| ||The 130-year war |
By Jean MacKenzie
The Afghans are not fighting only this war—they are acting out a centuries-old history that to them seems like yesterday.
The news that an otherwise normal-seeming Afghan policeman killed five British soldiers and wounded six more in Helmand this past week was shocking. It was not, unfortunately, surprising for anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in the volatile southern province. Animosity against the British runs deep in Helmand — much deeper, perhaps, than the British are aware.
When Gulbuddin seized a machine gun and started firing, he was continuing a grudge that had been building in Helmandis for the past 130 years or so.
The Battle of Maiwand may not rank alongside Trafalgar, Waterloo, or Gettysburg in the annals of military history taught to impressionable young schoolchildren in London, Paris, or Boston. But the tale of valiant Afghan warriors triumphing over a superior British army is imbibed with mother’s milk in Helmand.
Facts are much less important than the myth, of course. In reality, the British were outnumbered by at least three to one, operating in unfamiliar terrain. They were betrayed by some of their Afghan supporters, who mutinied and changed sides, and mnay of the thousands of Afghans were untrained and barely armed.
Be that as it may, the British lost most of their expeditionary force — some sources put the total as high as 1700 men; the Afghans lost even more, but given their greater numbers, they were the unquestionable victors.
But Maiwand is a symbol of pride for all Afghans, and for Helmandis in particular. Ask any child over four and he or she will tell the tale of the brave and beautiful Malalai, who rallied the Afghan troops when their fighting spirit was about to fail. Using her veil as a standard, the indomitable heroine cried out “Young love! If you do not fall in the Battle of Maiwand, By God someone is saving you as a token of shame.”
I had never heard of the Battle of Maiwand when I first went to Helmand, in the fall of 2006. But by the time I left in the spring of 2008 it had become a fixture in my mental landscape.
“It’s not as if it was all that long ago,” said an Afghan friend who works as a journalist in Lashkar Gah the provincial capital.
I was astonished the first time an Afghan friend told me with certainty that the British had come to Helmand because they wanted to avenge the blood of the ancestors. I dismissed it as foolishness until I had heard it 20 or 30 times, from people in all walks of life and from many different socio-economic strata. I have also heard from numerous sources the urban legend that Afghans living near Maiwand are often attacked by British soldiers.
“They go crazy when they see the cemetery, and just kill any Afghans they can find,” said one friend. It does not matter that this is nonsense. Afghans believe it.
The Helmandis call the British “ingrezi” — a pejorative term. “Son of an ingrezi” is a popular insult, apt to provoke fisticuffs in the hair-trigger Pashtun-south.
The British came to Helmand in the summer of 2006 as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), taking over from the U.S.-led Coalition forces. The then defense secretary, John Reid, voiced the hope that the British could quit southern Afghanistan “without a single bullet being fired.”
Millions of ammunition rounds later, the situation is worse than ever.
Given the historical record, Helmand was a strange choice for the British forces. As soon as they got there, things began to unravel. Helmandis nodded sagely and said “see, we told you so.”
They could not believe that the mighty British army could not defeat a ragtag bunch of insurgents, so they chalked up the mess to conscious policy decisions on the part of the “avenging” army.
The Taliban undoubtedly rejoiced when they heard that the British were coming to Helmand. It made their recruiting that much easier.
It was not a Talib but a respected tribal elder who voiced the chilling words “The bones of the British lying in Maiwand are lonely. We will make sure they have company very soon.”
Perhaps Gulbuddin, the soldier who fired the fatal machine-gun burst on Tuesday, had Taliban sympathies. Perhaps he simply snapped. But it is also possible that, regardless of the camaraderie that the British felt they were enjoying with the Afghan police, Gulbuddin regarded them as his historical enemies. He certainly would have had Malalai and Maiwand in his blood.
It is a bitter lesson, but one that needs to be taken on board. The Afghans are not fighting only this war — they are acting out a centuries-old history that to them seems like yesterday.