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Independent: Robert Fisk: 27 July 1880. A date Mr Blair should look up
Those sending British troops to Afghanistan should learn the lessons of the Battle of Maiwand

O ut of the frying pan, into the historical fire. If only our leaders read history. In 1915, the British swept up from Basra, believing that the Iraqis would reward them with flowers and love, only to find themselves surrounded at Kut al-Amara, cut down by Turkish shellfire and cholera. Now we are reinforcing Nato in that tomb of the British Army, Afghanistan.

Hands up any soldiers who know that another of Britain's great military defeats took place in the very sands in which your colleagues are now fighting the Taliban. Yes, the Battle of Maiwand - on 27 July, 1880 - destroyed an entire British brigade, overrun by thousands of armed Afghan tribesmen, some of whom the official enquiry into the disaster would later describe as "Talibs". The Brits had been trying to secure Helmand province. Sound familiar?

Several times already in Helmand, the British have almost been overwhelmed. This has not been officially admitted, but the Ministry of Defence did make a devious allusion to this last year - it was missed by all the defence correspondents - when it announced that British troops in Helmand had been involved in the heaviest combat fighting "since the Korean War". The Afghans talk of one British unit which last year had to call in air strikes, destroying almost the entire village in which they were holding out. Otherwise, they would have been overrun.

General Burrows had no close air support on 27 July, 1880, when he found himself confronting up to 15,000 Afghan fighters at Maiwand, but he had large numbers of Egyptian troops with him and a British force in the city of Kandahar. Already, the British had cruelly suppressed a dissident Afghan army - again, sound familiar? - after the British residency had been sacked and its occupants murdered. Britain's reaction at the time was somewhat different from that followed today. Britain's army was run from imperial India where Lord Lytton, the Viceroy, urged his man in Kabul - General Roberts, later Lord Roberts of Kandahar - to crush the uprising with the utmost brutality. "Every Afghan brought to death, I shall regard as one scoundrel the less in a nest of scoundrelism." Roberts embarked on a reign of terror in Kabul, hanging almost a hundred Afghans.

by Fran (fran at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Feb 26th, 2007 at 12:51:39 AM EST
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