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Perry on Politics: Wellington was right

Published by Tim McNulty on .

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By James M. Perry

On the morning of November 25, 1838, the two most powerful armies on the Indian subcontinent met at Ferozepore. On one side of the parade ground was the mighty Sikh army. On the other side was the army of the East India Company, a colorful mixture of native Indian regiments and regiments of British regulars. They were accompanied by 38,000 camp followers, dozens of elephants, and at least 20,000 camels.

Together, they formed the Grand Army of the Indus, and their intention was to march on Kabul, in Afghanistan, where they sought to put their own man on the throne and create a buffer state to oppose a Russian invasion threat.

The officers, all of them British, expected a promenade militaire. One of the British regiments took its fox hounds along; one of the officers needed two camels just to transport his cigars, and General John Keane needed 260 camels for his and his staff's provisions.DukeofWellington

One of the few doubters, back in London, was the Duke of Wellington (right). It was stupid, he said, to occupy a land of "rocks, sands, deserts, ice and snow."

This was Afghanistan, which has never welcomed foreign invaders. Afghan tribesmen, armed with long muskets called jezails, more accurate than the British Brown Bess, would eventually wipe out the Grand Army of the Indus and all of its camp followers in one of the great military disasters of the 19th Century. It should still be a lesson for all of us.

The army arrived in Kabul on August 7, settled its king, Shah Suja, and his harem in the city's great citadel, the Bala Hissar (it's still there today, occupied by a unit of the Afghan army), and then built a poorly defended cantonment a mile or two outside the city. Everything seemed to be going swimmingly, and a good chunk of the army was sent home.

But the Afghans, particularly the Ghilzyes, were increasingly belligerent. The situation, not helped by the fact that the commanding British general, William George Keith Elphinstone, was old and sickly and that his deputy, John Shelton, was half mad, became so desperate that the British reached an agreement with the Afghans allowing them unimpeded safe passage through mountainous passes and defiles to safety within their own lines in Jalalabad.

The column -- 4,500 soldiers, 12,000 camp followers, and 2,000 camels and ponies -- set out January 6, 1842, and was ambushed almost immediately. Hundreds, including Elphinstone, were taken prisoner; others deserted. Not one of the camp followers survived. In the end, only one of the men attached to the Grand Army of the Indus, Dr. James Brydon, reached Jalalabad alive.

afghanis79Recent invasions of Afghanistan haven't fared much better.

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1978 in support of an unpopular pro-communist government that was opposed by anti-communist, Muslim guerrillas called mujahideen.

It quickly became a Cold War battleground with the United States, among others, supplying aid to the rebels, most notably shoulder-fired Stinger mssiles used to shoot down Russian helicopters. Russian troops, concentrated in the major cities, launched an attack on rural areas, controlled by the mujahideen. Millions of Afghans fled to Pakistan and Iran, but the mujahideen fought on, reaching a stalemate with what was by then a Russian army of 100,000 men.

The Soviets agreed to withdraw from Afghanistan in 1989; 15,000 of them had been killed in action. It was, some said, the Soviet Union's Vietnam.

And now, of course, it is the turn of the United States. The problem is what it has always been -- fierce tribal opposition to any foreign nation that sets foot on Afghan soil.

Wellington was right. It's not smart to fight in such a place.

James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, is contributing regular observations for post-gazette.com. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.

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