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With British troops once again mired in Afghanistan, Workers goes back to a previous conflict...

Britain's imperial obsession with Afghanistan

This article was originally published in The Worker in 1988. At the time Britain and the US were again interfering in Afghanistan, supporting the Mujahedin insurgents operating from Pakistan. This was to undermine Afghanistan's reforming government, which was supported by the Soviet Union. Soviet forces left in 1989 and by 1992, Mujahedin guerrillas and other Islamic rebels moved in on Kabul and ousted President Najibullah. An Islamic republic was established, which fell apart amid violent warfare and factional squabbling.

The Victorian British ruling class regarded India as the jewel in the crown of the Empire, to be guarded at all costs. The dangerous rival was Russia and the weak frontier was Afghanistan. Subjection of the Afghans was therefore a prime objective of the British government in India. Friendship with them proved difficult, however, as they were a group of fighting tribes who had lived for centuries despoiling the traders through the Khyber Pass.

At the beginning of the 18th century the English and Russian frontiers were separated by 4,000 miles, reduced to 2,000 in the nineteenth by the British annexation of Bengal. When the Russians in their turn began to advance the frontier, the British started the First Afghan War. At the demand of the East India Company, an army led by General Elphinstone occupied Kabul in 1837. In 1841 there was an uprising so the General agreed with the Afghans to evacuate the town and go back to British India under safe conduct. The Afghans proved treacherous, attacked the British force of 4,500 men and killed or captured everyone except a doctor who escaped to the fort of Jellalabad near the entrance to the Khyber Pass in January 1842. After a display of great bravery by Indian and British troops defending Jellalabad, a fresh British force under General Pollock advanced into Afghanistan, defeated the Afghans and occupied Kabul. The historian Mowatt wrote, "After thus indicating the prestige of the British Empire, the East India Company recognised the independence of Afghanistan and evacuated the country." The nightmare of the British was always that the Russians would make friends with the Afghans because it was believed almost impossible for them to scale the great mountain wall of the Hindu Kush if the Afghans were hostile to them.

The same mistakes, time after time: Royal Marines of 45 Commando disembark from Chinook helicopters of 27 Squadron Royal Air Force at Bagram airbase Afghanistan in July 2002 in what was then said to be the last planned British operation in Afghanistan.
In 1878 the nightmare came true when the Amir invited a mission of Russian officers to reside in Kabul. The British Government in India demanded the same right and that the Amir should conduct his foreign relations only through the Government of India. War followed and the Amir was compelled to accept these terms in 1879. An officer of the Political Department was sent to Kabul and on 3 September he and his escort of 75 Indian soldiers were killed.

For the second time the Afghans had shown their contempt for the British so now a lesson had to be taught. General Roberts, later of Boer War fame, marched at the head of 7000 Indian and British troops through the Kuram valley to Kabul, but meanwhile Governor Burrows had been defeated by the Afghans at Kandahar. At all costs the legend of British invincibility had to be retained in order to hold down India, so Roberts was despatched with thousands of troops, horses, mules, camels and guns to march to Kandahar 313 miles away. They did this very quickly, met Ayub Khan and routed his Afghan army.

A new Amir was chosen by Britain and the original terms were imposed on him with a minimum of internal authority as all external authority belonged to the British. British power had been vindicated, Russian influence expelled and rifles and money were given to the ruler Abdurrahman to keep down the people or, as the British expressed it, "to keep law and order." One of the most repulsive aspects of these invasions was the war fever in Britain, and particularly amongst the radicals in the industrial towns. A similar phenomenon can be observed today in the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers and the National Union of Mineworkers. It is marvellous to behold how belligerent men past calling-up age become.

In 2006: those trade unionists so keen to send troops to the Middle East, using the specious argument that some trade unionists from Iraq wanted them there, have gone quiet now that larger numbers of British soldiers are coming home in boxes. There is, however, little serious trade union opposition to the current US-British wars of occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq.