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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.

By Justin Moyer / April 22, 2013

Return of a King By William Dalrymple Knopf Doubleday 560 pp.

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There’s a gripping war story in Return of a King, William Dalrymple’s epic recounting of Britain’s farcical attempt to invade Afghanistan in the first half of the 19th century. Unfortunately, general readers will have to work to find it. It is obscured beneath the author’s prodigious but specialized original research and also behind his suspect thesis that 21st-century Western misadventures in Afghanistan result from little more than modern leaders’ ignorance of the past.  

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 “The closer I looked, the more the west’s first disastrous entanglement in Afghanistan seemed to contain distinct echoes of the neocolonial adventures of our own day,” writes Dalrymple, a Delhi-based author who has written many books about India. “The same tribal rivalries and the same battles were continuing to be fought out in the same places 170 years later under the guise of new flags, new ideologies and new political puppeteers.”

Superficially, this idea is compelling. We know Afghanistan as the fabled graveyard of empires, but is the War of Terror and the US invasion of Taliban-controlled central Asia just an extension of 19th-century colonialism?

Under scrutiny, the connection proves facile. Yes, many of the players in Afghanistan, Western and Eastern, are the same as they were 200 years ago. Yes, Afghanistan’s bickering tribes and brutal geography make the nation unsuited to foreign domination. But George W. Bush was readying the United States to invade Afghanistan little more than a week after al-Qaeda’s Sept. 11 attacks. Would he have behaved differently had his administration focused on how dismally Britain failed to return Shuja ul-Mulk, an exiled shah, to power in the 1840s in response to a nonexistent Russian invasion of Kabul? For that matter, did colonial lessons give the Soviet Union pause before it invaded Afghanistan in 1979?

When powerful nations want to subjugate weaker countries – whether it’s the Philippines, Vietnam, or Iraq – they do it. Anger, politics, or ego forces leaders’ hands. History does not.  

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