Professor Akbar Ahmed
To sense some of the complexity of the Afghanistan that Victorian Britain chose to invade, you don't even need to leave contemporary London. I've
come to Ealing for an evening of Afghan food, music and traditional costume with a group of Afghans now resident here in West London. In this room, a
dizzying array of ethnic groups, Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Turkmen, Nuristani, all Afghans, and all holding different religious and political views.
The divisions and consequences of war have led to more than 5 million Afghans fleeing their country since the 1980s.
Rory speaks with two of the diners:
Do you think, for example, Britain should remain in Helmand?
"Until they will have the infrastructure in the proper way, I think they should remain."
You don't think the British should remain in Helmand?
The microcosm of Afghanistan is there in that room, and some of these people are now sitting down together around the table, and in those histories
and the suspicions of who joined the jihad, who came from which ethnic group, are many of the fissures that continue to haunt Afghanistan today.
And all this complexity and Afghan history, both ancient and modern, so difficult to understand, so often overlooked, still matters deeply for
all of us today. And it continues to preoccupy commentators, such as Akbar Ahmed, who I've come to meet here in Washington DC.
Professor Akbar Ahmed
Professor Ahmed, a Pakistani who once worked as an administrator on the North-West frontier with Afghanistan, arrived in the States where he
now teaches, a day before the World Trade Center attack. But his direct appeal to the White House for caution fell on deaf ears.
Professor Ahmed "I think on 9/11 the US administration had no idea about Afghanistan, its tribes, its history, but it was so motivated, so
intensely motivated by a sense of anger, a sense of revenge, a sense of honour, that, at all costs, it had to rush into Afghanistan. I said
many, many superpowers have gone charging into Afghanistan. Be very careful. And that is the big problem, that when you combine arrogance
with a lack of knowledge of that part of the world, you are almost guaranteed to run into trouble."
I sensed this tension myself when I walked across Afghanistan shortly after 9/11. I found a hospitable and attractive country but still deeply
conservative, isolated and difficult for a foreigner to understand. It made me reflect on the superpowers who have so often invaded the mountains
of Afghanistan, how often they get caught up in their own strategic games, how easily the become out of touch, failing to grasp the complexity and
resistance of Afghanistan.
And I felt the same was true for the British in the 19th century. When they came, they were focused not on Afghanistan itself, but its
neighbours. If I had been a British redcoat standing on this wall in 1839, I would have been told that the reason I was here was that British
India lay to the East and Russia lay to the North, and Afghanistan was trapped between two expanding empires.
Afghanistan, a largely barren country, but with a rich Islamic civilisation, have long fought and traded with its Muslim and Asian neighbours,
but it had never encountered a non-Muslim power as alien as Britain. And yet, in the 1830s, Afghanistan was perceived, as it is believed to be
today, to be an immediate threat to British national security, a place for the politicians and generals of Empire to fret about.
For hundreds of years, all the conflicts had happened here in Europe and suddenly it exploded East. Russia raced towards Japan, Britain came into
India, and as these great empires expanded, there was this zone in between, almost a blank space on the map with very, very few towns, a place of
deserts and mountains.
And although these two empires were still 4000 miles apart, they were certain that they were about to meet. They were going to meet here, in Afghanistan.
As Britain and Russia stretched and flexed, Afghanistan, one of the most remote and impoverished kingdoms in the world, found itself sandwiched between
two empires who both claimed, at least, to be its friends.
Britain feared Russia might creep south towards British ruled India, the jewel in the crown of the Empire, and the second centre of British political
power. But suspicions worked both ways. The Russians were equally nervous about Britain moving north from its base in India.
Sensing that these two empires would collide in Afghanistan, the British government was hungry for intelligence on this blank space. A spy was dispatched.
Alexander Burnes, a man I believe to be one of our greatest ever political officers.