The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Sunday, January 23, 2005

Stupid White Men in Afghanistan

Mindful of the perils of facile (or, in fact, all) historical analogies, I've been enjoying Archibald Forbes' tale of the that early Victorian folly of empire, the invasion of Afghanistan and its sorry outcome, The Afghan Wars 1839-42 and 1878-80 [1].

The tone is sardonic - but without the heavy hand of, say, an Al Franken sub-Catskills cross-talk routine [2].

A sample: William Hay Macnaghten, and East India Company civil servant, had, for the purpose of the ill-fated expedition to put the erstwhile ruler of Afghanistan back on the throne, been appointed Envoy and Minister on the part of the Government of India at the Court of Shah Soojah-ool-Moolk (also spelt Shuja) - the top-ranking civilian on the trip.

Just before the whole thing turns sour, Macnaghten wrote a letter:
From Mookoor to the Khyber Pass, all is content and tranquillity; and wherever we Europeans go, we are received with respect, attention and welcome. I think our prospects are most cheering; and with the materials we have there ought to be little or no difficulty in the management of the country. The people are perfect children, and they should be treated as such. If we put one naughty boy in the corner, the rest will be terrified.

At the same time, General Nott, in charge at Kandahar, was reporting:
The conduct of the thousand and one politicals has ruined our cause, and bared the throat of every European in this country to the sword and knife of the revengeful Afghan and bloody Belooch; and unless several regiments be quickly sent, not a man will be left to describe the fate of his comrades. Nothing will ever make the Afghans submit to the hated Shah Soojah, who is most certainly as great a scoundrel as ever lived.'

The temptation to read across to Bush's Iraq invasion [3] should, of course, be vigorously resisted. The poor strategy, the inadequate planning, the initial (relatively) easy victory; the installing of a puppet government without legitimacy; the expectation of welcoming throngs; the absence of same... There's plenty to resist.

  1. Available in text and DjVu (like PDF) formats. Essential are the historical maps from the Afghanistan page of the Perry-Castañeda Collection.

  2. I'd be considering a compare and contrast with Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians published in 1918 (and perhaps the best-known of early revisionist texts on the Victorian era) had I actually read more than thirty pages of it.

  3. There's also a Vietnam flavour to it, of course. Compared with Shah Shuja, Ngo Dinh Diem really was Winston Churchill - the Lyndon Johnson/Stanley Karnow quip I've mentioned before.


Forbes disagrees with Nott's reason for native disaffection in striking terms:
patriotism of a savage race is marked by features repulsive to civilised communities, but through the ruthless cruelty of the indiscriminate massacre, the treachery of the stealthy stab, and the lightly broken pledges, there may shine out the noblest virtue that a virile people can possess. A semi-barbarian nation whose manhood pours out its blood like water in stubborn resistance against an alien yoke, may be pardoned for many acts shocking to civilised communities which have not known the bitterness of stern and masterful subjugation.

Condoning the acts of the evil-doers? Was the guy some sort of Commie?

On the contrary: Forbes was a noted war correspondent (1838-1900), on whom (relative to expectations) a cornucopia of online info is available.


To zoom out on Afghan history, another MBP etext [1] goes back to ancient times (though concentrating on the last 200 years): the 1950 Afghanistan by WT Fraser-Tytler (Sir William, I suspect), an old Afghan hand, to judge by his preface. The typeface and feel is largely Chatham House (Royal Institution of International Affairs - RIIA), though- no doubt, due to the character and experience of the author - not as stodgy as their usual fare of the period [1].

I've also stumbled on a page of links to maps of Central Asia (very widely defined). It's untouched since June 2003 but - be thankful for the things they got...

A mouth-watering page of links to historical maps of India, updated in November 2004.

(And the USMA historical map collection I'd not come across before.)

  1. A 19MB DjVu file.

  2. I've mentioned before (March 30 2003) the 1939 Political and Strategic Interests of the United Kingdom. The RIIA marquee product of the era was Gathorne-Hardy's Short History of International Affairs covering the diplomatic history of the inter-war period.


The Fraser-Tytler throws up a bizarre historical episode: the embassy of Henry III of Castile to Timur (aka Tamburlaine, and a thousand others) in the person of Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo [1].

Clavijo set out east in 1402 - around the time that Henry IV was settling in as usurper-king of England; the reasons for the Castile embassy, I have not exerted myself to uncover.

  1. Clavijo's account of the journey, Embajada a Tamorlán, is available online in the original and (extracts only) in English, with maps.


On the reason for the Clavijo embassy, I'm tempted to infer the Cliff Notes version from here: Castile is a a medium European power, with trading interests to match; the Ottoman Turks lie athwart land routes for trade to the east, and are a menace to Mediterranean shipping; at the Battle of Angora (aka Ankara) on July 20 1402, Tamburlaine beat the Ottoman forces and captured Sultan Beyazid I, who died in the following year, of one thing or another.

The enemy of my enemy seems to be at play. (The rankest connect-the-dots but I can find nothing better online in Spanish or English. When Google's got Stanford's library online...)

And there's a short article (PDF) in French on Tamberlaine or Timour Leng (plenty of variant spellings in French, too!).

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