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The Afghan Way of War
How and Why They Fight
By Robert Johnson. 400 pp. Oxford, 2011. $29.95.

The Dark Defile
Britain’s Catastrophic Invasion of Afghanistan, 1838–1842
By Diana Preston. 320 pp. Walker, 2012. $28.

Reviewed by Frank Ledwidge

IN THE 1990s, when many of the current crop of instant Afghanistan “experts” were at school, Oxford don and former British Army officer Robert Johnson was trekking the Afghan and Pakistani Pashtun lands as a scholar and traveler. His deep knowledge, lightly worn, is evident in his latest book, The Afghan Way of War.

The book—which covers Afghanistan’s conflicts since the early 18th century—sets the standard for military history of this war-torn country. It is excellent. Its central thrust is to debunk the notion that there is an “Afghan way,” one overflowing with religious fanaticism yet lacking in tactics or strategy. The Afghans deserve more credit for tactics, Johnson argues; they’ve smartly adapted to each new threat.

As one might expect from Johnson’s pedigree (which includes several well-received books on military history), Afghan Way is scrupulously researched from both primary and secondary sources. It’s very well written and put together logically. As a study of Afghan military culture, it presents lessons for today’s soldiers in the country. It can also be seen as a very fine traditional military history of Afghanistan and indeed the North West Frontier, the old British province of what was then India and is now the borderlands of Pakistan. Although Johnson does not necessarily conflate Afghan with Pashtun—he is too sophisticated for that—he recognizes that for many Pashtuns and indeed their British enemies, the two words meant the same thing.

Alongside the movements and organization of armies, memorable vignettes from every period spring out. When the British marched from India and occupied Kabul during the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838–1842), the Afghans warned that the “licentious infidels” would bring about “signal catastrophe”—warnings we see borne out in the deadly British retreat through the mountains in 1842. The real capabilities of the Afghan musket—what Rudyard Kipling called the “ten-rupee jezail” in his famous poem “Arithmetic on the Frontier”—are taken down a notch or two, while the skills and courage of their “crack-shot” users are given far more credit. The British all too often found themselves “foiled and at times worsted by these unorganised guerrillas,” as one contemporary report puts it.

Johnson’s accounts of more modern campaigns—including the Taliban’s stand against the American-led forces after 9/11—attain the same very high standard, reinforced by personal experience, as the British Army today wisely retains Johnson as an adviser. If one were to quibble, it would be about Johnson’s take on today’s matters, where he very occasionally veers away from the strictly objective. We read of the anti-Soviet mujahideen, or freedom fighters, but the Taliban—about whom Johnson is particularly informative—are “insurgents.” Likewise, not all would concur with his view that unlike the British of old “the United States is not an imperial power.” These are minor matters. Anyone deploying to the country as a soldier or civilian with room in his knapsack for one book should put aside the production line “counterinsurgency” works and take this. Others who want to understand Afghan military art and history should add it to their library.    

SHOULD OUR TRAVELER have any room left, let him take The Dark Defile. This is a very different work. Diana Preston is not a military historian; for the flanking attack of this unit, or the caliber of that artillery piece, you must look elsewhere. Yet such omissions do not detract from her outstanding account of the aforementioned “signally disastrous” British campaign in the First Anglo-Afghan War. The expedition was flawed in objective and purpose from the start and conducted in a manner that will stand as an exemplar of poor leadership for centuries to come. Preston tracks the series of bungled decisions backed by poor intelligence that brought the British to Kabul in the first place. She carefully describes the wilful self-delusion and squabbling that got them into the appalling mess that became the retreat down that “dark defile,” Kipling’s lyrical sobriquet from “Arithmetic.”

What Preston brings so well to this often told story is the human angle. We see the effect of the “licentious” behavior of British troops in Kabul, but we also gain a rare glimpse into intimate daily life in what Preston rightly calls “that ill-advised cantonment” in Kabul; we read of the pastimes of the soldiers, the officers’ Afghan mistresses, and how ease and complacency gradually turned very sour indeed.

It is when matters get gritty that Preston comes into her own. The account of the chaotic passage of thousands of freezing soldiers and their women and children through the Khoord Kabul and Jugdulluk passes is vivid and immediate. Once the tragedy has unfolded, she guides us through the lesser-known operations of the “Army of Retribution,” dispatched almost immediately, and the long-term consequences of the war, which are still the subject of Taliban propaganda.

Drawing very capably on primary sources, Preston gives shape and depth to the leading characters, and we grow to know them well. The redoubtable Lady Florentia Sale, an officer’s wife captured by the Afghans; the dithering army commander William Elphinstone; the heroic geographer and British agent Alexander Burnes; and Burnes’s superior, the scholarly, doomed William Macnaghten lead an astonishing cast of British mavericks, heroes, and fools. The Afghan side, too, led by Akhbar Khan, Dost Mohammed, and Shah Shujah, is well handled, with the native perspective never far from the account.

There is much here that is new to me. I did not know that of the 16,000 on the famous 1842 retreat, only 690 or so were British soldiers. The majority of the rest were Indian sepoys or female camp followers and their children who were often disgracefully ignored by British officers during the desperate failed negotiations for safe passage. Most, but not all, died, and the fate of the survivors is very well told.

In her epilogue, Preston pointedly quotes contemporary historian Sir John Kaye: “Our successes at the outset were a part of the curse. They lapped us in false security and deluded us to our overthrow.”

She concludes her fine book with Kipling’s “Arithmetic.” It contains lines that might sum up both books, and perhaps much more: “Strike hard who cares—shoot straight who can / The odds are on the cheaper man.”

Frank Ledwidge is a former reserve military intelligence officer who has served in Afghanistan. He is the author of the recent book Losing Small Wars (Yale).   Click For More From MHQ!