NATO, Afghanistan and the lessons of cricket
In a new book launched this week about the ill-fated attempt by British imperialists in the mid 19th century to occupy Afghanistan, I came across an interesting detail: the Afghans refused to play cricket. During the occupation of Kabul by British troops from India, “the Afghans looked on with astonishment at the bowling, batting and fagging out of the English players”, writes former Reuters journalist Jules Stewart in “Crimson Snow: Britain’s First Disaster in Afghanistan“.
With NATO reaffirming its commitment to Afghanistan in a “strategic vision” statement issued at a summit in Bucharest this week, I wondered if there was a bigger lesson in this refusal to engage in cricket, just as the Afghans have never submitted to foreign occupation — seeing off the British Raj in the 19th century and defeating Soviet occupiers in the 20th century. “The Afghans will always win,” writes Stewart in the conclusion to his book.
The lessons of history would suggest the odds are stacked against NATO. It has just 47,000 troops in the country, whereas the Soviet Union had between 100,000 and 120,000 troops there at any one time. U.S. Army General McNeill, the commander of the NATO-led force in Afghanistan, has said U.S. doctrine suggests a force of well over 400,000 Afghan and foreign troops to fight an insurgency in a country of Afghanistan’s size and population, although he has made clear he does not expect NATO to provide that.
The situation is made additionally complicated by instability in Pakistan, whose lawless tribal areas are used as a refuge by al Qaeda and Taliban militants fighting in Afghanistan. As Karl Inderfurth, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, wrote earlier this week, Pakistan can “make or break” the NATO mission in Afghanistan: “Afghanistan and Pakistan are inextricably linked. There can be no successful outcome for Afghanistan if Pakistan is not a part of the solution.”
Indeed, so bleak is the outlook that some are calling for an exit strategy as in this article by Patrick Seale, who says NATO has “got itself into a colossal muddle in Afghanistan”.
But there are other voices to be found too. In the foreword to Crimson Snow, British General David Richards, a former commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan, says that this war is different from those that preceded it. While admitting that today’s diplomats and soldiers frequently make the same errors as did the British in 1841-42, he argues that “after a hesitant start, lessons have been learnt”. He quotes polling in late 2007 that, he says, indicates that more than 80 percent of the Afghan population want its elected government and the international community to succeed. “While the lessons of history tell us that we do not have forever, in this Afghan war the Afghan people and the foreigner are for now on the same side.”
So is he right? Is there still cause for optimism in Afghanistan? Or is NATO condemned to the same fate as the foreign forces that preceded it?
As an afterthought, I checked with our Afghanistan correspondent Jon Hemming whether cricket has finally caught on in Kabul. He pointed me to a story he wrote late last year about a fledgling Afghan cricket team itching to take on the best sides in the world. Before, he writes, “the absence of cricket in Afghanistan was a sign that the Afghans, unlike neighbouring imperial India, had never been conquered by the British”. But the sport has now finally been brought to Afghanistan by refugees who had fled to Pakistan and then returned when the Taliban were toppled in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks.