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Never Invade Afghanistan

Apart from providing the phrase for the category under which I have posted this (though the attribution is apparently disputed) 1950/60s Prime Minister Harold Macmillan also outlined the first rule of politics, “Never invade Afghanistan.”

I’m not quite sure exactly how many times British forces have been embroiled in that country over the years but the present conflict is at least the fourth. They have not usually turned out well.

I knew when the Soviet Union sent troops there in 1979 that they would be kicked out. I always suspected that our latest foray there would result in tears. As it does.

Why did – why do – our politicians not know? What are their advisers for?

Or did they just not listen?

The First Afghan War (1839-42) was particularly disastrous for the British as it encompassed their greatest defeat in Asia until the fall of Singapore in 1942. A withdrawal from Kabul through passes clogged with snow resulted in a massacre.

There is a relatively well-known painting “Remnants of an Army” by Elizabeth Butler which was said to depict the sole survivor. In fact around forty of the 16,000 who set out managed to survive.

I remember hearing a radio programme about the retreat which used a line from Thomas Campbell’s poem Hohenlinden, “The snow shall be their winding sheet,” as its title.

The Second Afghan War (1878-80) was the one that turned Major General Frederick Roberts into a national hero, Lord Roberts of Kandahar, when he force-marched his troops to the relief of a British force beseiged there. Nevertheless the British eventually withdrew.

The Third Afghan War (1919) was a smaller affair and resolved little but still had many British casualties.

One of the few survivors of the retreat from Kabul in the First Afghan War described it as “… a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, was acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.”

Nothing much changes.

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