26 September 2010

Historical Viewpoints on UK and Afghanistan

John Burns' column on the NYTimes.com site today gives a nice accounting of the new museum exhibit in London about the British wars in Afghanistan.

In more than two decades of reporting from and about Afghanistan, nothing I have seen has brought so vividly to life what those long-ago battles were like. But what gives the exhibit an even more compelling dimension is that it is being held at a time when Britain and the United States, the two principal force-providers in the 42-nation coalition fighting the current conflict, are weighing whether there is a realistic hope of prevailing in the battle against al Qaeda and the Taliban, or whether the moment has come to call time on a conflict that has shown little sign, yet, of turning around.

The exhibit stays clear of advocacy on the current war. But if Britain’s army commanders had wanted to send a discreet signal of their apprehension, they could hardly have done better than to encourage the museum to frame the exhibition as it has. Rebecca Hubbard, the museum’s public relations chief, told me that the museum’s royal charter buttresses its independence, although its $8 million annual budget comes from the defense ministry. But it strains credulity to think the museum would not have consulted with its defense ministry patrons before proceeding.

What the exhibition’s designers had in mind seems clear enough. First, there is the poster quoting Field Marshal Roberts, who was imperial Britain’s most revered soldier. Then there is the first script that meets the visitor’s eye at the exhibition. “British imperial forces fought three wars in Afghanistan,” it says. “Currently this unforgiving battleground preys heavily on the minds of British politicians, soldiers and civilians alike, but the past has been largely forgotten. Afghanistan has a longer memory.”

By: Brant

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