This week: conversations with William Dalrymple, Nancy Lindisfarne, and Jonathan Neale about the war in Afghanistan, from the 19th century to 2021. Listen today at 2 pm, or anytime at our site.
Looking back on twenty years of war in Afghanistan, you find that the view keeps going back, through other Afghan wars, across centuries—waged by the British, by the Soviet Union. This week we talk to historian William Dalrymple about that history, and specifically about the link between the First Anglo-Afghan War and the American war in Afghanistan. Dalrymple says:
Both campaigns were inspired by trying to put a more acceptable ruler onto the throne of Afghanistan. In 1839 the force trying to play the puppeteer was not even the British Raj, it was a private company called the East India Company. And the East India Company was like everything that we most fear about Google or Facebook: enormous multinational, hugely rich, hugely influential, able to bend our wills and change our politics. But the difference with the East India Company is it had one of the largest armies in the world. In 1839, it had two hundred thousand mercenary Indian troops and it used this incredible power of modern weaponry to march into Afghanistan in 1839, with largely commercial ends in mind.
In both cases, I think the sweetener of this pill was the fact that if you controlled Afghanistan, you controlled the top story of Asia. If you sat in Kabul, you were in a very good position to control not just Afghanistan, but the lands around it. India to the south, Iran to the west, what today is the ‘stans, central Asia to the north, but then were the sultanates of Bukhara, Khiva, Tashkent. And then to the east, China. And so imperial powers who have a view to establishing primacy or hegemony over Asia have always seen Afghanistan as an incredibly attractive prize, at least from afar. But what is true in both occasions is that once they actually get there, they find that the cost of occupying this territory in every sense is more than they can afford, both in terms of resources and in terms of lives lost.
Anthropologists Jonathan Neale and Nancy Lindisfarne also join us this hour. They assess the end of the U.S. occupation in Afghanistan, and make recommendations for what the U.S. should do next. Says Lindisfarne:
The first step is to work very hard, to demonstrate, to protest so that the borders are open and there is asylum, refuge for people that want to get out of Afghanistan, who, for whatever reasons, fear for themselves or their families or who have been compromised by having to support their families, work for the regime, work for the occupation. So finding the power to insist on asylum for these people, I think, is enormously important, not just in the United States, but also in Britain and in all the countries who contributed to this military onslaught.
For Neale, this is a matter of “simple humanity, simple humanity. And I think there is a great groundswell of feeling in Europe and the United States: let these people in, give them a home, give them a refuge.”
Read: Edward Said on Kim
Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, about an orphan caught up in Victorian imperial intrigue surrounding India and Afghanistan — AKA “the Great Game”—includes a grim reflection on the apparent endlessness of it all. Kim, at one point, is told that “when everyone is dead the Great Game is finished. Not before.”
As an adventure story and an evocation of British India, Kim offers insights into the ambitions and generalizations behind imperialist thinking, including Kipling’s. As Edward Said wrote in his introduction to the novel:
[W]hether we like the fact or not, we should regard its author as writing not just from the dominating viewpoint of a white man describing colonial possession, but also from the perspective of a massive colonial system whose economy, functioning and history had acquired the status almost of a fact of nature. This meant that one one side of the colonial divide there was white Christian Europe . . . On the other side of the divide, there were an immense variety of territories and races, all of them considered lesser, or inferior, or dependent, or subject.