A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, March 12, 2012

Deeper and Deeper in Afghanistan

"Remnants of an Army"
Coming on the heels of the Qur'an-burning debacle, the killing of 16 Afghan civilians by an American NCO compounds the deepening problem the US faces in Afghanistan. These presumably unrelated incidents simply make it harder to see how US efforts to disengage and draw down for a peaceful and stable transfer of power can work. Increasingly, the US forces are finding themselves under siege.

As Bruce Riedel notes, the incidents also complicate efforts to initiate some kind of diplomatic dialogue. And, of course, they have gotten injected into the US political debate as well.

Fortuitously or perhaps serendipitously, The Washington Post just had a review by David Isby of Diana Preston's new book The Dark Defile,  a popular work about the British debacle of the retreat from Kabul in the First Afghan War in 1842. A British and Indian Army of some 4,500 and up to 12,00 wives, accompanying civilians left Kabul. On January 13, Dr. William Brydon rode alone into Jalalabad 90 miles away. When asked where the Army was, he is said to have replied, "I am the Army." A few other stragglers also survived, but Dr. Brydon's arrival alone at Jalalabad became a famous symbol of the disaster, commemorated in Lady Butler's once famous painting, Remnants of an Army (above).

It was one of those great disastrous defeats, like Balaclava or Isandhlwana, that Victorian-era Britain managed to find worthy of heroic memory despite the fact that large numbers of people died due to incompetence of the commanders (Wellington used the term "imbecility" for Elphinstone in the retreat from Kabul). And no, I don't think the US is going to leave Kabul the way Elphinstone did — at least I hope not. But being of a generation that remembers people clinging to the strut of a helicopter taking off from the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon, I worry that incidents such as the Qur'an burning or the latest massacre, which alienate the very people whose hearts and minds we're supposedly fighting for, will not be survivable.

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