In Afghanistan: Two Hundred Years of British, Russian and American Occupation

In Afghanistan: Two Hundred Years of British, Russian and American Occupation

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by David Loyn

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Afghanistan has been a strategic prize for foreign empires for more than 200 years. The British, Russians, and Americans have all fought across its beautiful and inhospitable terrain, in conflicts variously ruthless, misguided and bloody. This violent history is the subject of David Loyn's magisterial book. It is a history littered with misunderstandings and broken

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Afghanistan has been a strategic prize for foreign empires for more than 200 years. The British, Russians, and Americans have all fought across its beautiful and inhospitable terrain, in conflicts variously ruthless, misguided and bloody. This violent history is the subject of David Loyn's magisterial book. It is a history littered with misunderstandings and broken promises, in which the British, the Russians, and later the Americans, constantly underestimated the ability of the Afghans. In Afghanistan brilliantly brings to life the personalities involved in Afghanistan's relationship with the world, chronicling the misunderstandings and missed opportunities that have so often led to war.
With 30 years experience as a foreign correspondent, David Loyn has had a front-row seat during Afghanistan's recent history. In Afghanistan draws on David Loyn's unrivalled knowledge of the Taliban and the forces that prevail in Afghanistan, to provide the definitive analysis of the lessons these conflicts have for the present day.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Loyn's dense chronicle of foreign meddling in Afghanistan reveals the country's long history "of confounding the optimism of invaders." The stories that Loyn (Frontline), a longtime BBC correspondent with considerable experience in Afghanistan, recounts bear this out with chilling inevitability-generations of British, Soviet and most recently American leaders are confounded by shifting regional allegiances and unanticipated violent religious movements. Loyn's book is packed with details and anecdotes about the personalities that shaped the country, such as the Scottish adventurer Mountstuart Elphinstone, who first explored the region in 1808 armed only with Alexander the Great's account as guide; Abdur Habibullah, the obese turn of the century Afghan emir who rode around on a tricycle; and Charlie Wilson, whose funding of the mujahideen during the Soviet invasion is given an appropriately darker shading than in the recent book and film. Loyn's book suffers at times from a surfeit of dates and names without clear organization, and his eagerness to equate past conflicts and leaders to current ones results in frenetic time jumping. Nevertheless, the weight of the material that Loyn has gathered makes his book extremely valuable given our current circumstances. (July)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Afghanistan, long the object of strategic interest, with invaders from Alexander the Great to the Soviet Union failing miserably, has suffered through capitalism, communism, and Islamicism in recent years, none fully taking hold. BBC correspondent Loyn has had close contacts with Taliban leaders. His views on various foreigners' ignorance, overconfidence, and missed opportunities make for a valuable gloss in view of President Obama's change of approach in Afghanistan.

—Edwin B. Burgess
From the Publisher
"The weight of the material that Loyn has gathered makes his book extremely valuable given our current circumstances." —Publishers Weekly

“Journalist Loyn dissects numerous misbegotten British, Russian, and US efforts to bend this not quite nation-state to serve their respective interests….[A] fluid analysis….Loyn's treatment is crucial to understanding the failure of Soviet and US military intervention in Afghanistan since 1979….Essential.” — Choice

“[There are] terrific — and terrifying — tales in this short, sharp book. . .In Afghanistan targets the educated general reader, but it could educate generals.”—New York Post

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In Afghanistan

Two Hundred Years of British, Russian and American Occupation

By David Loyn

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2009 David Loyn
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-62247-0


Wild and Strange

In Afghanistan "a small army would be annihilated and a large one starved."

—Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington

Elphinstone was dazzled by the jewels. Beneath a crown from which nine-inch-long spikes encrusted with diamonds shone out in all directions, the Afghan amir wore what looked to him like a suit of green armor. On closer inspection, Elphinstone saw that the armor was studded with emeralds. It was the first meeting between an envoy from a European power and an Afghan king, and amid all the finery the Briton at first hardly noticed that Shah Shuja wore a shining rock of a startling size hanging from a bracelet around his wrist: the Koh-inoor diamond.

When he had left Delhi on October 13, 1808, Mountstuart Elphinstone, a 29-year-old British political officer, had prepared a mission of "great magnificence," since he had heard that the court at Kabul was "haughty, and supposed to entertain a mean opinion of the European nations." His retinue included 600 camels and 12 elephants laden with presents. It was the beginning of a relationship that would lead directly to Britain's worst defeats in two centuries of imperial power in Asia.

The background to Elphinstone's mission lay in Britain's realization of Afghanistan's strategic importance to India. It was only four years since British forces under Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington, had secured military dominance of India. But this control was threatened when Napoleon set his eyes on Britain's new empire in the East; and the balance of power in Europe had just shifted decisively in his favor. Napoleon's embrace with Tsar Alexander on a raft in the center of the river that divided their armies at Tilsit, in the north of Europe, ended a war that had cost the lives of about 50,000 troops, sealing a new alliance that sent shockwaves not only across Europe but the world.

British spies brought news of a secret clause in the Tilsit treaty creating a joint Russo-French force of 70,000 troops to invade India. Russian territory was far from India, and on the wrong side of the high plateau of the steppes and vast mountain ranges. But what if the invasion came directly from the west, across Persia? Russia had been threatening Persia for years. Now Napoleon sent a mission there, with money, guns and military skills, to train the Persians in the arts of European warfare. If Persia was brought in on the side of the Russo-French alliance, then only Afghanistan would stand in the way of a full-scale assault on India.

John Crokatt, an analyst with the East India Company, which at this time ran India, wrote: "events seem rapidly approaching which threaten with immediate danger, if not with total subversion, the British government in India."

Even if France and Russia stayed out, Britain was already fearful of Afghan aggression toward India, and kept forces in the west as a deterrent. Crokatt remembered recent history, when "Zaman Shah, the brother and immediate predecessor of the reigning monarch, was led by predatory and ambitious motives to meditate acts of hostility against the [East India] company. At this momentous crisis it is of considerable importance to ascertain whether the present King is guided by similar views." This was the reason for Elphinstone's mission.

Britain knew little about Afghanistan. There had been travelers' tales from a few individual adventurers but, until Elphinstone set out, no determined attempt to discover the reality of the land beyond the five rivers of the Punjab, at that time the effective western border of British India. Britain did know of Afghanistan's warrior history. It was within living memory that an Afghan amir had ruled in Delhi itself after conquering half the continent. That was Ahmed Shah, founder of a dynasty, and still revered as the father of the Afghan nation, whose dynasty was known as Durrani, meaning "pearl of pearls." Shah Shuja, the amir who met Elphinstone, was his grandson.

The Afghans were known for their banditry and lawlessness. An early British traveler to Afghanistan, George Forster, like so many after him, was attacked in 1783, as he went through the Khyber Pass, the long winding pathway through the Suleiman range, the soaring mountain fastness that conceals Afghanistan from the rest of South Asia. Although he had paid a toll to the keepers of the pass, protection money in effect, he was knocked off his mule and kept his money only because it was wrapped in gaiters around his legs. He saw that the "freebooting life" was aided by "a chain of rocky mountains, whose scanty slips of valley afford but the coarsest provision for human wants. This rude race of men have made so slow a progress in civilization, that the greatest part of them, like the storied Troglodites of old, dwell in caves, or rather in the fissures of rocks."

Forster grew a beard to blend in. He did not want to admit to being British, and decided against pretending to be French; he thought it too likely that he would encounter a real Frenchman, because of the "the wandering temper of that people, who stray into every corner of the earth." After 15 months traveling west from India, as he was having his beard shaved on a Russian frigate in the Caspian, he regretted its passing. He reflected on "the general importance of an Asiatic beard, the essential services which mine had rendered, and our long and intimate association."

But neither Forster nor any other of the handful of Europeans who had been into Afghan lands before 1800 had left maps or detailed guides. Incredible as it may seem, Elphinstone was using accounts left by Alexander the Great, written more than 2,000 years before, as he probed the land beyond Britain's known Indian world. He had only Alexander's names for the rivers that crossed the flat country of the Punjab, until he came to the wide barrier of the Indus itself, the defining geographical feature of the region.

Not yet 30 years old, Elphinstone was a brilliant classical scholar, and spoke fluent modern Persian as well as Hindi. Personally charismatic, as a teenager he had startled visitors to Edinburgh Castle, where his father was governor, by marching around with his long blond hair swept back in the French manner, singing revolutionary songs he had learned from French prisoners. An uncle in the East India Company in Calcutta obtained a post for him in India, where he quickly caught the attention of Arthur Wellesley. He was sent as a political officer to secure a peace deal with the Mahrattas, the last major threat to British control of the subcontinent, and when peace talks broke down, he played a crucial role on Wellesley's staff at the battle of Assaye in 1804, when the Mahratta army was defeated once and for all. Wellesley told him he should have become a soldier.

Guided only by accounts of ancient battles but fueled by apprehension of a French invasion, Elphinstone's mission left Delhi in 1808 and headed southwest across modern Rajasthan toward, although they did not know it, one of the largest deserts in the world. The journey took on an epic quality. Soon the camels could go in single file only on shifting tracks through sand hills "rising one after another like the waves of the sea, and marked on the surface by the wind like drifted snow." Marching at night, sleeping fitfully through the heat of the day, the two-mile-long caravan made slow progress. The heavy sand became too much for the sepoys, the Indian soldiers fighting for the British, so they were allowed to ride in turns, two to a camel. Securing water was a constant problem, and even when they found it, the wells were sometimes as deep as 300 feet, emptied in a single night by bullocks turning a winch.

Securing food and water was not made any easier by the decadence of the rulers they encountered, who were constantly drugged by alcohol or opium. Elphinstone found he could conduct business with them only in a brief window of time in the afternoon—"the interval between sobriety and absolute stupefaction"—after the first fix had eased the pain of the hangover and craving, and before they were too drugged again.

But the difficulties he encountered with minor tribal leaders, who all swore allegiance to Britain—when sober enough—were as nothing compared to the civil war that Elphinstone was nearly drawn into when he reached the region carved up by the five main Rajput rulers. He found the kings of Jodhpur and Jaipur fighting over the hand of the princess of Udaipur, who must have been a beauty, for this South Asian Helen of Troy had little land.

As the desert became more threatening and the war closer, the trickle of desertions from among Elphinstone's camp followers turned into a flood. Any expedition then relied on a village of people moving with it, to keep it on the road. Each horse required its own "grass-cutter," to gather fodder and water, and a groom to tend it. There were farriers, carpenters and leather workers for the animals, and cooks, water gatherers, and laundrymen for the officers. Elphinstone now put the whole expedition onto a military footing, separating out the wives and children and sending them back, and hiring 150 local horsemen to help guard their progress. But the desertions stopped only when they were so far from safety that returning was more dangerous than going on.

Three weeks after leaving Delhi, the British arrived in the city of Bikaner, capital of the richest and largest of the five Rajput kingdoms. It was under attack. The British saw the evidence of the war for the princess's hand in bodies on the ground and "disorderly bands of ragged soldiers in all directions." Elphinstone had to fend off attempts by the warring kings to draw him in. His well-trained and battle-hardened sepoy force, with its British officers, might have been decisive. The raja of Bikaner exerted pressure by denying his wells to the British force, and sickness and the harsh conditions began to take their toll. From what had not been a large force, 40 men died in the first week after they arrived at Bikaner. But the raja knew about the threat of the French, and once he had demonstrated his power, he relented, gave the British water and promised them his full support, even trying to press the keys of the city onto Elphinstone, who declined since his mission was not to take territory.

When the force moved on from Bikaner they marched by day, since they feared bandits at night, although it meant using more water. The desert sand was firmer now, and they made faster progress, with the camels moving a dozen abreast. Still only just across into modern Pakistan, east of the five rivers, and a long way short of the modern Afghan border on November 21, the British encountered Afghan troops for the first time.

Elphinstone was impressed. The Afghan force, 150 soldiers on camels, which they managed as if they were light horses, had an appearance that "was altogether novel and striking." Two men sat on each camel, each with a long matchlock rifle, highly decorated in black and white checkered wood and mother-of-pearl. This was the weapon the British would later learn to call a jezail and come to respect, since it was surprisingly accurate at a distance. The Afghans brought 100 camels carrying skins of fresh water, with four separate jars of water for the British officers, sealed by their leader, the chief of the most southerly of the regions owing allegiance to Kabul.

Elphinstone's trip now took on the appearance of a medieval adventure overlaid by the courtly manners of the rulers he moved among, a long winter where his days were spent hunting and his nights feasting and watching dancing girls. Two hundred years ago, Afghans had quite different customs from today.

After the ordeal of the desert and the drunken indolence of the Rajput rulers, Elphinstone now found himself handed from khan to khan, on his way to meet their overall amir, the ruler of Kabul, whom most of them had never met. They may have been suspicious of Elphinstone's intentions and feared he wanted to take their land, but they hunted with him and mostly treated him well. Expecting to face incessant demands for gifts, "as is usual on such occasions in most parts of India," instead he often found it hard to give things away without elaborate negotiation. And in return he found himself the owner of horses, hawks, greyhounds, guns and fine cloths. The khans saw him not as an imperial emissary but the representative of a power like their own. In those early days of Britain's settlement of the subcontinent, there was far more equality between the two sides than later, at the height of the Victorian empire.

Some of the khans were more graceful than others. Elphinstone was stuck in the ancient capital of lower Punjab, Multan, for three weeks until the arrival of a mehmandar, an official courier sent to escort an important visitor to the Afghan court. The khan of Multan was suspicious, speaking quickly and saying often "You are welcome, you are very welcome" but meaning the opposite. When he finally agreed to visit the British camp, his large armed party marched in at speed, almost sweeping aside Elphinstone's tent and his secretary: "Mr Strachey's horse was nearly borne to the ground, and only recovered himself by a violent exertion." But even this khan settled down after this first farcical encounter, and the caravan moved on.

While still east of the Indus, the British caught their first sight of the Suleiman Mountains, the mesmerizing and complex wall running from north to south, with only a few navigable passes, the most important being the Khyber, through to the high plains of Afghanistan beyond. These mountains, 400 miles long and 200 miles wide in places, would come to dominate Afghanistan's relationship with the outside world over the next two centuries. "Their appearance was beautiful; we clearly saw three ranges, the last of which was very high, and we often doubted whether we were deceived by the clouds, or really saw still higher ranges beyond." The Afghanistan on the other side of the mountains took a powerful hold on Elphinstone's imagination; he knew only that "beyond the hills was something wild and strange."

Three months after leaving Delhi, the British crossed the Indus at a point where it was 1,000 yards broad, but the flow of the river was weakened as it was broken by islands. The elephants swam across, as those in Alexander the Great's force must have done, while the horses crossed in large flat-bottomed boats, and the camels had their feet tied and "were thrown into the boats like any other baggage." By now the British had been in the region long enough for rumors to have spread about them. They were said to carry "great guns packed up in trunks; and ... certain small boxes, so contrived as to explode and kill half a dozen men each" without hurting themselves. Another story was a version of an old Asian folk tale that said the British had made a magic sheep which looked real, but when it was sold was found to be made of wood. Elphinstone's men were among a superstitious and rumor-fueled people.

There was suspicion everywhere. In a nomad camp Elphinstone was asked why they were there, rather than being "contented with our own possessions, Cawnpore, Lucknow, and all those fine places?" Two of Elphinstone's officers took a day to try to climb to "King Solomon's throne," the snow-covered peak that had given the Suleiman Mountain range its name. But they found the top of the mountain inaccessible and were robbed on the way back, while in another village a man cocked his matchlock at the two climbers. As the caravan continued north, word arrived with a convoy carrying mule-loads of fruit from Kabul that they would not need to go all the way to the capital; the amir would greet them in Peshawar.

It was the Mogul emperor Akbar who gave Peshawar its name, meaning "advanced post," in the sixteenth century, designating it as the gateway for the defense of India against Afghanistan. It was a substantial town of mudwalled houses with flat roofs around a teeming bazaar, with a fort, the Bala Hissar, that was "of no strength" to Elphinstone's eye. From there it was only a morning's ride to the eastern entrance of the Khyber Pass, the narrow pathway through the mountains into Afghanistan. The British party arrived in Peshawar on February 25, 1809, "after some confusion about the mode of our reception." Armed horsemen had to beat back the huge crowds who came to see them.

More than two weeks later, amid a huge noise "like a charge of cavalry, which was occasioned by the iron-heeled boots of the guards," Elphinstone was welcomed in to the Afghan court, a complex series of ornate buildings with ponds and fountains, and fine silk carpets hanging from the walls. To the sound of drums and trumpets he was led from person to person through inner courtyards and gardens, and announced with some ceremony outside, before the curiously downbeat moment as he made his way into the presence of the king. As was the custom, in order not to be seen to be making a recommendation, the courtier did not announce him with any formality but in an offhand aside, as if saying "Well, here he is, but I don't vouch for him."


Excerpted from In Afghanistan by David Loyn. Copyright © 2009 David Loyn. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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