British Empire Books

The Dark Defile

AuthorDiana Preston
PublisherWalker Publishing

Diana Preston has written an fascinating and detailed account of the ill-fated 1839 - 1842 Invasion of Afghanistan. The British were attempting to forestall Russian involvement in Central Asia by replacing one leader of the Afghans for a more pro-British one. As most people are aware, this particular plan ended ultimately in disaster with a force of over 16,000 soldiers and camp-followers being wiped out in the mountain passes of the Himalayas with the lonely figure of Dr Brydon being the sole survivor to tell the tale. Diana Preston has certainly selected a historical subject that is engagingly topical as the target of her research. Once again British forces are operating in Afghanistan, all be it with the support of the United States and NATO, and yet the parallels between this campaign and the one of 170 years are surprisingly relevant: Dodgy dossiers and unclear motives for intervention; Dreadful atrocities on both sides which lead to a cycle of reprisals and violence; concerns at the role of Persia/Iran in Afghanistan's affairs; The propping up of unpopular puppet rulers whose remit barely extends outside of the capital of Kabul; The use of Danegeld to buy tribal allegiances; Equipment issues undermining the morale and efficiency of the professional armies; Failure to plan exit strategies; Budgetary and political concerns leading to troop draw-downs despite lack of clear achievement of goals; Faulty Intelligence and inadequate intelligence-gathering facilities; And we could add plenty more to this list if we really wanted to. It is tempting to say that history is repeating itself but perhaps after reading Diana Preston's nuanced and deeply researched account, it might be more appropriate to recall Mark Twain's quote: "History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme"

Diana Preston understands that the key players involved in the disastrous campaign had choices available to them and that disaster was far from inevitable. Her version of history is very much that of the 'man on the ground' who dealt with the world as he found it. Her focus is very much on the lead characters and actors with less attention paid to those who had to suffer from the poor choices that these people made on their behalf. That is not to say that these actors could not have made better decisions. Time and again, these actors had the ability to make choices that may have, for example, avoided the initial invasion, or improved the way they administered the country, or responded to the threats to their position far more effectively than they did. The influences and events that did occur could certainly appear chaotic, random or bewildering but each actor had the opportunity to react as they saw best. Often, their decisions caused a chain reaction further down the line so that decision makers got locked into unfavourable sequences of actions or found themselves trying to find the least worst option available, but this was never inevitable, only a consequence of earlier choices made. The good news for present policy makers in Afghanistan is that they, at least, have the opportunity to make better judgements, firmer decisions or plan over a longer timescale.

Diana Preston considers the cast who led Britain to disaster all those years ago with remarkable clarity. She identifies Auckland as being the prime-mover as Governor-General of India who tried to ingratiate himself to the political masters by delivering what he believes, correctly, were the policies that they wished to pursue; namely the curtailment of Russian activity in Central Asia. It is his dodgy dossier, the Simla Manifesto, that purported to give credibility to the invasion and yet laid all the blame on the Afghan ruler, Dost Mohammed, and did not even mention Russia in its text. Auckland then made the disastrous move of appointing the very man who had given him the initial advice to invade Afghanistan, Sir William Macnaghten, to be in charge of the British mission to overthrow one ruler and replace him with a pro-British one; the less than popular Shah Shujah. This meant that British policy, under the guiding hand of Macnaghten, was taking the path Preston refers to as a: 'Conspiracy of Optimism'. What this meant is that Macnaghten only wished to report a positive spin on events as he was not only responsible for the policy's inception but also its implementation and so understood that his credibility rested on its successful conclusion. He could not even consider failure as being an option; even when his limited intelligence gathering abilities informed him of the strength of feeling against the British and their puppet ruler. As far as Macnaghten was concerned, everything would be fine and he would be rewarded for his far-sighted boldness. He came very close to receiving his lifetime ambition of becoming Governor of Bombay but events ensured that he would not live to take the post that he no doubt believed he had earned. Paralysis at the top of the military was just as important in ensuring disaster for the British. Diana Preston discusses the rivalry and division between the officer classes of the more career-minded East India Company Army with the privileged and aristocratic Queen's army. It is quite clear that if the British had selected the decisive and level-headed EIC general Nott who conducted operations in Kandahar with considerable tact and skill then the British army in Kabul might have been saved. As it was, Auckland turned to the aristocratic and geriatric general Elphinstone who would not rock the boat or ask awkward questions about British policy in Afghanistan. Elphinstone and his fellow officers were racked by indecision from the very outset. As events unfolded, they fixated only on their survival but in a way that made it almost impossible to achieve. A more forthright and vigorous display of military might and skill in the early stages of the disturbances in Kabul could have limited the spread of the insurrection. Instead, they let events spiral out of control until they reached the point that their forces could no longer deal with the size of the problem. What is remarkable is just how many people sensed that the policy was a disaster waiting to happen but all to often did little or nothing to prevent it happening other than complaining about its likelihood. Alexander Burnes must take the most blame on this count. He at least had the wisdom to realise that the British puppet was hopelessly inept and far inferior to Dost Mohammed who they had replaced. But Burnes was bought with titles and promises of future promotion into following the company line and going along with Auckland's policy. If this book does nothing else it helps to illustrate the fundamental importance of leadership and being prepared to speak truths unto Caesar. If you have poor leadership and are surrounded by compliant yes-men, your venture is almost inevitably doomed to failure and disaster.

Of course the importance of individuals was not limited to the British side of the equation. The role of Key Afghans is examined by the author. Perhaps inevitably, given the relative scarcity of Afghan sources, they are not examined to the same extent as the British prime movers and actors are. Dost Mohammed is treated sympathetically throughout, although even the author struggles to offer a satisfactory explanation as to his sudden willingness to surrender to the British at a point when he might have swept the British from Kabul. The author cannot be faulted for this, it is an act that is difficult to explain but perhaps illustrates nicely that the main characters did not know what the future held for them or their opponents. Had he known what would happen one year later, Dost Mohammed may well have chosen another course. As events turned out, he did not need to be too concerned as they played to his advantage in any case. More interesting is the author's nuanced account of the role played by his son Akbar Khan. In past histories of this disaster Akbar Khan has played the role of the ultimate mastermind; hero to the Afghans; Ultimate villain to the British. Diana Preston's version of Akbar Khan is willing to cast him in a more creditable light or rather to cast him as being less in control of the unfolding events. He is portrayed as a leader who has to be sensible to the demands of the other Afghan tribal leaders. Preston's Akbar does not seem to be a man fully in control of events but one who is reacting to an unfolding drama in a delicate political situation. She seems to be willing to consider the possibility that his offers of safe passage were made in good faith but that he was let down or double crossed by rival tribal leaders. She even goes so far as to say that even though he probably did murder Macnaghten, he may have done so in self-defence. I'd have to say that can only be speculation on her part. My reading of Akbar Khan would be that he was far more calculating and in control of his actions than Diana Preston regards him to be. I would even go so far as to say that it may even have been his ruthlessness that was responsible for his own death. The author mentions that Dost Mohammed's 'favourite son' dies at the age of 29 in 1845. What she does not mention is that many Afghans and historians believe that Dost Mohammed may well have played a part in the death Akbar Khan. Far from being a favourite son, in the cut-throat world of Afghan politics, the father may have been fearful of the credibility and popularity of the man given destroyed the British army in Afghanistan and as a consequence had him poisoned. Fathers killing sons, or vice versa, was not in the slightest bit unusual in the politics of Central Asia and it would not have been out of character in the slightest. I personally am not convinced that Akbar Khan was quite as innocent in his actions or a prisoner of events as the author suggests. Having said all that, it is refreshing to read an account, even a more sympathetic account, that can still provide a fresh interpretation on what is otherwise some well worn ground.

I would not hesitate to recommend this book. I love the way the author ties the events of 1839-42 to the subsequent wars and politics of the region and brings it right up to the modern day in a seamless, if necessarily brief, narrative history. This meticulously researched book has uncovered some wonderful quotations and adds real depth to a story that is well known, but perhaps not always as accurately understood. There is an impressive bibliography that reveals a wide range of sources considered. Her research shows just how important the past is in understanding the present and although modern planners won't find a way to win the current war in Afghanistan by reading this book, they can at least be reminded of how well-meaning or ambitious actors in the region have failed in the past. History is not a manual for the present, nor should it ever be regarded as such. However, if we return to Mark Twain's point about history rhyming down the ages then at least modern planners and decision makers can be reminded of 'what not to do'.

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