Return of a King

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

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

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.  

 “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.  

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.    

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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