Analysis Military

Afghanistan Weekly: The Ghosts of Gandamak

I was at my desk writing on Christmas Eve when news of the Syrian pullout and retirement of Secretary Mattis broke. Within minutes, an article popped up on my Afghanistan news aggregator (hit the link and select Afghanistan on the pop up menu) speculating on a potential troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Thirty minutes later, more articles appeared that claimed President Trump planned to cut our troop numbers in half. It now appears that was mere speculation by the media, as there has been no orders issued from the White House yet regarding troop numbers in Afghanistan. If and when President Trump decides to modify America’s commitment to Afghanistan I doubt it will include troop cuts that deep, or that quickly.  Getting that many people out with their equipment will take detailed planning and time.

In the absence of hard news this week brings us the opportunity to revisit some of the earlier posts I wrote for Free Range International to show you Afghanistan from outside the wire. First up is a visit Gandamak; the battlefield, not the bar/guesthouse in Kabul which was awesome back when it was open.

gandamak lodge
The Gandamak Lodge in Kabul
currents.openbar
Inside the Gandamak Lodge — a super cool basement bar that required patrons to surrender their sidearms before entering.
last-stand
The Last Stand of the 44th Foot outside the village of Gandamak.

Gandamak was the the last battle in a catastrophic British attempt to break out of Kabul  during the First Anglo-Afghan War in January 1842. It was arguably the greatest humiliation ever suffered by a Western army in the East. On the 6th of January, the British left Kabul for Jalalabad after being promised safe passage by the Afghans. The departing column of over 16,000 men, women and children (there were only 4,500 soldiers) was several miles long and lacked in food, tents, medicine, and enough ammunition. On the 10th of January, the Afghans attacked and the withdraw became a running gunfight.

The final stand at Gandamak occurred on the 13th of January 1842. Twenty officers and forty five British soldiers, most from the 44th Foot pulled off the road onto a hillock when they found the pass to Jalalabad blocked by Afghan fighters. They must have pulled up on the high ground to take away the mobility advantage of the horse mounted Afghan fighters. The Afghans closed in and tried to talk the men into surrendering their arms. A sergeant was famously said to reply “not bloody likely” and the fight was on. Six officers cut their way through the attackers and tried to make it to British lines in Jalalabad. Only one, Assistant Surgeon William Brydon, made it to safety.

Dr Brydon
Dr Brydon arriving in Jalalabad

My host for the day was the older brother of my driver Sharif. When I first met Sharif, he told me “I speak English fluently” and then smiled. I immediately hired him and issued a quick string of coordinating instructions about what we were doing the next morning then bid him good day. He failed to show up on time and when I called him to ask why, it became apparent that the only words of English Sharif knew were “I speak English fluently.” You get that from Afghans. But Sharif is learning his letters and has proven an able driver plus a first rate scrounger.

The road into Gandamak required us to ford three separate stream beds. The bridges that once spanned these obstacles were destroyed by the Soviets in the 80’s. They have never been repaired; despite the billions of dollars spent on upgrading Afghanistan infrastructure, these bridges were never included on any project proposal. Most of the roads in Nangarhar province are little better then they were when Alexander the Great came through the Khyber Pass in 327 B.C.

Also destroyed 25 years ago - how do we expect the farmers to get their produce and livestock to market over this? What the hell have we been doing for the past seven years? I watchd the tallest building in the world go up in Dubai, with about 300 other super sky scrappers over the past four years but we can't even repair a few stone bridges in seven; check that, make it 14 years?
One of the three destroyed bridges between Jalalabad and Gandamak; how do we expect the farmers to get their produce and livestock to market over this?

Traveling in rural Afghanistan had started to become problematic by the fall of 2008 when I made this trip. I had started wearing local clothes, no body armor, and although I had both rifle and pistol, I kept them out of sight. Afghan security forces checkpoints could be dicey, and running up behind an American army convoy was also dicey — come around a blind corner at high speeds and they would light you up in a heartbeat. Taliban checkpoints were always a problem, but they were rare back in 2008.

It took over an hour to reach Gandamak, which appeared to be a prosperous hamlet tucked into a small valley. The color of prosperity in Afghanistan is green because green vegetation means water — villages with access to abundant, clean water are always significantly better off than those without.

The Maliks (tribal leaders) from Gandamak and the surrounding villages arrived shortly after we did. They walked into the meeting room armed; I had left my rifle in the vehicle which, as the invited foreign guest, I felt obligated to do. Gandamak is Indian Country and everybody out there was armed to the teeth.  I was an invited guest, so the odds of me being harmed by the Maliks (who invited me) were exactly zero. That’s how Pashtunwali works; as long as I uphold my end of the bargain (being respectful of local customs and mores), the tribal leaders who invited me would fight to the death to protect me without a second’s hesitation.

The order of business was a meeting about the aid needs of the local communities, a tour of the Gandamak battlefield, and then lunch. I was not going to be able to do much about the projects they needed but I could listen politely, which is all they asked of me. At the time of this meeting I was in the the security business, not the aid business.

I have enjoyed touring old battlefields since I was a boy — my father would take me on staff rides to Gettysburg, The Wilderness battlefield and Fredericksburg.  Visiting battlefields that not many people can visit was a rare treat, and on top of that, I had armed tribal fighters escorting me. I was looking forward to the trip.

Sharif's Great Great Grandfather and son waiting on the Brits to make it down from Kabul
Sharif’s Great Great Grandfather and son waiting on the Brits to make it down from Kabul

As the Maliks arrived, they started talking among themselves in hushed tones and I kept hearing the name “Barack Obama.” I was apprehensive; I’m surrounded by Obama fanatics every Thursday night at the Taj bar. It is unpleasant talking with them because they know absolutely nothing about the man other than he is not Bush and looks cool. They are convinced he is more then ready to be president because NPR told them so. Pointing out that to the NGO girls that Obama can’t possibly be ready to be the chief executive because he has zero experience at executive leadership would have been pointless, and I did not want to have to explain this to the Maliks. They have time and will insist on hashing things out for as long as it takes for them to reach a clear understanding. I have a wrist watch and a short attention span — this was not starting off well.

As I feared, the morning discussion started with the question: “tell us about Barack Obama.” What was I to say? That his resume is thin was an understatement, but he had risen to the top of the democratic machine and that took some traits Pashtun Maliks could identify with. I described how he came to power in the Chicago machine. I wasn’t about to explain Chicago, but in general terms using the oldest communication device known to man: a good story. A story based in fact, colored with a little supposition, and augmented by my colorful imagination. Once they understood that lawyers in America are like warlords in Afghanistan and can rub out their competition ahead of an election using the law and judges instead of guns, they got the picture. A man cold enough to win every office for which he ran by eliminating his competition before the vote is a man the Pashtuns can understand. I told them that Obama will probably win and that I have no idea how that will impact our effort in Afghanistan. They asked if Obama was African and I resisted the answer of “who knows?” Instead, I said his father was African and his mother a white American and so he identifies himself as an African American. I had succeeded in totally confusing my hosts and they just looked at me for a long time saying nothing.

What followed was (I think) a long discussion about Africans. Were they or were they not good Muslims? I assume this stems from the Africans they may have seen during the Al Qaeda days. I think the conclusion was that the Africans were like the Arabs and therefore considered suspect. They talked among themselves for several more minutes and I heard John McCain’s name several times, but they did not ask anymore about the pending election, praise be to God. They assured me that they like all Americans regardless of hue and it would be better to see more of them, especially if they took off the helmets and body armor because that scares the kids and woman-folk. They said that the big MRAPS  scare the cows who already don’t have enough water and feed, so scaring them causes even less milk to be produced and on and on and on… these guys know how to beat a point to death.

Maliks of Sherzad district
The Maliks of Sherzad district

We talked for around 35 more minutes about the anemic American reconstruction effort, their needs, and the rise in armed militancy.

The American military visits the district of Sherzad about once a month and remains popular with the local people. They have built some mico-hydro power projects upstream from Gandamak which the people (even those who do not benefit from the project) much appreciate. The U.S. AID contractor DAI has several projects in the district which the elders feel could be done better if they were given the money to do it themselves. When I asked who had kidnapped a DAI engineer (local national type) last month and how we could go about securing his release (which was another reason for my visit), they shrugged and one of them said, “who knows?” That was to be expected, but I felt compelled to ask anyway.

The elders explained, without me asking, that they were serious about giving up poppy cultivation but they had yet to see the promised financial aid for doing so, and thus they would have to grow poppy again (if they got enough rain, inshallah). They also needed a road over which to transport their crops to market once their fields proved productive. Then they needed their bridges repaired, and they needed their irrigation systems restored to the condition they were in back in the 1970s. They said that with these improvements would come security and more commerce. One of them made a most interesting comment, something to the effect of “the way the roads are now, the only thing we can economically transport over them is the poppy.” A little food for thought.

At the conclusion of the talking part of the meeting, the senior Maliks and I piled into my SUV and headed to the Gandamak battlefield.

The Gandamack Hill today
The Gandamak Hill today

Our first stop was to what the Maliks described as “The British Prison,” which was up on the side of the Jalalabad pass and about a mile from the battlefield. We climbed up the steep slope at a vigorous pace set by the senior Malik. About halfway up, we came to what looked to be an old foundation and an entrance to a small cave. They said this was a British prison. Why the Brits would shove their prisoners inside a cave located so high up on the side of a mountain is a mystery to me and I doubt this was the real story behind what looked to be a mine entrance.  It was a nice brisk walk up a very steep hill and I kept up with the senior Malik, which was probably the point to this detour.

Enterance to the "Brit Jail
Entrance to the “Brit Jail”
Heading up the slope to the Brit jail
Heading up the slope to the Brit jail – not an easy walk

After checking that out, we headed to the battlefield proper. We stopped at the end of a finger which looked exactly like any other finger jutting down from the mountain range above us. It contained building foundations which had been excavated a few years back. Apparently some villagers started digging through the site looking for anything they could sell in Peshawar shortly after the Taliban fell. The same thing happened at the Minaret of Jamm until the central government got troops out there to protect the site. The elders claimed to have unearthed a Buddha statue at the Gandamak battlefield a few years ago which they figured the British must have pilfered from Kabul. By my estimation there are 378,431 “ancient one-of-a-kind Buddha statues” for sale in Afghanistan to the westerner dumb enough to buy one. They’re excellent fakes, and they better be because the penalties for trafficking ancient artifacts are severe.

I do not know where these foundations came from. Back in 1842, the closest British troops were 35 miles away in Jalalabad and there are no reports of the 44th Foot pulling into an existing structure. We were in the right area — just off the ancient back road which runs to Kabul via the Lataband Pass. My guides were certain this finger was where the battle occurred and, as their direct ancestors participated in it, I assumed we were on the correct piece of dirt. I would bet that the foundations are from a small British outpost built here possibly to host the Treaty of Gandamak signing in 1879, or for the purpose of recovering the remains of their dead for proper internment.

Site of the final battle
Site of the final battle
Foundation from an unknown building on Gandamak Hill
Foundation from an unknown building on Gandamak Hill

There was not much to see on that forsaken hill, it was a quiet, desolate place. I looked west and studied the terrain trying to imagine what it must have been like for the Brits that day. I couldn’t do it, my imagination was not up to the task but I’ll say this; that damn hill puts out a bad vibe. I was thrilled to be standing on a famous battlefield that not many westerners have ever seen but I was more thrilled to leave. The damn place was spooky.

The visit concluded with a large lunch and after we had finished and the food was removed, our meeting was officially ended with a short prayer. I’m not sure what the prayer said but it was short. I’m an infidel; short is good.

Man I love Kabuli Pilau - and eating with my hands
Man, I love Kabuli Pilau — and eating with my hands. Mehrab Siraj, a close friend and the Manager of the Taj guesthouse, is sitting to my right

Post Script

The Maliks of Sherzad district never received the attention they wanted from the U.S. Government or the Afghan authorities. Instead, the Taliban filled the void and started muscling their way into the district back in 2010. By early 2012 things were bad enough that my old driver Sharif called me to see if there was anything I could do about getting the Americans to help them fight the Taliban. I was in the Helmand Province by then, dealing with my own Taliban problems and could offer him nothing. That bothered me then and it bothers me now, but that’s life.

In August 2012, my old friend Mehrab was gunned down by the Taliban outside his home. Several of the men I had shared lunch with back in 2008 also perished fighting the Taliban. Gandamak is now Taliban territory, the poppy now the main source of income. It will be a long time before a westerner will able to visit that old battlefield again.

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Cheezewiz
Member
Cheezewiz

Very interesting article. I must confess that I do not know much about the region, culture, or what is really going on there, despite US forces being there almost 20 years. It is truly fascinating to read these stories and gain a little insight. I tried to get in on the Afghanistan action early in 2001, but was already deployed in the Balkans. I wonder how my life would be different had I been successful. I can relate to dealing with host nation people from my tour in Iraq, but there seems to be some differences as well. It is… Read more »

Mic-Mac
Member
Mic-Mac

Cheezewiz, I feel honored to be able to read these stories and comments from all of you. When I read these stories, and comments from veterans such as yourself, I have much gratitude for the men and women of our military.

Susan B
Member

I share those sentiments, Mick. If not for these stories, how would we know unless we were able to go over there ourselves. Thank you, Tim, for helping us to see through your eyes.

Mason
Member
Mason

Wonderful read, thank you. Many years ago, as I started on my journey with all things Afghanistan, I read “The Great Game and the race for Empire in Central Asia” a.k.a Tournament of Shadows by Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac. The withdrawal of the British, and the saga of William Brydon are indelibly etched in my mind. This article is a great retreat back to that first exposure.

Mic-Mac
Member
Mic-Mac

Great story Baba Tim. Very interesting and entertaining! I love the history and the story. But I am sad that the Gandamak is now Taliban territory and that your friends were gunned down. War is hell, and the Afghan people have sure had their share of it. I also find the practice of Pashtunwali fascinating and would like to learn more about it such as how long has it been a part of their culture. Thank you for an excellent read. I enjoy The Freq so much! Honestly!

Kay Danes
Guest
Kay Danes

Amazing account Baba Tim. Our humanitarian team were eternally grateful for your support and protection in Nangarhar. Bless you 😍

susanh
Member
susanh

Nice to see another Aussie here, Kay. God bless you for the work you do.

JoniS
Guest
JoniS

You love old battlefields. I love old cemetaries. The history is fascinating if you take the time to learn. I don’t know much about Afghanistan history other than some basics so I’m grateful to learn. I’m sure there was an erry presence to being on that battlefield. Sort of like some graveyards have more history so they have a unique presence you can feel. The people of Afghanistan is so.hardy. They have been at war so long. While we speak about children who were born around 9/11 and don’t know what it’s like to live when we aren’t at war,… Read more »

Susan B
Member

Thank you, Tim, for sharing this story with us. I’m sorry that you lost your friend. I am in mind of all the time and money we spent to rebuild our ex-enemy Japan and how completely 180 things turned around between our nations. Fortunately, Japan admitted defeat and we were able to do that. With Afghanistan being a divided nation within its own borders, there are no winning sides. There are only more and more lives lost. It is truly sad because there are so many good people there that would welcome and benefit from our help other than concerning… Read more »

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