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The killing fields

What are we doing in Afghanistan? A superb new history shows how successive invaders have tried, and

Butcher and Bolt: Two Hundred Years of Foreign Engagement in Afghanistan

David Loyn

Hutchinson, 351pp, £18.99

The Duke of Wellington was a cantankerous reactionary but he knew a thing or two about Afghanistan: "a small army would be annihilated and a large one starved". On 13 January 1842, a sharp-eyed sentry in Jalalabad saw the more-dead-than-alive figure of the British army surgeon Dr William Brydon crossing the plain, struggling to stay on his pony. He had a bad head wound and was bleeding from the hand. When eventually the pony was taken into a stable, it lay down and died.

Roughly 16,000 British troops and camp followers hadn't made it from Kabul - one of the most terrible defeats of British military might in the 19th century, commemorated in Lady Elizabeth Butler's painting Remnants of an Army. Brydon was the sole survivor. The massacre of Lord Elphinstone's army prompted a series of revenge attacks by the British, which developed into wars. In 1849, 1850 and 1851, huge numbers of British troops swarmed into Afghanistan, butchered and then bolted. And still the Afghans fought back.

In 1860 the British took Peking but a few years later they were back in Afghanistan's borderlands with 12,500 troops - more than the army needed in order to subdue the Chinese capital - and still the Afghans fought back.

In 1878 came the Battle of Sangin. The British had immense advantages in material - better guns, better communications, better everything - but still the Afghans fought back.

On 17 January 1880 a small and extremely emaciated Talib, or religious student, approached a group of British Royal Engineers in Kandahar and tried to stab Sergeant Miller to death. This incident was the first recorded suicide attack in Kandahar. The Afghans were fighting back, asymmetrically.

The British looked at the map and drew a line - a smudge, more like - along the highest ridges of the Suleiman Mountains, dooming generations of local people yet unborn to almost constant war. Right now, US drones are buzzing along that very line between Pakistan and Afghanistan and getting shot down.

In 1893 the Amir of Afghanistan, a "cunning rogue" named Abdur Rahman, talked sweetly with the British but also wrote a book in which he attacked the infidel and called for jihad, using exactly the same extracts of the Quran as Osama Bin Laden did a century later. The Afghans were fighting back, ideologically.

At the fag end of the 19th century Sir Lepel Griffin, a man of rare sceptical intelligence, wrote to the Times, thundering: "this policy consists in spending a quarter of a million annually on a post of defence and observation which defends and observes nothing, and on the maintenance of a road which leads nowhere".

Oh dear. And after that came the Russians in 1979, and exactly the same thing happened to them. And now it's happening to the Americans and the British. Captain Leo Docherty, an officer of the Guards, fought battles in Sangin in 2006 that were first fought in 1878. He reflected on British policy: no proper plan, but "disjointed ill-considered directives from headquarters . . . an illusion . . . the time spent there now seems to be an egotistical folly . . . a tragic replay of Soviet clumsiness".

Oh dear me. David Loyn, a long-time BBC foreign affairs reporter, has written a brilliant history book of Afghanistan's wars of the past two centuries, but more importantly the evidence he amasses poses a primary question about the war being fought inside Afghanistan: are we sure this is a good idea? The lesson from history suggests it might not be.

This presents a horrible quandary. Al-Qaeda committed mass murder in Manhattan on 11 September 2001 and the whole operation was cooked up in Bin Laden's bases in Afghanistan. If the west's forces - chiefly the United States, Britain and Canada - pull out, it is inevitable that the Taliban will return to power and that al-Qaeda won't be far behind.

General Sir Mike Jackson, the most thoughtful British soldier for a generation, said a few months ago that the war must be fought, because otherwise we hand over Afghanistan to the Taliban and then on to al-Qaeda. Anyone who believes that the Taliban/al-Qaeda don't pose a threat to the western world is daft. Too many people have died in Baghdad, Islamabad, Madrid, Bali and London since the 11 September 2001 attacks for anyone to hold the idea that the threat is imaginary or that the US will just turn the other cheek.

On the other hand, the Afghan narrative is almost absurdly unchanging. Any foreign military adventure in Afghanistan is doomed to fail: the land is unforgiving and the people are hostile, secure in their Islamic faith - which ratchets up to a fresh level of purist absolutism with every bomb that falls. They may lose battle after battle, but still they fight.

Loyn writes well of the Soviet invasion, of how the Soviet generals bombed, tortured and shot civilians willy-nilly, and yet still they lost and had to leave Afghanistan in defeat. He quotes the great Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani: "War is not a profession for Bin Laden and his people. It's a mission. Its roots lie in the faith they acquired in the close-minded Quranic schools, and above all in their deep feelings of defeat and impotence, in the humiliation of a civilisation, Islam, which was once great and feared but which now finds itself increasingly marginalised and offended by the overwhelming power and arrogance of the west."

Is there a solution? Probably not. Absolutist Islam lacks the means but not the will to defeat the west. The west has the means but not the will to defeat absolutist Islam, least of all inside Afghanistan. However, it might help if we dumped well-intentioned fantasy. Loyn makes the point, again and again, that first British, then Soviet, and now US policy on Afghanistan has been formed by tellers of fairy tales in London, Moscow and Washington and not by the complicated and difficult reality on the ground. It is clear that he admires much about Afghans. He is one of very few reporters who have spent time with the Taliban - and found the men who protected him personally honourable, respected by their communities and very much in control on the ground. He is not mindless of the dark side in Afghanistan: of how, in the chaos after the Russians left, a tank battle took place between two commanders as they both wanted sex with the same boy; how the Taliban murders schoolteachers who seek to give girls an education; how the Taliban's logic acts like a kind of "anti-matter", a black hole that engulfs the western mind.

Loyn is clear that much of the "mud" attached to the Taliban can more accurately be applied to the entire Afghan mindset, especially that of the Pashtun heartland: deeply conservative, contemptuous of externally imposed "democracy", unbothered about liberal rights or the education of women. He writes that "the simple narrative of heroes and demons - 'mujahedin good, Taliban bad' - imposed on Afghanistan was another externally drawn picture: an Afghanistan of the western mind".

In 2001, a few days after western troops marched into Kabul, some BBC colleagues and I drove up from the south through the Khyber Pass and entered Afghanistan. The people didn't look overjoyed to see us. Near Jalalabad, going in the opposite direction to Dr Brydon on his dying pony, our driver suddenly picked up speed and began to drive murderously fast. We were being chased by the Taliban. A few hours later, four foreign journalists were murdered on the same road, almost certainly by the people who had pursued us. If this was a liberation, it wasn't universally popular, to put it mildly.

I remember listening, once we arrived in Kabul, to people like William Reeve, the BBC reporter in Kabul before, during and after the 11 September attacks who got bombed out of his chair by the Americans, got back in it and carried on broadcasting. He said that the Taliban had stopped poppy production, had stopped corrupt roadblocks springing up everywhere, had enforced "sharia" law - and any form of justice is better than the anarchy that flows from gun law. As far as Afghans were concerned, the Taliban weren't as black as they had been painted.

The solution for people who have spent a long time in Afghanistan was a different one: to work with the Taliban and somehow to uncouple the Afghan fighters from al-Qaeda. Seven years of killing later, it feels a bit too late to try that now. So, western policy seems glued to fighting a war that many people in the know are now saying the west is never going to win: "We're here because we're here because we're here . . ."

Butcher and Bolt challenges such rigidity of thinking. Loyn rubbishes the Americans' supernatural belief in technology above all things, and points out that the Taliban have one and a half million recruits in Pakistan's madrasas, just over the border. It is a bleak conclusion to a book that should be a must-read for every politician who sends our squaddies into Afghanistan - but one based fairly and squarely on the weight of history.

John Sweeney is an award-winning investigative journalist

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The death of Gucci capitalism