Ghazis, mujahideen and taliban - a review of "Butcher and Bolt" by David Loyn

Butcher and Bolt

"The Afghan will bear poverty, insecurity of life; but he will not tolerate foreign rule. The moment he has his chance, he will rebel." - from the 'Lawrence Memo' 1867.

For 200 years Afghanistan has been like a sore on the body politic of the west, a sore which they just HAD to pick at. (I mean no disrespect to the people of Afghanistan - just to the obsessive-compulsive behaviour of some western politicians!). And we all know what happens to a sore that gets picked at - it doesn't heal, it just gets worse.

Western policy towards Afghanistan was determined, and still largely is, more by factors outside of the country than within it. And this policy, right up to the present, has led to a long list of expensive failures.

Butcher and Bolt (Hutchinson, 2008) by experienced foreign correspondent David Loyn provides insightful evidence of what has caused the failures.

In the 200 years of foreign involvement in the affairs of Afghanistan huge amounts of money have been spent, large numbers of lives have been lost, in a quest to force western concepts onto a country not very receptive to such ideas.

In the process lessons were learned and forgotten, only for them to have to be learned all over again. Butcher and Bolt tells the story of successive attempts to subdue the tribes and warlords and bring the country under the control of the great powers.

Lady Elizabeth Butler's painting 'The Remnant of an Army' depicts Dr William Brydon, sole survivor of the British retreat from Kabul in 1842 - an apt metaphor for western policy towards Afghanistan
Lady Elizabeth Butler's painting 'The Remnant of an Army' depicts Dr William Brydon, sole survivor of the British retreat from Kabul in 1842 - an apt metaphor for western policy towards Afghanistan
"Punch" cartoon from 1878. The amir in the middle is Shir Ali who wanted an alliance with Russia.
"Punch" cartoon from 1878. The amir in the middle is Shir Ali who wanted an alliance with Russia.

Two hundred years of failed foreign involvement

In the 19th Century Imperial Britain, at the time the most powerful and wide-spread empire in history threw people and other resources into the effort, fighting three wars on Afghan soil.

In the second half of the 20th Century the Russian "Bear' invaded Afghanistan to prop up a communist leader, and then found themselves mired in a sticky mess they could find no way out of for nearly ten years.

Then came 9/11 and the "War on terror" which entailed the US-led attack on the Taliban. After the defeat of the Taliban western troops are still bogged down in Afghanistan in the attempts to find Osama bin Laden and at the same time prop up President Hamid Karzai.

Each successive attempt to impose a primarily "western" regime on Afghanistan, it seems, ignored previous experience and started as if "de novo".

Mountstuart Elphinstone
Mountstuart Elphinstone
Lieutenant John Macartney's map
Lieutenant John Macartney's map

Elphinstone's mission - the start of the 200 years

It was Napoleon's "embrace with Tsar Alexander on a raft in the centre of the river that divided their armies at Tilsit" that alerted the East India Company to the vulnerability of their holdings in India to attack from the west.

The company sent 29-year-old Mountstuart Elphinstone to find out from the reigning King of Afghanistan, the Amir Shah Shuja, what his intentions regarding India were.

Elphinstone travelled with 600 camels and a dozen elephants all laden with gifts. He met Shah Shuja in Peshawar early in 1809 where he was "dazzled by the jewels" worn by the Amir, jewels which included the famed (infamous?) Koh-i-noor diamond.

Loyn comments: "It was the beginning of a relationship that would lead directly to Britain's worst defeats in two centuries of imperial power in Asia."

In what could be seen as a portent of all that would bedevil the relationship and the future of British aspirations in Afghanistan, while he was conferring with the King his men were not being very successful in handing over the gifts they had brought. Loyn writes, "Not only were the camels bearing the gifts taken by force by the amir's men, so were other riding camels that had come in (to the welcoming ceremony) by mistake."

Travelling with Elphinstone was a surveyor by the name of Lieutenant John Macartney. Macartney drew a map of Afghanistan but, as he did not get into the country himself, he had to rely on reports from others to do so.

Afghanistan therefore remained "wild and strange", an "imaginary country - an Afghanistan of the mind."

Loyn write that Macartney's "perspective would come to dominate European thinking, in particular military thinking, about the land across the Indus for a century."

"Nowhere," Loyn remarks, "does geography more define war than in Afghanistan." And the geography was largely imaginary, a mental construct.


Frontier tribesmen demonstrate the 'jezail' to an early photographer
Frontier tribesmen demonstrate the 'jezail' to an early photographer

The Great Game

For the next 120-odd years Afghanistan was a pawn in the endless imperial maneuverings of Britain and Russia. Each great power distrusting the other and trying to outwit each other.

Russia's first move in the great chess game came in 1840 when the British were heavily engaged in Afghanistan and so was unlikely to be able to counter the Russian move. The move was to send an army with 10000 camels to attack the small country of Khiva just to the north of Afghanistan.

The Russian army did not even reach its destination, beaten by the vast expanse of the steppes and the winter weather. The Russian force lost 800 men, most of the camels and horses, and turned back in chaos.

Loyn notes that "At the heart of the Great Game was trade." An estimate of the trade of the two great powers out the value of Russian goods in Kabul at 200000 rupees and that of British goods at 300000 rupees.


Click thumbnail to view full-size
"British images of frontier tribesmen in teh nineteenth century were usually caricatures of bloodthirsty ruffians.""1897. Ghazis going into battle, inspired by flags and drums, and firing into the air rather than at the enemy, guaranteeing death as a martyr.""1919. Air power came to Afghanisatan for the first time."
"British images of frontier tribesmen in teh nineteenth century were usually caricatures of bloodthirsty ruffians."
"British images of frontier tribesmen in the nineteenth century were usually caricatures of bloodthirsty ruffians."
"1897. Ghazis going into battle, inspired by flags and drums, and firing into the air rather than at the enemy, guaranteeing death as a martyr."
"1897. Ghazis going into battle, inspired by flags and drums, and firing into the air rather than at the enemy, guaranteeing death as a martyr."
"1919. Air power came to Afghanisatan for the first time."
"1919. Air power came to Afghanisatan for the first time."

Interesting facts along the way

This book has some really interesting and, to me at least, hitherto unknown facts. A few of them:

  1. The first suicide attack - On the morning of 17 January 1880 an emaciated religious student, a talib-ul-ulm, entered Kandahar with a load of wood. Once inside the citadel, he, in the words of an anonymous diarist, "threw it down and attacked Sergeant Miller, of the Engineers, with a knife." Another serviceman struck down the would-be assassin with a pick-axe.
  2. Press-ups -Elphinstone was very impressed with the exercise routine he observed among some Afghan men, which he described as follows: "the performer places himself on his hands and toes, with his arms stiff, and his body horizontal, at a distance from the ground. When his body is as far thrown forward as possible, he draws it back to the utmost, straightens his arms, and is prepared to repeat the motion." Loyn comments, "The British army had discovered press-ups."
  3. Pashtunwali - the Pashtun code of honour, which, in the words of the author, "gave protection to guests while guaranteeing death to strangers." It also ensured that feuds between families carried on for generations. Historian Charles Allen, writing in 2000, pointed out that almost all conflict in Afghanistan "can be traced back to this single issue of principle versus honour."
  4. First air raids in South Asia - this was in May 1919 when two tired Sopwith Camels dropped bombs on Afghan soldiers in Dakka. Loyn writes: "They did not have enough power to clear the surrounding mountains, so had the disconcerting experience of bing fired down on as the flew along the Khyber Pass."

Funniest episode

Two hundred years after Elphinstone's meeting with Shah Shuja, another western envoy met an Afghan leader in the same town, Peshawar. This time it was US Congressman Charlie Wilson who met Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a leader of the mujahideen guerrilla's fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Loyn describes Wilson opening the door to his Afghan guest, a meeting which would have more immediate impact on the country than Elphinstone's meeting 200 years before:

"Behind Wilson, climbing off the bed to greet the Afghan guest, was a former Miss Northern Hemisphere no less, known as Snowflake. Not wanting to expose too much flesh in this conservative Muslim town, Snowflake was covered up. Her version of modest was a pink nylon jumpsuit with a zip that ran from neck to navel, and the footwear she thought would put the Afghan visitor Gulbuddin Hekmatyar at his ease were combat boots, chosen because he was a warrior ..."

Thus was the US funding of Muslim fundamentalists begun, which would in the next two decades bog the world's most powerful military down in a battle against fighters they had themselves largely armed and financed.

"Butcher and Bolt"

This book is an entertaining and yet deeply troubling book. It throws into the spotlight issues of religion and nationalism, fanaticism and bravery, that continue to plague the West's engagement with the diverse peoples of the country known as Afghanistan.

The west, and in particular the US, has thrown masses of money and material at the country to seemingly little avail. The British tried to prop up rulers who were amenable to British interests in Afghanistan, the Soviets tried to prop up a ruler who they thought would make Afghanistan into a client communist country, and now the US and Britain (again) are trying to prop up a government that serves their interests.

The likelihood of failure is again rather high.

You ask where the title of the book comes from? Well the British response to the Pashtun Code of Honour, or at least to the violent effects of it, was to raid villages in quick sorties and get out again having done as much damage as possible - hence the policy became known as "butcher and bolt."

This book is essential reading for anyone wanting to gain a deeper insight into why the war in Afghanistan looks so hopeless and so unending. It is well written and well illustrated (all the illustrations on this Hub come from the book).


Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2011

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Comments 31 comments

Petra Vlah profile image

Petra Vlah 5 years ago from Los Angeles

Thank you Tony for another great hub. From Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan, from the British Empire to Russia, none could control or conquer Afghanistan, so America does not stand a chance in hell to do better. The war may be more about controlling the drug trade and its roads than anything else; using denial while trying to convince the world that “it is a question of national security” is one more lie and not better than all the rest.

Whatever the reason may be, the result will be the same and will not be pretty. If history is any proof, all empires collapse soon after fighting in Afghanistan, so we will see what happens next.


Mentalist acer profile image

Mentalist acer 5 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

The US has a peculiar way of identifying itself as the conscience of the world...with little self consciousness to show in its self,thanks for sharing tonymac.;)


De Greek profile image

De Greek 5 years ago from UK

Why is that everyone can see that the visiting teams are destined to loose, except the visiting teams themselves? :-)


Tatjana-Mihaela profile image

Tatjana-Mihaela 5 years ago from Zadar, CROATIA

I agree with you - the war in Afghanistan is not possible to win because of many factors...and one of them is that so many countries are involved in the war there with so many various interests (USA and NATO countries, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and only God knows who else)

A day ago, I came the same conclusion as Petra. History might repeat itself, with another country mainly involved today.

Peace and some kind of wise co-operation with this people can do much more for peace of the world, then fighting them on their theritory, while not understanding their motives for fight, and there are also various ones: some fight for freedom, some fight for power, some because somebody is paying them for that, some fight for opium-money, some because they never learned anything else...very difficult situation.

Thanks for writing this Hub.


TheManWithNoPants profile image

TheManWithNoPants 5 years ago from Tucson, Az.

Thumbs up, useful, and awesome. So useful, in fact, that it completely confirmes where I stand politically on this so called war. In the last year I have completely changed my stand on this matter, and this hub re enforces my stand.

Thanks Toneymac

jim


dallas93444 profile image

dallas93444 5 years ago from Bakersfield, CA

Jim echoes my sentiments. We need to leave the country for them to fiend for themselves. If there are "terrorist" there that are planning and executing attacks upon us, we have the means to take them out. Simple, specific and not near as costly as a war with corrupt leaders...


secularist10 profile image

secularist10 5 years ago from New York City

Great article, Tony.

The American effort in Afghanistan is fundamentally unwinnable because of the nature of Afghan society and the Afghan people. You cannot create a 21st century democratic capitalist system over night in a religiously backward, medieval and tribalistic social system.

For almost a decade now, American leaders have failed to grasp the basic nature and character of Afghanistan, and that is the ultimate reason why they have failed to accomplish anything of substance there. So the only option they can see is to throw more money and men at the problem, and hope for the best.

I find it particularly vexing that so much of the strategic policy is derived from the "expertise" of the military leaders themselves. These are the men who are paid to have an undying can-do attitude, and are paid to always make decisions with an expectation of victory. Not exactly an unbiased perspective.

Unfortunately, neither the Democrats nor Republicans have shown any indication that they can think outside of the box and pursue an authentically new and more effective solution to Afghanistan. The real solution is quite straightforward--but that's another whole discussion.

So it looks like we are stuck for the time being between a useless strategy of more money/ more men (despite the ballooning fiscal crisis), and total pullout, which can only help the terrorists.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Petra - thanks for stopping by. That is a very interesting observation that no empire ever lasted long after an Afghan adventure. The 'national security' lie is of course the easist to sell to a reluctant electorate.

Thanks again for the comment.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Acer - I think we all lack self-awareness to a certain degree. When public policy is made without awareness though there are likely to be problems, as you say.

Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Love and peace

Tony


barryrutherford profile image

barryrutherford 5 years ago from Queensland Australia

Reading this article I have learned a few more things about Afghanistan like the Origin of push ups for instance. But seriously it ups set me day after day when images & rhetoric over the television screens say we a re'making progess' on the 'war on terror'. Most of the wise & well read such as yourself see that those involved in this military operation are destined to repeat history by doing the same things. Different coloured uniform same actions.


amillar profile image

amillar 5 years ago from Scotland, UK

It's strange how they never seem to learn the lessons of guerrilla warfare; it reminds me of the optimism, which trumpeted an 'end to boom and bust' - (but did they really swallow their own bullshit?).

Your hubs just get better my friend.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Dimitris - you pose an interesting question to which I'm not sure there is an adequate answer. It has something to do with the spectator being able to see more of the game than the players, I think. It's diffult to see clearly when one's eyes are full of the blood and dust of battle!

Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Taatjana - thanks for the thoughtful comment.

there are indeed many motives for the fighting in Afghanistan but the foreign incursions seem lonly to make matters much worse for all concerned. It is, I agree, a threat to world peace.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Jim - thanks for the kind words. And I'm glad you found it useful in confirming your understading of the situation there.

Love and peace

Tony


always exploring profile image

always exploring 5 years ago from Southern Illinois

I can see why we are hated by the terrorist.We have tried to force our religion on other nations,someone said that Afghanistan had a backward religion,who are we to dictate whose religion is right.I believe in the bible written by men inspired by God,they do not.At one time England wanted to rule the world,now we appear to be the invading force,could we want their oil so badly that we will invade their country in the name of righteous.Greed has been the leading factor to dominate Afghanistan.Tony you have written a very important hub.Thank you.

Love and Peace


MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 5 years ago from South Africa

Tony, this is an extremely interesting hub. You have certainly broadened my perception of the issue with miles. That nations should respect each other’s uniqueness, and allow each other to be, is a clear commandment of nature, yet highly educated leaders are not able to keep it, and we know the reason, and we can even understand their motives. I believe the solution of all problems lies in Education. “Where lucidity reigns a scale of values become unnecessary” ~ Camus.

Receive once again a bow from me, Sir. You are my mentor in many subjects. And I’m so proud of you, being such a great ambassador for our country, proving that we are not all like them who are so fallaciously regarded as prototype whites in SA. Jy is sommer net ’n boffin!

Only my best wishes to you and your family, Tony ... as always.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Dallas - thanks for the comment. I agree with you and Jim.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Secularist - I really appreciate your comment. The US, like Britain and Russia before them, is stuck as a result of a faulty perception of what Afghanistan is about. Their efforts there are likely to fail like the efforts of those who tried before. Not sure what they can do to remedy or save the situation now.

Thanks again.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Barry - yes the foreigners attempting to impose their wills on te Afghan people seem not to learn from the experiences of those who have gone before. Tragic, really.

Thanks for stopping by.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

I have often wondered about that myself, Amillar, my friend. Do the propagandists start to believe their own propaganda?

Thanks for the visit and the very kind words.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Ruby - thanks so much for the kind words. I appreciate your visit very much. I think that too often people and countries try to impose their wills on others for the sake of greed.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Martie my vriend - baie dankie vir die mooi woorde. Ek sit nou laatnag in Kaapstad en antwoord al die vriende wat op my Hubs opmerkings gemaak het. Ek weet van 'boffin' wees nie maar ek waardeer jou support vreeaslik baie!

My best wishes to you and yours also, my friend.

Love and peace

Tony


always exploring profile image

always exploring 5 years ago from Southern Illinois

Tony,I had to come back to tell you that i made a mistake about the Afghanistan region having oil,my friend tells me that they do not have oil,there main resorce is opium.I didn't know this.Surely we wouldn't go to war for opium.Thank you.

Cheers


Micky Dee profile image

Micky Dee 5 years ago

Thanks again Tony. This is another great teaching hub! I just wish our "leaders" (whatever that means) would read important writing that could lead to fewer lives lost. But our leaders are lawyers. They studied in college so they would never have to study, make rational decisions, or be compassionate ever again. I love you Tony!

Yo Always Exploring- Afghanistan is a country we need to get the oil across. Our CIA is always in the drug business from the writing I've read (Iran Contra etc.).Opium production is said to be on the rise since our occupation.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Ruby - indeed, but I didn't think it changed the meaning of your comment so I just left it! Thanks for coming back to correct it yourself. I appreciate that.

Micky - the involvement of the CIA in the drugs business is something I have heard of and find scary, to be sure. The growing of opium poppies was discouraged by the Taliban but has taken off again since they were ousted. I am reading another book about Afghanistan right now and it just confirms the sadness of the people under foreign interference. Will do a review next week. But the lesson of Afghanistan is that we somehow just don't learn!

Thanks again to both of you.

Love and peace

Tony


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

Afghanistan will just be another Viet Nam for the US eventually. Foreign powers were in both places before the US and we learned nothing from their involvement. So much loss of life and money that we cannot afford to spend is being squandered and the end result will undoubtedly be no different from prior attempts to (help?) control the situation. What a mess!

Wish your "love and peace" could expand to cover everyone in Afghanistan as well as the rest of the world. Nice dream!

Very USEFUL hub!


lionel1 profile image

lionel1 5 years ago

Man I really appreciate your work, all that history and information is excellent work. Thank you very much.


jandee profile image

jandee 5 years ago from Liverpool.U.K

Tony,

if you only had one reader agree wth your hub you should be pleased! but you had the majority with you and even changed some minds ! What a good way to prepare for the New year,

thanks for excellent information,m


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Peggy - thanks so much for the kind words and I'm sorry it has taken so long to respond. I have been in Cape Town and it was difficult to get onto my HubPages account!

The whole Afghanistan "Great Game" is so wasteful and futile and I wish I could spread some love and peace there. Meanwhile all I can do is wish you "love and peace", as always.

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Lionel - thanks so much for your comment which I truly appreciate.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Maxine - thanks so much! Another Afghanistan book review is coming up!

Love and peace

Tony

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