I was looking forward to this exhibition. It promised in its publicity to “examine the history and legacies of the First, Second and Third Afghan Wars (1838-1919)”.
But alarm bells began to ring before I even got there when there was a bit of a plug on Radio 4’s Today programme from its curator Tristan Langlois, alongside the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, Colonel Richard Kemp CBE.
Colonel Kemp reversed all accepted historical evidence by declaring that, although most people say we lost all three wars, that is not the case.
He said, “We beat the Afghans militarily in each war, albeit politically the outcome was very different.
“It is important that British soldiers understand this when they are dealing with the Afghans.”
This went unchallenged by curator Langlois.
He asserted that this is an exhibition that sets out to educate the public and the soldiers now fighting in Afghanistan.
The collection does have an interesting array of ancient and home-made weapons, newsprint, diaries, medals and evocative photographs from the period.
The exhibition claims, “The British were engaged in the country in 1839, 1878 and 1919. On each occasion they sought to stabilise the country.
“They faced attacks from not only Afghan tribesmen and Islamic extremists, but from the war-like tribes of the North-West Frontier.”
It was unlikely therefore that the exhibition was going to depict the First Afghan War for what it was—a blood-soaked experiment in colonialism that descended into the greatest military humiliation ever suffered by the West in the Middle East.
An entire army of what was then the most powerful nation on earth was utterly destroyed by poorly equipped tribesmen, at the cost of £1 billion (in modern currency) and more than 40,000 lives.
The exhibition gives a history of a long succession of puppet rulers that were installed by a British government hell-bent on safeguarding routes to India.
As the exhibition material puts it, “When the British failed to control Afghanistan by diplomatic means it attempted to do so by force.”
So in 1839, in order to “protect India” the British invaded on the basis of sexed-up intelligence about a non-existent threat—a phantom Russian invasion. Kabul was captured within weeks and a compliant monarch placed on the throne.
The British officers played cricket and made plans to make Kabul the summer capital of the Raj. This must be the period of victory Colonel Kemp wants to dwell on.
But then the insurgency began. British forces retreated in January 1842, and 18,000 East India Company troops and up to 10,000 Indian camp followers were slaughtered by Afghan marksmen who were waiting for them as they trudged through the icy Afghan winter.
This was Britain’s biggest imperial disaster of the 19th century. Partly inspired by what the Afghans had achieved, the Indians launched their own war of independence in 1857.
In the run-up to the Second Afghan War (1878-80) Russia and Britain were still jostling for dominance.
The British invaded, were met with an uprising in Kabul and were defeated.
They negotiated their withdrawal in 1881 but Afghanistan remained a British protectorate until the Third Afghan War of 1919.
For three short months in 1919, unnerved by the new King Amanullah’s alliance with the Bolshevik government in Russia and his support of Indian nationalists, the British used the Indian Army for air attacks.
The British and Indian troops suffered almost double the amount of casualties that the Afghans suffered.
Today, as the US and Britain struggle to prop up a puppet government in Afghanistan, they are repeating the blood-soaked 19th century imperial defeat.
This exhibition is further proof, if we needed it, of how the ruling class manipulates history to further its interests.
In 1843, the British army chaplain Reverend Gleig wrote a memoir (not included in the exhibition) of the First Anglo-Afghan War, of which he was one of the few survivors.
He wrote that, “Not one benefit, political or military, was acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.”
Tell that to the troops, Colonel Kemp.
The Road to Kabul: British Armies in Afghanistan, 1838-1919, National Army Museum, Royal Hospital Road, London SW3 4HT until spring 2011 www.national-army-museum.ac.uk