When the British Empire lost face and their own wars in Afghanistan, the first of those in the 1840s, known in the U.K. as “The Disaster in Afghanistan,” the then world-dominating British empire fought a ragtag bunch of Afghani rebels, seeking to undo the British re-establishing an unpopular Emir to lead the then Emirate of Afghanistan. Though initially successful in bringing order to the tribal lords, and installing an Emir supportive of British occupation, the empire drew down its forces on the ground to 8,000 men and resentment against the Redcoats on the ground grew. Sound familiar?
Nearby India, then a British colony run by the East India Company, offered more troops and back up, but by 1842, conditions on the ground for the British were becoming untenable and the empire agreed to a timetable for the safe withdrawal of their troops. As they departed through steep mountain passes in winter, a contingent of 17,000, British troops, Indian soldiers, and civilians was attacked by Afghani warlords. On the second day of this surprise attack, all the members of the Royal Afghan Army’s 6th Regiment deserted on foot, heading back to Kabul. Sound familiar?
As the British forces began to retreat with their native supporters back to Kabul, the violence grew worse. Afghani and Indian men, women and children traveling with the British were captured, stripped naked, and left to freeze to death in the snow.
Or as put so brilliantly by author Rudyard Kipling, a veteran of those same Afghan wars, “If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,” prophetically speaking to the blame games of war in Afghanistan even today.
Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. Army base in Afghanistan, was originally constructed in the 1950s and for a time was occupied and expanded by the Russian Army. From 1999 to 2002, the base was occupied by the Taliban and a northern alliance of Afghan warlords. During the 2002 invasion of Afghanistan, U.S. forces and a contingent of the British Special Boat Service retook Bagram. New runways and multiple other operations were added, and by 2007, Bagram operated as a modest-sized city, housing 10,000 primarily U.S. troops by 2009. Insurgent attacks began anew on the base during 2010. Many skirmishes and minor air assaults would follow, with the U.S. eventually handing over control of Bagram to the Afghan government on July 1, 2021, BEFORE the U.S., had begun to withdraw civilians or the bulk of its military personnel from the country.
At the time of the handoff, a fleet of 166 Blackhawk helicopters, valued in excess of $250 million, was among the treasures being given to the fledgling government of Afghanistan. Though the Taliban has no air force, it is difficult to imagine that they will not soon find a way to make use of this trove of weaponry, along with the rifles and other gear already seized from the retreating Afghan Army. Again, I am not a military strategist, but the earlier British and Russian evacuations would remind one to hang onto the assets and forces needed to evacuate, and perhaps don’t hand over the keys to your own largest military installation prior to removing non-military personnel, civilians and native allies prior to full withdrawal of troops, particularly with a publicly announced timetable.
But with a midterm election season looming, and a pandemic again expanding its reach, it is often political expediency on the domestic front that trumps (pun intended) foreign policy decisions of war receiving scant U.S. media or global attention, until conditions on the ground implode. Though valiant efforts are being made daily by our military and allied forces surrounding Hamid Karzai Airport near Kabul, that airport was never designed or intended as a military installation. Thanks also go to the domestic U.S. carriers including Delta Air Lines, who are activating their Civil Aviation divisions to assist with evacuation efforts. A hard headcount of U.S. citizens spread across Afghanistan, as well as thousands of other natives who assisted our efforts there for the past 20 years, is hard to come by. We pray that this evacuation will not come to mirror the slaughter of British nationals, Indians and their supporters nearing 180 years ago.
However, going forward, when we are dealing with regions of the world and non-traditional, non-nation/state enemies, our commander in chief and his chief advisors might do well to read a few world history books, or perhaps even one of the shorter volumes of Kipling. Several thousand American and allies’ lives may still depend on that.