The unbelievable mess of the war in Afghanistan is of our own making, a lost opportunity made inevitable by our refusal to believe that history does repeat itself in disastrous ways if you ignore its lessons.
That was the undeniable grim message the acclaimed historian and critic William Dalrymple gave to a packed audience in St Peter’s Church in a major lecture event organised by Marlborough’s White Horse Bookshop.
His latest history of the First Afghan War of 1839—42 reveals the massive mistakes that resulted in the slaughter and sickening suffering of thousands of British and Sepoy soldiers, plus camp followers, some turning to cannibalism to stay alive in temperatures of minus 40 degrees.
In a bravura performance that was a master class for the uninitiated, 48-year-old Dalrymple brought the story up to date with tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths, including those of brave British troops.
And once again, because of the blatant refusal to learn from the past, the Afghans remained insistent that they can control the roof of the world from any conquering nation yet do not have the strength to control their own fragile destiny.
“History repeats itself time after time and yet the same mistakes are still made,” he declared. “The only think we learn from history is that no-one learns from history.”
He pointed out: “There were two objectives we went into Afghanistan to do. One was to smash al Qaeda following 9/11 and the other to destroy the Taliban.
“Senior ranks of al Qaeda have been seriously whittled down and they have lost Ben Laden. But they have moved on and they are in Pakistan now rather than Afghanistan.
And the Taliban are back.
“So it is not one of the great triumphs of our objectives, for all the bravery, all the blood spilled, all the money spent, we are more or less back where we started.
“This is one of the tragedies of history. Policy is driven by a group of ambitious young men sitting in some capital city somewhere.
“I gave this lecture at the White House about a month ago. And all the guys there, terrifically clued up on local politics, recent history, everything, had an absolutely paper-thin knowledge of the culture or the background of history. They had never heard of Afghanistan.”
He drew amazing parallels between the first Afghan War, caused by the greed of the East India Company under the protection of Britain and the challenge of Russia to command Afghanistan with modern events, both packed with stupid blunders.
In the first war thousands perished, taken hostage, crippled, raped, sold into slavery, his own great, great uncle among them, who recorded: “My heart sank within me under the conviction that we were a doomed force… soldiers asking their comrades to kill them to put them out of their misery.”
And in the current war thousands being killed now by drones firing on unsuspecting innocent civilians, 30 of them relatives of President Hamid Karzai attending a wedding party, and soldiers blown to pieces defending remote tiny garrisons in Helmand province for an ill-founded project.
“It has been a total mess without clear political direction, without an exit strategy, without any of the basic things you do before you invade a country,” he protested. “These guys are daily losing their lives, not out of their idiocy but out of political incompetence…
“We really did have an opportunity in 2001 to sort Afghanistan out. The tragedy too is that modern armaments are terribly expensive. Every time you drop a daisy cutter you could build a hospital.
“There are figures I can’t remember but something like we could have given 20,000 dollars to every single Afghan and built universities, hospitals and schools with the colossal amount we have spent shelling the place flat in Helmand.
“It’s always said to be a madness created by Runsfeld, who said, ‘We don’t do nationhood’.”
But there were moments of amusement and discovery while researching his book – all seven he has written have won awards – his aim was twofold.
One was to seek out Afghan historical sources and his delighted at finding biographies, histories, letters none of which had ever been translated into English or used before by British academics.
“In the British library there are about two miles of books on Afghanistan but none of the authors ever bothered to look at Afghan sources – extraordinary.”
His second aim was to travel the route of the great British retreat of 1842 in which his relative died, to see for himself their view of a mountainous area en route to Jalabad that is now the Taliban heartland.
But before he got out of Kabul he was arrested by the chief of the secret police, a giant of a man who had captained the Afghan wrestling team. “He was a reader who didn’t like my book The Last Mogul,” Dalrymple explained.
So in order to ensure the next one fulfilled his demands he provided a safe-keeping watch on his travels into Taliband territory.
However, next hitch was not from guns and bayonets but the hospitality of a village they passed through, where he was the honoured guest at a huge meal that lasted six hours.
And that fortunately delayed his arrival at another village where nine policeman had been killed in a gunfight and their cars blown up.
Most intriguing was an old man who told him how a month earlier he had met with American officers in a Jalabad hotel, who asked him to explain why the Afghans hated them so.
“I replied because you blow down our doors, enter our houses, pull our women by the hair and kick out children,” the old man said. We cannot accept this.
“And we will break your teeth, and when your teeth are broken you will leave, just like the British and the Russians who came before you. It’s just a matter of time.
“The American turned to his friend and said, if the old men are like this what will the younger ones be like?’”
Added Dalrymple:” In truth the Americans know their game is over. It’s just the politicians who deny it.”
As to the future, the real danger was that Pakistan would become isolated between India and Afghanistan, and the Chinese, who were already building two railways in Afghanistan, would seek to takeover.
Inside Afghanistan there were two possibilities.
“One is that we shall see some negotiated solution whereby some pro-Pashtun government will be given command of the south or we will see effective partition of the country and a return to civil war.
“And according to Afghan history, which repeats itself, it is more likely to be a military outcome than a peaceful transition.”
The Return of the King: The Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple, published by Bloomsbury at £25, is available from the White Horse Bookship.
The Dalrymples of Marlborough – at the College at least
William Dalrymple was invited to lecture in Marlborough on Friday because he is a regular customer at Michael Pooley’s White Horse Bookshop.
The reason for that, he revealed, is that, though he and his artist wife Olivia spend much of their time living in the outskirts of Delhi, their two elder children, Ibby and Sam, are both students at Marlborough College.
And they are to be followed by their third child, Adam.
“We come to Marlborough regularly, either my wife or I come out every two or three weeks from Delhi,” Dalrymple told me. “I liked the school and it’s all been a great success.
“Once you land at Heathrow its quite easy to pop up here to see them and find out how they’re getting on.”