Shah Shuja Durrani did have a valid claim on the throne in Kabul since his ouster 25 years prior, by Dost Mohammad Khan. Exiled, he had been a captive of Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab and the British till they decided that he could be resurrected.
This scene shows Shah Shuja in 1839 after his reinstatement by the British as Emir of Afghanistan. He used to be seated on a polished white marble throne. From here he could be seen by the court in the quadrangle below. The carved wooden arches and pillars surrounding him were painted with delicate colors and the ceiling richly decorated.
Shah Shuja was an unpopular monarch and the moment the British were thrown out after a bloody Afghan revolt, he was assassinated.
The wimpy stooge
It was not long after Shah Shuja Durrani was reinstalled back in power by the British that one thing became apparent – He was deeply unpopular among his subjects, a walking disaster on two legs, as an administrator.
For one thing, Shuja was a monoglot who spoke only Persian. In a Pashto majority nation, this was a huge minus, in terms of acceptance as monarch. One of the core values of Pashtunwali is badla (blood revenge), that the ordinary Afghans had expected him to exact, against his captor Ranjit Singh who had carted him around in a cage and relieved him of the famous Koh-e-Noor diamond. In spite of being dishonored publicly, Shuja let bygones be bygones, forging an alliance with Ranjit Singh.
And then there was his overbearing wife, Wafa Begum. Instead of having her practice purdah or female seclusion as was the norm those days (and even now in most parts of Afghanistan), Shuja put his wife metaphorically and literally ahead of himself in front of his Afghan subjects, something that they found disgusting.
Once he got going, with the British military omnipresent to watch his ass, Shah Shuja began appointing corrupt cronies into positions of power.
Eventually what turned the Afghan people against Shah Shuja was the way he began excluding the tribal leaders from the governance and denying them the respect that they deserved, in spite of the fact that Afghanistan was (and still is) the sum of all its tribes. The loyalties of the ordinary Afghans were (and still are) not to any central authority but to their tribes.
Compounding the Shah’s already plummeting popularity ratings was the fact that years of exile in British India and its liberal cosmopolitan culture had made the monarch an alien in his own land. The common Afghans soon started looking at him with loathing.
Neither Macnaghten nor Auckland had factored in the possibility that Shah Shuja could be a wimpy shmuck but that was exactly what he turned out to be. Or maybe wimpy shmuck is just what they had wanted, so he could be easily manipulated like a puppet on a string, just the way that the initial Hamid Karzai seemed to behave with the Americans, post-9/11.
Meanwhile, reports were reaching Lord Auckland that the deposed Emir, Dost Mohammad Khan, was building an army in the mountains to the north. At the same time, trouble began brewing in the south where it seemed that during the invasion, the British had insulted some local chieftains by plundering their lands for food for their troops. These chiefs were now stirring up trouble.
As the Shah’s lack of leadership qualities became more and more evident, it became clear that the British army would have to remain stationed in Kabul to act as his Praetorian Guard and also to secure other British interests in the country. Reluctantly, Macnaghten ordered most of the British army to stay back in Afghanistan until the situation became more stable.
The arrival of the British changed the Kabul cityscape. Roadhouses, whorehouses, clubs, parties, alcohol and debauchery abounded, like as if it had all of sudden turned into a latter day Sodom. The assistant envoy, William Burnes and his womanising and raucous partying quickly became the talk of the town.
At this point Macnaghten did something that clearly indicated his complete lack of understanding of the Afghan ethos. He decided to allow the officers and soldiers of this increasingly long-standing occupying force to send for their families, so that life would be less harsh for them.
Soon the wives and children came along, followed by multitudes of Indian valets, footmen, housemaids and assorted gophers. Very soon after, the bazaars and public places were filled with strange faces and even stranger voices, to the extent that the ordinary Afghans began to feel alienated inside their own capital city.
Macnaghten had hoped that the arrival of the soldiers’ families would have a humanizing, civilizing effect, but the arrivals only made the Afghans suspicious. Were the British planning a permanent occupation, they wondered. Everywhere they looked, there were representatives of British interests, talking loudly in the streets, drinking wine, being escorted in elaborate horse-driven carriages to newly opened theaters and horse races – strange imported pleasures that had been introduced to the country. Now entire families that spoke no Dari, Pashto, Uzbek or Farsi were making themselves at home there.
The British cantonment at Kabul began to take on the look of a miniature British India. Behind it’s high walls, cocktail parties, dog shows and polo afternoons with picnic baskets and scurrying maids and valets, became the norm. (Is it like this at Bagram today or the Green Zone in Baghdad)? I am quite certain it is analogous in some ways).
A hatred of everything English began to take root.
Macnaghten was not a stupid man. He saw what was happening but here he made another error of judgment. He gave pep talks to all his junior officers and made them believe that the Afghans were nothing but childlike, immature folk and everything would be forgotten and forgiven once the British army left Afghanistan. The Afghans would be more than grateful, once they felt the benefits of ‘English civilization’, he told them.
Meanwhile, back in London, the general election of 1841 saw a sea change, with the Tories replacing the Whigs. The new government was determined to cut expenditure in Afghanistan which had sky-rocketed by then and was hurting the exchequer. A sizeable portion of the troop strength there had to be drawn down. London ordered Macnaghten to begin the withdrawal and to get Shah Shuja off his tush and put his own forces in place.
Macnaghten knew just where to start with his cost cutting.
Most of the mountain passes, through which Afghanistan’s main trade routes ran, were held by the Ghilzye tribes, who had all along been paid a stipend to keep the passes open, regardless of who was in power in Kabul. Macnaghten decided to halve this stipend.
The Ghilzyes were like the Bocchicchios, a murderous Mafia family portrayed in Mario Puzo’s Godfather. They didn’t give a flying f—k about anyone. While not the most intelligent, the Bocchicchios did have very strong family bonds. They took the Sicilian concept of vendetta to an extreme, considered fanatical even by Mafia standards.
The Bocchicchios never forgot a wrong. If a Bocchicchio were to be wronged, the whole Bocchicchio family would stop at nothing to take revenge upon the one responsible. The offender would find himself in a shrink-fitting cement jacket if he was lucky and gradually torn apart if he wasn’t. The vengeful Bocchicchios couldn’t be bought off. They would search for the offender to the ends of the earth and even employ suicidal tactics until the perpetrator was dead.
Interestingly, the Bocchicchios turned this vengeful nature into a huge source of income, renting out a hostage service when warring mafia families wanted a sit-down. If a negotiation was going to be held between two Mafia families, then as a way of showing sincerity, the Boss who called the meeting would pay the Bocchicchios a large fee for a hostage. This exchange was a promise by the client that the hostage would come home alive after the sit-down was over.
The hostage would then be put into the custody of the other families participating until the meeting was over and the family’s negotiator returned home safely, at which point the Bocchicchio hostage could go home. If the negotiation turned violent and the negotiator was killed, then the hostage would be killed and the Bocchicchios would seek revenge, not on the side who held and killed the Bocchicchio hostage, but on the family who had killed the negotiator, reasoning that that family was responsible for the hostage’s death.
The Ghilzyes were the Bocchicchios of 19th century Afghanistan, their word more valuable than platinum, their resolve…well, let me put it this way – if you crossed a Ghilzye there really was no place you could run to. They always had a middle finger ready for anybody who tried to cross them and it wasn’t a metaphoric middle finger, but a literal one. Some say that the Soviets were driven back primarily by the Ghilzye elements inside the Afghan Mujahedeen.
The Ghilzyes responded to Macnaghten’s stipend cut by blocking the passes. Elsewhere in the country tribes sympathetic to the Ghilzyes promptly rebelled, closing down those passes, taking passing merchants and camel trains hostage. Commerce ground to a halt. Wait, don’t call Macnaghten an ars—le yet. After I’m done, you’ll be naming him stupid pr—k of the year.
Worried officers advised Macnaghten to punish the Ghilzye tribesmen ruthlessly, to make an example of them, but he did not take them too seriously, even rebuking them for overreacting.
Now the British army would have to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely.
After that, the situation snowballed out of control. On November 2, an angry crowd gathered outside William Burnes’s residence in Kabul, screaming for revenge because he had sexually molested an Afghan maid in an evening of alcohol-fuelled debauchery. The Afghans forced their way in and slaughtered him along with his brother and a fellow officer who were regulars at the drunken excesses there. (Abu Ghraib???)
The immediate British reaction was subdued. The Army Commander, Sir William Elphinstone, was a washed out old crone in poor health, tired of soldiering. His inaction was interpreted negatively by the rebels. Afghans respected strength and authority. Failure to deal decisively with an enemy was to them, a sign of weakness.
In Kabul, local chiefs began to conspire to expel their British overlords. Shah Shuja panicked. For months he had begged Macnaghten to let him capture and kill his main rivals, an Afghan ruler’s traditional method of securing his position. Macnaghten had told him that ‘a civilized country did not use murder to solve its political problems’.
Shah Shuja knew that the Afghans respected the steel fist of authority, not ‘civilized British values’. His failure to deal with his enemies made him look weak and left him surrounded by enemies.
Macnaghten would not listen. The rebellion spread, and Macnaghten now had to confront the fact that he did not have the manpower to put down a general uprising. But why should he panic? The Afghans and their leaders were naïve. He would regain the upper hand through intrigue and cleverness.
Smug in his over-confidence, Macnaghten publicly negotiated an agreement whereby British troops and citizens would leave Afghanistan, in exchange for which the Afghans would supply the retreating British with food. Wait, you are just about to find out why Sir William Hay Macnaghten was the jackass of the 19th century.
Privately though, Macnaghten made it be known to a few key tribal chiefs that he was willing to make one of them the country’s Emir and load him with money in exchange for putting down the rebellion and allowing the English to stay. It was the time to be crafty like a fox, he thought.
That thought would cost Sir William Hay Macnaghten his life.
(to be continued….)