The Legacy Of Gandamak


In 1839, British forces invaded Afghanistan and captured Kabul. By 1842 the occupation sparked uprisings by the Afghani population which soon routed British forces. The commanding officer of the British garrison in Kabul, Major General William Elphinstone, planned a retreat of the garrison which consisted of British and British Indian soldiers and their wives and children.

The retreating column was continuously harassed by Afghani tribesmen and they were all eventually either massacred in the valley pass of Gandamak or died from harsh wintery conditions and lack of supplies. Only one member of the garrison, an assistant medical officer by the name of William Brydon, survived the ordeal and made it back to the British garrison of Jalalabad.

Ever since this massacre near the village of Gandamak in January 1842, Afghanistan has proved the setting for risky geopolitical jousts, dangerous strategic manoeuvring, and folly military interventions by global great powers. Whilst the motives for the invasions of Afghanistan were different for each superpower, the course and outcomes of their conflicts have all arguably been analogous.

The British invaded seeking to counter Russian influences in Central Asia and to protect Imperial India. The Soviets invaded seeking to counter American influences on their southern flanks and to support the Afghani communist regime of the Saur Revolution. The Americans invaded seeking to rid the world of the Taliban that were supporting Al Qaeda, to kill or capture Osama bin Laden, and to bring capitalism and democracy to the country.

The imperial and military misadventures by the great powers profoundly reflect an ignorance and misunderstanding of the diversity of Afghani political and cultural dynamics. Afghanistan has long been known as the graveyard of empires through changing strategic, demographic and economic factors — the Great Game of the 19th century , the Cold War of the 20th century, the War on Terror or Global Counterinsurgency as per David Kilcullen, and the emerging New Great Game.

Now, 170 years since the withdrawal of British forces and their massacre in the first Anglo-Afghan War and 23 years since the withdrawal Russian forces and their loss of the Soviet invasion, the troops of the 2009 surges by the United States have been demobilised.

The history of Gandamak has been stirring up similarities between the Afghani ventures by British forces and ISAF forces. The United States Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta, announced the finalisation of the withdrawal in New Zealand last September without pomp or circumstance. At the NATO Summit in Chicago in May 2012, an exit strategy and transition were planned entailing decreases of the NATO led ISAF troop commitments with incremental handovers to Afghani security forces.

Other member nations of ISAF, such as Australia, have also begun to scale down operations and troop commitments. There is seemingly recognition by the public and governments of ISAF member nations that a continued prolonged and sustained military presence in Afghanistan has become too detrimental due to overriding political, financial and human costs.

The international military presence in Afghanistan, part of the continuous conflict since 2001, has largely turned into a quagmire. Efforts to train Afghani forces have resulted in growing numbers of "green on blue" attacks. Corruption has been rife among the Afghani authorities.

The use of drone strikes — surgical or not — and extrajudicial killings have categorically exacerbated existing conflicts, killed civilians and facilitated radicalisation to in the contested Federally Administered Tribal Areas and in the Afghan-Pakistani border more broadly.

The noted troop surges, a strategic decision hoping to mimic the success seen by the Iraq troop surges, have been poor tactical deployments, ineffective at quelling violence and the movement of Taliban forces.

Counterinsurgency has largely failed at countering the widespread insurgency in Afghanistan and yet it is becoming almost dogmatic and a "one size fits all" strategy for commanders, planners and policymakers. Critically, counterinsurgency is largely becoming the unquestioned orthodoxy of unconventional warfare for the United States Military.

There is, however, an ongoing debate surrounding the effectiveness of counterinsurgency inside the United States military and government, and in academia and think tanks. Even President John F. Kennedy warned the graduating class of the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1962 that counterinsurgency is problematic:

"Where there is a visible enemy to fight in open combat, the answer is not so difficult. Many serve, all applaud, and the tide of patriotism runs high. But when there is a long, slow struggle, with no immediately visible foe, your choice will seem hard indeed." 

Unsatisfying wars are the stock in trade of counterinsurgency — rarely, if ever, will counterinsurgency end with a surrender ceremony or look akin to the victories of conventional warfare of history.

And yet, with the notable exception of the First Gulf War, the United States military have waged unconventional warfare since the Vietnam War. But the paradigms of counterinsurgency that originated with the Boer War, were developed during conflicts in Malaya, Algeria, Vietnam and Northern Ireland, and then redeveloped for the insurgency in Iraq, have largely failed in Afghanistan.

Moreover, it is still questionable to assume that counterinsurgency was a success in Iraq. For Afghanistan though, counterinsurgency has been inadequately implemented due to practical failings, ignorantly theorised through dogmatic assumptions, and has been unable to break the dominance of ethno-religious, political conflicts exacerbated by poverty and poor infrastructural and economic conditions.

Recent phenomena, such as the Arab Spring, along with long term economic trends, namely the so-called Asian Century, have profound geopolitical and strategic implications for the conflict in Afghanistan. The pivot that Central Asia has historically offered is drastically changing due to economic, technological and social change in the wider Middle East and Asia Pacific regions. The British made the mistake of pouring troops in from India in the nineteenth century as did the Soviets from their border in the twentieth century.

Now the United States and ISAF are scaling down troops whilst attempting to train Afghani security forces and bequeath a new self-dependence. The Soviet campaigns of carpet bombing of villages with attack helicopters and plane strikes are analogous to current drone strikes by the United States. A tragedy presents itself — Mikhail Gorbachev couldn’t win the war in Afghanistan and yet couldn’t acknowledge this fact. Although Gorbachev, a moderate in the politburo, planned a withdrawal deadline of Soviet forces, military expenditure actually increased until Soviet forces crossed the last bridge out of Afghanistan.

Barack Obama faces a similarly unwinnable conflict. Fundamentally, Afghanistan proves unstable and, as David Petraeus notes, any progress that has been actualised is fragile and reversible.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.