History Haunts Imperial Adventures in the Middle East

March 2, 2007

By Robert Fisk
The Independent, February 27, 2007

Out of the frying pan, into the historical fire. If only
our leaders read history. In 1915, the British swept up
from Basra, believing that the Iraqis would reward them
with flowers and love, only to find themselves surrounded
at Kut Al-Amara, cut down by Turkish shellfire and cholera.
Now we are reinforcing NATO in that tomb of the British
Army, Afghanistan.

Hands up any soldiers who know that another of Britain’s
great military defeats took place in the very sands in
which your colleagues are now fighting the Taleban. Yes,
the Battle of Maiwand – on July 27, 1880 – destroyed an
entire British brigade, overrun by thousands of armed
Afghan tribesmen, some of whom the official enquiry into
the disaster would later describe as “Talibs.” The Brits
had been trying to secure Helmand province.

Sound familiar? Several times already in Helmand, the
British have almost been overwhelmed.

This has not been officially admitted, but the Ministry
of Defense did make a devious allusion to this last year
– it was missed by all the defense correspondents – when
it announced that British troops in Helmand had been
involved in the heaviest combat fighting “since the Korean
War.” The Afghans talk of one British unit which last year
had to call in air strikes, destroying almost the entire
village in which they were holding out. Otherwise, they
would have been overrun.

Gen. Burrows had no close air support on 27 July, 1880,
when he found himself confronting up to 15,000 Afghan
fighters at Maiwand, but he had large numbers of Egyptian
troops with him and a British force in the city of
Kandahar. Already, the British had cruelly suppressed a
dissident Afghan Army – again, sound familiar? – after
the British residency had been sacked and its occupants
murdered. Britain’s reaction at the time was somewhat
different from that followed today.

Britain’s army was run from imperial India where Lord
Lytton, the viceroy, urged his man in Kabul – Gen.
Roberts, later Lord Roberts of Kandahar – to crush the
uprising with the utmost brutality. “Every Afghan brought
to death, I shall regard as one scoundrel the less in a
nest of scoundrelism.”

Roberts embarked on a reign of terror in Kabul, hanging
almost a hundred Afghans.

The commander of the rebellious Afghans was Ayub Khan,
whose brother was forced to abdicate as king after the
Kabul uprising. When Ayub Khan re-emerged from the deserts
of the west – he marched down from that old warlord
territory of Herat toward Kandahar – the luckless Burrows
was sent to confront him. Almost a thousand British and
Indian troops were to be slaughtered in the coming hours
as Ayub Khan’s army fired shells from at least 30 artillery
pieces and then charged at them across the fields and dried-
up river at Maiwand.

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The official British inquiry – it was covered in red cloth
and ran to 734 pages – contains many photographs of the
landscape over which the battle was fought. The hills and
distant mountains, of course, are identical to those that
are now videotaped by “embedded” reporters in the British
Army.

Outgunned and outmaneuvered, the British found themselves
facing a ruthless enemy. Col. Mainwaring of the 30th Bombay
Infantry wrote a chilling report for the authorities in
Delhi. “The whole of the ground… was covered with swarms
of ‘ghazis’ and banner-men. The ‘ghazis’ were actually in
the ranks of the Grenadiers, pulling the men out and hack-
ing them down with their swords.”

The wreckage of the British Army retreated all the way to
Kandahar where they were besieged, until rescued by Gen.
Roberts himself, whose famous march of 10,000 troops from
Kandahar – a distance of 300 miles covered in just 20 days
– is now military legend.

History, it seems, haunts all our adventures in the Middle
East. Who would have believed that after the British
reached Baghdad in a 1917 invasion, they would face an
insurgency which, in speed and ruthlessness, was an almost
exact predecessor to the rebellion which the British and
Americans would confront from 2003? Lloyd George, then
prime minister, stood up in the House of Commons to insist
that the British occupation force had to stay in Iraq.
Otherwise, he warned, the country would be plunged into
civil war.

Sound familiar? One of the greatest defeats of British
forces anywhere in the world had occurred more than four
decades before Maiwand, on the Kabul Gorge in 1842, when
an entire British Army was wiped out by Afghan fighters
in the snow.

The sole survivor, the famous Dr. Brydon, managed to out-
horse two armed Afghans and ride into the British compound
in Jalalabad.

So now the British are to reinforce Afghanistan yet again.
Flying by Chinook to Kandahar will not take as long as
Roberts’s 20 days.

British soldiers are unlikely even to enter Kandahar’s
central square. But if they do, they might care to look
at the few ancient cannon on the main roundabout: all
that is left of Roberts’s artillery.

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One Response to “History Haunts Imperial Adventures in the Middle East”


  1. YES, WISE WORDS. BUT BRITISH FORCES WILL CARRY OUT THE JOB THEY HAVE BEEN ASSIGNED. DON’T THINK THAT ANY OF US WANT TO DO A DETACHMENT IN THE ARSEHOLE OF THE WORLD BUT WE WILL DO WHAT WE ARE TRAINED FOR TO THE BEST OF OUR ABILITIES, AND WE, IF THE POLITICAL BACKING IS THERE, ARE BLOODY GOOD AT WHAT WE DO. THE PEOPLE OF AFGANISTAN ARE A PROUD AND GREAT PEOPLE, DONT THINK THEY ARE ALL MUSLIM EXTREMISTS, THEY JUST WANT TO LIVE A GOOD AND HONEST LIFE! ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COIN BRITISH PERSONNEL ARE DOING THIER DUTY IN A OPEN HANDED AND FAIR MANNER, TO THE BEST OF THIER ABILITIES. THIS IS AS TRUE FOR THE LOWEST TO THE HIGHEST RANK IN ALL THREE SERVICES!!!!!!!!!!


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