Arts, Culture & Media

New book recalls British Empire's attempt to intervene in Afghanistan

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"Remnants of an Army," painted by Elizabeth Butler in 1879, portrays Dr. William Brydon arriving at Jalalabad — the only British man to escape from Kabul in January 1842 and make it to the main British garrison in Jalalabad. (Painting by Elizabe

One of Afghanistan’s nicknames is “the graveyard of empires.”

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First the British Empire swept in and tried to conquer the land, only to be driven out in the deadliest massacre of British soldiers in the empire's history. Then the Soviet Union invaded, only to be driven out by determined, and U.S.-backed, resistance.

A short time later, the Soviet Union collapsed. Though it was much longer, the British Empire also waned in the years after the Afghanistan disaster.

Now, a new book highlights that first attempt to intervene in Afghanistan, to protect its valuable possessions in India.

The book is called “The Dark Defile: Britain’s Catastrophic Invasion of Afghanistan, 1838-1842." It did not end well for Britain.

Modern readers may find it interesting how some of the issues that faced the Brits back then have parallels today.

Author Diana Preston said after a relatively easy and successful initial invasion, beginning in 1838, a more friendly regime was installed.

But the new regime struggled to win popularity; it was seen as dependent on foreign military power for its position. Plus, its corruption alienated many, its armed forces were weak and of dubious loyalty and it was unable to manage complex tribal relationships.

Not at all unlike the regime of Hamid Karzai, who the U.S. installed as leader shortly after its invasion.

The Afghans rebelled and forced the British to retreat from Kabul in winter 1841-1842. Despite promises of safe passage, the 4,500-man army was massacred, along with its support staff and even the soldiers’ wives and children. More than 16,000 perished in the ‘dark defiles’ on the road back to India.

Only one British man escaped and made it to the U.S. base at Jalalabad, Dr. William Brydon,

The British returned to Kabul in the summer of 1842 to exact retribution and rescue the British and Indians who had been taken prisoner. They burned Kabul’s Grand Bazaar then abandoned Afghanistan to its fate.

Afghans still remember the war with a mixture of pride and anger, Preston said, as the first in a long series of failed attempts by foreign super-powers to dominate their country.