Britain’s Afghan folly: Sussex’s part in a 200-years’ war

Painting called The Last Stand features 19th century British troops during a battle in Afghanistan against a backdrop of snowy mountain peaks.

Early British involvement in Afghanistan. The Last Stand, by William Barnes Wollen (1898)

 “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”: George Santayana (1863-1952)

The tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan caught the world’s attention for a few short weeks in August this year.  But we’re all busy people, we’ve got things to do and places to go, and the media’s attention span is notoriously short.  Very soon the focus had moved on to government sleaze and Bake Off. And, let’s face it, most of us had a pretty hazy idea about what the whole Afghanistan adventure was about anyway. 

One thing you can be sure about though is that every Afghan knows a lot about their history. They’re paying attention and they are living it in real time.  They are only too well aware of how the histories of the Great Powers – of Russia, France, and Britain – have been inextricably linked with the history of their own country and its endless wars. “You have to know the past to understand the present,” as the American scientist Carl Sagan famously said. 

To understand Afghanistan’s present, we need to start at the beginning and look at how historic events reverberate down the years, their unintended consequences reaching right into our own little corner of Sussex.

Worst defeats in British military history

As the 19th century got underway, the British wanted Afghanistan as a buffer state between the Russian Empire and British India. The first substantive British contact in Afghanistan was in 1839 when the ‘Grand Army of the Indus’ marched into Kabul to put our guy on the throne. Three years later the whole enterprise ended in one of the worst defeats in British military history, rivalled only by the capitulation of Singapore 100 years later. The entire Kabul garrison tried to flee on foot while under continuous fire: some 16,500 in all. It ended in the hideous slaughter of nearly every man, woman and child. Famously only one man survived. 

The massacre was followed within nine months by a British ‘Army of Retribution’ which came for exactly that purpose: “whole populations were slaughtered and villages burnt”. This set the tone for the rest of the century during which our relations with Afghanistan were, according to Lord Curzon, the future Viceroy of India, those of “blundering interference and of unmasterly inactivity.” This lasted until the Second Anglo-Afghan War, 1878-1880, and eventually the Third Afghan War in 1919. 

British troops in action on a rocky hillside in Afghanistan in around 1919. Two soldiers are operating a machine gun,
Sussex troops, such as these, were part of the occupying force in Afghanistan in 1919

It was during the Third War that the Sussex connection can be definitively chronicled, as the 1st and 6th Battalions, Royal Sussex Regiment, were part of the occupying forces on the ground. The National Army Museum has an online collection that includes 267 photographs taken in Afghanistan during the 1919 war, compiled by Private A. E. Neal, 2/6 Battalion, The Royal Sussex Regiment. These are strangely evocative, showing white men in impossibly far-away places wearing silly hats. Then, as now, it was not an easy posting. Many of the British soldiers had earlier been in the trenches and wanted to go home. There was widespread desertion of local troops, with some turning on their officers.

In May, the Thal Fort, where the Sussex battalions were based, came under siege. The British force was outnumbered and outgunned and then subjected to a heavy bombardment. They were eventually relieved but, during the siege, suffered 94 casualties, including eight deaths.

The campaign concluded in August 1919. Casualties amounted to approximately 1,000 Afghans killed, while the British and Indian forces lost 236. In addition, hundreds died from cholera or as a result of other diseases and accidents. The nationalism and disruption that the fighting had sparked stirred up more unrest in the years to come. The tribesmen had become better armed as a result of the conflict. This enabled them to launch a campaign of resistance against all invaders that was essentially to roll on through the end of the British Raj, through the Soviet Occupation (1979-89) and the Bin Laden years (1996-2005), right-up to the present day.

21st century conflict: doomed to failure?

The current round of the conflict began in 2001 (is this the fourth war or the fifth or the sixth? – we’ve lost count), with the western nations invading to topple the governing Taliban with the intention of rebuilding core institutions of the Afghan state. By 2008, these lofty ambitions had shrunk to a classic counterinsurgency operation which many familiar with the history reckoned was doomed to failure. As Pete Seeger sang about another disaster in Vietnam: “We were knee deep in the Big Muddy and the damn fool said to push on.”

Sussex soldiers killed in action

  • Lance Corporal James Brynin Intelligence Corps was born in Shoreham, avid fan of Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club, killed Helmand, October 2013.
  • Guardsman Michael Roland was born in Worthing, killed Nahr-e Saraj, April 2012.
  • Private Daniel Prior born in Brighton, schooled in Newhaven, killed Nahr-e Saraj, March 2011.
  • Guardsman Jamie Janes, from Brighton, schooled in Hove, killed Helmand, October 2009.
  • Private John Brackpool born in Crawley, served in Kosovo and Iraq, killed Lashkar Gah, July 2009.
  • Private Daniel Gamble born and grew up in Uckfield, Pashto linguist, killed Upper Sangin Valley, June 2008.
  • Marine Scott Summers from Crawley, “a real character within his Company”, killed Helmand, February 2007.

A total of 457 British servicemen and women died and many more suffered life changing injuries. 69,000 members of the Afghan Army died alongside them. From the British casualties list, we know of at least seven who had local Sussex links. 

Today we are left with the fallout. Policy makers like to talk about how they will study ‘the lessons learned’.  As in the previous incursions, we didn’t stay the course and left saying, ‘Sorry, we didn’t understand’.

And today: A Game with only losers

Now famine is coming and the Taliban government, so keen to take control, is completely incapable of doing anything about it: 23 million people face starvation within months. The situation on the ground is so grim as to reduce hardened BBC correspondent John Simpson to tears. Thousands of people are fleeing the country.  The very people who the country needs to help rebuild are the ones who are trying to get out. Some of the refugees have already arrived in the UK and others will end up among us here.  The government is coy about the numbers, but has said it will take 5,000 individuals in total in the first year and up to 20,000 over  five years. Sussex councils have committed to housing up to 200 families. 

Nine Chevening scholars have arrived to study at the University of Sussex, but some have not been allowed to bring their families to safety with them. The story of one scholar, Hadia (not her real name) is heartbreaking, but not untypical of many of those who have made it to safety in the West. Another Chevening scholar, Naimat Zafary,was able to bring his family with him. He was a United Nations project co-ordinator and endured a terrifying departure involving two days amidst the chaos at Kabul airport.

The Foreign Office will not say how many British citizens have still to make it out of the country, but they include more than 250 Afghan interpreters and local staff who worked for the British forces. Rest assured the UK government has apologised to those affected. It has also put ‘cheese expert’, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, on the case. It’s a horror show, a fiasco, a tragedy, a game with only losers. On one side are the Taliban, whose assurances on equality for women and on human rights ring totally hollow. On the other, we have Boris Johnson and Liz Truss – the non-leader and the cheese expert. Marx said that, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” In Afghanistan the tragedy continues, and no one is laughing. 

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