As America exits, history repeats itself in Afghanistan

What are the parallels between the U.S. troop drawdowns in Afghanistan and Vietnam? Everyone, it seems, chooses their own reference point when discussing history or events that may prove to be “historical.” Washington is obsessing over the comparisons with what happened in Vietnam in 1975, but it could be argued that, at least from a policy point of view, the experiences of the Soviets and the British before them in Afghanistan are perhaps even more useful in the learning process.

I speak with a certain fondness for Afghanistan. Although my experience there is dated, my memories are still vivid. The beauty of its mountains is hard to forget, and the comfort of its climate compared with the oppressive humidity of the summer monsoon season in Pakistan was extraordinary.

But the detail of my memories is bloody. Within the space of a couple of years, my Afghan diplomat neighbor in Islamabad died in the dungeons of the Pul-e-Charkhi prison in Kabul; an American friend blew his brains out after a career setback in the city; and a Pakistani friend was shot dead by hijackers and had his body dumped onto the tarmac at the airport.

In terms of humiliation, the British record sets a dismal standard. In 1842, a British force of several thousand, which had successfully intervened in a succession dispute in Kabul, was annihilated by tribesmen when it retreated back to India. A famous painting depicts William Brydon, a British surgeon and the only survivor, reaching the safety of Jalalabad.

In 1879, during the Second Anglo-Afghan War, the British representative in Kabul, along with all the members of his mission and their guards, were massacred by mutinous Afghan troops. The British performance is not remembered in high school history lessons, although the poetry of Rudyard Kipling still appeals to many.  His “Arithmetic of the Frontier” sounds almost modern-day:

“A scrimmage in a Border Station
A canter down some dark defile
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail [musket].”

(The Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919 ended better for the British because of its use of a new weapon: air power.)

While the U.S. worries about the outcome of its troop withdrawal in the next few weeks, it is not as if the fate of the country is at stake. By contrast, the retreat of the Red Army from Afghanistan in 1989 is judged to be a significant factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later.

Moscow had been a major influence in the country for decades and is credited with “westernizing” the country — my Afghan diplomat friend wore a suit and tie, and when he invited me to tea in his home, I can’t remember his wife wearing a headscarf. But the Soviets did not “democratize” Afghanistan, and the Communist Party it patronized was hopelessly split. A 1979 political dispute was resolved by a shoot-out during a cabinet meeting.

With so many things going wrong in Afghanistan, and the predictions of much more, now is hardly the time to be in any way optimistic. But a thought to grasp, perhaps forlornly, is that now, 46 years after U.S. troops left Vietnam, that country is a success story of sorts, and its relations with the United States are good, even close.

Afghanistan’s history suggests that foreign influences will continue to compete there, but there will be multiple players rather than that simple British-Russian rivalry — the “Great Game” of 150 years ago. But an underlying feature of that period was misapprehension of what the other country was capable of, rather than an appreciation of what it dreamt of doing.

So perhaps a key question is how China, Iran, Russia, Pakistan and India read history and how much it affects their decisions today.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.

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