Ministry of Silly Wars: Britain in Central Asia

D uring America’s war in Afghanistan, the prior experience of imperial Britain in Central Asia has often been used as a warning against the ways in which Western invasions and occupations of distant Islamic kingdoms can go wrong. Afghanistan is “the graveyard of empires,” as Michael Moore sententiously warned President Obama after his December 1, 2009, speech at West Point. It’s a common trope for people who don’t know the history, and when the current war began in 2001, it was heard on all sides. Some hoped that the American imperium would find its own graveyard in the endless valleys that had supposedly thwarted the British and the Soviets. As the NATO offensive in Marja concluded ambivalently in the winter of 2010, it could not but haul these sentiments back into view.

But what is this history that is allegedly doomed to repeat itself? As it works out, it’s only one part “graveyard,” the rest being unqualified imperial success.

After Lord Auckland, governor-general of India, issued the Simla Declaration in 1838—proclaiming that the British needed a pacified western frontier for the Raj—the British invaded Afghanistan in 1839 to support one ruler against another, in this case Shah Shuja against Dost Mohammed. The British were anxious about the expanding Russian Empire and the menace they believed it posed to their sphere of influence, particularly as it affected the Raj in India. They were irritated by Afghan unruliness on the borders, and feared being seen as weak.

They scored some quick successes against Dost Mohammed, reached Kabul, and then sent the bulk of the army back to India. Things quickly turned sour in Kabul for the mostly Indian garrison. After the British commander, William Hay Macnaghten, was hacked to death by an Afghan mob, William Elphinstone took command and led his troops in a desperate retreat toward Jalalabad. They never got there. Ghilzai warriors intercepted Elphinstone and his men—a force of sixteen thousand—as they made their way through the Gandamak Pass and cut them to pieces. The most famous image of this catastrophe, a mournful painting by Elizabeth Butler, shows the expedition’s lone survivor, a surgeon named William Brydon, limping across a wintery Afghan wasteland on a solitary horse. It was the empire’s most harrowing symbol of loss, the equivalent of what the Battles of Cannae and Teutoburg Forest had meant to the Romans. Kipling later recalled the utter defeat in “The Young British Soldier”:

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains
And the women come out to cut up what remains
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains.

The massacre of the Gandamak Pass sent shock waves through Europe and marked Afghanistan out as uniquely violent. Ever since, countless commentators have remarked upon the British “failure” in Afghanistan. But the facts are otherwise. The British re-invaded Afghanistan in the autumn of 1842, crushing the Afghan armies easily.


Perhaps we relish the idea of plucky Afghans humbling imperial powers. As Jonathan Steele has argued in the pages of this journal, the myth of the mujahedin defeating the Soviets (which, as we so often are reminded, even Napoleon and Hitler couldn’t do) has become so deeply entrenched that no amount of accurate historiography can uproot it. That Mikhail Gorbachev opted to leave Afghanistan in 1986, before Stinger missiles even arrived, is rarely remembered.

Like the British in 1842, the Soviets left of their own accord, molested by a disunited and ramshackle insurgency, but hardly crushed. And like the British, they had concluded that colonizing such a dismal country was never likely to be worth the blood or treasure. Their exit was neither unseemly nor particularly hasty. The regime they had installed lasted another three years.

For their part, the British after 1842 launched glorified punitive raids against Afghanistan rather than colonizing expeditions. In the other two Anglo-Afghan wars, in 1878–80 and 1919, the British destroyed Afghan armies and terrorized the hapless region, particularly with airpower in the latter. They suffered few military setbacks and scored remarkable victories, such as the Battle of Kandahar in 1880 and the brilliant siege of Sherpur. The kill ratio was typically colonial. It is, therefore, something of a perversity that the British should have come to regard Afghanistan as their “graveyard” when the graves they left there were mostly Afghan.

By and large, the British obtained what they wanted: the creation of a buffer zone between British India and the expanding Russian Empire. They had learned from the first war not to try to colonize Afghanistan. They wanted to control it externally from India, and this was more or less what they did. The empire carried on its merry way until the latter half of the twentieth century, with little regard to events in Kabul. Its real graveyard was World War II.

The dusty annals of nineteenth-century British imperial history do have something to teach us, but not necessarily about failure. It is the perils of Great Britain’s numerous partial and meaningless successes in Central Asia that are morbidly instructive. This is particularly true of their efforts in Tibet, an addendum to the Great Game they played in Afghanistan.


T he British had a cunning and subtle attitude to empire, unlike either the Soviets or the Americans, and their elites had a serious cultural interest in the societies they subdued. Many of their officials and military leaders were born in India, often in the Punjab, and they were, in a sense, indigenous to the region. They spoke its languages and had absorbed its customs. The hero of this story, and the eventual leader of the 1903–04 expedition to Tibet, is Colonel Francis Younghusband, who was born in Murree (in what is now northern Pakistan) in 1863.

This wild little hill town, which faces the snowcaps of Kashmir, still holds the grim Victorian church that Younghusband must have known, though it’s now surrounded by barbed wire. Its tribal mountains, within striking distance of both Afghanistan and Tibet, and their dense social complexities and codes were not entirely alien to him. I like to think that Younghusband’s bellicose impetuosity is at least partly derived from the place where he grew up.

An Indian viceroy like Lord Curzon was arguably a more sophisticated Orientalist than anyone in the Bush or Obama administrations, by a vast margin. The British knew how to manipulate societies they did not control militarily, setting up devious alliances and systems of bribery that held their foes in check without overbearing force. They were able to play the Great Game against the Russians and keep India theirs without waging ruinous wars. Yet they were also prey to the strange delusions that seem to dog Western powers when they get involved in Asia.

Younghusband’s expedition to Tibet—the last great imperial invasion—grew directly out of the government of India’s experience in Afghanistan, and was waged ostensibly for very similar reasons. It was driven by a paranoid Russophobia and a jittery fear that India itself might be invaded from the north by the armies of the czar. Lord Curzon, viceroy of India from 1898 to 1905, served as its principal architect.

Elegant and forbidding, Curzon possessed deep knowledge when it came to Asia. But when it came to the Russians, he often fell victim to extreme and irrational convictions. Afghanistan was the point of contention in Central Asia, and the wars the empire had fought there were the result of the same generalized Russophobia that Curzon had wallowed in as a schoolboy at Eton. Despite their shared Europeanness, the British saw the Russians as the jihadists of the day—with rail networks.

The British feared being out-hustled, out-maneuvered, and eventually damaged by a wily and technologically savvy foe. In 1914, Fridtjof Nansen calculated that the Russian Empire had been expanding at the rate of fifty-five square miles a day for the better part of four hundred years. In Asia, the two empires were on a collision course. “As a student of Russian aspirations and methods for fifteen years,” Curzon wrote in 1901, “I assert with confidence—that her ultimate ambition is the dominion of Asia.” This was the sentiment that drove the Great Game.

The British waged a century of covert and overt warfare in the region against an enemy that often failed to materialize but always lurked in their subconscious. Behind so many of their conspiracy theories lay the indubitably ruthless czars, as enigmatic to them as the despots of the ruined caliphates. Traveling across East Asia in 1888 before becoming viceroy, Curzon noted that the whole region looked like “one vast armed camp.” He saw meddling Russian fingers in every pie, from Peking to Turkmenistan where, at the desolate fortress of Geok Tepe, he looked down gloomily upon the bleached human remains of its defenders, slaughtered by the Cossacks.

“Whatever be Russia’s designs on India,” Curzon wrote in 1889, “whether they be serious or inimical or imaginary or fantastic, I hold that the first duty of English statesmen is to render any hostile intentions futile.”

Curzon loved grand strategic coups, but distrusted military leaders when it came to the small stuff. He thought them prone to wasting money, and often vetoed minor expeditions and funding for border forts. But Tibet caught his imagination. He knew its invasion would create a sensation all over Europe. The prospect of a campaign there stirred the ancient British obsession with the mysterious East. Above all, he was sure, the Russians were there. They hadn’t turned up in Kabul, but surely they’d be lurking in the forbidden city of Lhasa. They were under every Asian bed, so why not there?

The British, as usual, sought a pretext for war. On November 4, 1903, Curzon urged the British government, then under Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, to invade Tibet. As he phrased it, the aim would be to force the Tibetans to accept a British mission in the hitherto isolated city of Lhasa and normalize free trade. The Tibetans, he argued, had despoiled a few border markers and made sundry incursions into Nepalese territory. They had refused both to acknowledge the messages sent to them and to trade according to the Convention of 1890, a treaty signed by the Chinese, the British, and the Tibetans. Two British spies—Indians—had been arrested by the Tibetans at the town of Khamber Jong and, apparently, executed. Outrage was voiced. Something had to be done. A quick, painless invasion could be had, Curzon said, for about £153,000.

Sensing that London might question this trumped-up casus belli , Curzon sent an additional telegram that introduced a note of Monty Python: “An overt act of hostility has taken place,” he wrote feverishly. “Tibetan troops having, as we are now informed, attacked Nepalese yaks on the frontier and carried off many of them.” It was now an “international incident.”


I n 1903, the newly instated secretary of state was St. John Brodrick, who had been a close friend of Curzon’s at Eton. Tibet would divide them. Brodrick, who seems to have hero-worshipped Curzon and subsequently felt slighted by him, writes that the mission to Tibet was now to be regarded more or less as a punitive expedition with undefined objectives. In a telegram authorizing the invasion, following a cabinet deliberation, he wrote, “The advance should be made for the sole purpose of obtaining satisfaction.” As if it were akin to a private duel. But Curzon had something more ambitious in mind than mere international honor, namely bringing Tibet within the British sphere of influence and keeping it there.

A suffocating moral and tactical confusion settled over the enterprise. Command of the mission itself fell to the brave and energetic Younghusband, while the small army that was to “protect” the mission came under the neurotic and indecisive Colonel J. R. L. Macdonald. Almost as soon as the ragbag army—with its retinue of Himalayan porters, gunners, cooks, journalists, Gurkhas, and Pioneer, Mounted Infantry, and Indian units—crossed the border on December 11, the two men began to find themselves at odds. Younghusband wanted to get to Lhasa as quickly as possible and bring the war to a climax; Macdonald continually slowed him down and staged partial retreats back to safe bases. He was soon dubbed “Retiring Mac.”

Macdonald seems to have been deeply anxious even as they climbed the first, vertiginous tracks up to the Jelep La pass, between Sikkim and Tibet, at 14,390 feet. One can hardly blame him. Only a handful of white men had ever penetrated into this austere mountain kingdom over which China’s Qing Empire had imposed a loose and sometimes uncertain suzerainty since the seventeenth century. The invaders knew that the kingdom’s spiritual head was the Dalai Lama, but understood little about him or his office. To the British, he was a mysterious, slightly sinister avatar of medieval barbarism. They justified their sentiments by noting that he didn’t answer their letters.

Over the next few weeks, as the force penetrated deeper into Tibet, Macdonald  became obsessed with his ever-lengthening supply lines. And yet the Tibetans, at first, did nothing but watch. Dressed in mail, armed with matchlocks and gigantic ancient harquebusses called jingals, they were hopelessly outclassed by even the small number of Maxim guns and artillery that the British dragged along with them.

From time to time the Tibetans sent down good-natured ambassadors to talk the British into reason. Every time, the meetings ended inconclusively and with a vague feeling of distrust. Perhaps they simply had no idea what the British wanted. When Younghusband asked the Tibetans where the Russians were, they said they’d never seen a Russian.

Finally, at the end of March 1904, an advance party of one thousand men, with about two hundred British troops, arrived at the desolate hamlet of Guru, where an old wall had once barred the caravan trail. It was now manned by a Tibetan force determined to resist. The British brought up their two seven-pound guns (named Bubble and Squeak), but neither side appeared eager to commit to bloodshed. A Tibetan general from Lhasa rode out to meet Younghusband and Macdonald as they sat imperiously under a crackling Union Jack surrounded by sheepskins.

Perceval Landon, the Times correspondent “embedded” with the mission, described the late-colonial scene: “the strange forked guns embossed with turquoise and coral; the richly worked sword-hilts; the little grey and bay ponies . . . all these things straight from the sacred and forbidden city possessed a new and intense interest for us.”

The European nineteenth century and the Asian Middle Ages came together in a tortured collision when the order was given to the British troops to disarm the Tibetans. It turned into a brawl. The affable Lhasa general, infuriated by a Sikh trying to wrest away his musket, shot the man in the jaw. Perhaps relieved to be back to business as usual, the British opened fire.

A photograph survives of the sodden and bleak battlefield a few hours later, with Tibetan corpses strewn across it. Edmund Candler of the Daily Mail had his hand cut off by a Tibetan sword. Some of the gunners had stopped firing their Maxim guns out of pity and disgust at the massacre, but the toll for the Tibetans was nevertheless fearsome: seven hundred killed, including their general. A hundred and sixty-eight of their wounded were given first aid and gladly accompanied their captors all the way to Lhasa. There were no British fatalities. Three Russian rifles were captured, to much fanfare, and treated as weapons of mass destruction.

Back in Britain, however, the slaughter at Guru produced deep unease. The public disliked the one-sidedness of the killing and the invasion itself began to seem duplicitous. Had they been told the truth by the government about the reasons for this obviously unnecessary and one-sided war?


B efore these doubts could accumulate into an official reversal of policy, Younghusband decided to take things into his own hands and press ahead, despite wavering and dithering telegrams from London. The British advance party raced toward Gyantse, its official destination. The column became a kind of multicultural baggage train consisting mainly of perishable pack animals. Various experts tested rocks for minerals, chased butterflies, measured distances with bicycles and cyclometers. Gurkhas, Sikhs, Tibetans, Englishmen, and Nepalese jostled together. Finally they came to the lofty fortress at Gyantse, where an anti-British war memorial still stands today.

The fortress was empty and the British occupied it. In its labyrinth of chambers they found an enigma: thirty-six tons of barley and scores of decapitated heads. Men, women, and children had been slaughtered, which was unusual given that Tibetans did not practice capital punishment.

After bivouacking in a nearby village for a while, Younghusband sensed that the powers that were would never sanction the conquest of Lhasa. Making a nimble political move, he sent two-thirds of the garrison eastward toward the fortified pass of Karola. On May 5, a Tibetan force attacked the British near Gyantse and were crushed; the British then stormed Karola in a scene straight out of Flashman . It was one of the highest altitude battles in military history, and the attackers suffered a mere four killed. Younghusband had his justification and the road to Lhasa was now wide open. He charged down it.

There was little the authorities in London could do to prevent the hothead from arriving in sight of the Potala Palace, other than demoting him on the spot. Macdonald became de facto commander, but he was hundreds of miles away, having taken himself to the rear with sickness. Younghusband sent an ultimatum to Lhasa, judiciously ignored the whip-cracking telegrams from London, and pressed on, game shooting and fishing along the way. The British officers seemed to treat the expedition as glorious sport, copiously watered with green Chartreuse and rum.

London reluctantly came around to the idea of occupying Lhasa and Younghusband arrived at the huge Drepung monastery a few miles outside of the city on August 2. The following day he and his forces entered the city, camping a mile from the glittering gold roofs of the Potala Palace. They were greeted by Yu-t’ai, the Chinese envoy.

The Forbidden City of mystery and wisdom did not dazzle the British. They tought Lhasa smelly, filthy, cramped, and verminous to their sensibilities. The city’s monks struck Younghusband as “lazy and sensual and effete,” and the people he found “very low, underbred, idiotic-looking.” It was, another wrote, “an enchanted city only from a distance.”

What, then, had the British won by conquering it? Virtually nothing. A treaty of sorts was signed. After a few awkwardly exotic ceremonies, the drawing up of a meaningless set of agreements, and a quiet inspection to make sure there were no Russians or Russian armories (there were none), the British packed up and went home to India as proud conquerors of Tibet. The Balfour government found itself at a loss. Why not just blow up the walls of Lhasa, they suggested, and make some sort of punitive imperial gesture?


Y ounghusband refused to execute such an asinine order. Perhaps he already sensed that the whole expedition was a farce. In the end, the Chinese moved back into the vacuum created by the British invasion. They invaded Tibet in 1910 and deposed the Dalai Lama by imperial edict, causing him to flee—ironically—to British India. Thus the British adventure cost the Tibetans dear, and gave the Chinese a remarkable gift; one wonders who might leap into the vacuum of Afghanistan if NATO eventually leaves, as it surely will.

When the Qing Dynasty in turn fell in 1911 and China became republican, the Dalai Lama returned and Tibet ordered Chinese representatives and troops to leave its territory—thus claiming an elusive independence that the Chinese never recognized. “We are a small, religious, and independent nation,” the Dalai Lama declared, but somehow the British had helped disprove the substance of this noble assertion. As for the British, their military triumphs, crafty diplomacy, and strategic games came to nothing; their empire, in the end, was overtaken by historical forces it had not the will to defy. It was not because of any military catastrophes and it was not because of a failure of strategic vision.

Empires are driven as much by obvious calculations as by any amount of obscure emotion, exacerbated pride, or heightened sense of grievance. When it is a Western empire operating in Central Asia, the levels of farce and complexity seem to undergo an almost supernatural intensification. But the British lesson—that success, not failure, lands you in deep water—is a difficult one for America’s current elites to grasp. Their view of the world is a great deal more simplistic than Curzon’s. At the same time, they have hubristically bought into the myths of British and Soviet “failures” in the interest of an exceptionalism every bit as childish as Britain’s or the Soviet Union’s before them. The British of 1840, after all, thought of themselves as the Chosen People, invincible and absolutely exceptional; and so, in a sense, they were, but not when it came to the dreary realities of Central Asia. Americans will likely make a similar discovery about themselves, and in a shorter time.

The little war Britain started with Tibet, however, did produce some results. Younghusband himself experienced a mystical vision during his retreat from Tibet in 1904, which led him to “feel love for the whole world.” Later in life, in 1936, he founded the World Congress of Faiths, which urged a uniting of all the world’s religions. He regretted his role in the invasion. He also became what we would now call a hippie, having great faith (as his biographer Patrick French put it) in free love and “in cosmic rays . . . and extra-terrestrials with translucent flesh on the planet Altair.” In other words, he went mad. The Dalai Lama, meanwhile, still lives in India.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist and memoirist. His recent books include The Naked Tourist and Bangkok Days.

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