Exhibition Reminds Britons Of Previous Afghan Wars

The British intervened three times in Afghanistan in the 80 years up to 1919. It was the western frontier of their empire, the gateway to their most precious possession, India. They wanted to keep the Russians out. The new exhibition at the National Army Museum in London has relevance today.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Here are the words of a top British military commander talking about war in Afghanistan: The less the Afghans see of us, the less they will dislike us.

Those words were uttered 130 years ago by Field Marshal Lord Roberts. He led British forces during one of three imperial wars in Afghanistan. Those battles were part of the original Great Game, that rivalry between Great Britain and Russia for dominance in Central Asia.

Now those conflicts are the subject of an exhibition at the National Army Museum in London. NPR's Philip Reeves went along, and he found echoes of today's war in Afghanistan.

PHILIP REEVES: To really understand a war, you need to listen to the people who were there.

Unidentified Man (Actor): (as Captain Thomas Souter) At length, we were cut off from all supplies. Nothing was left for us but to capitulate and enter into a treaty to evacuate the country.

REEVES: Captain Thomas Souter was a soldier in Britain's first Afghan war, 168 years ago.

Unidentified Man: (as Captain Thomas Souter) The hills were generally covered with people who poured deadly discharges of musketry upon us. Even during night marches, we were equally assailed.

REEVES: British soldiers were ambushed. Civilians were taken hostage. There were ferocious firefights amid a hostile landscape and a punishing climate.

Unidentified Man: (as Captain Thomas Souter) The weather was remarkably and intensely cold, and the snow fell to great depths.

REEVES: The British intervened three times in Afghanistan in the 80 years up to 1919. It was the Western frontier of their empire, the gateway to their most precious possession: India. They wanted to keep the Russians out.

Tristan Langlois, head of education at London's National Army Museum, says it's important to be reminded of this history.

Mr. TRISTAN LANGLOIS (Director, Education, National Army Museum): It's a shared military history, and by and large in this country, we, the British, have forgotten about it. But Afghans clearly haven't.

REEVES: Audio of Captain Souter's story is part of the museum's exhibition, along with other startling reminders of the past: a frayed British flag, a regimental drum, a musket. Langlois says Britain's record in these wars was mixed. There were successes and some heavy defeats. The first war - the one Souter was in - was a disaster for the British. They arrived in style in 1839. One regiment even brought a packing of hunting dogs and installed a puppet king. Three years later, they were forced out of Kabul by an insurgency, 16,000 troops and civilians set off through the mountains towards the Khyber Pass, only - says Langlois - to be slaughtered or die of cold.

Mr. LANGLOIS: Sub-zero temperatures, deep snows, a chaotic force, utterly demoralized, poorly led, with a command structure that was at odds with itself.

REEVES: One European, a doctor, survived the journey. Souter was taken prisoner along the way. The British sent in an army to exact retribution. It burned down Kabul's bazaar, an incident many Afghans still resent. Langlois says it's important not to draw too many conclusions from all this. This was a very different era. Yet this history does have relevance today.

John C. Griffiths, author of "Afghanistan: Land of Conflict and Beauty," says it shapes contemporary Afghan attitudes. He spoke to NPR via Skype.

Mr. JOHN C. GRIFFITHS (Author, "Afghanistan: Land of Conflict and Beauty"): I would say that the mujahedeen, in their fights both against the Russians and against what they now regard as the American invasion, are inspired by their successes against the British in the 19th and early 20th century.

REEVES: Griffiths says terrible acts of butchery by the imperial British helped nurture a deep resentment of Western interference. And he adds....

Mr. GRIFFITHS: What worries me is the British today and the Americans both seem to be ignorant of the culture of which they're invading and of the impact they've had in the past.

REEVES: This exhibition seeks to change that.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, London.

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