Sunday, May 9, 2010

William Dalrymple is one of my favorite writers.  City of Djinns, The Last Mughal, and White Mughals are among the finest sources available on the history of India, and From the Holy Mountain is an intellectual travelogue, blending the ancient and modern Middle East.  But his recent op-ed in the New York Times, The Ghosts of Gandamak, is a disappointment.  Dalrymple's sense of history and lively narrative ability are abundant, but his decision to abuse the tired trope about Afghanistan's invulnerability to conquest is a waste.

Dalrymple recounts the disastrous British invasion in 1839; with particular focus on the 1842 massacre at Gandamak.  The heart of his story is in the present, when he ventures to Gandamak for research and narrowly avoids getting caught in the midst of a battle between the local Taliban and government forces.  The cause, according to Dalrymple, was government neglect.  Soldiers last year eradicated the poppy crop and promised full compensation, but never delivered.  This year, after repeated attempts to obtain their due, villagers teamed with Taliban fighters to prevent Afghan forces from burning the poppy crop.

This story is sadly easy to believe.  However, its relationship with the 1842 massacre is unclear.  Dalrymple attempts to draw the lesson that military solutions alone are inadequate; if that's the status of the enlightened discourse about the Afghanistan campaign we are all in dire straits.  That a political initiative is needed is apparently to all non-comatose observers, and although Dalrymple's advice to negotiate with the Taliban may be correct, it is in no way supported by his historical analogy.

I find it infuriating when a discussion of strategy in Afghanistan is hijacked by the fallacy that it is an inherently ungovernable zone.  This position invokes the argument Seth Jones made when writing In the Graveyard of Empires: that would-be conquerors, from Alexander the Great through the British Empire, met their downfall in the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan at the hands of fiercely independent natives.  The only lesson that can be learned from this teleological reading of history is to avoid Afghanistan at all costs, because forces sinister and free lurk to thwart the aspiring invader.

This notion, to be charitable, is rubbish.  Afghanistan is difficult to govern because of its vast size and rugged terrain, but it is scarcely the only inhospitable ground on earth.  It is no more or less difficult to control than any topographically similar area.  Relying on this simplistic formulation to explain contemporary events dangerously obscures important factors and places undue emphasis on irrelevant areas.

There is value in Dalrymple, but it has nothing to do with the failings of the British or events of 1842.  Instead, his tale should serve as another reminder of what we already know: no measure of success is possible in Afghanistan without good governance from Kabul; but all parties are falling drastically short in that metric.  A failed 19th century British invasion holds no explanatory power nor relevant information about the continuing failure of President Hamid Karzai to provide basic services or tackle corruption, and that is the point which matters.


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