I have visited Afghanistan many times. I made a documentary there (and many other short films) between 2007 and 2014, which you can view below.
So when, upon waking on Sunday morning (Sunday 15th August, 2021), I saw that it now looked inevitable that the Taliban were about to capture Kabul and ‘win’ the war I decided that I had to make a short film looking at the last time Britain was forced to ignominiously leave Kabul – in 1842.
I am not going to get deeply into the causes of the 1st Anglo-Afghan war but let just sum it up by saying that the British feared Russian dominance in the country and so decided to invade and place a puppet on the throne in Kabul in 1839. After being initially successful the British sent a large proportion of their troops back to India and settled down to the business of governing.
But as we all know – Afghanistan is a complicated country and not an easy one to control. The British became too comfortable and lowered the bribes they were paying the Afghan tribesmen to maintain the peace and keep the passes open. An uprising began in late 1841 which culminated in a siege of Kabul and the British agreeing to leave city- they had negotiated a safe passage but as we shall see – that did not happen.
Everything that happened is well covered by the fictional, hilarious, but generally true to history story in George MacDonald Fraser’s novel – Flashman. Watch my video below for the full story.
I think the parallels to today’s situation are quite clear – a world power marching into Afghanistan, placing a puppet in charge and then ultimately coming a cropper to a proud people with very different ideas of how they wish to be ruled. Yes, ultimately the British did ‘win’ the first Afghan war when they returned to destroy parts of Kabul, but that was just to regain some pride after a terrible military disaster.
To add some extra context here is historian William Dalrymple discussing the same issues back in 2011.
As he says in this interview – it is impossible for an outsider to maintain control of Afghanistan. Unlike Iraq and other places it is hard to use local resources to fund military intervention in this remote mountain region.
I guess I always knew the Taliban would return to power, I think what was shocking was the speed with which it happened.