Afghanistan British Dead Passes 200 and The Amnesia of Imperialism
August 16th 2009
As the British death toll in Afghanistan now passes 200 – the sheer historical amnesia in Britain, and the United States, about our involvement in this region strikes new depths.
British involvement in Afghanistan is now set to pass its eight-year and is, in Gordon Brown’s words, a ‘vital’ mission to ‘make Britain safer by making Afghanistan more stable’ (1). The 2001 attack was the third invasion of the country Britain has been involved in after the 1838 and 1878 onslaughts, commonly known as the First and Second Anglo-Afghan Wars. The current operation looks set to become the longest British military overseas action since the Second World War, outlasting Malaysia, Aden or Kenya, with consequences for the resulting British and Afghan death toll!
Similarly, our contribution to the US invasion of Iraq was our third attack on Iraq – following the 1914 invasion of Mesopotamia, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire, and 1941 attack when we overthrew the German sympathising independent government of Iraq – in the same operation invading Vichy France supporting Lebanon and Syria.
Britain of course played a central part in creating the modern Middle East, engaging in post-1914, post-Ottoman Empire in the drawing of lines in the sand, literally, which created the entities of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. Fred Halliday calls this ‘the great historical colouring scheme’ of imperial hubris, which we are still living with the consequences of, as we are of 1967 and 2003 in the region (2).
This historical amnesia can be seen in the way the two wars of Afghanistan and Iraq have been covered. The Iraq war was central to the liberal imperialism of Tony Blair, but his ahistorical approach to the region meant that he was oblivious that one of his lauded Labour predecessors had already ventured down the Tigris and caught a cropper in the process!
Clement Attlee, inarguably Labour’s most celebrated leader (perhaps their only successful celebrated leader!), was part of the British expedition force in Mesopotamia who in 1916 met stubborn Turkish resistance in the Battle of El Hannah which saw Attlee shot and wounded in an episode of ‘friendly fire’ (3).
Afghanistan is perhaps even more painful in its selective memory and the absence of comparison between the US-British led occupation and that of the Soviet Union. This is despite the fact that they are fighting the same enemy – the Taliban, over the same territory, with much the same methods. And one would estimate the same result. The Soviet occupation as Victor Sebestyen argues in his new book, ‘Revolution 1989’ contributed to the end of the Soviet empire (4). We can guess that Afghanistan for the US and UK will lead to ultimately withdrawal and defeat.
Already the British armed forces have suffered one humiliating defeat in southern Iraq post-2003, which has been disguised from the British public. One would imagine the same deception will be attempted in Afghanistan on our forces and public.
2. Fred Halliday, Crises of the Middle East: 1914, 1967, 2003, Transnational Institute,
3. Kenneth Harris, Attlee, Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1982, p. 38.
4. Victor Sebestyen, Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire, Weidenfeld and Nicolson 2009.