Anna Whitelock’s talking points: a history of violence

Events in Afghanistan have dominated the news in recent weeks, with Twitter users debating their historical context and parallels. Anna Whitelock followed the discussion as it unfolded

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Afghanistan’s present and future has been a subject of much discussion, with many lamenting the lack of understanding of the region’s history and its tortured relations with western powers. As historian Olivette Otele (@OlivetteOtele) tweeted, “I wish people had basic info about the history of the place/region… the mess didn’t start with current Taliban and people there have been suffering for a very long time.”

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Academic Justin Podur (@Justinpodur) sought to provide historical context with a much-applauded thread that set the scene in 1839, the year Britain invaded Afghanistan from India and installed their own candidate, Shah Shuja, on the throne in Kabul. His thread described the process of imposing Shuja, including “rapes, looting, massacres”, and the way in which, after Shuja’s assassination in 1842, “the British regrouped… to get ‘revenge’ against the Afghans for driving them out”.


Listen: A panel of expert historians discuss how history can help make sense of current events in Afghanistan, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:


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Podur asked, rhetorically: “What was the 1839 British war on Afghanistan about?”, following up with his take: “Basically, the British empire – whose primary goal was squeezing what would eventually be $45tn out of India – destroyed Afghanistan to make it a ‘buffer zone’ against any kind of incursion.”

Sean R Roberts (@robertsreport) added to the Twitter history lesson: “It is important to remember that there is a long history of Uyghurs in Afghanistan, [including many] refugees who fled the 1949 revolution in China. These are not ‘foreign fighters’ or ‘jihadists’, but the Taliban could claim that they are and deport them to China to win favour with Beijing.”

More debate was sparked by an article by Guy Chazan (@GuyChazan) in the Financial Times, arguing that “As one of Nato’s biggest and most costly foreign policy priorities of this century implodes, those lessons will be lost on Beijing. History repeats itself in the tragedy of Afghanistan.” Evan Feigenbaum (@EvanFeigenbaum) responded, tweeting: “Some of these takes are both premature and a bit much.” Historian Peter Frankopan (@peterfrankopan) added that “part of the problem was not that lessons from the past were not learned: but lessons from the present”.

Historian and TV presenter Dr Tessa Dunlop (@Tessadunlop) looked closer to home. “Within our own borders Northern Ireland tells us there is no short-term fix,” she wrote. “The history of Afghanistan tells the same. We knew that when we went in.” Frankopan agreed that he, too, had been reminded of the not-so-distant past. “Events of the past week remind me of its mirror image: the build-up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. One brought hope. The other, fear.” Certainly, at the time of writing, there is little sign of hope in the news from Afghanistan.

Join the debate at twitter.com/historyextra

This article first appeared in the November 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine