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Return of a King

William Dalrymple looks for contemporary lessons in the story of Britain's disastrous 19th-century invasion of Afghanistan.

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Dalrymple may be misguided in his attempt to use "Return of a King" to teach overreaching empires a lesson, but that doesn’t mean his scholarship is wanting. Like a 21st-century Indiana Jones, the author braved sniper shots and IEDs to uncover original Afghan sources on a forgotten conflict. "Return of a King" should establish him as the foremost historian of “the Great Game” – “that grand contest of imperial competition, espionage and conquest that engaged Britain and Russia until the collapse of their respective Asian empires”, all played out as ordinary Afghans suffered.    

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Even the Great Game’s masterminds didn’t have much fun at the game. Shah Shuja, roused out of exile by the British in 1838, was later abandoned by his retreating protectors and assassinated by his godson. Alexander Burnes, a Scottish linguist and explorer of Afghanistan who tried to prevent war, was run through with a sword, hacked to pieces, or torn apart by a mob. William Hay Macnaghten, the civil servant who designed the invasion, was beheaded during, ahem, peace negotiations. By 1842, much of Britain’s army and its entourage – about 60,000 people, many of them Indian sepoys or friendly Afghans – were dead.

“At the very height of the British Empire, at a point when the British controlled more of the world economy than they would ever do again,” Dalrymple writes, “and at a time when traditional forces were everywhere being massacred by industrialized colonial armies, it was a rare moment of complete colonial humiliation.” Riled, Britain exacted murderous revenge. The terrifyingly-named “Army of Retribution” returned to Afghanistan in 1842 to free hostages, destroy Kabul, and rape and plunder.

For better and worse, Dalrymple’s history of Afghan violence is the most compelling part of "Return of a King." Those willing to wade through his 20-page “Dramatis Personae” and slow narrative buildup to the conflict will be rewarded with stories like that of Dr. William Brydon, one of the few survivors of an Afghan ambush who stumbled over corpses to flee on a dying cavalryman’s pony. Such gruesome tales are perhaps more like Cormac McCarthy’s "Blood Meridian" than the weighty tome Dalrymple envisioned, but, for voyeurs, they’re also more entertaining than his scholarship.

After the Army of Retribution left Afghanistan – less than a year after it arrived – the country continued to see bloodshed. With Shah Shuja dead, his rival, Dost Mohammad Khan, consolidated power over a much-diminished emerging nation. The new boss was the same as the old boss, and Britain would invade again in 1878.

“The only man who clearly gained from the First Anglo-Afghan War was the very man whom the war was designed to depose,” Dalrymple writes. “The more coherent Afghanistan now ruled by Dost Mohammad was also a more impoverished and isolated country that it had ever been before in its history. No longer was it the rich and cultured crossroads of the Silk Route.... Afghanistan would become to some extent a backwater.”

"Return of a King" ably shows how this backwater came to attract the attention of the globe. The book will prove invaluable to Afghan historians and compelling for anyone willing to tough out its author’s windy prose. But as the learned scold of adventurers in the troubled region, Dalrymple is less successful. Aren’t the disastrous results of the West’s most recent invasion as self-evident as they were predictable?   

Justin Moyer is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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