Thursday, January 17, 2013

On the Road to Jalalabad

This week is the anniversary of the end of the British retreat from Kabul in January of 1842. 4,500 troops under the leadership of the lightly regarded General William Elphinstone, along with 12,000 women and children (and some merchants)  left for Jalalabad, 90 miles away, after the murders of the British representatives in Kabul. The British representative, Macnaghten, had offered to make Akbar Khan Afghanistan's vizier in exchange for allowing the British to stay in Afghanistan, while simultaneously planning to have him assassinated, plans that Akbar Khan discovered. A meeting for direct negotiations between MacNaghten and Akbar was held on 23 December, but MacNaghten and the three officers accompanying him were murdered by Akbar Khan. Macnaghten's body was then dragged through the streets of Kabul and displayed in the bazaar. Elphinstone took this as a bad sign and the British negotiated safe passage, they thought, through the snowbound mountain passes to Jalalabad.

During the next seven days, with various insincere offers for peace and truce, the Afghans systematically cut the unit, women and children to pieces. The final British stand was at Gandamak. On January 13, one survivor arrived at Jalalabad: a Doctor Brydon, a military physician with a significant head wound.

At the height of the Empire, the British were vulnerable in far away lands to groups with relatively inferior technology and organization.

The British have long regarded this event as evidence of Afghan untrustworthiness. (MacNaghten's treachery was apparently understandable.) But one does wonder how people recover from these disasters. How can the British just soldier on? How does an event like this not stain their psyche, interfering with every negotiation and international encounter? How do national blood feuds not develop? How can the Americans become trading partners with Japan after the Pacific war? How can the Vietnamese do the same with the Americans? Is it forgiveness? Or are these large and national events quite separate from us small individuals, like some sort of national epidemic that burns itself out like the flu or the Plague, and the individual does indeed soldier on, scars and all, grateful to have survived.

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