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The Union Jack in Afghanistan

The end of 2014 closes another chapter in British military history as British and NATO troops withdraw from a conflict that became of the most controversial since The Vietnam War. In October 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 bombings committed by Al-Qaeda, troops from the United States and other NATO nations intervened in an ongoing civil war in Afghanistan with the aim of deposing the ruling Taliban from power and thus denying Al-Qaeda a safe haven from which to conduct operations.

The Remnants of an Army 1879 by Elizabeth Butler (Lady Butler) 1846-1933

Although British troops took part initially, it wasn’t until mid-2002 that Britain fully committeditself to the war effort under the codename of Operation Herrick. Twelve years later, after spending millions of pounds and with the loss of 453 British personnel, Operation Herrick has come to an end but many are still wondering whether British troops will be back. After all, this wasn’t the first time that military forces from Great Britain had been in Afghanistan.

 

Over 150 years ago, in 1839, Britain was caught up in The Great Game, the competition for power and influence in central Asia between Great Britain and Russia. Britain, represented by the presence of the East India Company, was firmly entrenched in India. However, Russia’s sphere of influence was slowly expanding and the possibility arose, that Russia could attempt an invasion of India. Britain needed a barrier and that barrier was Afghanistan.

 

Afghanistan itself was in the middle of a dispute with Persia, and both sides were looking for Western allies. The arrival, in Kabul, of a Russian envoy gave ground to fears of a Russo-Afghan alliance that would open the way to India. Britain sent an envoy as well but negotiations between them and the Afghan ruler, DostMuhammed Khan, were handled so untactfully on their part that negotiations broke down. It was then that the suggestion of military intervention to replace Dost Muhammad with a pro-British ruler was put forward to the Governor-General of India, lord Auckland.

 

The threat of Russian interference was grossly exaggerated to Auckland but he began plans for the invasion. At the end of 1838, 21 000 British and Indian troops set off on the long march to Kabul. By July 1839, they had arrived at Kandahar and shortly after, defeated DostMuhammed in a decisive victory, proclaiming Afghanistan’s new ruler to be Shuja Shah Durrani.

 

Most of the army then returned to India leaving a force of 8000 to help oversee the new change. This took longer than expected with the result that the families of soldiers were allowed to come and join them. To the Afghans, this bore all the signs of a permanent occupation.

 

Soon Afghans were flocking to a new call to arms by DostMuahmmed’s son, Akbar Khan. The tension culminated with the killing of senior British officers in Kabul at the end of 1841. Shortly afterwards, when the British representative, William Macnaghten, and his staff were murdered, the British decided it was time to leave and the 4500 remaining troops began to withdraw.

 

However, disaster beset them whilst crossing the mountain passes, as the column was set upon by Ghilzai warriors. They fought a running battle over several days through two feet of snow. Only one survivor, Dr William Brydon, made it to the British outpost of Jalalabad.

 

The British responded by combining their forces in the area and inflicting a heavy defeat on Akbar Khan. By September 1842, they had retaken Kabul and, after several reprisals, once more withdrew. DostMuahmmed returned and replaced Shuja Shah.

 

It was not to be the end for the British there though, for just over 30 years later, in 1879, they returned. The causes again were much the same: the Russians had sent another mission to Kabul and when the British tried to do the same, they were kept out. Fearing another possible Russian invasion, they sent an army of 40 000 British and Indian troops who quickly captured and occupied Kabul then, once more, withdrew.

 

However, a rising in Kabul that resulted in the death of the British representative there, meant that they returned and after a lengthy campaign, signed a treaty which ensured British control of Afghan foreign policy.

 

As the final troops withdraw from Afghanistan today, it is easy to see the parallels between those two conflicts and the current war, and one cannot help to wonder whether the Union Jack has seen the last of Afghanistan. With that in mind, the phrase ‘history repeats itself’ certainly has some meaning here.