26 May 2012

One of my favorite artists was the superb Victorian painter Elizabeth Butler who captured in oil the triumphs and tragedies of the British Empire.

Her haunting painting, “The Retreat from Kabul, ” shows the sole survivor of a British army of 16,500, Dr. William Brydon, struggling out of Afghanistan in January, 1842. All the rest were killed by Afghan tribesmen after a futile attempt to garrison Kabul.

This gripping painting should have hung over the NATO summit meeting last week in Chicago to remind the US and its allies that Afghanistan remains “the graveyard of empires.”

The latest empire to try to conquer Afghanistan has failed, and is now sounding the retreat.

All the hot air in Chicago about “transition,” Afghan self-reliance, and growing security could not conceal the truth that the mighty US and its dragooned western allies have been beaten in Afghanistan by a bunch of mountain warriors from the 12th Century.

The objective of war is to achieve political goals, not kill people. The US goal was to turn Afghanistan into a protectorate providing bases close to Caspian Basin oil, and to block China. After an eleven-year war costing $1 trillion, this effort failed – meaning a military and political defeat.

The US dragged NATO into a war in which it had no business and lacked any popular support. The result: a serious weakening of the NATO alliance, raising questions about whose interests it really serves. The defeat in Afghanistan will undermine US domination of Western Europe.

Claims made in Chicago that the US-installed Afghan regime will stand on its own with $4 billion of aid from the west were pie in the sky. Once US support ends, the Karzai regime is unlikely to survive much longer than did Najibullah’s Afghan Communist regime in Kabul after its Soviet sponsor withdrew in 1989. Or the US-run South Vietnamese regime that fell in 1975.

The current 350,000-man Afghan government army and police are mercenaries fighting for money supplied by the US and NATO. Many are ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks, blood foes of the majority Pashtun. Taliban and its allies are fighting for nationalism and faith. History tells us who will prevail.

All Afghans know the western powers have been defeated. Those with sense are already making deals with Taliban. Vengeance being a cherished Afghan custom, those who collaborated closely with the foreign forces can expect little mercy.

Air power is the key to US control of Afghanistan. Warplanes and helicopter gunships circle constantly overhead to defend western bases and supply routes. Reduce this air power, as will likely happen after 2014, and remaining US troops will be in peril. Pakistan’s temporary closure of NATO land supply routes to Kabul and Kandahar provides a foretoken of what may occur. Currently, the US must rely on Russia for much of its heavy supplies.

Already there are worries about getting US and NATO troops out of Afghanistan.
France’s new president, Francois Hollande, wisely reaffirmed his pledge to withdraw all French troops this year. Other NATO members are wishing they could do the same. No one wants to have their soldiers be the last to die in a futile war that everyone knows is lost.

To wage and sustain the Afghan War, the US has been forced to virtually occupy Pakistan, bribe its high officials, and force Islamabad to follow policies hated by 95% of its people, generating virulent anti-Americanism. The Afghan War must be ended before it tears apart Pakistan and plunges South Asia into crisis into which nuclear-armed India is likely to become involved.

Washington intends to leave garrisons in Afghanistan after the 2014 announced pullout date, rebranding them “trainers” instead of combat troops. Their mission will be to keep the pro-US Afghan regime in power. But neither the US nor NATO will come up with the $4 billion promised in Chicago.

Washington is encouraging India to get ever more deeply involved in Afghanistan – even to become its new colonial power. India would be wise to keep its hands off.

In a second “Retreat from Kabul,” remaining US garrisons in Afghanistan may face the fate of the 1842 British invaders, cut off, ambushed, and hacked to pieces by the ferocious Pashtun tribesmen. 30

Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2012

This post is in: Afghanistan, International Politics


  1. It’s well known that Afghanistan was covered with Poppy Fields. What good are they? Well, from poppies comes opium, and American Big Bad Drug Dealers, who have “allies” in Congress, need Opium to make Heroin to sell to America’s School Kids, etc. BUT! Those evil Taliban guys seem to have thought that Opium for School Kids was poor Gov’t Policy, so began to burn the Poppy fields. This cut into the profits of America’s Criminals and their “friends” in Congress, so let’s send a bunch of American Troops, to die giving us back our Poppy Fields! AMERICA GOES TO WAR FOR PROFIT!!

    PS: Iraq has OIL! What a surprise!

  2. The Elphinstone debacle of 1839-42, or thereabouts involved about 4500 soldiers, some British and others Indian, as well as 690 Europeans,and about 12,000 women and children, most of whom were massacerd as they attempted to retreat to India.
    By 1879-42, Lord Roberts, “King of Cabul”, restored British honour by defeating the Afghans, and signing the Treaty of Gandaruk.
    The 1839-42 mess was moreso a defeat for the East India Company than for Britain itself.

  3. British Army of 16,500 destroyed? It didn’t happen. The army of 16,500 went into Afghanistan and flattened either Kabul or Kandahar and returned safely to India. The previous year, ( 1841 OR THEREABOUTS ) a British East India Company garrison of some 700 British soldiers and company workers, including wives were forced to leave the city and were decimated as they travelled, resulting in the lone figure in the famous picture. Alas. poor General Elphinstone !
    I much enjoy your analyses of world mess, and look forward to each new one.

    • Zeeshan7 says:

      Pan, what do you mean “it didn’t happen”? It is one of the most infamous and tragic incidents in the history of the British Empire.

      • Giordano says:

        Of course it did happen. My research on General Elphinstone gave me this information: The Massacre of Elphinstone’s Army was the destruction by Afghan forces, led by Akbar Khan, the son of Dost Mohammad Khan, of a combined British and Indian force of the British East India Company, led by Major General William Elphinstone, in January 1842.

        After the British and Indian troops captured Kabul in 1839, an Afghan uprising forced the occupying garrison out of the city. The East India Company army of 4,500 troops, along with 12,000 civilian workers, family members and other camp-followers, left Kabul on 6 January 1842. They attempted to reach the British garrison at Jalalabad, 90 miles (140 km) away, but were immediately harassed by Afghan forces. The last organised remnants were eventually annihilated near Gandamak on 13 January.[2]

        Apart from about a dozen high-ranking prisoners, including Elphinstone and his second-in-Command Brigadier Shelton, only one British officer from the army, Assistant Surgeon William Brydon, survived the retreat and reached Jalalabad. — One cannot go against Eric’s knowledge of history…..

    • Just recently from the BBC, “It was a straight land-grab to stop Russia getting in first. But an Afghan uprising soon began and, two years later, the British were forced out in a now well-chronicled disaster.

      Nearly the entire Kabul garrison of 16,000 British and Indian troops, their families and servants, were slaughtered by Afghan forces as they tried to retreat.”

  4. “The Afghan War must be ended before it tears apart Pakistan and plunges South Asia into crisis into which nuclear-armed India is likely to become involved.”

    Don’t worry about Pakistan. NATO can stay in Afghanistan as long as they want. 🙂

    When I see an American mother worried face for her son in Afghanistan I see another face out there in the mountains of Afghanistan worried for her son.

    I wonder would these mothers from both sides will ever let them fight if they had a chance. The answer is NO then why don’t we stop the war oh yes the great something in our heads. GREED ARROGANCE PURE STUPIDITY.

    The real problem for the WEST is not terrorism but the economic chaos they are facing. No vision, No Leadership, and genuine problems. The social unrest will keep rising in the west unless they come up with something new to stablize their economies which is highly unlikely.

    My Sympathies with all the innocent men women and children. May GOD bless them all.

  5. Zeeshan7 says:

    A history professor once taught us the story of Mao Zedong of China and the art of guerilla warfare; bleed your enemy to death slowly. The only thing which can guarantee such disciplined resistance against an invader is loyalty and support across the local population, plenty of which can be found for the Afghan insurgency.

    The border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan is marked by the Radcliffe line (relevant to no one but it’s marker Cyril) and holds no meaning to the Pashtun tribes that travel across these ‘borders’ the same way we commute to work.The historic and timeless beauty of places like the Silk Road and Khyber Pass have not been lost and are still used by nomadic tribes and colourful freight trucks. The US solution? Let’s build them a super highway!

    Afghanistan is a tribal system taken for granted by NATO superpowers because the people there are poor and they don’t have Starbucks with internet. It was all the more arrogant and foolish to assume they could be bought with happy meals and promises to a better future.

    This shallow materialistic assumption disrespects other peoples’ value system, which is more important to the Afghans than any US-led government dolling out free dollars. Every drone strike that kills an innocent bystander creates ten-fold more enemies for NATO because in the Afghan culture it is incumbent to seek revenge if a relative is killed; it is all the more amplified when the killer is a foreign invader.

    In another suicide attack that killed 40 Pakistani troops, the identity of the bomber was revealed to be an uncle of a young man killed in a drone strike that killed dozens of innocent civilians. His identity further revealed a man who wasn’t particularly religious not affiliated to any terrorist outfit. It was simply revenge for his murdered nephew. In essence, this is the type of resentment that the local population has for all foreign military presence.

    Endless arguments and post-scenario analysis do not change the fact that the US-led war in Afghanistan is the latest tombstone in the historic graveyard of empires

    • Zeeshan, you are so right with your Mao Zedong quote. It works even better, than the British method of divide and conquer. Of course slowly bleeding your enemy to death requires absolute allegiance and loyalty for the common cause.
      But that are foreign concepts for the west, where only money talks. It seems to me, that the Afghans are far more civilized than their present enemies. They kill out of self defense, while their foes are murderous barbaric criminals, who are blinded by greed and thirst for power.
      The dismantling of NATO is long overdue and failing to do so, will be catastrophic for each and every member of that alliance. Europe is in a financial crisis, the likes of which it never faced before. The US is possessed by some evil force, that reduces its population to servility. Is that repayment for its slave-driving past? The European countries sure have a debt to pay in that regard as well.

      • Cicero,you may be right that chairman Mao’s tactics were sometimes quite subtle.I wonder if the PRC has some hand in the present mess in Afghanistan.Perhaps Mr Margolis can provide more unbiased information as to how it might benefit them if the West fled from Afghanistan following “victory”.

        • Ajoy,
          while the west is ignorantly busy trying to blackball the Chinese, the Chinese meanwhile are irreversibly heading for the top spot in the world.
          They can rely on a culture, that is thousands of years old. Solid fossil evidence points to Chinese civilization existing as far back as 18-20000 BC. The Chinese are also known to be more intelligent according to some anthropologists. They sure have a comparatively very disciplined society, which is totally lacking on every level in the west since the last worldwar. The Chinese are known to be as resilient as bamboo, according to one expert. They have survived discrimination a lot longer than any other race.
          Yes, it will indeed be interesting to see, what happens after the American led NATO ‘victory’ in Afghanistan.

  6. Whoever finances these wars, decides where, how, when and by whom they are going to be fought. And no matter which side wins or loses, the profits are always the same and always guaranteed.
    There seldom are unexpected situations, that influence the predetermined outcome.
    And without fail, there always is some kind of religious connection, because without religion, it is very hard to make people scared and docile enough to be manipulated into believing, that they have to sacrifice their freedom.
    Albert Einstein was dead on, when he said: “Heroism on command, senseless violence, and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism – how passionately I hate them”.
    What can we individually gain by going to war and be prepared to kill innocent people, we do not even know, or have ever had a quarrel with. If the politicians and their handlers want to pick a fight, let them then fight it out for themselves, but don`t ask innocent people to kill other innocent people. Wars of aggression are without exception legalized murdersprees.
    What Mr. Margolis so clearly points out here is the real reason, why Afghanistan was invaded. One has to be really naive to believe, that 9/11 was the real reason, because that is too much of a very convenient coincidence, which in turn allows us to validly and rightfully question the official story of 9/11.
    Are hundreds, if not thousands of scientists, architects and engineers wrong, when they openly express doubt about that official story?

  7. walter toronto says:

    With all due respect to Eric, Robert Fisk of the Independent has been writing about Afghanistan as the graveyard of empire for many years. Now the US’s worsening relations with Pakistan threatens regional and global security – Pakistan is a most unstable nuclear power, and that part of the world a tinderbox.

  8. How will Pakistan manage with reduced aid now? What are the options open to that country with respect to influence in Afghanistan? How much does it need the Afghan?

    • Zeeshan7 says:

      Charlie, some goods questions;

      “How will Pakistan manage with reduced aid now?”

      Pakistan will (in mine and lots of other fellows opinions :)) fare better without US aid. The reason is that US aid does not filter beyond a few corrupt politicians and generals. For all the billions in aid received (to fund the Pak military operations against the Taliban) the economic and social fallout resulting from 12 years of war in Afghan-Pak, is estimated to be around 60 billion, as opposed to 20-25 billion in aid it received. Cutting aid would make no difference to Pakistan.

      “What are the options open to that country with respect to influence in Afghanistan?”

      Pakistan already has plenty of influence in Afghanistan. If the US pulls out, then Pakistan can negotiate a settlement with the Afghans. The US got OBL, no reason anymore to stay.

      • “The US got OBL, no reason anymore to stay”. The US had no reason to go there in the first place, except for the reason never publicly mentioned and that is stealing the abundant natural resources under Afghanistan`s control.
        The greed of the west knows no bounds and will be its final downfall. There seems to be a little known common denominator in all the ‘stans’ of that region and that was conveniently overlooked by the west. They seem to have a strong allegiance among themselves, be it religious, cultural or linguistic. I laughed, when I read, that the west likes to describe those peoples as barbaric 12 century illiterate nomads. What the west does have is a monopoly on conceit, ignorance and corruption. Conceit, because they think they are superior, ignorant, because they refuse to learn from history and corruption, because they think, that their money can buy anything and anybody. That is, because they lack a code of honor themselves. Who believes that nonsense of all that supposed aid to those countries? It is just bribe-money for their corrupt quislings.

  9. Mike Smith says:

    I disagree with menosh, and Mr Margolis.

    I think this conflict could have been won, and point at the historical incompetence of the Americans as the reason for how thing wound up.

    I don’t profess to be a regional expert or as well informed as Mr Magolis, but it seems to me where this all went bad is when the US began to set up their ” nation building ” effort.

    They tried to do this by seeking out a leader of their choosing that could be bought or would do what Washington desired controlling Afghanistan, finally importing Karzai to that purpose, and also including the mix of warlords, communist collaborators, and drug kingpins which made up the first government.

    It seems to me, successful democracys have nearly always been grassroots efforts. Trying to impose a non representative national government upon the Afghan people was like pouring gasoline on smoking embers… I point out the first half of 2002 was relatively quiet resistance wise, people were waiting to see what was going to happen, and when they did outrage took over.

    What should have happened was the formal establishment of government at the local level… tribal elders etc. Allowing aid to pass through them ( as well as some bribes ) would have allowed them to control things at a village / city level. Once this was accomplished a jirga could have been held to appoint a provincial leader or governor.
    Once this happened military forces could have been pulled back into a reverse role, deploying on the request of those leaders. These leaders would then be the ones to draft ( with some assistance of course ) the new constitution of the country with elections to follow.
    It would not have been simple, or pretty, but eventually it would have built not only a national government, but also a groundwork that would actually be responsive to the people locally.
    Attempts to foster change such as womens rights, etc should only have been attempted after the Afghan government was capable of conducting the day to day administration of the country. Social change does not happen overnight, our own histories prover that out. Complicating the situation with such demands only added fuel to the above mentioned fire.

    I think this process would have led to an Afghanistan with close ties to Pakistan, which may have angered India.., but Afghanistan and Pakistan both would be MUCH more stable politically, socially and economically. Plus foreign military forces likely would be largely gone by now.

    The devil is in the details I know, but I think what I laid out would have made more sense, and would have been received more positively.

    • Point taken Mike and I respect your points of view,but if the Soviets were defeated so badly in the late 70’s and 80’s after some 8 or 9 years of fruitless conflict,how could the Americans have possibly thought they could do any better?First of all their involvement had absolutely nothing to do with bringing a democratic system of government to Afghanistan.This would never have come to fruition in that backward country.This leads me to see the ‘real’ reason for the intervention.They claimed it was as a result of 9/11.which was another fairy tale.Americans then swallowed this hook line and sinker.Now because of this war (and others),America is effectively bankrupt.They have lost an unwinnable war and now are desperately trying to save face.A lot of people got filthy rich because of this…and other failed wars.But Americans paid the price with the sad state of their finances right now.Sad that there is always money to be found for fighting wars,but when it comes to the well being of American citizens,this all has to take a back seat.This is not only sad…but criminal.I’ll just post a link on the Russian intervention in the 70’s.As mighty as the Soviet Union once was militarily,Afghanistan proved beyond doubt to have been America’s Vietnam.Thanks for your views Mike.


      • Mike Smith says:

        menosh, I do agree that the public objectives were not the real objects. They never are.

        But I do submit my ideas combine with a rapid withdrawl ( like 2003 ) combined with a bit of bribery to whoever would up in charge.
        They could have had it all or most of it, and at a fraction of the cost of failure.
        Hubris, and the American need to micro manage and control things in their own way and no other is the main reason they have lost.
        In Afghanistan and Iraq as well.

        • But the question still remains…why does the US invade countries that pose absolutely no threat to them in any manner, shape or form.The Americans built their house and now they have to live in it.Unfortunately that house is mortgaged to the hilt now with no chance of paying it down for generations to come… (just a little humour).If ONLY they wouldn’t stick their noses where they don’t belong, the US would be viewed as a much less aggressive nation by most of the world,as they are now.

    • Zeeshan7 says:

      Mike, I am in agreement but the US did try most of those methods, including involving jirgas and tribal representatives and got nowhere. In the end, it is all perceived with a ‘backed by the US’ mentality of suspicion.

      • Mike Smith says:

        they tried it at a national level, while picking out the choices the jirga could choose from as well as who could attend.

        I am saying start small, and include everyone including any taliban who wished to come forward. The Americans spent so much time vilifying and hunting the enemy, they created the enemys they now face.

        Plus if they put someone in charge of a province, village or city and then withdrew entirely unless the Afghan leader of that area called for help… we wouldn’t be seeing night raids, random bombings, etc.

        By pulling out it would have label them as Afghans and not collaborators.

        Plus I suspect ( and from reading Erics book ) the Tribal elders given some aid and money to dole out could control their areas quite well without help.

  10. Steve_M. says:

    Eric: This is an excellent article. It’s hard trying to resist telling the US that you told them so, but you should do so anyway. The same goes for Iraq, where you have already pointed out the folly of the original US intervention there in 2003.

    Now the US is careening toward its own eventual national bankruptcy, which will drag down the entire industrialized world and even most developing countries.

    People should remember what happened to the UK after the end of World War II, when it was effectively bankrupt. It ended up losing almost all of its Empire over the next 25 years. In the case of the US, the loss will be its international economic empire and its political prestige and ability to dominate / influence most of the world’s politics. My biggest prediction is that the US will some day be pulled apart by a second civil war.

  11. http://ca.news.yahoo.com/us-troops-afghanistan-big-shift-combat-assistance-151736360.html



    Good article Mr. Margolis and if my memory serves me correct,you are the only credible foreign correspondant who strongly advised against another Afghanistan war saying that the war would be unwinnable (back in 2002)…you were 100% correct sir.It seems to me that America and NATO “knew” that this war would be doomed from the start….but it is now more than obvious the real reason(s) for starting this illegal war.Yes for the sake of profit and control of oil flow ensuring that it would not fall into the “wrong hands”,but kept in the “right hands”…ie American interests.A lot of innocent lives were lost.especially Afghan civilians.I posted a few links above to refresh some of those atrocities that we MUST never forget.

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