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Imperial Adventures in Middle East

Out of the frying pan, into the historical fire. If only our leaders read history. In 1915, the British swept up from Basra, believing that the Iraqis would reward them with flowers and love, only to find themselves surrounded at Kut Al-Amara, cut down by Turkish shellfire and cholera. Now we are reinforcing NATO in that tomb of the British Army, Afghanistan.

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 Taleban. Yes, the Battle of Maiwand -on July 27, 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? Several times already in Helmand, the British have almost been overwhelmed.

This has not been officially admitted, but the Ministry of Defense did make a devious allusion to this last year -it was missed by all the defense correspondents -when it announced that British troops in Helmand had been involved in the heaviest combat fighting "since the Korean War." The Afghans talk of one British unit which last year had to call in air strikes, destroying almost the entire village in which they were holding out. Otherwise, they would have been overrun.

Gen. Burrows had no close air support on 27 July, 1880, when he found himself confronting up to 15,000 Afghan fighters at Maiwand, but he had large numbers of Egyptian troops with him and a British force in the city of Kandahar. Already, the British had cruelly suppressed a dissident Afghan Army again, sound familiar? -after the British residency had been sacked and its occupants murdered. Britain's reaction at the time was somewhat different from that followed today.

Britain's army was run from imperial India where Lord Lytton, the viceroy, urged his man in Kabul -Gen. Roberts, later Lord Roberts of Kandahar -to crush the uprising with the utmost brutality. "Every Afghan brought to death, I shall regard as one scoundrel the less in a nest of scoundrelism." 

Roberts embarked on a reign of terror in Kabul, hanging almost a hundred Afghans.

The commander of the rebellious Afghans was Ayub Khan, whose brother was forced to abdicate as king after the Kabul uprising. When Ayub Khan re-emerged from the deserts of the west -he marched down from that old warlord territory of Herat toward Kandahar -the luckless Burrows was sent to confront him. Almost a thousand British and Indian troops were to be slaughtered in the coming hours as Ayub Khan's army fired shells from at least 30 artillery pieces and then charged at them across the fields and dried-up river at Maiwand.

The official British inquiry -it was covered in red cloth and ran to 734 pages -contains many photographs of the landscape over which the battle was fought. The hills and distant mountains, of course, are identical to those that are now videotaped by "embedded" reporters in the British Army.

Outgunned and outmaneuvered, the British found themselves facing a ruthless enemy. Col. Mainwaring of the 30th Bombay Infantry wrote a chilling report for the authorities in Delhi. "The whole of the ground ... was covered with swarms of 'ghazis' and banner-men. The 'ghazis' were actually in the ranks of the Grenadiers, pulling the men out and hacking them down with their swords."

The wreckage of the British Army retreated all the way to Kandahar where they were besieged, until rescued by Gen. Roberts himself, whose famous march of 10,000 troops from Kandahar -a distance of 300 miles covered in just 20 days -is now military legend.

History, it seems, haunts all our adventures in the Middle East. Who would have believed that after the British reached Baghdad in a 1917 invasion, they would face an insurgency which, in speed and ruthlessness, was an almost exact predecessor to the rebellion which the British and Americans would confront from 2003? Lloyd George, then prime minister, stood up in the House of Commons to insist that the British occupation force had to stay in Iraq. Otherwise, he warned, the country would be plunged into civil war. 

Sound familiar? 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.

The sole survivor, the famous Dr. Brydon, managed to out-horse two armed Afghans and ride into the British compound in Jalalabad.

So now the British are to reinforce Afghanistan yet again. Flying by Chinook to Kandahar will not take as long as Roberts's 20 days.

British soldiers are unlikely even to enter Kandahar's central square. But if they do, they might care to look at the few ancient cannon on the main roundabout: all that is left of Roberts's artillery.

Robert Fisk is a British journalist, currently Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. The New York Times described him as "probably the most famous foreign correspondent in Britain". He has over thirty years of experience in international reporting, dating from 1970s Belfast and Portugal's 1974 Carnation Revolution, the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War, and encompassing the 1979 Iranian revolution, the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, 1991 Persian Gulf War, and 2003 Invasion of Iraq. He is the world's most-decorated foreign correspondent, having received numerous awards including the British Press Awards' International Journalist of the Year award seven times. Fisk speaks good vernacular Arabic, and is one of the few Western journalists to have interviewed Osama bin Laden (three times between 1994 and 1997).

  Category: Middle East, World Affairs
  Topics: Afghanistan, British Army, Conflicts And War, England
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Older Comments:
nice article and want to or loking forward to see more such good articles frm you.

Note to Shaffique in Canada:

You are Canadian. Why did you not advocate pulling out Canadian troops from Afghanistan? Why did Harper government extend the mandate till 2009?. Did Canada not read this history; Canadian history is mostly British.

All politicians think that they are extremely smart and hence buck the old history; some succeed and some don't. US/UK/Canadian forces have already been defeated in Afghanistan; the losers will be people of the South Asia and Central Asian region (Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Central asia), because there will not be any kind of peace for a long time; in the process, many of these countries are going to become very poor and lawless and Islamic fundamentalist. For the people of Afghanistan/Pakistan, the victory by Taliban will not be worth celebrating; and that is history develops.

No wonder people doesn't learn from their mistake. I thought
British Army would pull out of Afgan as they have started doing
in Iraq.