Afghanistan Past & Present

When Canadian pollsters seek the country’s views on the war in Afghanistan, they frequently pose a question about whether Ottawa has sufficiently explained the purpose and goals of the war. When the public then registers its dissatisfaction with both the Harper government’s policies and its public relations, news editors and the official opposition duly scorn the Tories – for their messaging. Little effort is made to hold Harper’s feet to the fire when consistent majorities say they want Canadian troops out of Afghanistan; instead, the government’s communications style is at issue. A better question to ask the nation might be whether the media themselves have lived up to their duties in reporting on the war. As we shall see, the war gets only the most uncritical coverage in the major media, whose response to the goal of imperial domination of Afghanistan scarcely differs from one century to the next.


The Past


For 19th Century British rulers of India, the preferred mode of imperial control of neighbouring Afghanistan was to install or support a pliant indigenous ruler and keep a watchful eye on the mountainous territory from the safety of the plains of India. Occasionally, circumstances required the dispatch of "punitive expeditions" against recalcitrant tribal forces who rejected the rule of the English favourite and refused to be subdued. In these raids, dubbed "butcher and bolt" operations, villages were suddenly and indiscriminately attacked, leaving behind burned homes and crops. The young Winston Churchill cut his teeth serving with the Malakand Field Force, which undertook many such attacks in Pashtun areas of what is now Pakistan. [1] Churchill was evidently impressed by the use of such tactics on the Pashtun “savages” for he would later, in the opening phases of World War II, advocate for “butcher and bolt” missions against the “Hun” forces who were occupying the European coast, a tactic he approvingly predicted would deliver a “reign of terror” upon the hated foe. [2]


When low-level terror proved insufficient to maintain control, British forces were sent to occupy the country at 40-year intervals known as the Anglo-Afghan Wars. The first two were somewhat mitigated disasters while the the third resulted in Britain being forced to grant independence to Afghanistan on the 19th of August, 1919, a date which is still observed as a national holiday. For fans of history’s repetitions, it is interesting to note that British forces then were facing an enemy which scarcely differs from today’s Taliban. Known as ghazis, the bugbears of that bygone age were Muslim irregular troops who had “taken an oath to kill some non-Muhammadan . . . The Mullah instills into him the idea that if in so doing he loses his own life, he goes at once to Paradise.” These fighters “often engaged in suicidal attacks against the British forces” invading their country. [3]


The Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80) would be the second failure of Britain to fully subdue the unsettled tribes on the border of British India. Judging the Afghans to be too friendly toward Russia, a campaign was mounted to tilt that country back toward Britain, which preferred Afghanistan to act as a buffer against Russian advance toward the subcontinent. Following a successful invasion, Major-General Roberts set to work subduing the population in an occupation of Kabul which modern historians concur was a "reign of terror," involving a flurry of arrests and summary executions so egregious that colleagues of Roberts described them as "judicial murders." [4] All in the service of Queen and country, however, as his exploits would win him medals and accolades, eventually earning him the sobriquet Lord Roberts of Kabul and Kandahar.


General Roberts wasn’t the only Englishman on the attack, as two other generals were also heading forces which heeded Lord Lytton’s instructions from Calcutta: "Every Afghan brought to death I shall regard as one scoundrel the less in a nest of scoundrelism . . . Anyone found in arms should be killed on the spot like vermin." [5]


But as the British had learned in the first Afghan war, the occupation of Afghanistan was difficult and costly, thus helping bring on the demise of the waning Disraeli government. In the 1880 election William Gladstone earned a return engagement as Prime Minister following a campaign in which he assailed the incumbent Conservatives’ conduct of both the Zulu War and the Afghan War. [6] Toronto’s fledgling newspaper The Globe, forerunner to today’s Globe and Mail, was upbeat on Gladstone’s plans for reform. Citing the new Secretary of State for India Lord Hartington, the Globe reported that under the new Liberal government, "the troops in Afghanistan would gradually be withdrawn as soon as a ruler was selected whose authority was likely to be permanent." [7] Left unsaid was the fact that it was the British who would do the choosing.


The ruler thus "selected" was Abdul Rahman Khan, who would seem a rather odd choice given that he had spent the past several years in exile supported by Russia, England’s arch adversary in the Great Game. Undoubtedly bemused at the less-than-optimal result for the English imperialists, the New York Times observed: "England invaded Afghanistan because Shere Ali received a Russian Embassy. . . [and after 18 months her army] now retires, leaving a Russianized Afghan on the throne". [8]


The expected gradual withdrawal of Her Majesty’s forces met a substantial and famous setback at the Battle of Maiwand on July 27, 1880. Afghan history records the heroic deed of a young woman named Malalai, who raised a flag and urged her compatriots on to a bloody victory. The surviving British-led forces retreated to nearby Kandahar and forcibly removed the entire population, some 8000 souls at the time. Suddenly, military withdrawal took a back seat to revenge.


"It will now become necessary to overrun the whole country, and make another ‘impression,’" observed The Globe just three days after the shocking defeat at Maiwand. "The trouble is the Afghans refuse to stay impressed." [9] Such "impressions" were a recurring feature of British dealings in Afghanistan, as the Globe’s editors evidently recalled. The First Anglo-Afghan War had ended in 1842 with a storm of English retribution for an infamous incident where the British garrison forces at Kabul were massacred as they retreated. An "Army of Retribution" led by General Nott was duly dispatched from British India for the purpose of "re-establishing our reputation," in the words of the Governor-General. The reputation they were trying to revive was obviously a violent one, as the British forces set to work on several months of savagery, reaching its climax in an attack on a village north of Kabul where British-led forces killed every adult male and raped and killed many women. Before disappearing down the Khyber Pass and back to India, the British achievement was crowned by the destruction of the grand bazaar of Kabul – an architectural marvel whose destruction no doubt "impressed" Afghans in a manner much like the Taliban’s destruction of the giant Buddhas of Bamian a century and a half later. [10]


The natives having been suitably "impressed," the Second Anglo-Afghan War was nearing its end and it was finally time for British forces to leave the country as the Globe weighed in once again: "The lesson that Afghanistan must be neutral or friendly to [British] India has been enforced so thoroughly that it will be appreciated by her future Ameers." [11] The "lesson" which was most "appreciated" by the British-appointed ruler may well have been the utility of wanton brutality to maintain order.


With the pull-out of Imperial forces, the outlook for Abdul Rahman Khan did not look promising, if history were the guide. The Afghans did not typically take to foreign-appointed rulers. One prominent Afghan had offered his prediction to the New York Times that if Abdul Rahman accepted the English offer to rule, his legitimacy among Afghans would disappear as he would sink to the level of certain Afghan chieftains "who, as supporters of the English, are regarded as false Afghans." [12]


Abdur Rahman Khan was no ordinary leader, however, as the British knew very well. He was quite talented at ruling over his countrymen by extreme violence, as early British reports on his troops’ behaviour made clear. While Rahman Khan’s regime brought about the institutions of the Afghan state along with other nation-building achievements, his violent and tyrannical rule earned him the enduring moniker of “The Iron Amir.” Of course, his brutal ways did not deter the British overlords; he received a British salary.


The Present


The ideological fabric which underlays the current imperial project in Afghanistan is neatly summarized by John Kerry, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: "Our goal has never been to dominate Afghanistan but, rather, to eliminate al-Qaeda’s haven and to empower Afghans to govern their country in line with their best interests and our national security." [13] Kerry thus acknowledges two key features of the new administration’s policies: that the Obama administration’s Afghan policy scarcely differs from that of Bush and that the US requires veto power over decisions of the Afghans themselves – on the pretext of “national security,” a convenient term. Britain’s Defense Secretary John Reid was more direct: "We are in the south to help and protect the Afghan people [as they] construct their own democracy.” [14]


When there is a contradiction between such lofty rhetoric and the facts, the media typically respond by ignoring the facts. To take one example from the case of Afghanistan, consider the Obama administration’s announcement of a planned deployment of an additional 17,000 American troops – later raised to 21,000 – as an adaptation of General Petraeus’ surge strategy used in Iraq. Following the announcement there was a flurry of reporting on the issue, quoting nearly every strategic analyst and defense expert. Media critic Norman Solomon sums up the coverage: “the tenet that the United States must send additional troops to Afghanistan is axiomatic in U.S. news media, on Capitol Hill, and–as far as can be discerned–at the top of the incoming administration." [15] Apart from its unanimity, there was one striking feature of the coverage: almost none of the reporting sought to portray Afghan opinion on the matter.


There is a perfectly sound explanation for this oversight, since Afghan opinion is at odds with that of American war planners. It is thus the wrong story, despite much self-serving rhetoric about  “empowering Afghans” to “construct their own democracy.” We can see just how wrong the story is when we look at the few attempts to address the knowledge gap. Veteran Washington Post correspondent Pamela Constable, writing from Afghanistan, observes: "Most of the Afghans interviewed said they would prefer a negotiated settlement with the insurgents to an intensified military campaign." [16] Likewise, Spanish diplomat Francesc Vendrell, who spent much of the past decade in Afghanistan, comments on political support for the surge: "My impression is that no Afghan public figure is actually calling for more foreign forces." [17] While there is public support in the US – an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 64% of Americans support the new deployments – in Europe it is less popular. A Harris poll found that “clear majorities in the UK, France, Italy and Germany believe their governments must not send more forces to Afghanistan." [18]


Although the media have generally formed a chorus on the issue of the surge, there are dissenting voices just outside the mainstream—principally within the American armed forces it seems. Even supporters among officers and military theorists who championed the application of the doctrine in Iraq are "divided" over its applicability in Afghanistan, according to counterinsurgency specialist Andrew Exum. [19] These counter-arguments are not easily dismissed, since troop surges have featured in the Afghan war already, with consistent results—namely, an increase in insurgent violence commensurate with the build-up of foreign troops in the country. Civilian casualties have inevitably followed the surge in violence, hence the opposition of the Afghan population to another troop surge, as there is little reason to expect a different result this time around.


Even by the metric of counterinsurgency, the record of force escalation has little to recommend it, as previous surges have been followed by troop pull-backs by NATO and US forces. In 2008, following an increase in Canadian troops, their forces in the Panjwai district, a densely populated area which has been central to Canadian war making, pulled out of hard-won outposts. Thus, interaction with the local population has become increasingly difficult, though all COIN theorists agree that contact with civilians is vital to the success of the mission. [20] The astute observer will note that this represents the exact opposite of the “ink blot strategy,” according to which foreign troops are to win over the population by providing security in ever-growing areas anchored around key population centers. This isn’t the only such problem, as a similar disconnect appears to obtain regarding the ongoing project of aerial assassinations in Pakistan. The New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti cites "CIA veterans" in Pakistan who warn that Predator strikes "won’t undermine, and may promote, the psychology of anti-American militancy" which is already on the rise. [21]


The media’s reluctance to undermine the propaganda of the warmongers extends also to reporting body counts. On February 28, Associated Press reporter Jason Straziuso noted an astonishing achievement of the West’s occupation of Afghanistan. A tally of media reports of Afghan civilian deaths showed that during the first two months of 2009, during most of which the new Obama administration held sway in Washington, more civilians had been killed by foreign (mainly American) forces than by insurgents. In fact, the figure for US/NATO killings was two thirds greater than that for Taliban and other insurgents (one hundred as compared to 60). [22] The occasion did not mark the first time that foreign forces had occupied that pinnacle, but rather a return to supremacy. In July of 2007, the Los Angeles Times noted that media and United Nations tallies agreed that “more civilians were killed by Western troops than by militants during the first half of 2007.” [23]


Although Straziuso’s AP dispatches have been carried widely since he began reporting from Afghanistan, this particular article was virtually ignored, no doubt because it also is not the right story. The right story is one which conforms to the preferred US/NATO narrative, which denies blame for civilian casualties and shifts the blame onto the enemy. "Any civilian casualty caused by NATO or American forces is inadvertent," goes the familiar refrain. "It’s a tragic mistake. But the enemy we fight on purpose mixes in with the population." [24] While we are regretful when we kill civilians, we must remember that we do so by accident, while the Taliban do so on purpose, revealing the depths of evil in which they lurk.


While there is no question that Afghan non-combatants have reported that Afghan insurgents have indeed forcibly confined civilians during clashes with Western forces, it is also the case that American officials have made dishonest claims for propaganda purposes. As Human Rights Watch observes in a letter to the US government in response to the Azizabad incident [25] the Callan report “suggests without presenting evidence that Taliban forces deliberately used civilians as ‘shields,’ apparently to reach an unsubstantiated conclusion that the actions taken by US and Afghan forces were ‘in self defense, necessary and proportional’—and thus lawful under the laws of armed conflict.” [26]


As noted above, the standard Pentagon formulation of blame holds that the insurgents bear sole responsibility for all civilians killed since they are using the population as "human shields." Yet this judgment is precisely the opposite of that which the Afghan population makes. In their view, violence against civilians is mainly the fault of the US/NATO occupation, as a correspondent with substantial recent experience in the country explains: "[I]t does not matter if the victim was killed by the Taliban, US forces or Nato soldiers. Relatives of the dead now usually blame the government and the occupation for their loss." [27] The resulting anger toward the Afghan government and occupation forces fuels the insurgency in a vicious circle which has caused one leading analyst to question whether Afghanistan has become “a sort of surreal hunting estate, in which the US and NATO breed the very ‘terrorists’ they then track down." [28]


Afghan civilians are not the only source of serious accusations against the western occupation forces. On the 60th anniversary of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Amnesty International released its annual human rights report covering most of the world. Their assessment of the war in Afghanistan is jarring: “Violations of international humanitarian and human rights law were committed with impunity by all parties, including Afghan and international security forces and insurgent groups. All sides carried out indiscriminate attacks, which included aerial bombardments” by NATO and US-led forces. [29] I could find absolutely no coverage of the AI report’s Afghanistan section, save for a BBC Monitoring translation from an Afghan newspaper which accuses the Afghan government and international forces of “pretend[ing] they are making progress” on human rights. [30] In other words, the media in North America, where unlike Afghanistan only minor risks are taken by those criticising the war, completely ignored the damning assessment of the world’s leading human rights organization.


Amnesty International’s finding that Western occupation forces “carried out indiscriminate attacks” adds authority to the already-discussed views of Afghan civilians. It also puts those forces’ actions in the same legal category as the Taliban’s deliberate attacks on civilians. International law makes no distinction between deliberate attacks on civilians, which western military leaders often accuse the Taliban of committing, and indiscriminate attacks. “From the standpoint of the law of international armed conflict," notes a leading legal scholar, "there is no genuine difference between a premeditated attack against civilians (or civilian objects) and a reckless disregard of the principle of distinction; they are equally forbidden.” [31]


It was in the wake of the Azizabad bombing that The Economist predicted: "If America fails in Afghanistan, as it might, it will be remembered there for killing children." [32] And while US officials have frequently claimed to have cleaned up their act, skepticism toward such claims has come even from such staid quarters as Human Rights Watch. In a response to the Azizabad incident, they wrote that the US military’s questionable efforts toward change "call into question the depth of the Defense Department’s commitment to institute reforms that would reduce civilian casualties." [33] As we have seen, it is also unlikely that the major western media will make an effort to hold the war-makers to their pledges.



1. Winston S. Churchill, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, Kessinger Publishing (2004), p. 185.

2. Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, Volume 2: Their Finest Hour,  Mariner Books (1986), p. 217. See also, Ian F. W. Beckett, Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies, Routledge (2001), p. 42, referring to the period around the turn of the 20th Century: “[T]here was a continuing assumption on the part of all European armies that the extreme use of forces was an appropriate psychological response to insurgencies."  The policy, incidentally, was judged a failure by Thompson and Garratt, who remark that the raids, which involved destroying crops, drove more people into raiding to obtain food. See Edward Thompson and G. T. Garratt: Rise and Fulfilment of British Rule in India, Macmillan (1934), p. 502.

3. T. L. Pennell, Among the Wild Tribes of the Afghan Frontier, Seeley, Service and Co. (1922), p. 124; Frank Clements and Ludwig W. Adamec, Conflict in Afghanistan: A Historical Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO (2003), p. 93.

4. Martin Ewans, Afghanistan: A New History, Corazon (2001), p. 64, 65.

5. Ewans, Afghanistan, p. 64. Lord Lytton incidentally has a genetic claim to his penchant for doggerel ("nest of scoundrelism"). His father, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who on one occasion publicly accused his son of plagiarizing a poem from George Sand, first used the cliché opening line "It was a dark and stormy night." See Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World, Verso (2001), p. 30.

6. Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, St. Martin’s Press (1994), pp. 197-98.

7. The Globe (Toronto), May 22, 1880.

8. New York Times, July 27, 1880, p 4.

9. The Globe (Toronto) July 30, 1880.

10. Ewan, Afghanistan, p 51-52. See also Louis Dupree, Afghanistan, Princeton University Press (1973), p. 395, where General Nott of the Army of Retribution "slaughtered every man, woman and child" in a revenge raid on a Ghilzai village.

11. The Globe (Toronto), August 1, 1881, p 4.

12. New York Times, June 1, 1880, p. 5.

13. John F. Kerry, “A Race Against Time in Afghanistan,” Washington Post, February 10, 2009, p. A17.

14. BBC News (online), April 24, 2006.

15. Norman Soloman, "Will Afghanistan be Obama’s Tragic Folly?" Huffington Post, December 9, 2008.

16. Washington Post Foreign Service, February 22, 2009.

17. Radio Free Europe, February 25, 2009. See also Anand Gopal, who reports on numerous Afghan leaders, particularly in Pashtun areas, who openly oppose the surge. "Many in Afghanistan oppose Obama’s troop buildup plans," Christian Science Monitor, March 2, 2009.

18. Gopal, op. cit.; FT.com, January 22, 2009.

19. "How Not to Lose Afghanistan," New York Times, January 26, 2009.

20. Brian Hutchinson, “’Taliban hate our guts,’ top soldier says,” Canwest News, May 9, 2009. The pull-back of Canadian troops is evident even in Kandahar city, which has a giant NATO base nearby. According to a New York Times dispatch: "In a recent visit, this reporter traveled [Kandahar] city for five days and did not see a single Canadian soldier on the streets." Dexter Filins, “Taliban fill NATO’s big gaps in Afghan south,” New York Times, January 21, 2009.

21. Mark Mazzetti, “The downside of letting robots do the bombing,” New York Times, March 21, 2009.

22. Jason Straziuso, “U.S. deaths spike in Afghanistan,” Associated Press, February 28, 2009. A Lexis-Nexis search finds that only two major newspapers in North America ran Straziuso’s dispatch: the Toronto Sun and Long Island’s Newsday.

23. Laura King, “Errant Afghan slayings surge,” Los Angeles Times, July 6, 2007.

24. Jim Garamone, “Directive Aimed at Minimizing Civilian Casualties,” American Forces Press Service, Sept. 16, 2009.

25. In Azizabad, Herat province, airstrikes called in by American special forces (who had Oliver North along as a Fox News embedded reporter) killed upwards of 90 civilians. US officials continued to deny civilian casualties despite mounting evidence to the contrary from journalists and human rights organizations until, finally, months after the incident a US investigation (the Callan report) admitted to numerous civilian deaths, though less than other investigations found. See Dave Markland, “HRW blasts military,” www.stopwarblog.blogspot.com, January 19, 2009.

26. Human Rights Watch, “Letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on US Airstrikes in Azizabad, Afghanistan,” January 14, 2009. HRW are not the first serious observers to question such overblown American assertions. Professor Brian Gwyn William of the University of Massachusetts, who has extensive experience in Afghanistan, notes that the Taliban “have gone out of their way to avoid killing civilian bystanders,” noting that less than four per cent of suicide bombings for the period under study (Jan. 2006 – June 2007) had killed a “significant” number of civilians. This is contrasted with the situation in Iraq, where violent sectarian insurgents more frequently targeted civilians with suicide bombs. Shaun Watermann, “Winning in Afghanistan,” United Press International, June 7, 2007.

27. Chris Sands, “Civilian dead threaten to hand victory to the rebels,” The National (UAE) February 19, 2009. Or Sands elsewhere: "In a pattern developing across the country, residents in Khost now blame the US troops for the growing violence, no matter who is directly responsible for individual incidents." Chris Sands, “The enduring tears and fears,” The National (UAE) March 19, 2009.

28. Anatol Lieven, “The dream of Afghan democracy is dead,” Financial Times, June 11, 2008.

29. Amnesty International Report 2008 (Afghanistan Section). See www.amnesty.org.

30. Hasht-e Sobh, Kabul, in Dari 29 May 08, p 2.

31. Yoram Dinstein, The Conduct of Hostilities Under the Law of International Armed Conflict, Cambridge University Press (2004), p 117.

32. The Economist, August 30, 2008.

33. Human Rights Watch, “Letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates,” op. cit.


Dave Markland edits a blog on the war in Afghanistan (www.stopwarblog.blogspot.com). He lives in Vancouver, where he organizes with StopWar.Ca.

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