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Lessons from Britain's 1839 invasion of Afghanistan in Dalrymple book

William Dalrymple's new book, an outstanding account of the first Anglo-Afghan War, brings into sharp focus the parallels with the current military involvement in this relentlessly volatile country, writes Matthew Price
The assassination of Sir Alexander Burnes, a British diplomat, in Kabul in 1841 is depicted in this artwork. Burnes' death sparked the retreat of 16,000 British troops, most of whom perished. Hulton Archive / Getty Images
The assassination of Sir Alexander Burnes, a British diplomat, in Kabul in 1841 is depicted in this artwork. Burnes' death sparked the retreat of 16,000 British troops, most of whom perished. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Return of a King:

The Battle for Afghanistan

William Dalrymple

Bloomsbury Publishing

History may not be a guide, but it can certainly be a reproach. A great power invaded Afghanistan and occupied Kabul 174 years ago, only to be violently driven out a few years later. The occupiers completely misread the complexities of the lands they marched on. Their religion - Christian and Hindu - was offensive to many Muslim Afghans, who found the heavy-handed policies of these new rulers even more offensive. A chaotic uprising turned into outright disaster when the foreigners, forced to retreat, were all but wiped out as they fled.

Such, in a nutshell, is the story of Great Britain's first foray into Afghanistan from 1839 until 1842. As US-led Nato forces prepare to wind down operations in 2014, this past fairly taunts the present. (Amazingly, this is the fourth war Britain has fought in Afghanistan.) David Cameron, the British prime minister, and Barack Obama, the US president, are declaring victory and getting out, but the United States and the United Kingdom, which has contributed a significant contingent of troops, still have a lot to answer for. A colossal amount of money has been spent - the war is costing Washington US$100 billion (Dh367.27bn) a year - for what, at this point, seems little tangible gain. The Taliban have been beaten back, yes, but are not going anywhere. Hamid Karzai is seen as an erratic ruler whose future remains very much in doubt.

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, William Dalrymple's outstanding history of the first Anglo-Afghan War, is a pointed, all-too-relevant chronicle of a distant event that casts long shadows over modern Central Asian entanglements. Superior firepower does not compensate for misguided strategies - and is no match for the harsh, forbidding terrain of Afghanistan. Then, as now, objectives were muddled and administrators tone-deaf. When the British Indian "Army of the Indus" pushed across the Afghan frontier towards Kandahar in early 1839, it had every confidence its cause was just. The Afghan ruler, Dost Mohammad Khan, had been deemed a threat to British interests. Russian agents were alleged to be prowling around Kabul; hawkish politicians in London went into a frenzy, speculating the tsar was conspiring to move on British India.

It was a preposterous scenario - "the great game," the imperial jousting between Russia and Great Britain in Asia, inspired countless paranoid fantasies - but enough to set the cogs of war into motion.

As troops mobilised across India, the governor-general, Lord Auckland, proclaimed that military action was necessary in order "to set up a permanent barrier against schemes of aggression on our North West Frontier".

The British demonised Dost Mohammad, promising to restore the legitimate ruler, the deposed Shah Shujah, who came from the royal Sadozai clan. As British forces advanced, Dost Mohammad fled, and the shah took his place in the great fortress of Bala Hissar. But it would quickly all go to pieces.

Dalrymple's work, a brilliant fusion of innovative scholarship and thrilling storytelling, takes its place as one of the finest accounts of the invasion and its calamitous denouement. A travel writer and flamboyant presence in India - he lives on a farm outside Delhi - Dalrymple has also emerged as a superb historian of the British Raj; he is certainly one of the most entertaining. Return of a King is in many ways a companion volume to The Last Mughal, Dalrymple's riveting book on another imperial disaster, the Indian Rebellion of 1857. As with that book, Dalrymple excels at character, scene setting, and shifting between multiple points of view. His use of sources is stunning, particularly the trove of Persian-language material - epic poems, court histories and other accounts - he found in Kabul during a research trip. No other western historian has given such a complete account of the other side.

The 20,000-strong Army of the Indus, comprised mostly of Indian sepoys under the command of European East India Company officers, marched into Afghanistan with thousands of camels in train, some, Dalrymple tells us, equipped with rockets and mortars. One British general needed 260 camels for his kit; one regiment even brought foxhounds, expecting a sporting tour through an exotic land. It was not to be. The presence of infidel soldiers on Afghan soil was completely anathema. Even some of the shah's opponents were willing to recognise the old king; what they could not accept was a king whose power derived from a foreign army. Before he was deported, Josiah Harlan, an American mercenary who fought for both the East India Company and Dost Mohammad, warned prophetically: "To subdue and crush the masses of a nation by military force, when all are unanimous in the determination to be free, is to attempt the imprisonment of a whole people: all such projects must be temporary and transient, and terminate in a catastrophe …"

The reasons for the collapse of the occupation were several. The British reduced troop levels - some were sent off to China, to fight in the first Opium War - and dispersed others across the country, leaving dangerously isolated pockets of soldiers vulnerable to attack. What the British really bungled was the day-to-day management of governance. They interfered in religious affairs, alienating the mullahs. The mounting costs of the operation forced the occupiers to reduce crucial payouts to tribal chiefs - patronage was essential for any ruler to be effective, and the shah found himself unable to maintain the support of the Ghilzai Pashtuns, whose strongholds lay in the east. (Protection monies disbursed to the chiefs ensured safe passage of supplies from India and the Punjab.) Mused Mohan Lal, a Kashmiri who served as a secretary and intelligence officer (he would later write a 900-page biography of Dost Mohammad) and a trenchant observer of the British campaign: "For the deductions of few lakhs of rupees, we raised a whole country against us."

The Afghan accounts Dalrymple uses stress the licentious behaviour of British figures as a precipitating factor in the uprising, especially the antics of one diplomat - the celebrated traveller and spy Alexander Burnes - who "sparked the final fatal explosion in Kabul". Burnes probably knew more than anyone about Central Asia, but his counsel was largely ignored or misinterpreted. His gambolling with Afghan women caused a fury, and he was cut to pieces in front of his residence. The revolt quickly spread, and the language of jihad was invoked. The religious overtones of the resistance, Dalrymple notes, was "a relative innovation in the internal history of the Afghan peoples as most previous conflict had been between Muslims."

The British retreat from Kabul, in deep winter, through treacherous mountain passes, became a part of the Victorian iconography of empire.

Dalrymple's depiction of the flight is utterly ghastly. Pashtun fighters picked off troops one by one; sepoys and camp followers - servants, mistresses, sundry others - froze in the snow, starved to death, or were captured and sold into slavery. A week later, a single survivor would straggle into the British garrison at Jalalabad.

These events were appalling enough. But even more appalling was the way British officers abandoned their sepoy charges to a grim fate.

One reason Dalrymple is such a superb historian is that he avoids self-righteous theatrics about the wrongs of imperialism; he shows, not tells. (Some of his own ancestors served in the Raj, and his great, great uncle fought in the war.) A line can be drawn from the Afghan conflict to the Indian uprising, and it is enough for Dalrymple to simply state that many of the sepoys who perished in the retreat came from regiments that would revolt in 1857.

The shah held on briefly; he was killed by his own godson after he offended one of his few remaining allies. The British were largely done with Afghanistan - Dost Mohammad quietly returned from his exile in India, where he was under house arrest - but only after unleashing the aptly named Army of Retribution on the resistance. Enraged British forces marched right back into the country they had fled, to take back hostages, track down surviving sepoys and mete out punishment.

They burnt Kabul to the ground, and blew the Char Chatta covered bazaar - "renowned not just as one of the supreme wonders of Mughal architecture but as one of the greatest buildings in Central Asia" - to pieces. "Marauding British troops," Dalrymple continues, "also committed what today would be classified as war crimes against their Qizilbash [a nominally pro-British Shia minority] and Hindu allies. Indeed, the peaceable Kabul Hindu community that had for centuries survived arbitrary arrests and torture by a whole variety of Afghan rulers bent on extorting their money was wiped out in just forty-eight hours by the depredations of the British …"

Lord Auckland's humiliating misadventure cost some £15 million (a staggering £50 billion in today's money), led to the loss of some 40,000 lives, and left Afghanistan in chaos.

It was, concluded one survivor, "a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, [and] brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it."

Matthew Price's writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times.

Published: February 16, 2013 04:00 AM

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