Learning the Old Imperial Story

Historian William Dalrymple just published a book on the first Anglo-Afghan war (Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-42) in which he explains how the British brought Shah Shuja Durrani back to the Afghan throne. Yesterday, he gave his Twitter followers some insights on Karzai’s thoughts on the matter and how it relates to the current situation:

William Dalrymple @DalrympleWill

Just out of 90 min meeting with Karzai: “Our so-called allies behave to us just as the British did to Shah Shuja”

William Dalrymple @DalrympleWill

Karzai: “The lies Auckland told Dost Mohammad that we don’t interfere with your country, that’s exactly what the Americans tell us today.”

William Dalrymple @DalrympleWill

Karzai: “The US has squandered the opportunity given by the Afghan people in 2002. They tried to do exactly as they did in the 19th century.”

I don’t really know if Karzai asked William Dalrymple to share his thoughts on Twitter, or if he gave him his permission to do so. I don’t know if it’s part of a well-thought out communication strategy by President Karzai or just a personal initiative from the Scottish historian. All I know is that the Afghan president has a point. There are strong and striking similarities between the current US involvement in Afghanistan and the British intervention of 1839. Both aimed at replacing “deviant” regimes with more trustworthy allies (one for flirting with Russia; the other as part of the Global War on Terror). Dost Mohammad fled to Bukhara through the passes of Bamiyan; the Taliban escaped to Pakistan through the infamous mountains of Tora Bora. Nowadays we would call that regime change. Then, the idea was to bring the former king (Shah Shuja) back to power. In 2001, bringing the king back was also considered an option, although it turned out to be incompatible with the adoption of the so-called “warlord strategy.” The US instead decided to empower a relatively unknown king-like figure: Hamid Karzai.

This is obviously not what the Afghan president has in mind when making these historical references. This is at least not what he is complaining about. What bothers Karzai is having the Americans interfere in Afghan politics, like the British did throughout the 19th century. “The lies Auckland told Dost Mohammad that we don’t interfere with your country, that’s exactly what the Americans tell us today,” said Karzai. Not only did the British interfere, they actually replaced Dost Mohammad by someone else. They were also supposed to leave once Shah Shuja was in power in Kabul. It is not hard to see how Karzai can actually relate to both Dost Mohammad and Shah Shuja. Like Shah Shuja he witnessed (and participated in) the shift from a “light footprint” to a much heavier and longer-lasting impact.  At the same time, he fears that he might experience Dost Mohammad’s fate of being replaced by a more docile ruler. The US installed a pro-American leader in power in Kabul, but it has realized in the past few years that this “friendly” regime was maybe not friendly enough. Karzai’s power may in part depend on American support, but he has shown time and time again that he is not an American stooge. In a way, the US is learning the old imperial story. Shuja’s rule depended on British support to suppress a rebellion (an insurgency?). So does Karzai’s. British funds were used by Shah Shuja to buy the support of tribal chiefs. The same is happening today. Over the years, Karzai has used the resources provided by the international community to build a large patronage network. Afghan politics is more fluid, more personality-based, and more complex than most Western policymakers can actually fathom. Karzai is no exception.

What the US took away from this learning process, it seems, is that American policy-makers need to bypass the ruler to work with the actual kingmakers (as opposed to the initial goal of building a strong centralized state). As NATO forces prepare to leave, the US strategy seems to be evolving more and more towards “tribal engagement” (whether or not the actors involved are actually tribal). This again is part of the old imperial story. Working hand in hand with indigenous forces is nothing new. Examples are extremely widespread, both geographically and historically. The US worked with indigenous forces in Vietnam, the Brits did this in Oman and Afghanistan, and the Soviet Union is known for having trained and armed local militias as well. Even the Roman Empire used to rely on irregular indigenous forces to wage war. What might actually be new is the dilemma between doing this and trying to build a centralized state. Unless of course the international community is no longer trying to do that. The current Afghan situation can be compared to what the United Kingdom faced in Canada after 1837 or twenty years later in India. The revolts in each country taught the British that imposing their own view of society was destabilizing the local population, antagonizing established interests and awakening anxiety among common people that their cultures and ways of life were under attack. The growth of the Afghan insurgency seems to have taught American decision-makers the same lesson. Not surprisingly, in the absence of a strong Weberian state, Washington, like London before, decided to rely on partnerships with local power-brokers to bring back security.

Karzai’s decision to expel all US Special Forces from Wardak province may have been in part motivated by the alleged atrocities committed by the irregular forces they were working with there, as stated in the official version. It might also be Karzai’s attempt to prevent the US from bypassing his authority by working directly with non-state armed actors. Karzai’s move is about hierarchy. The Afghan president doesn’t want the US to be working with local powerbrokers. He doesn’t want the US to be working with kingmakers. He wants to remain the one in charge.

About Afghanopoly

I am an Assistant Professor of peace and conflict studies at Radboud University's Centre for International Conflict Analysis and Management (CICAM). I completed my PhD in Political Science at Northwestern University and Sciences Po under the supervision of Will Reno and Bertrand Badie. Among other things, I teach students about the politics of international intervention in Afghanistan and elsewhere. My research focuses on the political strategies that Afghan strongmen use to consolidate and legitimize their authority. I am particularly interested in how these actors manage to conduct their own forms of international relations. My field research brings me in contact with Afghan community leaders, politicians, diplomats and foreign military officers.
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2 Responses to Learning the Old Imperial Story

  1. Mark says:

    The trouble with historical comparisons is like using hindsight – the similarities always stand out so much more than the differences. The trouble is we need to analyse the differences as much as the similarities and for instance comparing Dost Mohammad with the Taliban simply because they both escaped in a southerly direction is absurd. The modern narrative of Afghan doomsters is to impose a variety of disheartening comparisons, whether it is Vietnam, the Soviet invasion, or the British/Afghan wars. All of them have something to tell us but too often history is being (mis)used as a straitjacket to ‘prove’ what the writer already believes.

  2. Afghanopoly says:

    I understand your point Mark. Yet, I am not comparing Dost Mohammad with the Taliban at all. I am comparing the two situations, not the two regimes. I am also fully aware of the differences between the two interventions but the fact of the matter remains that both Dost Mohammad and the Taliban were kicked out by foreign forces. It is hard to deny that some of the challenges that American forces are confronted to in Afghanistan are very similar to what the Brits had to deal with in the 19th century. They sometimes adopt similar policies and learn the same lessons. All I am saying is that Karzai is a savvy individual who understands this very well.

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