August 23, 2005
"...the whole thing was unintelligible to me."
-Lord Auckland, Governor-General, on the catastrophe he had engineered
The Return of Elphey Bey
The press has created a meme and put it in the mouths of our enemies. "Leave Iraq, and you will not be bothered." This has some significant parallels to the British Army's retreat from Kabul in 1842:
It was to be the most terrible retreat in the history of British arms. It began on January 6th, 1842 and would in end an 'awful completeness' as the historian John Kaye said, barely a week later. The nearest British garrison and therefore the only place where safety could be guaranteed was in the city of Jalalabad, and it lay over ninety miles away. It doesn't seem so far, but it was a ninety mile trek over snow-covered mountain paths and passes, through desolate country held by warlike tribesmen with a great hatred for the British. The British had little confidence in their leaders and even less in the trustworthiness of Mohammed Akbar's promises of safe conduct through the passes. It was therefore a very cold, dispirited throng, there was such confusion it could not be called an army, that left their home of the last three years and headed for the mountains. Almost 17,000 people left the cantonment that dark day . . .Major-General Elphinstone's ineptitude is legendary. Again and again and again, Akbar Khan gave his word to protect the British, or to at least spare them from the hordes of Afghans who descended upon them. Elphinstone always took him at his word -- despite the advice of many of his officers. Though the British eventually returned to Afghanistan, there were there only briefly, then left again, returning once more 35 years later as the great game continued . . .
There was no sign of Akbar's promised escort and the horror started immediately after the rearguard left the compound with the Afghans swarming over the walls into the cantonment eager for loot. The rearguard itself came under sniper fire and many men were hit in the first hour or so of the retreat. It was only to get worse. Afghan horsemen rushed the column again and again, driving off baggage animals and killing both soldiers and unarmed camp followers. By the end of the first day only five miles had been covered and much of the baggage had been lost. As the army tried to make camp, stragglers continued to stagger in asking where their units were. Nobody seemed to know. All was confusion and pointed to a lack of any effective leadership that had already led, and would again lead,to tragedy. Only one tent had survived the Afghan attacks and it was used by some women and children and senior officers that night. Everyone else had to lay down in the snow and the following morning many woke up with frostbitten limbs. Many didn't wake up at all. When the army moved off, those with frostbitten feet had to be left behind.
On the second day, the sniping and mounted attacks continued and in one the Afghans captured two mule guns, leaving only one other mule gun and two heavier pieces as the total ordnance available to the British. And then Mohammed Akbar appeared, scolding the British for leaving before his escort had been made ready. This was nonsense as the time and place for the escort to meet the British had been very precisely set; Akbar's men just hadn't shown up. Akbar suggested the British halt for the day while he negotiated safe passage through the upcoming Khoord-Cabool pass with the local chieftains who controlled it. How Elphinstone could believe such things was beyond the comprehension of the men under his command, but he did and the army dutifully halted. Akbar also asked for three British political officers, Pottinger among them, as hostages. Again Elphinstone supinely gave in to the demand. It must have seemed like a sentence of death to Pottinger and his two companions but they obeyed their commander's orders and went with the Afghans. It was to save their lives.
On January 8th, the third day, the weakened, cold , hungry army moved into the Khoord-Cabool pass. Its four-mile length was to become a charnel house. From the heights above the Afghan tribesmen poured down a withering fire on the Army of the Indus that had no hope of retaliation. Again Akbar's guarantees were shown to be false. Flight was the only option and everyone moved as quickly as possible to escape the fire of the long-barrelled Afghan jezails. The pass was narrow and there was a partly frozen stream wandering along its bottom. The stream had to be forded some thirteen times before the exit of the pass was reached. When the main body finally reached the end of the pass and a temporary safety , the Afghan tribesmen descended on the stragglers and slew them wickedly. Perhaps 3,000 men, women and chidren were lost in that bloody defile. Some said they saw Akbar himself riding through the killing zone shouting in Persian (which many of the British knew) to spare the British and in Pushto (the language of the tribesmen) urging them to kill everyone.
To paraphrase what Daniel Henninger wrote in his Friday column for the Wall Street Journal last week, "the forces that conspired to remove all of the moral and political complexity from the case of Terri Schiavo are now about to turn their attention to Iraq." By this he means to implicate us all: Sheehan and her ilk, her media megaphone, politicians who count the days until November of 2006, and the presidential leadership as well.
If the US were to leave Iraq next year, in toto, we will not have lost the war. But neither will it be over. Radical Islam has not been defeated. Militarily, perhaps, the designs of Al Qaeda have been kept at bay from North America with success. But the ideas which animate their actions, and which are so attractive to so many in the world, have not been discredited. Creating a democratic Iraq, (one of the many goals of our involvement there) is an action meant to answer the jihadis claim for claim.
What would happen, were we to withdraw, and the Iraqis to fail in their constitutional odyssey? The West may lose the will to fight in Iraq, and the Iraqis may lose the will to govern themselves (in which case, one or many strongmen may come to power), but one thing is for certain: Radical Islam will most certainly not have lost its will to power. That desire will manifest itself in violence and Americans will die.
It is a confusing proposition to attempt to compare our current conflict to either World War II -- when the entire might of the American nation was mobilized -- or the Cold War, when forbearance from action was largely seen as the smart course due to the logic of mutually-assured destruction. We find ourselves in a strange situation, partially committed, unsure of what to do next, but knowing -- or do we? -- that restraint may mean death. Our indecisiveness will cause us to be avid spectators of our own slaughter:
As [the prisoners] trudged back along the track towards Kabul, they walked past the thousands of frozen, bloody and mangled corpses of their friends, fellow officers and comrades. "The sight was dreadful, " wrote Lady Sale in her diary, "the smell of the blood sickening; and the corpses lay so thick it was impossible to look away from them, and it took some care to guide my horse so as not to tred upon their bodies."Will the United States perform now as Elphey Bey did in 1842? I submit that if so, peace will be short-lived, and the carnage to come will surpass anything hereunto experienced by man. As the slaughter of Elphinstone's charges was to Lord Auckland, the whole thing will be largely unintelligible to the West, agog at the death that surrounds us.
Posted by Chester at August 23, 2005 11:34 PM