Masterclass on Afghanistan: Return of a King – The Battle for Afghanistan
Review: William Dalrymple paints so vivid a picture of his subject that it’s like watching a documentary
Barmy: British experts in Afghanistan, such as Alexander Burnes (centre), were overruled by superiors in London. Photograph: Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty
Return of a King
It’s difficult to think of a more perfect combination of writer and subject than William Dalyrmple and Afghanistan. I had been told he was researching a book about the “first Afghan war”, as it has become known, three years ago. When I finally got my hands on a copy it felt as if I had a ticket to the first Ali-Frazier fight.
Return of a King, now available in paperback, is Dalrymple’s eighth book – and it is, of course, marvellous. Like the first Ali-Frazier fight, it’s a full 15 rounds of breathtaking drama and bloody struggle, told by a writer whose combinations and footwork would make the Greatest himself start reciting poetry. Even before I opened it I was smiling; the synopsis on the back cover is a single sentence: “In the spring of 1839 British forces invaded Afghanistan for the first time.” Given the subject, and Dalyrmple’s record, nothing more is needed.
This is perhaps Dalrymple’s most ambitious book so far – it took him five years to complete – and he pulls it off with style. He’s clearly a master storyteller and historian at the peak of his powers, and he balances these two skills perfectly.
Every time I think he might be enjoying himself too much, given the horrors of the campaign, particularly the hellish first retreat from Kabul, he switches smoothly from humour to compassion, always getting the tone just right and often letting the facts and the recollections of the participants speak for themselves. And what recollections he has discovered.
He has unearthed piles of previously unused sources from all sides, including diaries, letters, epic poems and memoirs, some bought from second-hand booksellers on the streets of Kabul. He has brilliantly edited these sources to paint such a vivid picture that I often felt as though I was watching a documentary.
I thought I knew the story of this war well – I’ve read many great books that cover the same events – but none of them brings to life the horrendous suffering, the impossible conditions and the catastrophic mix of ignorance and arrogance displayed by many of the war’s architects as well as Return of a King.
The British army entered Kabul in 1839 and ejected the ruler, Dhost Mohammad Khan, replacing him with Shah Shuja, in order to remove a perceived threat to British India – a Russian and Persian encroachment into Afghanistan that no longer existed. This had been done with such ease that Britain soon launched another war (the Opium war) hundreds of kilometres away.
The troops who remained didn’t feel at all vulnerable and underestimated the hostility their presence created to such an extent that they didn’t bother to build defences, stored their weapons outside of their base and even began openly having affairs with Afghan women (in one case with the mistress of a tribal leader). Womanising was just one of many incredible offenses committed, and within a year there was a popular uprising that the British couldn’t suppress. They were forced to leave, and on the way out almost every man, woman and child was either slaughtered or captured.
Thousands of British and Indian soldiers, along with their sepoys, were cut down by Afghan jezails – homemade rifles with a longer range than British muskets – and left to freeze or starve to death. It was a myth, as Dalrymple points out, that only one man, Dr Brydon, survived, but the retreat from Kabul remains one of the worst British military disasters of all time.
British experts within Afghanistan, such as the infamous Alexander Burnes, had long argued that a deal could have been done with the existing ruler, Dhost Muhammad, but they were overruled by superiors in London, most of whom had never set foot in the country. Apart from their ludicrously provocative womanising – it was Burnes who had an affair with the tribal leader’s mistress, among many others – you begin to admire the men who travelled across Afghanistan before 1839.
Their bravery, stamina and willingness to live among Afghans are in stark contrast to those of many of our officials today, who rarely ever leave their embassies and forward operating bases – impregnable bubbles that are home to endless PowerPoint presentations and dreamily upbeat briefings, with little or no contact with Afghans.
But as the war began, a succession of lords and generals made a series of barmy decisions, guaranteeing failure and huge loss of life. The British humiliation was so great that they eventually agreed to hand power back to Dhost Mohammad. An army of retribution was then sent in to murder, rape and burn to the ground almost everything and everyone in sight. This was done, of course, to restore Britain’s honour in the region.
Much of this sounds eerily similar to the current war, and there are striking parallels.
After claiming an easy victory over the Taliban, Britain joined the US in rushing off to start another war in Iraq, dooming any nation-building hopes that came later. They totally underestimated the hostility that their presence (and, indeed, many of their actions, including night raids and civilian casualties) would provoke and how much damage their backing would do to their chosen Afghan leader. (Incredibly, Hamid Karzai is from the same subtribe as Shah Shuja, and in this context his often insane pronouncements, which have led western diplomats to describe him as being high or on medication, look like a pragmatic effort to avoid looking like a western puppet, or a “servant of the kafir infidels”.)
They didn’t understand or even consult the Afghans they claimed to be acting on the behalf of. And they have also been humiliated and are now desperate to do a deal that would put the Taliban back in power.
Some things have changed. I’m sure no British soldier has even dreamed of having affairs with Afghan women. Officers (who often had as many as 40 servants) no longer take their wives, daughters, wine cellars (carried by 300 camels), foxhounds and amateur-theatre sets with them to war, as many did in 1839. And instead of an army of retribution we now have an army of press officers, relentlessly spinning this latest campaign as a success to the audience at home, no matter how bad things get in Afghanistan itself.
Today’s forces have suffered nothing like the fate of the British in 1842, but the results are essentially the same. “In both cases,” writes Dalrymple, “the invaders thought they could walk in, perform regime change, and be out in a couple of years. In both cases they were unable to prevent themselves getting sucked into a much wider conflict.”
After being unable to make it to Gandamak, the site of the last stand for the British retreating from Kabul, a regional tribal leader and minister in Karzai’s government tells Dalrymple, “The foreigners have come for their own interests, not for ours. They say, ‘We are your friends, we want to help.’ But they are lying.”
“You are fine fellows one by one,” Dalrymple quotes one Afghan as saying, “though as a body we hate you.” That was during the first Afghan war, but I have heard almost the exact same words, repeatedly, during the current war.
The parallels make you wish leaders were better historians, but the biggest surprise I got from reading Return of a King was how little would have changed if they could have read it before invading.
Would the war in Iraq have been postponed because things don’t usually turn out as well as we hope in Afghanistan? Would the top brass in Whitehall or Washington DC have started listening to experts who had lived in Afghanistan?
I suspect that when reading of the many catastrophes the British suffered in 1842, today’s planners would have laughed, pointing out that now we have helicopters, radios, satellite phones, drones, snipers, rockets, armour protection and a whole array of resupply and surveillance capabilities that would, of course, prevent anything like the retreat from Kabul happening again.
It was also believed that because they were going in with good intentions, this time they would be welcomed. Just watch the defence secretaries and generals who are still claiming victory, as they limp towards the exit door once more, for proof that little could have changed.
William Dalrymple has written a masterpiece, but even he can’t erase the curious mix of ignorance and arrogance that still dominates so many of Britain’s foreign military adventures.
Ben Anderson is a film-maker whose documentaries on Afghanistan include This Is What Winning Looks Like. He is the author of No Worse Enemy: The Inside Story of the Chaotic Struggle for Afghanistan.