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The lesson we didn’t learn in 1842 

The Remnants of an Army by Elizabeth Butler, part of the Tate collection

Britain’s latest defeat in Afghanistan was “to a near-absurd extent” a replay of the first, says William Dalrymple in UnHerd. The same groups of rivals fought the same battles in the same places, 170 years later. In 1842, 18,500 British soldiers retreating from Kabul were annihilated by “scantly clad tribesmen”. Dodgy intelligence had cooked up a phantom Russian invasion, triggering Britain’s decision to go to war. Only one surgeon escaped on a collapsing nag, immortalised in Elizabeth Butler’s painting The Remnants of an Army. There is no Butler today to paint the explosions outside Kabul airport “or the desperate crush around American C-130 transport planes”.

The “disaster of Kabul” cast a long shadow. Harold Macmillan told his successor, Alec Douglas-Home: “As long as you don’t invade Afghanistan, you’ll be absolutely fine.” Afghanistan is “less a state than a kaleidoscope of competing tribal principalities”, hard to take and impossible to hold. As the saying went: “Behind every hillock there sits an emperor.” Misunderstanding the pride of Afghan tribes is hubris. The “lofty” deposed president, Ashraf Ghani, a moderniser who took part in TED Talks, pushed away tribal leaders. He told clan elders who had trekked across Afghanistan they had “10 minutes”, took off his shoes and put his feet up, a sign of huge rudeness. “In the end, few were willing to die to keep Ghani in power.” The West never learns. But Afghanistan remembers.