Battle for Afghanistan: Lessons from the First Anglo-Afghan War
On April 24, the Brookings Institution hosted noted historian and journalist William Dalrymple for a discussion on current day Afghanistan and lessons learned from the British experience in Afghanistan, as detailed in his new book, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan (Bloomsbury, 2013). Brookings Senior Fellow Bruce Riedel participated as a discussant and Brookings President Strobe Talbott moderated the conversation.
When Westerners talk about the Taliban, they object to the treatment of women and football stadium executions. When you talk to Afghans about the Taliban, they object to the fact there was no electricity, there was no mobile phone network, the economy was a complete mess and it was a medieval darkness economically. No one wants that back again. – William Dalrymple
We have, in my view, studied Afghanistan as pitifully little as the British in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 20th century. One concrete examination of that is the Taliban, our enemy. – Bruce Riedel
We are extremely unlikely to see the Taliban roll through Afghanistan as they did in the late-90s. I think the Northern Alliance is too well-armed. I think the Taliban is too unpopular. – William Dalrymple
In the spring of 1839, nearly 20,000 British and East India Company troops poured into Afghanistan, in a massive invasion for its time. From first-hand accounts, the Afghan people initially offered little organized resistance, but in 1842 rose in violent rebellion across the country. The first Anglo-Afghan War ended in retreat, ambush and rout; an utter military humiliation for the then-most powerful nation in the world at the hands of poorly equipped Afghan tribesmen. Fast forward to the 20th and 21st centuries—new global powers enter Afghanistan with new motivations and goals. Each finds Afghanistan to be a military challenge of unexpected proportions. Each nation leaves the country questioning its mission and arguably facing national humiliation, forced out by tribal fighters. Britain’s greatest military disaster serves as a powerful and important parable for our times, underscoring the terrible outcomes when cultures and national agendas collide.
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The ceasefire shows yet again the leverage the Taliban now has thanks to its recent attacks. What’s most interesting is that the ceasefire doesn’t apply to the Islamic State. Whereas the Taliban have primarily attacked security forces, the Islamic State’s violence has much been much less selective, and has killed far more civilians. The Taliban’s strategy appears to have paid off— there’s popular support for a ceasefire with the Taliban, but not for one with the Islamic State.
The attack on the interior ministry is just the latest in a long string of brazen and high profile attacks in Kabul this year. This winter the Taliban carried out an ambulance bombing that killed over 100, while the Islamic State killed over ten soldiers in an attack on an Afghan army base. Afghan security forces have long struggled with how to defeat the Taliban alone. Now that the Taliban are competing with the Islamic State for resources and recruits, the challenge has grown even more daunting—the two groups are now locked in a race to see who can launch bigger and more devastating attacks.