Ben Macintyre: The American Who Warned the British About the Danger of Occupation

Roundup: Historians' Take

Ben Macintyre, author of The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan, in the NYT (May 8, 2004):

... Military domination is fatally undermined when occupiers, even if only a tiny minority of them, misuse their power to demean the conquered. The perils of such behavior resonate throughout history. As America finds itself ever more deeply embroiled in Central Asia and Iraq, it need only look at the experience of its coalition partner, Britain, in Afghanistan to learn about the hubris and transience of empire.

Curiously enough, the most astute witness to one of Britain's worst imperial episodes was an American — a doctor, soldier, Quaker, Freemason and adventurer by the name of Josiah Harlan. In 1839, General Harlan (as he chose to style himself) stood on the ramparts of Kabul and watched as a foreign army marched in to "liberate" the city, with flags waving and trumpets blaring. General Harlan had spent the previous 12 years in Afghanistan, and he had a premonition of disaster: "To subdue and crush the masses of a nation by military force," he later wrote, "is to attempt the imprisonment of a whole people: all such projects must be temporary and transient, and terminate in a catastrophe."...

While many of his contemporaries were exploring the Wild West, Harlan had headed for the rather wilder East. Eccentric, cantankerous, ambitious and ludicrously brave, he plunged into the unmapped wilds of Afghanistan in 1827, determined to make himself a king.

General Harlan was no stranger to hubris. Over the ensuing years he parlayed with princes and potentates, led an army across the Hindu Kush mounted on an elephant, and was appointed commander in chief of the Afghan Army by Dost Muhammad Khan, the mighty emir of Kabul. Finally, by striking a pact with native chiefs high in the Hindu Kush, General Harlan became prince of Ghor, a potentate in his own right.

But his reign was short-lived. By 1839, the British, in a decision with eerie modern echoes, opted to remove Dost Muhammad and replace him with a more pliable puppet. The emir was a threat to stability, London declared, an unpredictable autocrat ruling a rogue state. A vast army was assembled in British India, and marched on Kabul: Dost Muhammad's bodyguards melted away, and the ousted ruler took to the hills. When they entered the city, the British found General Harlan calmly having breakfast. The American introduced himself as "a free and enlightened citizen of the greatest and most glorious country in the world."

The British settled in, importing foxhounds, cricket bats, amateur theatricals and all the appurtenances of empire. After an easy victory, it was assumed that the Afghans were docile. The invaders rode roughshod over the local culture, treating the Afghans with disdain, oblivious to the growing rumble of discontent. General Harlan was outraged at such arrogance: "I have seen this country, sacred to the harmony of hallowed solitude, desecrated by the rude intrusion of senseless stranger boors, vile in habits, infamous in vulgar tastes."...

Josiah Harlan warned the British of the growing danger, but his words went unheeded. The occupying British swiftly bundled this interfering American out of Kabul, and carried on with their imperial tea party, alternately abusing and offending Afghans.

"Vainglorious and arrogant, the invaders plunged headlong towards destruction," General Harlan wrote in an angry anti-British polemic, as he headed home to America, and obscurity. Within two years the entire British garrison, 15,000 men, women and children, soldiers, families and camp followers, was massacred by Afghan tribesmen in the passes of Kabul, leaving a single wounded survivor, Dr. William Brydon, to stagger into Jalalabad with news of the worst disaster in British imperial history.


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