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Akbar Ahmed is a British Pakistani historian, anthropologist, author and current chair of Islamic studies at American University. He’s spent his life living in various countries across the globe . And has contributed to the field of South Asian and Middle Eastern studies.

To sense some of the complexity of the Afghanistan that Victorian Britain chose to invade. You don’t even need to leave contemporary London. I’ve come to Ealing for an evening of Afghan food, music and traditional costume. With a group of Afghans now resident here in West London. In this room, I am meeting Professor Akbar Ahmed, in a dizzying array of ethnic groups. Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Turkmen, Nuristani, all Afghans, and all holding different religious and political views.

The divisions and consequences of war have led to more than 5 million Afghans fleeing their country since the 1980s. Rory speaks with two of the diners:

Do you think, for example, Britain should remain in Helmand? “Until they will have the infrastructure in the proper way, I think they should remain.”

You don’t think the British should remain in Helmand? “Absolutely not.”

Microcosm of Afghanistan
Microcosm of Afghanistan

The microcosm of Afghanistan is there in that room, and some of these people are now sitting down together around the table, and in those histories and the suspicions of who joined the jihad, who came from which ethnic group, are many of the fissures that continue to haunt Afghanistan today.

Professor Akbar Ahmed

And all this complexity and Afghan history, both ancient and modern, so difficult to understand, so often overlooked, still matters deeply for all of us today. And it continues to preoccupy commentators, such as Akbar Ahmed, who I’ve come to meet here in Washington DC.

Professor Akbar Ahmed
Professor Akbar Ahmed

Professor Akbar Ahmed, a Pakistani who once worked as an administrator on the North-West Frontier with Afghanistan, arrived in the States where he now teaches, a day before the World Trade Center attack. But his direct appeal to the White House for caution fell on deaf ears.

Professor Akbar Ahmed “I think on 9/11 the US administration had no idea about Afghanistan, its tribes, its history, but it was so motivated, so intensely motivated by a sense of anger, a sense of revenge, a sense of honour, that, at all costs, it had to rush into Afghanistan. I said many, many superpowers have gone charging into Afghanistan. Be very careful. And that is the big problem, that when you combine arrogance with a lack of knowledge of that part of the world, you are almost guaranteed to run into trouble.”

Hospitable Country
Hospitable Country

I sensed this tension myself when I walked across Afghanistan shortly after 9/11. I found a hospitable and attractive country but still deeply conservative, isolated and difficult for a foreigner to understand. It made me reflect on the superpowers who have so often invaded the mountains of Afghanistan, how often they get caught up in their own strategic games, how easily they become out of touch, failing to grasp the complexity and resistance of Afghanistan.

The Afghan in London Akbar Ahmed

And I felt the same was true for the British in the 19th century. When they came, they were focused not on Afghanistan itself, but its neighbours. If I had been a British redcoat standing on this wall in 1839, I would have been told that the reason I was here was that British India lay to the East and Russia lay to the North, and Afghanistan was trapped between two expanding empires.

Trading Neighbours
Trading Neighbours

Afghanistan, a largely barren country, but with a rich Islamic civilisation, have long fought and traded with its Muslim and Asian neighbours, but it had never encountered a non-Muslim power as alien as Britain. And yet, in the 1830s, Afghanistan was perceived, as it is believed to be today, to be an immediate threat to British national security, a place for the politicians and generals of Empire to fret about.

Alien Britain
Alien Britain

For hundreds of years, all the conflicts had happened here in Europe and suddenly it exploded East. Russia raced towards Japan, Britain came into India, and as these great empires expanded, there was this zone in between, almost a blank space on the map with very, very few towns, a place of deserts and mountains.

And although these two empires were still 4000 miles apart, they were certain that they were about to meet. They were going to meet here, in Afghanistan.

British Involvement in Afghanistan

As Britain and Russia stretched and flexed, Afghanistan, one of the most remote and impoverished kingdoms in the world, found itself sandwiched between two empires who both claimed, at least, to be its friends.

Sandwiched between Super Powers Akbar Ahmed
Sandwiched between Super Powers

Britain feared Russia might creep south towards British ruled India, the jewel in the crown of the Empire, and the second centre of British political power. But suspicions worked both ways. The Russians were equally nervous about Britain moving north from its base in India.

Sensing that these two empires would collide in Afghanistan, the British government was hungry for intelligence on this blank space. A spy was dispatched. Alexander Burnes, a man I believe to be one of our greatest ever political officers.

King Amanullah the new King of Afghanistan
Alexander Burnes Political Officer and British Spy
Battle of Maiwand in the war for Afghanistan

Professor Akbar Ahmed The Afghan in London