Historical Ironies: US Retreat From Afghanistan And Shah Shuja’s Legacy

There are distinct similarities between the first Anglo-Afghan war and the present conflict, chief of which is that it was a regime change operation to replace the Taliban with the more pliant Pashtuns of the America’s choosing. So just as Shah Shuja ul Mulk with the British military forces replaced Dost Mohammed Khan on the throne of Kabul in 1839, Karzai flew into Afghanistan in 2001, replacing Mullah Omar who rode off on his motorbike into the sunset of Uruzgan never to be seen again by his opponents.

The first Anglo-Afghan war resulted in the return of Dost Mohammed Khan to power and utter defeat of British forces just as we have seen the utter defeat of NATO and return of Taliban.

Puppet Rulers

Afghans are very sensitive about leaders that have been imposed upon them by regime change orchestrated by foreign powers. During the Kabul student demonstrations of February and March 1980, the Soviet imposed leader, Babrak Karmal was denounced by the students as ‘Shah Shuja the second.’ It is said that Karzai was particularly sensitive to the Taliban who depicted him as Shah Shuja the Third.

Water-colour sketch of Shah Shuja holding a durbar at Kabul, Afghanistan by James Atkinson (1780 – 1852) between 1839 and 1840.

Karzai had his eye on history and does not want to be dismissed as a mere puppet. Perhaps this is why he has decided to stay in Afghanistan rather than escape with his ill-gotten gains like Ashraf Ghani.

Bin Laden’s Houdini-like Escape

In 2001, the US sent Afghan warlords to Tora Bora to capture Osama Bin Laden, but they were paid off by Al Qaeda and looked the other way as Bin Laden escaped into the arms of his Pakistani hosts across the Durand line. Similarly in 1839, the British forces along with Afghan allies under Haji Kakar Khan pursued Dost Mohamed Khan into Northern Afghanistan. When the pursuing British and Afghan forces were within an easy ride of capturing Dost Mohammed Khan, Haji Kakar Khan warned the British, that if they proceeded after Dost Mohammed, then he could not prevent his men from attacking the British. The British officers then had no choice but to allow Dost Mohammed Khan to make good his escape.

Khan as Emir of Afghanistan

The Afghan Government

The USA, far from establishing a liberal human rights observing democracy in Afghanistan, established the 20th most corrupt regime on the planet and linked with this were gross abuses of human rights. At Daisht e Laili near in Northern Afghanistan during 2001, at least 5,000 captured Taliban fighters were murdered by forces of Abdur Rashid Dostum and US special forces. Similarly, after the fall of Ghazni in 1839 to the British, a general massacre was committed by the British forces, who also looted all the belongings of the people, including their clothes.

Night Raids

During the course of the conflict many innocents were slaughtered in nighttime raids. These murders added fuel to the fire of the Taliban insurgency. British special forces had been in a macabre competition amongst themselves to see who could kill the most Afghans during these night raids. One of the victims of the night raids was the uncle of Hamid Karzai.

Night raids were also a feature of the first Afghan war ending in slaughter and in one such raid in 1841, the British forces captured Akrum Khan of Helmand. Akrum Khan was taken to Kandahar and blown from a cannon by the British for his resistance activities against the occupation. That was not to be the end of the story, for in May 1842, Akrum Khan’s widow wearing her white chador, seated upon her husband’s horse holding aloft her husband’s tribal flag led thousands of Afghan cavalrymen into battle against the British.

Afghans have historically resisted those that oppressed them whether the oppressor was Mongol, Safavid, British or Russian or the so called ‘leader of the free world’ the USA.

Britain’s Historic Legacy Of Defeat In Helmand

The Afghans of Helmand knew all about their heroes, such as Akrum Khan of the first Anglo-Afghan war and his brave wife. There were also other heroes who defied Britain in the Second Anglo-Afghan war like Abu Bakr.

Helmand would, therefore, give the British a bloody nose forcing the occupiers in 2006 to sign a peace deal with the Taliban to vacate Musa Qala under Taliban guarantees of safe conduct for departing British troops. By 2010, the British forces were no longer able to hold out against the Taliban and British officials were pleading with their US colleagues to relieve them.

This led to the surge of US troops under Obama and the quiet withdrawal of the defeated British ‘lion’ mauled on the fields where their ancestors were beaten. Even the Afghan National Army officers despised the British.

Remnants of an Army by Elizabeth Butler depicting the arrival of assistant surgeon, William Brydon, at Jalalabad on 13 January 1842

In Helmand, a gate had been locked by the British between the Afghan army camp and British army camp. The incensed Afghan officers, fully aware of the British defeats during the Anglo-Afghan wars, berated their British counterparts, “My grandfather kicked your grandfather’s butt in battle, how dare you lock the gate!” It was such tensions that led to frequent killing of NATO troops by Afghan soldiers.

Interestingly the British had experienced attacks from within the Afghan forces they set up during the 1839-1842 war.

Detention Facilities And Torture

The USA established secret detention facilities such as the ‘black’ salt pit prison at Kabul airport, a torture facility at Bagram and another at Kandahar. Other sites including the notorious Guantanamo Bay became operational as well as other hidden torture facilities, away from the prying eyes of the visitors from the International Committee of the Red Cross.

These included a torture facility in Poland where detainees from the Afghan conflict were subjected to abuse. Even an unfortunate German Muslim citizen was captured by the Macedonian authorities in Macedonia and handed over to the USA who flew him to Bagram for torture. The shadow of human rights abuses struck fear into Muslim communities around the globe, since this was not the only case of Muslims being kidnapped from third countries to Afghanistan. The oldest Guantanamo inmate aged 73 Saifullah Paracha is a Pakistani who was kidnapped from Thailand and had never set foot in Afghanistan. Another Pakistani in custody of the USA is Dr Aafia Siddiqui, a US citizen, kidnapped from Karachi with at least two of her children and held prisoner in Bagram.

Dr Siddiqui was later alleged to have attempted to shoot US soldiers, though there was no forensic evidence linking her to the rifle she was alleged to have used to supposedly try and shoot the soldiers. Dr Aafia is presently serving a lengthy prison sentence in the USA for attempting to shoot US soldiers.

Dr Aafia Siddiqui

The human rights of those in US hands were not safeguarded, as the US employed all sorts of torture including rape and waterboarding.

At Bagram, an Afghan Taxi driver named Delawar was beaten to death by US troops who sadistically enjoyed hearing his cries to Allah for assistance which prompted the US troops to beat him even more.

NATO Funded Taliban

Rather perversely, during the course of the conflict the US indirectly funded the Taliban. The US supply convoys delivering equipment to US bases around Afghanistan, would pay protection money to the Taliban in order not to be attacked.

During the first Anglo-Afghan war, the British paid the Ghilzai tribe to allow the British to safely pass through Ghilzai territory to South Asia. When these payments were stopped the Ghilzai cut the British lines of communication, culminating in British defeat. Similarly Italian troops at Sarobi in 2009 paid the Taliban not to attack them.

Kabul Massacre

All occupations end with a massacre and this is what was to happen at Kabul airport. On 16 August 2021, US troops killed three armed Taliban engaged in crowd control without any provocation on the part of the Talibs. The danger signs of a further massacre were therefore present from these trigger-happy US forces. When IS exploded suicide bombs at Kabul airport on 26 August 2021, the US troops opened fire at the defenceless Afghan men, women and children who had been waiting to enter the airport.

According to BBC reporting by Secunder Kermani, most of those killed were shot dead by US forces in cold blood. The following day 10 members of an Afghan family were murdered in a US drone strike which the US claimed was a strike against an IS operative.

Afghans struggling to make their way to Kabul Airport on the day suicide bombers struck.

The dead included six children aged from 2-12. The British left Kabul in 1839 after a massacre of the population and burning Kabul city to the ground. All that was of economic value was destroyed, including fruit trees. As the US forces finally left Kabul airport the Afghans arrived to find a scene of destruction, with drink vending machines broken and the drinks looted, the airplane arrival and departure computerised screens smashed, the immigration administrations booth windows smashed along with the computers.

Today if you google “Kabul massacre” you will come across the account of the defeat of General Elphinstone, but you will not hear of the 1842 massacre committed by British troops in Kabul and many other villages, towns and cities. The news of the US massacre committed at the Kabul airport is likewise obscured behind smoke and mirrors and the deaths largely attributed to the suicide bombers.

No Western journalist seeks to establish who gave the order to US troops to fire upon the defenceless Afghans at the airport and what the US proposes to do to hold the criminals to account. The reality of news reporting from mainstream outlets including Al Jazeera and TRT is to tow the USA line on the massacre at the airport.

Therefore, the USA whilst losing the war succeeds in portraying its opponents as unscrupulous savages which is exactly the image the British presented of Afghans after the first Anglo-Afghan war.

The USA has further succeeded in glossing over its many atrocities in Afghanistan such as killing of innocent Afghans and cutting their fingers off for sport. Yet despite these sordid atrocities the Western journalist feel no embarrassment to ask the Taliban judge whether the hands of the thief will be cut. There are strict sharia guidelines on what the amount should be of the theft before it qualifies the criminal for having his hand removed. Further those that steal food items due to the fact they or their family are hungry are exempt from the punishment of hand cutting.

Who Benefits?

Apart from the US military industrial complex Afghan warlords like-Dostum, Fahim, and Sayyaf as well as their associates such as Dr Abdullah Abdullah, and Ahmed Wali Massoud amongst others who benefitted immensely from US largesse.

Another important group that gained were Afghan-Americans, in particular Karzai and Ghani as well as their extended families. Likewise, a very small group of people in Afghanistan benefitted from the first Anglo-Afghan war and these were the Hindu money lenders, mainly of Shikarpuri Sindhi and Punjabi origin, who helped the British occupation remain solvent and transfer funds from Afghanistan across South Asia.

Refugees And Human Rights

While the USA and its allies continue to demand that Afghanistan provide safe routes for those wishing to leave Afghanistan, perversely the USA has not accepted all the Afghans they flew out of Kabul.

Many languish in third countries such as Albania waiting for processing of their cases. Similarly, after the first Anglo-Afghan war, my ancestors who had supported the Shah Shuja regime ended up abandoned by the British in the hostile Sikh controlled city of Lahore.

After two long years living under Sikh rule, finally in 1844 did the British allow their former Afghan allies to come to British Indian controlled territory in Ludhiana. Likewise, the teenage female Afghan national robotics team was flown to asylum in Mexico which the US state dept report for 2020 decries as a country with a high rate of femicide with 580 women killed in the first eight months of 2020.

The niggardly nature of the US and its allies means that most of these Western countries do not in fact want to accept Muslim refugees. Presently in the UK there are 3,000 refused asylum seekers of Afghan origin and the British government still shows no signs of reversing those refusals. The major concern of the British Government is to stem arrivals by boat of asylum seekers sailing over the English Channel from France. Human rights has been and will sadly be very low down the list of Western priorities despite the Western governments insistence that the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will be held to human rights conditionality.

The British government is in fact so adverse to human rights promotion that it is seeking to pass legislation that will protect British troops from prosecution for their many war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In conclusion, it is likely that the USA will continue to try and destabilise Afghanistan through freezing Afghanistan’s national reserves of $9 billion and limiting aid other than through NGOs. It is quite possible that the USA may seek to support armed elements opposed to the Taliban whether that be IS or the likes of Amrulah Saleh and Ahmed Massoud. The possibilities of the Indian, Iranian and Tajikistan actively supporting such US adventures in Afghanistan are high since all three nations are due to meet in Dushanbe this month. Tajikistan sees itself as the protector of the Tajik minority in Afghanistan and Iran wishes to promote the Persian speaking groups in Afghanistan.

The advent of peace is not all doom and gloom, since there are now opportunities to build the long-stalled oil and gas pipeline from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan and to Pakistan. Further Pakistani tourists numbering 300,000 per annum used to visit Afghanistan annually and were the largest group of foreign tourists. There is no reason why the charms of a relatively cheaper country and attractions of the historic cities of Ghazni, Herat, Kandahar and Kabul could not entice Pakistani tourists. Potentially it is now possible, subject to visa requirements to visit Samarkand and Bukhara overland from Afghanistan, taking in both Afghan and Uzbek historic sites. The opportunity therefore exists to retrace the steps of Babur the Lion King from Lahore via Kabul and Herat to his former home in Ferghana Valley.

The writer is the author of Afghanistan in the Age of Empires