BIG PICTURE: “A grasp of history”Afghanistan Always Defeats the West

Published 2 September 2021

William Dalrymple, a Scottish historian and author of Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan 1839-42, writes that the West’s 20-year failed effort in Afghanistan was as inevitable as it was predictable for anyone with “a grasp of history”: In Afghanistan, there had been only the briefest of “moments of anything approaching a unified political system. Afghanistan has always been less a state than a kaleidoscope of competing tribal principalities governed through maliks or vakils, in each of which allegiance was entirely personal, to be negotiated and won over rather than taken for granted.”

William Dalrymple, a Scottish historian and author of Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan 1839-42, writes in Unherd that the West’s 20-year failed effort in Afghanistan was as inevitable as it was predictable for anyone with “a grasp of history.”

He writes:

If the First Afghan War [1839-1842, in which Britain tried to impose Shah Shuja ul-Mulk as a puppet ruler over Afghanistan] helped consolidate the Afghan State, the question now is whether our current failed Western intervention will contribute to its demise. Afghanistan has changed beyond all recognition in the last twenty years. The cities have grown, people travel much more widely, thousands of women have been educated. Television, the internet and an ebullient media have opened many minds. It is impossible in such circumstances to predict the fate of the divided state of Afghanistan under renewed Taliban rule, even as the resistance begins to organize itself in the Panjshir Valley under the leadership of my old friend Amrullah Saleh, formerly the head of the NSD [National Security Directorate, created, with CIA help, in 2002 as Afghanistan main internal security service]. But what the Afghan historian Mirza ‘Ata wrote after 1842 remains equally true today: ‘It is certainly no easy thing to invade or govern the Kingdom of Khurasan.’

For the truth is that in the last millennia there had been only very brief moments of strong central control when the different Afghan tribes have acknowledged the authority of a single ruler, and still briefer moments of anything approaching a unified political system. Afghanistan has always been less a state than a kaleidoscope of competing tribal principalities governed through maliks or vakils, in each of which allegiance was entirely personal, to be negotiated and won over rather than taken for granted.

The tribes’ traditions have always been egalitarian and independent, and they have only ever submitted to authority on their own terms. Financial rewards might bring about cooperation, but rarely ensured loyalty: the individual Afghan soldier owed his allegiance first to the local chieftain who raised and paid him, not to the shahs or Kings or Presidents in faraway Kabul. Yet even the tribal leaders had frequently been unable to guarantee obedience, for tribal authority was itself so elusive and diffuse. As the saying went: Behind every hillock there sits an emperor — pusht-e har teppe, yek padishah neshast (or alternatively: Every man is a khan — har saray khan deh). In such a world, the state never had a monopoly on power, but was just one among a number of competing claimants on allegiance. “An Afghan Amir sleeps upon an ant heap,” went the proverb.

Reflecting on the 20-year war which has now coming to its chaotic end, Dalrymple writes: “A grasp of history might have prevented this disastrous war.”

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Cybersecurity education | Homeland Security Newswire Afghanistan, terrorism, US withdrawal, the cost of the war