Afghanistan was (and still is) a patchwork of tribes and not really a nation, one reason why it could never be brought under a central controlling authority. Perpetually squabbling with each other, the tribes have always come together and united against invaders. Here, a couple of Ghilzyes are seen waiting with their ‘jezails’, long-barreled muskets that had far greater range than the British smoothbore rifles, ideal for firing down from an ambush high up on a mountainside.
The chief of the eastern Ghilzyes, Akbar Khan, was a ferocious man. He also happened to be the son of the ousted Emir Dost Mohammad Khan.
By early 1842, unrest had spread all over. When the British head of the Afghan mission, Sir William Macnaghten, spread the word privately to a few key tribal chiefs that he was willing to make one of them the country’s Puppet Ruler-2 and load him with money in exchange for putting down the rebellion and allowing the English to stay, Akbar Khan responded, inviting him over for a chat.
Macnaghten, despite warnings from his aides, was thrilled that his bait had been swallowed. That the son, of the very man whose butt he had kicked out of Kabul four years back was now inviting him drinks, dinner and a belly dance, did not raise any alarms in Macnaghten’s imperious mind. William Burnes’s ignominious death was different. The man was a lascivious lush and got what was coming to him, he reasoned.
But Macnaghten? Why, he was the Queen’s rep, for Christ’s sakes. When he spoke, it was the British Queen Victoria speaking, monarch of the nation that ruled the world. No one in his right mind would dare touch him, he said to himself.
At the appointed hour, Macnaghten rode out for the tête-a-tête with Akbar Khan, thinking he was going to seal the bargain and be back in business in Kabul by sundown. After exchanging greetings Akbar asked Macnaghten if he wanted to go ahead with the treachery they were planning.
Thrilled to have turned the situation around, Macnaghten cheerfully replied that he most certainly did. Without a word, Akbar Khan signaled his men to grab Macnaghten and throw him to the angry mob that had gathered outside. They caught hold of the unfortunate envoy and, with a fury pent up over years of humiliation, literally tore him to pieces. His limbs and head were paraded through the streets of Kabul and his torso was hung from a meat hook at the bazaar.
The situation was now dire. The British were left with no choice but to flee to India. On January 1, 1842, the retreat from Kabul began. Some 4500 soldiers along with 12000 support personnel and nine field guns, began the slow arduous march back to India and safety, while pillaging Afghans razed the cantonment to the ground, killing stragglers who had not yet packed their bags.
The first day’s march took the retreating column just five miles before it had to make camp for the night in the sub-zero temperatures. Sunrise revealed a mass of dead bodies, perished from hypothermia.
As the march resumed on the second day, the column was harassed constantly by Afghan tribesmen who fired upon the British from high ground with their long-barreled Jezail rifles. The Brits, with their muskets that were meant for short-range volley fire, were unable to retaliate.
At the Tangi Tariki Pass, the Ghaznavis had blocked the road and laid an ambush. Most of the retreating army was massacred here. Only Lord Elphinstone and around 100 cavalry made it through the ambush. Akbar Khan sent Elphinstone a message, inviting him to his camp and Elphinstone accepted, hoping to discuss terms for a more orderly and safe withdrawal.
Discuss terms? Jesus, would you believe this guy? Akbar Khan had no desire to discuss anything with the beaten British commander. Instead he had Elphinstone grabbed and manhandled roughly on arrival and taken prisoner. The rest tried to make a break for it but perished under a hail of Jezail fire.
Elphinstone died in captivity. The man who had made his mark at Waterloo, aide-de-camp to King George IV, commander of British forces in Afghanistan, met with an ignominious end, his grave ordinary and unmarked, on a dusty plain outside Jalalabad.
Only one Briton made it back to safety – Dr. William Brydon, the gent that I started Part-1 of this narrative with.
Was there a lesson in this?
Most certainly. Anyone who has been in Afghanistan for a while will have noted that the Afghans are among the proudest and most independent folk on the planet. To them, foreign troops marching in constitutes an unforgivable humiliation.
Besides, Afghans are not the kind who are yearning for peace, prosperity, and reconciliation. In fact, they see unrest, chaos and struggle as a normal healthy way of life. Macnaghten (and a hundred and seventy years later, the ‘coalition of the willing’) had this knowledge but refused to see it.
Instead they have all tried to force upon the Afghans the western thought processes and beliefs on democracy and human rights which they mistakenly assumed (and continue to assume) are universal.
Another oft-repeated error has been – imagining that money and an appeal to self-interest can buy loyalty among the very people that the invaders humiliate. Did the Taliban give Osama Bin Laden up? They did not hesitate to stand up and fight the world’s mightiest nation, on just a principle – that unless they were shown proof of Bin Laden’s involvement, they would not give him up.
A perfectly reasonable demand, given that the 9/11 Commission Report turned out to have more holes in it than Swiss cheese and the belief that 9/11 could have been an inside job moved out of the realm of baseless conspiracy theories to what could well be harsh reality.
Even a $25 million reward on Osama Bin Laden’s head did not get him. What got him (and took a decade in spite of all the technological and military prowess) was the intercept of a cellphone call by a gopher he employed. His deputy, Ayman A Zawahari too has had a $25 million price tag on his head for the past thirteen years. Has anybody given him up? Surely, there are lots of things an ordinary Pashtun can do with 25mill, no?
Afghanistan has been invaded four times in contemporary history – Twice by Britain, once by the Soviet Union and the last time, by the US and its allies in 2001. Every invasion has knocked the nation off its feet and left it in ruins. Not once has it ever done anything to them directly, to deserve those invasions. (Not a single one of the 9/11 hijackers was an Afghan).
Blindness and narcissism like Macnaghten’s is not rare at all in the developed western world. Our natural tendency is to see other people as mere reflections of our own desires and values. We do not try to understand the ways in which they are not like us and we are surprised when they do not respond as we had imagined. We unintentionally offend and alienate people, then blame them, not our inability to understand them, for the damage done.
Perhaps all the aggression and conflict that the west thrusts upon folk who have just a fraction of their military might, is all intentional, maybe even unavoidable. Maybe we are just built to offend. Likely, armed conflict is just that – a compulsion that is in-built in us all, which makes wars and aggression seem logical, unavoidable, necessary, rational and inevitable.
Stanley Kubrick conveyed this most eloquently in the opening scenes of his masterpiece, 2001 – A space odyssey, a landmark sci-fi adventure that is based on Arthur C.Clarke’s book of the same name.
The films opens with a tribe of hunter-gatherer hominids, foraging for food in the African desert. They are dominated and controlled by the environment they exist in. They huddle in fear at night, eat berries and plants and are unable or not willing to fight for survival against intruders, suggesting that left to themselves, the early humans would have gone extinct.
A leopard appears all of a sudden and kills a member and soon after, another tribe of thirsty ape-men pounce on them and drive them from their water hole. Defeated, they go to sleep that night inside a rocky crater and when they wake the next morning, there is this dull black monolith right in their midst. It is not just any stone. It is a perfectly rectangular block that is in constant radio contact with its base somewhere in the Solar System (the moon of Jupiter, Europa, as it turns out in the sequel 2010).
The monolith has an inexplicable energizing effect on the members of the tribe. One man picks up a bone and realizes that he could use it as a tool or even a weapon. Growing increasingly assertive and confident, they reclaim their water hole and kill the leader of the other tribe.
Triumphant, the tribe’s leader hurls his weapon-tool, the bone, into the air where it tumbles over and over as it flies and transforms into a spacecraft that is shown breaking through the atmosphere to reach a space station that is orbiting the earth and that’s where the main story begins.
Very symbolic. There have been many interpretations of the opening sequence, even one that believes that the monoliths are a race of galactic watchers who work to ensure that life forms that they see potential in, have a chance to evolve. When the monoliths sense that those life forms are threatened with extinction, they step in and provide them with sufficient knowledge to be able to survive.
But the interpretation I liked the best was that the monolith was nothing but a dormant part of the early hominid’s inner self, a steely resolve and killer instinct. The monolith’s sudden appearance and alien origin suggests a shadowy side of man that was, at once, corrupting, calculating and scheming. It drove the early human being to become more ruthless and aggressive and be able to prevail over all other species and finally reach out to the stars.
Just as it has driven the Lord Aucklands and the William Macnaghtens of the world, to invade, conquer, subjugate and humiliate.