The British government had no quarrel with the people of Afghanistan, but was worried about the presence of influential foreigners. It decided to get rid of the existing government, and impose one it liked. Then it compiled a dodgy dossier to drum up support for a war.
Any of this sound familiar? It was what happened in Afghanistan in 1839, when the foreigners were Russians, not al-Qaeda. At first, everything went swimmingly. The popular ruler, Dost Mohammed, was replaced by Amir Shah Shuja-ul-Mulk, who the Afghans had thrown out 30 years before, whose main interest was his enormous harem, and who dismissed his new subjects as ‘dogs’.
After the Brits had been in control for a couple of years, the Afghans rose up, and in January 1842, the occupiers said that as they were there only for the benefit of the Afghan people, if the Afghan people did not want them, then they would leave.
There followed the most disastrous retreat in the history of the British army. Around 16,000 British soldiers, Indian sepoys and assorted camp followers began the 90 mile journey to Jalalabad. At every pass, they were ambushed by Afghan tribesmen, while cold, hunger and exhaustion gnawed at them. A week later, just one solitary army surgeon reached Jalalabad.
Dost Mohammed once again became ruler and proved himself a true friend of the British Empire until his death in 1863. But he always remained baffled by the invasion, once telling a British visitor: ‘I cannot understand why the rulers of so great an empire should have come to deprive me of my poor and barren country.’