I’ve been having a personal retrospective of the Rambo movies since seeing Rambo, the fourth installation in this largely misbegotten series of films. They’re quite perverse in the light of today’s state of geopolitics. Particularly devastating is the irony that comes out of Rambo III where the shirtless one runs around the hills of Afghanistan on the side of the Mujihadeen. Of course we know what happened there, so we won’t go into it, but it seems Afghanistan really is our “worst nightmare” in part because invading forces never seem to properly size up what the hell the objectives might be in Afghanistan.
I couldn’t suppress loud guffaws throughout the film as the script tried to couch the Afghan War waged by the USSR as their “Vietnam”, and that America had learnt from the Vietnam experience that you cannot defeat a nation committed to independence. That one had me in stitches – That would be why the West is back there again.
I shouldn’t be laughing at all.
When Did This All Start?
It’s hard to say, but Afghanistan was invaded by the British in the 1830s, through the Khyber Pass for the very reason to forestall a Russian move into the south. A force led by a William Macnaghten marched into Kabul in 1839 and made a complete hash of his occupation.
His political career began in 1830 as secretary to Lord William Bentinck; and in 1837 he became one of the most trusted advisers of the governor-general, Lord Auckland, with whose policy of supporting Shah Shuja against Dost Mahommed Khan, the reigning amir of Kabul, Macnaghten became closely identified.
He was created a baronet in 1840, and four months before his death was nominated to the governorship of Bombay. As a political agent at Kabul he came into conflict with the military authorities and subsequently with his subordinate Sir Alexander Burnes. Macnaghten attempted to placate the Afghan chiefs with heavy subsidies, but when the drain on the Indian exchequer became too great, and the allowances were reduced, this policy led to an outbreak. Burnes was murdered on November 2, 1841; and under the elderly General William Elphinstone, the British army in Kabul degenerated into a leaderless mob.
Macnaghten tried to save the situation by negotiating with the Afghan chiefs and, independently of them, with Dost Mahommed’s son, Akbar Khan, by whom he was assassinated on December 23, 1841; the disastrous retreat from Kabul and the massacre of the British army in the Kurd Kabul Pass followed. These events threw doubt on Macnaghten’s capacity for dealing with the problems of Indian diplomacy, though his fearlessness and integrity were unquestioned.
Macnaghten’s demise strongly resembles the depiction of how Danny Dravot comes to an end in Kipling’s ‘The Man Who Would be King’:
Dravot, wearing his crown, stood on a rope bridge over a gorge while the Kafirs cut the ropes, and fell to his death. Carnehan was crucified between two pine trees. When he survived for a day, the Kafirs considered it a miracle and let him go, and he begged his way back to India.
As proof of his tale, Carnehan shows the narrator Dravot’s head, still wearing the golden crown. Carnehan leaves, but the next day the narrator sees him crawling along the road in the noon sun, with his hat off, and gone mad. The narrator sends him to the local asylum. When he inquires two days later, he learns that Carnehan has died of sunstroke (“half an hour bare-headed in the sun at mid-day…”). No belongings were found with him. 
Kipling essentially takes the detail that Macnaghten ends up as a beheaded corpse and fashions his own little horror show, but doubtless it was based on Macnaghten’s campaign. Afghanistan remained a thorny geopolitical problem for the British that the British returned there in the 1870s:
After tension between Russia and Britain in Europe ended with the June 1878 Congress of Berlin, Russia turned its attention to Central Asia. That same summer, Russia sent an uninvited diplomatic mission to Kabul. Sher Ali tried, but failed, to keep them out. Russian envoys arrived in Kabul on 22 July 1878 and on 14 August, the British demanded that Sher Ali accept a British mission too.
The amir not only refused to receive a British mission but threatened to stop it if it were dispatched. Lord Lytton, the viceroy, ordered a diplomatic mission to set out for Kabul in September 1878 but the mission was turned back as it approached the eastern entrance of the Khyber Pass, triggering the Second Anglo-Afghan War. A British force of about 40,000 fighting men was distributed into military columns which penetrated Afghanistan at three different points. An alarmed Sher Ali attempted to appeal in person to the tsar for assistance, but unable to do so, he returned to Mazari Sharif, where he died on 21 February 1879.
With British forces occupying much of the country, Sher Ali’s son and successor, Mohammad Yaqub Khan, signed the Treaty of Gandamak in May 1879 to prevent a British invasion of the rest of the country. According to this agreement and in return for an annual subsidy and vague assurances of assistance in case of foreign aggression, Yaqub relinquished control of Afghan foreign affairs to the British. British representatives were installed in Kabul and other locations, British control was extended to the Khyber and Michni passes, and Afghanistan ceded various frontier areas and Quetta to Britain. The British army then withdrew. Soon afterwards, an uprising in Kabul led to the slaughter of Britain’s Resident in Kabul, Sir Pierre Cavagnari and his guards and staff on 3 September 1879, provoking the second phase of the Second Afghan War. Major General Sir Frederick Roberts led the Kabul Field Force over the Shutargardan Pass into central Afghanistan, defeated the Afghan Army at Char Asiab on 6 October 1879 and occupied Kabul. Ghazi Mohammad Jan Khan Wardak staged an uprising and attacked British forces near Kabul in the Siege of the Sherpur Cantonment in December 1879, but his defeat there resulted in the collapse of this rebellion.
The second Anglo-Afghan war ends with the British getting what they want, except they go at it again in 1919:
As a result of the peace treaty, the British withdrew the handsome subsidy that they were paying the Afghans and withdrew from them the right to import arms from India, whilst the Afghans gained the right to conduct their own foreign affairs as a fully independent state. For the British, the Durand Line which had long been a contentious issue between the two nations, was reaffirmed as the political boundary separating Afghanistan from the North-West Frontier and the Afghans made an undertaking to stop their seditious activities on the British side of the line. Thus, in affect, both sides could make claim that they achieved something from the war.
But whilst the war was over, the effects that it had were not. The nationalism, disruption and unrest that it had sparked stirred up more trouble in the years to come, particularly in Waziristan. The tribesmen, always ready to exploit weakness, whether real or perceived, banded together in the common cause of disorder and unrest. They had become well-armed too, as a result of the conflict, as they had benefitted greatly from the weapons and ammunition that the Afghans had left behind as well as from the influx of manpower in the large numbers of deserters from the militia that had joined their ranks. With these they launched a campaign of resistance to British authority on the North-West Frontier that was to last until the end of the Raj.
Add in the Soviet invasion, the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal, the Taliban government, the Allied invasion, you have the picture of a place that’s never managed to establish stable government. If any of all this is to go by, Afghanistan is where the west’s ambitions go to die.