William DalrympleThe unbelievable mess of the war in Afghanistan is of our own making, a lost opportunity made inevitable by our refusal to believe that history does repeat itself in disastrous ways if you ignore its lessons.
That was the undeniable grim message the acclaimed historian and critic William Dalrymple gave to a packed audience in St Peter’s Church in a major lecture event organised by Marlborough’s White Horse Bookshop.
His latest history of the First Afghan War of 1839—42 reveals the massive mistakes that resulted in the slaughter and sickening suffering of thousands of British and Sepoy soldiers, plus camp followers, some turning to cannibalism to stay alive in temperatures of minus 40 degrees.
In a bravura performance that was a master class for the uninitiated, 48-year-old Dalrymple brought the story up to date with tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths, including those of brave British troops.
And once again, because of the blatant refusal to learn from the past, the Afghans remained insistent that they can control the roof of the world from any conquering nation yet do not have the strength to control their own fragile destiny.
“History repeats itself time after time and yet the same mistakes are still made,” he declared. “The only think we learn from history is that no-one learns from history.”
He pointed out: “There were two objectives we went into Afghanistan to do. One was to smash al Qaeda following 9/11 and the other to destroy the Taliban.
“Senior ranks of al Qaeda have been seriously whittled down and they have lost Ben Laden. But they have moved on and they are in Pakistan now rather than Afghanistan.
And the Taliban are back.
“So it is not one of the great triumphs of our objectives, for all the bravery, all the blood spilled, all the money spent, we are more or less back where we started.
“This is one of the tragedies of history. Policy is driven by a group of ambitious young men sitting in some capital city somewhere.
“I gave this lecture at the White House about a month ago. And all the guys there, terrifically clued up on local politics, recent history, everything, had an absolutely paper-thin knowledge of the culture or the background of history. They had never heard of Afghanistan.”
He drew amazing parallels between the first Afghan War, caused by the greed of the East India Company under the protection of Britain and the challenge of Russia to command Afghanistan with modern events, both packed with stupid blunders.
In the first war thousands perished, taken hostage, crippled, raped, sold into slavery, his own great, great uncle among them, who recorded: “My heart sank within me under the conviction that we were a doomed force… soldiers asking their comrades to kill them to put them out of their misery.”
And in the current war thousands being killed now by drones firing on unsuspecting innocent civilians, 30 of them relatives of President Hamid Karzai attending a wedding party, and soldiers blown to pieces defending remote tiny garrisons in Helmand province for an ill-founded project.
“It has been a total mess without clear political direction, without an exit strategy, without any of the basic things you do before you invade a country,” he protested. “These guys are daily losing their lives, not out of their idiocy but out of political incompetence…
“We really did have an opportunity in 2001 to sort Afghanistan out. The tragedy too is that modern armaments are terribly expensive. Every time you drop a daisy cutter you could build a hospital.
“There are figures I can’t remember but something like we could have given 20,000 dollars to every single Afghan and built universities, hospitals and schools with the colossal amount we have spent shelling the place flat in Helmand.
“It’s always said to be a madness created by Runsfeld, who said, ‘We don’t do nationhood’.”
But there were moments of amusement and discovery while researching his book – all seven he has written have won awards – his aim was twofold.
One was to seek out Afghan historical sources and his delighted at finding biographies, histories, letters none of which had ever been translated into English or used before by British academics.
“In the British library there are about two miles of books on Afghanistan but none of the authors ever bothered to look at Afghan sources – extraordinary.”
His second aim was to travel the route of the great British retreat of 1842 in which his relative died, to see for himself their view of a mountainous area en route to Jalabad that is now the Taliban heartland.
But before he got out of Kabul he was arrested by the chief of the secret police, a giant of a man who had captained the Afghan wrestling team. “He was a reader who didn’t like my book The Last Mogul,” Dalrymple explained.
So in order to ensure the next one fulfilled his demands he provided a safe-keeping watch on his travels into Taliband territory.
However, next hitch was not from guns and bayonets but the hospitality of a village they passed through, where he was the honoured guest at a huge meal that lasted six hours.
And that fortunately delayed his arrival at another village where nine policeman had been killed in a gunfight and their cars blown up.
Most intriguing was an old man who told him how a month earlier he had met with American officers in a Jalabad hotel, who asked him to explain why the Afghans hated them so.
“I replied because you blow down our doors, enter our houses, pull our women by the hair and kick out children,” the old man said. We cannot accept this.
“And we will break your teeth, and when your teeth are broken you will leave, just like the British and the Russians who came before you. It’s just a matter of time.
“The American turned to his friend and said, if the old men are like this what will the younger ones be like?’”
Added Dalrymple:” In truth the Americans know their game is over. It’s just the politicians who deny it.”
As to the future, the real danger was that Pakistan would become isolated between India and Afghanistan, and the Chinese, who were already building two railways in Afghanistan, would seek to takeover.
Inside Afghanistan there were two possibilities.
“One is that we shall see some negotiated solution whereby some pro-Pashtun government will be given command of the south or we will see effective partition of the country and a return to civil war.
“And according to Afghan history, which repeats itself, it is more likely to be a military outcome than a peaceful transition.”
The Return of the King: The Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple, published by Bloomsbury at £25, is available from the White Horse Bookship.
The Dalrymples of Marlborough – at the College at least
William Dalrymple was invited to lecture in Marlborough on Friday because he is a regular customer at Michael Pooley’s White Horse Bookshop.
The reason for that, he revealed, is that, though he and his artist wife Olivia spend much of their time living in the outskirts of Delhi, their two elder children, Ibby and Sam, are both students at Marlborough College.
And they are to be followed by their third child, Adam.
“We come to Marlborough regularly, either my wife or I come out every two or three weeks from Delhi,” Dalrymple told me. “I liked the school and it’s all been a great success.
“Once you land at Heathrow its quite easy to pop up here to see them and find out how they’re getting on.”
Mark, Emma and Mum marvel at the effect of Dry Ice at the St John's Academy Science FairIt was raining, it was cold, parked cars stretched back to the main road, and the crowds thronged into St John’s Academy for the fourth annual Science Fair. Run as part of National Science and Engineering Week, the Fair is designed for families with plenty of hands-on activities for the young – in fact for all the family.
In the atrium you could test your powers of estimation with paper-clips, create intricate structures out of spaghetti and make oboes from milk-shake straws. Or you could build your own Stonehenge and wonder at the model of Crofton’s famous pumping station.
There was a splendid and very much working Victorian ‘harmonograph’ drawing extraordinarily satisfying spiral designs as its pendulums interacted.
Dr Mark with some of his enthuriastic audienceThe first show of the day completely filled the Theatre on the Hill for Dr Mark Biddiss’ Cool Science and Maths Show. He used to be a space scientist working at London University on NASA projects – now he can fly a miniature rocket across the front of the stage using just water and a foot pump.
His audience – which stretched from infant school age to grandparent age – was fascinated different sized balloons that danced over a hair dryer, coloured balloons that did or didn’t burst when caught in the light from an overhead projector, a pen-cap submarine that moved effortlessly up and down inside a bottle of water…and much else besides including some tricky maths.
He showed us the maths problem which added up to ‘a grey elephant from Denmark’ – and those who got that one wrong were just ‘statistical outliers’…remember that when you next get an exam answer wrong.
He also produced the maths formula that always ends up at seven: choose any number between one and nine: add four, multiply by two, add six, divide by two and finally subtract the number you first thought of. Magic.
At the end of the show, several very young members of the audience insisted on shaking Dr Mark’s hand – just in case he had something hidden up his sleeve? Goodness knows what his afternoon audience were going to be treated to at his Tricks of the Mind session.
Back in the atrium St John’s Eco Racing team were selling small rabbits made by the school’s very own 3-D printer. The bare bones (is that a technical term?) of their new chassis were on show with its tiny engine and washers made to the students’ design by the 3-D printer.
They were very grateful for a £200 grant from the Rotary Club to help with materials.
They hope to get their new car to do 500 miles to the gallon – an amazing target whatever the Chancellor fishes out of his budget box next Wednesday. They will be taking part in the national trials at Malory Park trials on June 18 and are sure the new car will be ready by June 17.
Good luck to them…and very good luck to all the youngsters who found the science activities and the maths so enthralling.
Olivia decides whether to eat or buildJamie tries the Straw OboeOllie learns how to programme a RobotRowan builds her RocketTheo builds a skyscraperZoe braves the Smell Identity tubeBethany guesses the soundThomas carefully adds to his buildingTom Alfie and Charlotte dig for bones and buried treasuretSimon looks to the heavens
Angels and the Apocalypse was inspired by the media furore surrounding forecasts that the world would end on 21 December 2012. It turned out that the only thing ending on that day was a cycle of the ancient Mayan long calendar. But it certainly set the students of the St John’s Players thinking.
Front of stage: Tristan (Christopher Baker) talks with Jack (Edd France) in front of gang members & watched over by the Light AngelsGuided by St John’s Academy’s Director of Drama and Theatre Studies, Cheri Whitehouse and teaching assistant Hoffi Munt, who both wrote the final script and directed the play, the students have devised a very striking, absorbing and thoughtful drama.
How much of this drama was down to the students? Cheri Whitehouse explains: “Well, I had some core ideas and I knew where I wanted it to end up but basically, during the first rehearsal, I gave them the concept and asked them to imagine a world without oil, suggested that it would probably turn violent because of food shortages, and off they went!”
“Many of the scenes you saw were either completely devised by the students or the core of the scene was devised by them and then refined during scripting. They are very talented and it was a total collaboration.”
Starting with the assumption that the world as we know it ended in 2012 – no more oil, failing water supplies, constricted living space and no one growing food, where did their ideas go? In this post doomsday world, the students’ drama follows a gang of survivors struggling in 2050 to sort out relationships, leadership and, indeed, how to go on surviving.
Violence rears its inevitable head. There are rivalries, incomers, and a threatening ‘compound’ of other survivors just across the forest. And there’s a brief and troubled love tangle between Cora and Joshua. The plot cleverly highlights and examines the moral dilemmas the gang face.
To lighten the load, there’s a thread of nostalgia for times past and tastes missed: “Nothing beats chocolate hob-nobs.”
And the angels? The ‘light’ (or good) angels are dressed in white, the ‘dark’ (or threatening) angels are in black. They provide a very good device to ease the transition between a series of very short – almost television style – scenes. They act as supernatural stagehands to get the wounded on and off stage, and the dead bodies into the wings.
The scenes do follow each other very quickly, but there are well synchronised captions identifying the time and place of each scene. To end the first act there was a really effective specially shot video - complete with final rifle shot - as Cora breaks into the compound in search of her missing parents.
The drama’s soundtrack came mainly from startlingly insistent drums – only changing as the final scenes unfolded into heart-rending strings.
L to R: Tristan (Christopher Baker), his wounded sister Cora (Alex Watts) & Joshua (Henry Leigh)The second act was taken at a slower pace and was very moving. And by the end any fear that we would be left in some bleak dystopian future gave way to gentle optimism as the children who had joined the gang were taught how to plant seeds to provide food.
The script was sparse and clear. The acting was terrific. Alex Watts as Cora (“I know there’s a better way of living”) and Christopher Baker as Tristan – the main brother and sister adversaries – were outstanding. As were Edd France as Jack – a very angry young man – and Maddie Blackwell as Amy his soundly moral but wavering sister.
If you had looked hard you could have found touches of Lord of the Flies, The Road, even perhaps the threatening mood ofThe Hunger Games, and touches of several paranormal, third age or ‘after-life’ movies – all softened by a little Romeo and Juliet. But you didn’t look because the intensity of the plot, the words and the acting carried you along.
It was a hugely challenging drama, really well presented and acted. A great achievement.
After curtain calls at the end of the second and final performance (February 22), a very grateful cast said tearful goodbyes to Cheri Whitehouse who is leaving St John’s. That evening’s performance made it very obvious how much she will be missed.
Photos by Joanne Hutchings.