The British Military Withdrawal Catastrophe of 1842
August 2021 Reflections
In the nineteenth century, the British and Russian empires vied for dominance of Afghanistan and Southwest Asia in what has been called the “Great Game.”
The British occupied Afghanistan periodically from 1839 to 1919 and fought three Anglo-Afghan wars in 1839-1842, 1878-1880, and lastly in 1919.
Born in British India, Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), immortalized in his poem entitled “The Young British Soldier,” why Afghanistan was a dreaded assignment for British troops:
“When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s Plains
And the women come out to cut up what remains
Just roll on your rifle an’ blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier:”
During the first Anglo-Afghan War, Britain suffered one of the most devastating military disasters in its history. In 1838, the British attempted to form an alliance with Pashtun Emir Dost Muhammad in order to block the Russians from threatening India. This alliance failed, so an expeditionary force of 21,000 British and Indian troops under the command of Sir John Keane marched into Afghanistan and installed Shuja Shah Durani as Afghan leader. Keane was subsequently replaced by Sir Willoughby Cotton and then by Major General William Elphinstone, and all but 8,000 troops returned to India. To improve the morale of these occupying troops, Sir William Hay Macnaghten, the senior British diplomat assigned to Afghanistan, allowed military dependents to accompany soldiers stationed near Kabul. This was seen by the Afghans, however, as the establishment of a permanent British-Indian occupational force and ignited further resistance led by Dost Muhammad’s son, Prince Muhammad Akbar Khan. It soon became evident that a small British-Indian occupational force would not be able to maintain control of Afghanistan, and the growing tribal alliance under Akbar Khan, succeeded in occupying much of the country.
By October 1841, the main British-Indian expeditionary force in Afghanistan found itself surrounded in an indefensible cantonment just northeast of Kabul. In November, a senior British diplomat, Sir Alexander Burnes, and two of his aides were killed by a mob in Kabul. British failure to respond with resolute force only intensified Afghan revolt. As the British military situation in Kabul deteriorated, Macnaghten secretly offered to make Akbar Khan vizier of Afghanistan, if the British were allowed to stay. At the same time, however, British secret agents were disbursing large sums of money to have him assassinated. On December 23, Macnaghten and Akbar Khan met for direct negotiations, but Akbar Khan, having discovered this impending British diplomatic treachery, had Macnaghten and three accompanying officers seized and killed.
On January 1, with the British-Indian force near Kabul cut off from immediate supply, Elphinstone negotiated with Akbar Khan for the withdrawal and safe passage of his forces and their dependents from Afghanistan. The plan was to withdraw to an area of India now in Pakistan, first joining the smaller besieged British detachment at Jalalabad, near the border. The 90-mile trek included a 30-mile passage through the treacherous gorges along the Kabul River between Kabul and Gandamark.
The British-Indian expeditionary force included only 4,500 troops composed mainly of Indian regiments. Only the 690 men of the 44th East Essex Foot were British. In addition, there were 12,000 camp followers, mainly the dependents of Indian soldiers.
Despite the safe passage the British had been granted, the withdrawing expeditionary force and their dependents were harassed and continually attacked by Ghilzai Pashtun tribal warriors. As British supplies and ammunition diminished, the attacks became more intense, finally resulting in a running battle in two feet of snow. By January 13, the entire British-Indian expeditionary force had been reduced to less than 40 men who were massacred at Gandamark. Nine men of the remnants of the 44th were taken prisoner. Only one man, Surgeon Dr. William Brydon reached Jalalabad.
In the spring, the British regained Kabul and reestablished British hegemony in Afghanistan. Following the British military victory in the third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919, a firm Indian-Afghan border was established, and the Afghans agreed not to foment trouble on the British side. In return, the Afghans were allowed to conduct their own foreign affairs as a fully independent state. But there is much more bloody history to tell of this “graveyard of empires.”
The British were among the 37 allied nations besides the United States who have been involved in an attempt to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan following the September 11,2001, al-Qaeda attach on the U.S. that killed over 3,000 people.
In early July 2021, the Biden Administration accelerated military withdrawal from Afghanistan without adequate preparations for civilian withdrawal, although it had been clear since March 25, that Taliban advances and military actions were accelerating rapidly. The Biden Administration did not give the British, French, German, and other NATO allies notice of precipitous withdrawal of American Forces and abandonment of bases before civilian evacuation. The British force has been reduced from a peak of 9,500 to less than 1,000. French and German troop levels have been reduced to less than 1,000 each. However, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has authorized another 800 troops to get British citizens and as many as 5,000 Afghan refugees out of Afghanistan.
At least 11,000 American citizens are trapped by the Taliban in the city of Kabul. Yet while American forces are confined within the Kabul airport, British, French, and German special ops helicopters with Special Forces personnel are now flying into Kabul to rescue British, French, and German citizens, largely independent of American authority. Both the British and French have so far each successfully rescued 200 of their citizens. German operations have just begun.
UK and other NATO leaders are outraged by the Biden Administration’s handling of withdrawal. They are further concerned that the Biden Administration’s weak and reprehensible policies have placed Ukraine, Moldova, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in jeopardy of Russian Federation aggression.
Although President Biden claimed at a press conference Friday that America’s European allies stood firmly behind his withdrawal plans, numerous British MPs have made strong statements critical of Biden’s plans and performance. There is a possibility that the British Parliament will pass a resolution rebuking President Biden’s incomprehensible folly in Afghanistan.
The weakness and stupidity of the Biden Administration has also encouraged Communist China to ramp up its ambitions to annex the 24-million population Republic of China, known as Taiwan, which is essentially the Island of Formosa. This is seen as a serious threat to all American allies in Asia.
So how did the disastrous Biden withdrawal debacle occur? Keep in mind that except for a very small border with China, Afghanistan is land-locked and surrounded by other Muslim countries. The largest of these, Pakistan and Iran, are radical. Pakistan clearly favors the Taliban forces. Thirty-five percent of the Afghan economy is based on opium, morphine, heroin, and hashish. Like many predominantly poor Muslim countries, government and business corruption is rampant and a way of life. Tribal loyalties are generally much stronger than national loyalties.
The U.S. had given a date for withdrawal, which not only signaled lack of commitment but willingness to surrender. To Afghan Army and National Police officers, the withdrawal date meant they would be isolated and probably without further support in a U.S. Obama-Biden regime. My limited discussions with Afghan military officers in the past clearly indicated they have little respect for liberal military thinking and liberal politicians. They would be surrounded by Muslim countries, so the choice for survival militated against continued alliance with weakly committed, liberal leaning Western leaders. They could look at Vietnam as an example of a U.S. Congressional cutoff of promised military support that resulted in Communist takeover in 1975 and millions slaughtered. (See my book, Lessons from the Vietnam War, 2009, Chapter 18, “Political Betrayal.”) Meanwhile, since March, the Taliban had been advancing and violating the Trump agreements without consequence. Afghan military and national police force officers were thus easily bribed by Taliban negotiators who had been working their plan for many months. The Afghan Army and National Police Forces collapsed suddenly because the overwhelming majority of officers in the field had already negotiated terms of bribery.
Why did General Milley and others not know of this? Our intelligence sources had been infiltrated and bribed. Much of this intelligence failure was caused by our failure to understand the real nature of Islam and the tribal nature of Afghan culture. Some good intelligence probably got through Islamist and Leftist filters, but the liberal political mind puts ideology before facts and careful analysis.
The enemies of King Alfred the Great of England (848-899) found only two ways to break through the formidable Anglo-Saxon shieldwall—bribery and treason. Still today, bribery and treason, in their many often-inter-related forms, remain ever present threats to freedom.
The Obama-Biden Administration solution to the greatest hostage crisis in history appears to be bigger and bolder lies, covered-up and defended by the blind, leftist ideology and bullying support of ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, Face Book, Google, Twitter, and other BigTech servants of Cultural Marxism. Yet even some of these are beginning to recognize the danger of commitment to bigger and more obvious lies.
We may have no honorable and effective means left to save thousands of American lives and our international reputation and future influence in the world except decisive military force. We can only hope that our military forces have not been so weakened by Critical Race Theory and various forms of political correctness and woke ideology that they are unable to deliver a quick and decisive blow against those who would do us harm.
Has all this evil come upon us because we have forgotten God? If we hope for His kind providence and protection, we should follow the late Russian Christian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s advice and commit to “Live not by lies.” The God of Truth is the Lord of Hosts.