• Carol Anne Jones

Time, Space and Place – a rugged land carved by history

Updated: Aug 28, 2021


Remnants of an Army, 1879, Elizabeth Butler, oil paint on canvas, 1321 × 2337 mm

I was so saddened to see the images on the world’s media spaces this week of Afghanistan, the terrible violence and suffering after the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghani soil.


A year or so ago I was invited to take a trip to the Pamir Highway, celebrated as one of the planet's most intrepid road trips, this 2,038 kilometer long road navigates through the sands of Central Asia into the heart of isolated ranges and to the south lies Afghanistan, the fabled Wakhan Corridor. I decided not to go for good reason.


Afghanistan has one of the most spectacular and ruggedly beautiful landscapes in the world; brooding mountains and windswept deserts, the turbulent crossroads of Central Asia: a place where whole civilizations rose and died 2,000 years before Christ. Alexander the Great founded Kandahar, its second largest city, which still bears his name. Uzbeks and Persians have braved its mountain passes with dreams of conquest while Tajiks and Greeks have braved avalanches and sheltered in its caves. To the north, near the border with Tajikistan stands the city of Balkh, where camel caravans travelled the Silk Road, bearing silver, spices and sandalwood from China to ancient Rome. Even Genghis Khan swept down from the north in 1220 and put every living thing to the sword.


Afghanistan's predatory tribalism today was conceived in century after century of such invasions and whirlwind slaughters. If the politics and religion of the Taliban regime seem extremist today, so is almost every aspect of Afghanistan, its people have long been splintered among more than fifty sub tribal groups, who disagree with each other in more than thirty four languages. Yet Afghanistan is famous for the hospitality of its people as for the legendary cruelty of the land itself. After millennia of turbulence, Afghans have an understandable suspicion of the foreigner.


The Taliban and the United States had fought a war for twenty years, why they stayed there for so long is shocking. It can only be due to political indecision. Afghanistan is known as the graveyard of empires. I recall a conversation with a Russian in the late nineties; he recalled seeing young soldiers in St. Petersburg returning from Afghanistan with lost limbs from the ten year conflict there. Soviet soldiers captured during that war in the 1980s were frequently staked out, sliced open and left to die slowly beneath the merciless Afghan sun, according to Western witnesses of the time. That’s why the news headlines this week seemed overly critical considering the perils of the terrain there and its history.


The war in Afghanistan began in a wave of terror that gripped the US after the 9/11 attacks. I remember exactly where I was when I heard the shocking news that day. The people demanded action from the president, he tried to capture Osama bin Laden, who was believed to be in Afghanistan. There was no plan for a war, only a raid to get him, dead or alive, but Bin Laden’s intelligence network was very good and he escaped into Pakistan. Having failed to capture Bin Laden, the most logical thing would've been to move the fight elsewhere, but some Western coutnries went off on a type of moral reform mission.


The Taliban believe in what they believe and are prepared to die for it and they don’t share the same values as Western countries. The Pashtun people live, and fight, and die, by their honour code. Pashtunwali’s honour based society is governed by several key concepts: bravery/courage, hospitality, sexual boundaries and Council. If someone comes to you saying that your guest is guilty of a crime but refuses to provide evidence to back up their accusation you refuse to hand him over, even if he's guilty! The more fearsome the threats the greater the amount of honour you incur and so is the understanding of why Mullah Omar refused to give Bin Laden up. It is also impossible to build a central government in a country where local leaders resent all outsiders, and anyone of any ability has fled.


Perhaps the most humbling lesson ever taught by the Afghans was in the first Anglo Afghan War of 1838 to 1842, a cautionary tale of almost every British history book.


In early 1839, a British army of 16,500 fighting men set off from Lahore, Pakistan, for Kabul to place on the Afghan throne a ruler friendly to Queen Victoria. With exemplary Victorian style, it was accompanied by a vast migrating city of some 38,000 camp followers complied of wives, mistresses, grooms and blacksmiths. One regiment brought two camels just to carry its officers' cigars.


For six months the army made its roundabout way into and through Afghanistan, bribing local tribes for safe passage, capturing cities, and at one point, purchasing 10,000 sheep for rations. The British entered Kabul at the end of June, installed the never to be popular Shah Shujah, sent most of the army back home and settled into a complacent occupation, deaf to the increasing resentment of numerous Afghan tribes.


When a series of uprisings in the next two years eventually made their position untenable, an elderly British general named Elphinstone accepted the offer of safe conduct back to India from a wily warlord named Mohammed Akbar.


The retreat from Kabul set off in January 1842 with 17,000 people including 700 Europeans, both soldiers and civilians, 3,800 Indian soldiers and more than 12,000 camp followers.

Akbar's promised escort never appeared and by the end of the first day Afghan horsemen had swooped down on the column again and again, driving off pack animals and butchering both soldiers and camp followers. Those not felled by Afghan rifles or sliced up by Afghan knives went snow blind or froze in the drifts. Repeated Afghan amnesty offers turned out to be traps. Most who surrendered were slaughtered.


Only nine children, eight women and two men who accepted Akbar's personal protection eventually survived the retreat after many months of captivity. By then almost all the 17,000 who had left Kabul were dead. Only one British fighting man, straggling wounded, made it to British lines at Jalalabad.


The Afghans never lost their independence. Afghanistan is almost the only country in the modern world in which no European power ever colonized or really ruled.


Whether you like or loathe Rudyard Kipling in these post modern times; his poem The Young British Soldier (a drinking song), speaks of the same experience. Kipling was chronicling the mixture of horror and respect with which Afghans plied their curved Khyber knives. Here it is in full:


The Young British Soldier

When the ‘arf-made recruity goes out to the East

‘E acts like a babe an’ ‘e drinks like a beast,

An’ ‘e wonders because ‘e is frequent deceased

Ere ‘e’s fit for to serve as a soldier.

Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,

Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,

Serve, serve, serve as a soldier,

So-oldier ~OF~ the Queen!

Now all you recruities what’s drafted to-day,

You shut up your rag-box an’ ‘ark to my lay,

An’ I’ll sing you a soldier as far as I may:

A soldier what’s fit for a soldier.

Fit, fit, fit for a soldier . . .

First mind you steer clear o’ the grog-sellers’ huts,

For they sell you Fixed Bay’nets that rots out your guts —

Ay, drink that ‘ud eat the live steel from your butts —

An’ it’s bad for the young British soldier.

Bad, bad, bad for the soldier . . .

When the cholera comes — as it will past a doubt —

Keep out of the wet and don’t go on the shout,

For the sickness gets in as the liquor dies out,

An’ it crumples the young British soldier.

Crum-, crum-, crumples the soldier . . .

But the worst o’ your foes is the sun over’ead:

You ~must~ wear your ‘elmet for all that is said:

If ‘e finds you uncovered ‘e’ll knock you down dead,

An’ you’ll die like a fool of a soldier.

Fool, fool, fool of a soldier . . .

If you’re cast for fatigue by a sergeant unkind,

Don’t grouse like a woman nor crack on nor blind;

Be handy and civil, and then you will find

That it’s beer for the young British soldier.

Beer, beer, beer for the soldier . . .

Now, if you must marry, take care she is old —

A troop-sergeant’s widow’s the nicest I’m told,

For beauty won’t help if your rations is cold,

Nor love ain’t enough for a soldier.

‘Nough, ‘nough, ‘nough for a soldier . . .

If the wife should go wrong with a comrade, be loath

To shoot when you catch ’em — you’ll swing, on my oath! —

Make ‘im take ‘er and keep ‘er: that’s Hell for them both,

An’ you’re shut o’ the curse of a soldier.

Curse, curse, curse of a soldier . . .

When first under fire an’ you’re wishful to duck,

Don’t look nor take ‘eed at the man that is struck,

Be thankful you’re livin’, and trust to your luck

And march to your front like a soldier.

Front, front, front like a soldier . . .

When ‘arf of your bullets fly wide in the ditch,

Don’t call your Martini a cross-eyed old bitch;

She’s human as you are — you treat her as sich,

An’ she’ll fight for the young British soldier.

Fight, fight, fight for the soldier . . .

When shakin’ their bustles like ladies so fine,

The guns o’ the enemy wheel into line,

Shoot low at the limbers an’ don’t mind the shine,

For noise never startles the soldier.

Start-, start-, startles the soldier . . .

If your officer’s dead and the sergeants look white,

Remember it’s ruin to run from a fight:

So take open order, lie down, and sit tight,

And wait for supports like a soldier.

Wait, wait, wait like a soldier . . .

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,

And the women come out to cut up what remains,

Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains

An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

Go, go, go like a soldier,

Go, go, go like a soldier,

Go, go, go like a soldier,

So-oldier ~OF~ the Queen!

Image courtesy of Daily Overview










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