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Home Uncategorized War, Death and Hubris

War, Death and Hubris

Edward Burke
Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan, by William Dalrymple, Bloomsbury Publishing, 608 pp, £25, ISBN 978-1408818305 British troops returned to Kabul at the end of 2001after the toppling of the Taliban regime. They soon did two things that aroused local comment and suspicion. The first was to name their main military base in the city Camp Souter, after Captain Thomas Souter, who had been captured by Afghan tribesmen in 1842, one of the few survivors of a disastrous retreat by the British Kabul garrison to the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad during the first Anglo-Afghan war. Souter famously wrapped “the colours” of his regiment – the flag of the 44th Foot – around his body during a last stand at the village of Gandamak. His life was probably spared because the attacking Ghilzai tribesmen thought that his bright clothing – the colours ‑ marked him as an officer of some particular importance. The “last stand of the 44th” was commemorated in a famous painting by William Barnes – which one senior British diplomat in Kabul hung on his office wall in 2010. Colonial-themed parties in Kabul have been held where participants dress in British military and other costumes of the nineteenth century. Dinners have been celebrated by British ambassadors and senior military officers to commemorate nineteenth century battles in Afghanistan, often in the appropriately named Gandamack Hotel – which serves alcohol and is frequented almost exclusively by foreign diplomats and aid workers. The renovation of the British cemetery in Kabul, the former garden of the British spy and diplomat Alexander Burnes, also aroused comment as to Britain’s objectives in returning to Afghanistan. Burnes was slaughtered in his house by an Afghan mob at the outbreak of the initial revolt against the British in 1841. Successive British politicians and military leaders have visited the cemetery and held Christian commemorative services there. One educated Afghan friend pointed out how important this cemetery seemed to be for British soldiers and diplomats today. As in Iran, there is a certain obsession and exaggerated belief in Britain’s enduring skills in espionage and meddling in the affairs of other nations. When I pointed out that Britain might not be as influential as it once was and that the United States was now in the driving seat of Western policy towards Afghanistan, my friend cut me short: “Britain is the father and America is the child,”…

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