The Afghan Quagmire: David Loyn, the Only Reporter with the Taliban When They Took Kabul in 1996, Takes Issue with Military Historian Thomas Tulenko's Analysis of Britain's 19th-Century Invasions of Afghanistan, First Published in June 1980

By Loyn, David | History Today, December 2009 | Go to article overview
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The Afghan Quagmire: David Loyn, the Only Reporter with the Taliban When They Took Kabul in 1996, Takes Issue with Military Historian Thomas Tulenko's Analysis of Britain's 19th-Century Invasions of Afghanistan, First Published in June 1980


Loyn, David, History Today


It is 30 years since Russia's Christmas invasion of Afghanistan, the event that tipped the country into a conflict that has still not ended and that inspired Thomas Tulenko's piece on British involvement in that country. Written within months of the Soviet invasion, it predicted many of the problems that Russian forces would face. But, in hindsight, two omissions look curious. Except for one brief reference he neglects the importance of the North-West Frontier; and he ignores the role of Islamic fundamentalism as a driver of Afghan nationalism.

The border between Afghanistan and British India, still called the Durand line after the British official who imposed it in 1893, was never stable. Within four years frontier uprisings led to a war that took an army of 40,000 to put down. It began in the Swat Valley, spreading southwards through Bajaur and Buner to Waziristan--all areas now familiar as havens of al-Qaeda and the crucible of the Pakistani Taliban.

The absence of any mention of Islamic fundamentalism is a more serious failing. In comparing the British experience of the 19th century with the Soviet invasion, Tulenko rightly cited inhospitable terrain and the nature of the people. But he missed the inspiration of jihad, which underpinned nationalist insurgencies against Britain for a century just as it did the war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s and US-led forces today.

The 1897 uprising was led by men called 'Mad Mullahs' in the politically incorrect terminology of the day. The young Winston Churchill, a war correspondent on the frontier, identified 'talibs' as the most fanatical of the enemy.

The Soviet Union faced the same threat. In the 1880s a Russian general even proposed to Britain that, rather than sparring over the land of Afghanistan in the 'Great Game', the two powers should all), against Islamic fundamentalism as the greater danger to their civilisation.

With hindsight the Soviet invasion of 1979 does not look as if it was connected with the Great Game--a 'classic knight's move against a key pawn' in Tulenko's elegant phrase. In the 19th century Russia's move south was all about securing its perimeter. It sought a border with a settled neighbour and the architect of the policy, Prince Gorchakov, compared it with US moves at the same time against native tribes. Throughout the 19th century Russia's border posts strode southwards and eastwards until they came to the Oxus river, beyond which lay Afghanistan.

Rather than a continuation of 19th-century expansion, the Soviet invasion of 1979 was assistance to friends.

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The Afghan Quagmire: David Loyn, the Only Reporter with the Taliban When They Took Kabul in 1996, Takes Issue with Military Historian Thomas Tulenko's Analysis of Britain's 19th-Century Invasions of Afghanistan, First Published in June 1980
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