The death last Sunday of six Canadian soldiers in southern Afghanistan reminds us of Santayana's famous maxim that those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it.
The soldiers were killed near Maiwand, a name meaning nothing to most Westerners. But there, on July 27, 1880, during the bloody Second Anglo-Afghan War, the British Empire suffered one of the worst defeats in its colonial history.
Two years earlier the Raj (Britain's Indian Empire) had invaded Afghanistan for a second time. The British put Afghan puppet rulers into power in Kabul and Kandahar.
Ayub Khan, son of Afghanistan's former emir, rallied 12,000 Pashtun (or Pathan) tribal warriors to fight an advancing British force whose mission was, in London's words, to "liberate" Afghan tribes and bring them "the light of Christian civilization." Today, the slogan is "promoting democracy." The fierce Afghan tribal warriors routed the imperial force, composed of British regulars, including the vaunted Grenadier Guards, and Indian Sepoy troops, after a ferocious battle. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used a British army doctor who fought at Maiwand as his model for Sherlock Holmes' companion, Dr. Watson.
I recall this epic Afghan victory against British colonialism because understanding today's war in Afghanistan requires proper historical context. A century and a quarter after Maiwand, Pashtun warriors of southern Afghanistan continue to resist another mighty world power and its allies, who have been faithfully following the imperial strategy of the old British Raj.
The invasion of Afghanistan was marketed to Americans as an "anti-terrorist" mission and an effort to implant democracy. It was sold to Canadians as a noble campaign of "nation-building, reconstruction, and defending women's rights." All nice-sounding, but mostly untrue.
What we are really seeing is a war by Western powers seeking to dominate the strategic oil corridor of Afghanistan, directed against the Pashtun people who comprise half that nation's population. Another 15 million live just across the border in Pakistan. What we call the "Taliban" is actually a loose alliance of Pashtun tribes and clans, joined by nationalist forces and former mujahedin from the 1980s anti-Soviet struggle.
ROSY REPORTS CONTRADICTED
Last year, a leading authority on Afghanistan, the Brussels-based Senlis Council, found the Taliban and its allies control or influence half of the nation -- roughly equivalent to Pashtun tribal territory. Its study flatly contradicted rosy reports of military success and "nation-building" from Washington and NATO HQ.
This week, the same think tank issued a shocking new survey based on 17,000 interviews. "Afghanis in southern Afghanistan are increasingly prepared to admit their support for Taliban, and belief that the government and international community will not be able to defeat the Taliban is widespread." Senlis' study concurs with my own findings in South Asia that Pakistan and India have independently concluded NATO will eventually be defeated in Afghanistan and withdraw. The U.S., however, may stay on and reinforce its 30,000 troops there because it cannot admit a second defeat after the Iraq debacle.
The U.S. and NATO are not fighting "terrorists" in Afghanistan and they are certainly not winning hearts and minds. They are fighting the world's largest tribal people. The longer the Westerners stay and bomb villages, the more resistance will grow. Such is the inevitable pattern of every guerrilla war I have ever covered.
Western troops stuck in this nasty, $2-billion daily guerrilla conflict will become increasingly brutalized, demoralized and violent. This is precisely what happened to Afghanistan's second to latest invader, the Soviet Union.
Afghanistan's figurehead Hamid Karzai regime controls only the capitol. The rest of the country is under the Taliban, or warlords who run the surging narcotics trade that has made NATO the main defender of the world's leading narco state.
If 160,000 Soviet troops and 240,000 Afghan Communist soldiers could not defeat the Pashtuns in ten years, how can 50,000 U.S. and NATO troops do better?
Those generals and politicians who claim this war will be won in a few short years ought to study Maiwand.
© 2007 The Toronto Sun