Accessibility links

Breaking News

History Lessons For Afghanistan's Green Zone

'Tournament of Shadows'
'Tournament of Shadows'
There is a currently a proposal to establish a fortified region in Kabul to house diplomatic missions, and so better protect these from incidents of violence that continue to occur in Afghanistan’s capital. The idea is modeled on Baghdad's “Green Zone.”

In Afghanistan's tumultuous history, this isn't the first time this idea has been tried.

In late October 1841, there was a fortified district in Kabul. It was home to some 5,000 British troops, their families, and some 10,000 cooks, artisans, servants, and others who had either accompanied the British Army into Afghanistan in 1839 or who had followed since.

In their book “Tournament of Shadows,” Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac write that this enclave of foreigners was located “on a swamp-ridden plateau beneath hills to the north and south.”

For its defenses “a shallow ditch, a low wall, and four corner bastions were all that protected hundreds of bungalows” housing the foreigners.

The Afghans attacked and for nearly two months the British and their entourage were trapped in their cantonment until, under a truce, those that had survived the snipers and direct attacks departed on January 6, 1842.

Subjected to repeated attacks and at the mercy of the harsh Afghan winter, very few of the original 15,000 people who so recently resided in Kabul made their way out of Afghanistan.

“Tournament of Shadows” cites British ordnance officer Vincent Eyre as writing during the siege of the cantonment that “the unwelcome truth was soon forced upon us that in the whole Afghan nation we could not reckon on a single friend.”

Eyre was actually wrong to believe the British had not one friend in the Afghan nation. Some of the handful that escaped during the retreat did so with help from Afghans.

Of course, the situation is much improved today and the relationship between the Afghan government and foreign parties vastly improved.

Furthermore the massive firepower available to foreign troops in Afghanistan excludes the possibility of a protracted siege at a Kabul “green zone” or the danger that a large foreign presence in the Afghan capital could be encircled and cut off as the British were in 1841.

But ordnance officers' words from the past are a reminder that foreigners in Afghanistan can wear out their welcome if they are not careful.

-- Bruce Pannier

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

Latest Posts