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by William Dalrymple, published by Bloomsbury, ISBN 978-1-4088-1830-5 Published in the Independent, February 2013

William Dalrymple is a master storyteller, who breathes such passion, vivacity and animation into the historical characters of the First Anglo-Afghan war of 1839-42 that at the end of this massive 567-page book you feel you have marched, fought, dined and plotted with them all. I found myself so missing the company of doughty old Lady Sale, dashing Akbar Khan, waspish Emily Eden, the sexy devil-may-care Scottish spy Alexander Burnes and his all-knowing, all-corresponding Kashmiri secretary, Mohan Lal that once I had finished I turned straight back to the beginning.

This also allowed me to re-read the authors skittish and flirtatious acknowledgements (full of references to helpful Spy Chiefs and gadget-lending Ambassadors) back-to-back with the strategic gravitas of Dalrymple’s concluding chapter. Which makes it quite clear that Return of a King is not just an animated and highly literate retelling of a chapter of early 19th-century British military history, but also a determined attempt to reach out and influence the politicians and policy-makers of our modern world. The parallels between the disastrous British occupation of Afghanistan in 1839, and the post 9/11 occupation of Afghanistan by the USA and some of its NATO allies, are so insistent that they begin to sound like the chorus of a Greek tragedy.

To take just half a dozen of the most telling examples: the site of the British cantonment outside Kabul in 1839 is now occupied by the US Embassy and NATO barracks; both Dost Muhammad in the 19th century and Mullah Omar in the 20th century sought to give themselves political legitimacy by proclaiming Jihad and by physically wrapping themselves in the mantle of the Prophet held in a sanctuary at Kandahar; the current President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, and the British-supported Shah Shuja, come not only from the same tribe but from the very same clan, the Popalzai, whilst the infamous leader of the black-turban wearing, world-threatening Islamist Taliban, Mullah Omar, hails from the same traditional leadership clan (the Hotak) of the Ghilzai tribe who formed the backbone to the resistance against the British in 1841. Perhaps most tellingly of all, we have exactly the same misguided habit of allowing intellectual desk-bound policy-makers to overrule local expertise, the same bureaucratic massaging of factual reports into dodgy dossiers and exactly the same refrain touted by a policymaker back in the 1830 (one John McNeil) - “he who is not with us is against us” – as was later used by President Bush. But it would be underselling Return of a King to frame it is as just a cleverly camouflaged political and diplomatic lecture, with a consistent theme of ‘bring our boys back’. For although the 19th-century British invasion of Afghanistan was a complete, abysmal and expensive failure, it did have very important consequences that helped form the world today.

First and foremost the destruction of a British Army of the Indus as it left Kabul, is described by Dalrymple as the combined ‘Waterloo, Trafalgar and Battle of Britain’ that gave Afghanistan its national identity and self esteem. In my own experience with some of the wounded Mujihadeen who fought the Russians, I can confirm with what pride Afghans of all ethnicities recalled this victory and delighted in telling you which ancestors had fought there, as well as asking about yours, and knowing by heart the names of all the principal British generals and politicians.

Secondly, it forged the very concept of Afghanistan as a separate, Islamic nation dominated by an alliance of Pathan tribes ruling from Kabul. Before the British invasion, the prevailing concept was of Khorassan, a culturally Persian, empire of disparate peoples, ruled by Shahs not Islamic Emirs, that looked to the Central Asian empire of Timur and the Mughal empire of Babur for its references. Indeed Dalrymple has unearthed a number of new documents that go to show how strongly the Afghan tribes and cities were wedded to their dynastic and cultural loyalties and that only a catastrophe on the scale of the British invasion helped break this and help forge a new identity. Thirdly, Dalrymple makes it clear that the bizarre political frontiers of our modern age (themselves flash points for past and possible future wars between Pakistan and India) were directly created in this period. So that this war finally broke the unity of Khorassan which had embraced modern Afghanistan, the North West frontier province of Pakistan and Kashmir in one block of Highland culture, just as the Punjab was a self governing Empire (not divided between two nations) and Peshawar was then the old winter capital of Kabul not a border town.

On a more intimate level, Dalrymple’s extensive researches into Afghan records, letters, legends and histories have corrected a number of assertions. He shows us that although the British occupation of Afghanistan was a doomed longterm strategy (too far, too expensive, for no cogent reason and for no reward), there was nothing inevitable about a military defeat. By taking us in detail through the experiences of the victorious garrisons of the Army of the Indus that held on, at both Kandahar (under General Nott) and Jahalabad (under General Sale), we understand that it was only the combined idiocy and paralysis of Generals Shelton and Elphinstone that led to the catastrophe, even taking into account that the Afghan rifle had superior range and accuracy to the British musket. In addition Dalrymple reveals just how complicated and divided the Afghan political landscape was, and goes a long way to revive our sympathy and estimation for Shah Shujah, a Charles I-like figure of personal charm and decency without diminishing the character of his rival, Dost Muhammad by a jot. After hearing the many stories of murder, assassination and torture it becomes obvious that there was absolutely no way that these two leaders, of the Sadozai and Barakzais dynasties respectively, were ever going to make a united front against the British.

Most surprising of all is Dalrymple’s discovery that the initial revolt against the British was not due to a conspiracy of Jihadist Mullahs but the work of a disgruntled band of Kabul-based ex-courtiers and royalists. For time and time again, character, clan and chance, seem to dictate Afghan policy as much as any overreaching principle. So we find it was the godson of the Shah, overlooked in a round of recent honours and gifts of kaftans, who assassinated his old master in a fit of pique, rather than any of Shah Shujah’s longterm political rivals. It is this mastery of the intimate details, as well as the landscape and the grand rivalry between empires, with which Dalrymple wins our trust and keeps our interest,. There is no need for Flashman or Kim to flesh things out, for it is all here: be it Burnes dancing a reel on his dining room table in Kabul, the Christmas day meeting between the two master spies on either side of the Russian and British Great Game, the gruesome rituals of Afridi vengeance on the bodies of their fallen foes or the components of the lethal sounding cocktail that Ranjit Singh, the masterful one-eyed, Emperor of the Sikhs consumed and shared with his guests whilst firing off a thousand intelligent, highly pertinent questions. He and Dalrymple would have got on famously.

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