I don’t want to give you the wrong impression of British Afghanistan policy here. In today’s video I point out that US Afghanistan policy is infinitely dumber than British Afghanistan policy, and that’s very true. But British Afghanistan policy was pretty dumb as well. What they did better was run a leaner and more effective occupation. They’d go in every few decades, kill some folks, and then bribe the folks who were left to not deviate from British policy too much. They had learned early on, in the First Anglo-Afghan War from 1839-1842, how little profit, and how much cost Afghanistan could produce. They had attempted to occupy the place with British and Indian forces, and managed to lose their entire army, with the sole exception of William Brydon, the fellow who graces this video’s thumbnail. So the British Empire wised up, tactically anyway.
What was dumb about British policy is the fact that they were there in the first place. Afghanistan, and much of modern Pakistan were only added to the British Empire out of fear. British leaders, and much of the British public were obsessed with an enemy that didn’t pose much of a real threat. The Russian Tsar was supposedly going to sweep out of the steppes and threaten Britain’s lucrative colonies along the Asian coasts. This was always a ridiculous proposition. British India had more railroads than all of the Russian Empire combined up until the 20th century. In the 19th century the Russians had put together a very large, and largely empty empire across the top of Asia. If they had tried their hand at Afghanistan or the Punjab they would have gotten their heads handed to them even more quickly than the British had. Even this was unlikely, because the Russians probably lacked the capacity to get a full 19th century army into the area anyway. But the British fell prey to irrational fears, and ended up taking on a whole lot of lands and responsibilities they had no real use for. Which ended up destroying their empire.
I probably don’t have to emphasize the obvious parallels between what the British did in Afghanistan, and what the US is doing in the Middle East out of fear of Iran today. Both of these policies are idiotic. So while the British may have done a better job managing Afghanistan, the fact that they were there at all means that there is little more to admire about British Afghanistan policy than there is in US Afghanistan policy.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there. This past month we all woke up and realized that the Onion’s saddest article is about to become truth. Next year the United States will start sending troops to Afghanistan that were born after the start of the US’s longest war. The amount of time that the United States has spent trying to control this one small country is hard to talk about, but it’s important that we do, so that’s what I will try to do today…
I don’t talk about Afghanistan on this channel much. This is because the topic is fiendishly complex. I can’t talk about Afghanistan with any seriousness, without talking about the history and issues facing Pakistan. And I can’t talk about Pakistan’s issues with any seriousness without discussing India. The Afghanistan issue is inseparable from the conflicts between these two massive countries. And honestly Bangladesh is a big part of this conflict as well. So I can’t talk about Afghanistan seriously without talking about the problems that face a quarter of humanity. I am just not adequately prepared to do that yet.
There’s another reason I don’t often delve into the US’s longest war. It’s really depressing. For 17 years now we have poured in trillions of dollars failing to change the facts on the ground much at all. The sheer scale of the waste here is awe inspiring. It’s the worst testament imaginable to US power.
In the 1980s the Russians attempted to occupy Afghanistan. At that time the Soviet Union was just over the border from the country, Not across the world as we are. The full resources of one of the world’s largest countries were poured into the occupation. The Soviet attempt to control Afghanistan lasted little more than half as long as our attempt has lasted so far.
The British Empire lost thousands of soldiers trying to control Afghanistan. Finally, with the end of the Second Anglo Afghan war in 1880, they managed to get control of the place, sort of. The Afghans kicked the British out with the Third Anglo Afghan War in 1919. In 2020 our occupation of Afghanistan will have lasted just about half as long as that of the British. Yet we still pretend that the United States is not an Imperial power. And the US Afghan adventure is so much dumber than the British one. During most of the period of British control there weren’t even any British soldiers there. The British bribed local powers to maintain control rather than post armies on the other side of the world. The British knew better than we did. Their empire in Afghanistan was more stable and it cost a small fraction of what ours does.
When we invaded Afghanistan in 2001 I was a young man, in my last year of University. Now I am a middle aged man, just about to turn 40. Wars should not last a generation. Our war in Afghanistan has become permanent. Each new president let’s the generals do the same things over and over again with no result, year after year. The US war in Afghanistan may very well be Human history’s most expensive exercise in pointlessness. Every year tens of billions of dollars are thrown down a bottomless pit, that nobody in the US government really even understands. I don’t have anything clever to say here. Just that we need to stop ignoring the tragedy of this endless war. We need to get out and we need to get out now. Before we find ourselves sending some US Afghan veteran’s grandchild to fight the same Battles.
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