NATO Review

Afghans, alliances and amateurs

Patrick Stephenson reviews Crimson Snow, a book by Jules Stewart which highlights the lessons from 'Britain's first disaster in Afghanistan' - nearly 200 years ago.

There is an old military axiom: “Amateurs talk about strategy; professionals talk about logistics.” It’s a not so subtle dig at civilian commanders, who the military often see as tending to focus on strategy at the expense of logistics.

But democratic societies necessarily work by having civilian leaders instruct national militaries. The resulting civil-military tension is an old story, often repeated. We have a distant echo of this dilemma in Jules Stewart’s instructive work, Crimson Snow, a brutal re-telling of the First Afghan War and the destruction of the British Army of the Indus.

The origin of the disaster was the fear that expanding Russian influence in Central Asia would threaten the British Raj. This fear was not without justification. Tsarist armies had advanced to the borders of Afghanistan. They had given military assistance to the Persian Shah, who had territorial ambitions in the region.

Then, in November 1838, a Persian army, backed by Russian advisors, invaded Afghanistan and laid siege to Herat. It was believed that a successful seizure of the city would deliver the whole of Afghanistan to the Russians, with the presumed next step being the appearance of a massive Russian army on the banks of the Indus. The Afghan leader Dost Muhammed, nominally friendly to the British, was caught between these predators, and his support wavered between them.

The then-Governor General to India, the Earl of Auckland, used this hesitation and the siege of Herat as the justification to de-throne Dost Muhammed. He replaced him with the more pliable deposed Amir Shah Shuja turning Afghanistan – in effect – into a British puppet state.

On October 1, 1838, Auckland laid out his reasons for war in the Simla Manifesto, a document filled with distortions and outright fabrications designed to cement support for the war. This included the assertion that Dost Muhammed had agreed to ally with the Russians, something he had never done.

It is worth highlighting Auckland’s claim that a Persian siege of Herat was the equivalent of a Russian takeover of Afghanistan, and that in turn made necessary a British invasion. Auckland’s analysis turned a distant and manageable problem into an imminent and existential threat. Such twisted reasoning turned a professed desire to defend Afghanistan into a determination to conquer it.

The Simla Manifesto’s detractors – often military men – were numerous. Sir Henry Marion Durand, an irascible but capable soldier who often fought with his superiors, wrote that “the exaggerated fears of Russian power and intrigue… invested Herat with a fictitious importance wholly incommensurate with... its position in regard to Kandahar and the Indus.”

Lord Salisbury identified the essential problem: “You must either disbelieve altogether in the existence of the Russians, or you must believe that they will be at Kandahar next year. Public opinion recognises no middle ground.”

With this statement, Salisbury had recognised that democratic war demands absolute and implacable enemies. If they do not exist, then they must be invented; and if they do exist, then their menace must be maximised.

Poor intelligence, accepted as gospel by the mutually-reinforcing views of the war’s supporters, also played a prominent role. The “politicals” often poorly understood the tribal allegiances that were the basis of Afghan political life. In addition, the region’s geography worked against the British – in particular, the mountainous terrain, where long columns of troops would be exposed to sniper fire.

It was also believed that the Afghan population would eagerly accept the restoration of Shah Shuja on the throne. The truth was far less certain. Upon taking Kandahar, Envoy Sir William MacNaughten assured Auckland that the Afghans had “greeted the British officers as liberators”. While this seemed true, it grievously underestimated Afghan resentment towards the occupying force.

More profoundly, there was little if any evidence that Dost Muhammed ever seriously considered an alliance with the Russians. Given the difficulties that the British themselves faced, the idea of a huge Russian army simply marching through Afghanistan to India was in itself highly questionable.

It is almost as if the war’s proponents conceived of modern warfare as a gigantic game of Risk: move your little pieces, and when territories turn your player colour, they become yours. It is a highly idealised view, divorced of such banal notions as supply lines and native sentiments. It is also an amateurish view.

The lie was given to the affair when, as the Army of the Indus prepared to march towards Afghanistan, the Persians lifted the siege of Herat and went home. Although the war’s professed justification was now gone, the British marched on anyway. Too many men and too much money had been mobilised for peace to break out. The war had become its own justification.

It is thus remarkable that the British conquered Kabul with relative ease. The problem was not the war, but the ensuing peace.

A native uprising and poor leadership would soon make life in Kabul unsustainable for the remnants of the occupying Army of the Indus. The resulting retreat from Kabul to Jalalabad saw the utter annihilation of the Army, a force of 5,000 European and Indian troops.

Mr Stewart switches competently between the roles of strategist, tactician, historian and mortician, balancing battlefield detail with informed discussions of the politics of the time. This is first-rate political commentary: the sort that subtly disguises itself as mere history, while there lurks within the prose an element of reproach for more modern misadvertures.

Stewart’s work belatedly reminds us of the dangers that occur when civilian amateurs do not listen to their generals, or when generals are too hesitant to offend their civilian superiors. Some lessons, it seems, we are determined not to learn.


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©Jules Stewart 2010