another strong force.

However, Kipling -- perhaps trying constructively to emphasize the importance of discipline and courage for soldiers, and also the importance of a force having some veterans in its ranks -- wrote a fictional story, "The Drums of the Fore-and-Aft," in which a raw British regiment panics and flees when charged by "six-foot fiends upon whose beards the foam is lying, upon whose tongues is a roar of wrath, and in whose hands are yard-long knives," these fanatics being supported by the Afghan army.

In this story the British eventually win, but in a wry, unheroic way: two small drummer-boys, left behind when the regimental band flees, get drunk on rum from abandoned canteens, and march about the battlefield playing their instruments. The Afghans want to take them alive to make Ghazis of them, but they are killed by flying bullets. The British regiment sees this, charges back in fury and discovers that "an Afghan attacked is far less formidable than an Afghan attacking; which fact old soldiers might have told them." Despite this victory the disgrace remains. In the poem "That Day," Kipling wrote:

There was thirty dead an' wounded on the ground we wouldn't keep -
No, there wasn't more than twenty when the front began to go;
But, Christ! Along the line o' flight they cut us up like sheep,
An' that was all we gained by doing so.
I 'eard the knives be'ind me, but I dursn't face my man,
Nor I don't know where I went to, 'cause I didn't 'alt to see,
Till I 'eard a beggar squealin' out for quarter as 'e ran,
An' I thought I knew the voice an' -- it was me!

These pieces, both probably based on Maiwand, gave the impression that it had been a major British rout, perhaps even that such things were not uncommon. Kipling's immense popularity helped move his images into folklore and mythology.

Meanwhile in Kabul the British residency was stormed and its tiny garrison of 4 British and 69 Indian soldiers massacred, but they reputedly took more than 600 Afghans with them.

At the one major battle of the campaign, at Kandahar, the British won decisively. They left with a friendly and able ruler on the throne, Abdur Rahman, who moved Afghanistan towards becoming a much more modern state internally, but quietly left foreign policy under British control. The second Anglo-Afghan war can be seen as a complete British success.

FROM THEN TILL THE END of British rule in India, policy on both sides was to maintain a buffer-zone of small tribal communities who happily raided and plundered in both direction, feuded among themselves, and were the subject of fairly frequent punitive expeditions but who kept British India and Afghanistan apart. Their young men provided whole units of the British Army in India.

For the most part it was in expeditions against these North-West frontier tribes that generations of young British officers including Winston Churchill did their soldiering. John Masters, in "Bugles and a Tiger" is one who has given a memorable picture of these campaigns right up to the eve of the Second World War. As the tribal areas provided a useful buffer-zone between British India and Afghanistan, so Afghanistan in turn remained a useful buffer between British India and Russia, through the spies and secret services of both sides intrigued constantly there in Kipling's "the great game."

There was a very minor "Third Anglo-Afghan War" from 1917 to 1919, arising from complications of World War I. This was only a series of border skirmishes and the British found they could control the situation with aircraft until it fizzled out.

The previous campaigns in Afghanistan don't tell us much about the present one, except that it is a very tough country inhabited by very tough people. Any army there had better be well-equipped and supplied, well-motivated and with clear-minded military and political leadership. Plenty of helicopters as well as local allies are good ideas. And the Afghan elections of 2004 and 2005 are evidence that most of the people will take considerable risks to prove they are on the side of modern political processes. A recent article in the German magazine Spiegel made the point:

The perception among many of Germany's conservatives is that Afghans are Afghans, and waging war just happens to be in their blood. The best approach, in their view, is to let the Afghans sort out their own problems. Such assessments are nothing but racism masquerading as folklore.

Hal G. P. Colebatch, a lawyer and author, has lectured in International Law and International Relations at Notre Dame University and Edith Cowan University in Western Australia and worked on the staff of two Australian Federal Ministers.

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About the Author

Hal G.P. Colebatch, a lawyer and author, has lectured in International Law and International Relations at Notre Dame University and Edith Cowan University in Western Australia and worked on the staff of two Australian Federal Ministers.