Return of a King: review

To say we have failed to learn from the past would be an understatement. As William Dalrymple demonstrates in his wonderful new book, Return of a King, British foreign policy, especially towards Central Asia and the Middle East, is making the mistakes of two hundred years ago. Dalrymple’s history is not a diatribe; it is a measured account of a conflict. The comparisons are simply too glaring to gloss over. Dodgy dossiers; puppet rulers; realpolitik at its most insidious – nothing seems to have changed. The 15,000 strong Army of the Indus who headed into Afghanistan in 1839 were there to restore the ousted ruler, Shah Shuja ul-Mulk, who had spent decades in exile in India, and who Foreign Office hawks saw as a malleable alternative to his usurper, Dost Mohammad Khan. Dost Mohammad had the temerity to speak with Russian intelligence officers who visited Kabul, a breach of what the British saw as the Afghan role as a buffer zone between British India and Russian-influenced Central Asia.

The ensuing occupation was disastrous. British abuses of power, especially by leading figures such as Alexander Burnes towards Afghan women, and meddling changes to traditional socio-economic power structures and intertribal relations created a backlash, led by Dost Mohammad’s son, Mohammad Akbar Khan. Both Dost Mohammad and Akbar Khan embraced ideas of jihad in order to oppose Shah Shuja – he was a tool of imperialism and foreign occupation. As the British saw their influence waning, and the countryside rising up against them, they decided to withdraw, leaving Shah Shuja isolated in Kabul. The retreat has come to be remembered as the nadir of empire, the failure to measure all others against. The entire army was lost in the passes of the Hindu Kush, only William Brydon, an army surgeon, making it through to Jalalabad. The British response was to send the appropriately named Army of Retribution to harry the Afghan people, destroy some of the architectural treasures of Kabul and return to India. They had failed to create a submissive client state to repel their paranoid fantasises of Russian armies descending the Himalayas and left Afghanistan ruled by Dost Mohammad, just as it had been before the Army of the Indus arrived.

The parallels with today are unfortunately clear. A glance at Dalrymple’s contents page reveals chapter titles that could be used for a history of the modern war in Afghanistan: “The Flag of Holy War”, “We Fail from Our Ignorance”, “A War for No Wise Purpose”. Dalrymple’s footnotes often reveal similar coincidences: for example, the Taliban’s Mullah Omar took explicit inspiration from Dost Mohammad’s calls for jihad. Return of a King stands out for Dalrymple’s awareness of the Afghan and Indian context of his narrative. This is not a simple tale of colonial misadventure or great power manoeuvres. This is very much an Afghan history, recounting the reasons for and impacts of the invasion. Dalrymple uses the work of Afghan epic poets superbly, reinforcing the sense that this was more than the defeat of an imperial power by militant tribesman. This was an established culture rejecting colonial advances by foreign forces determined to undermine the structures of the nation and use Afghan resources for their own ends. Dalrymple is far more aware of the duality of the conflict than previous historians, such as Peter Hopkirk, whose The Great Game is a  fascinating and entertaining account of the regional conflicts of the time, but which focusses on the decisions of London and St Petersburg, rather than the resistance of Kabul and Khiva.

At the end of the book, as Dalrymple summarises the similarities to today’s conflict in Afghanistan, he notes historical coincidences that reinforce the comparison – for example, Hamid Karzai belongs to the same subtribe, the Popalzai, as Shah Shuja! More importantly, however, the facts and names of the conflict live on in Afghan discourse. Whereas in Britain, a few Flashman fans might be aware of the war, the names of Burnes, Macnaghten and Shah Shuja are well known. 1842 remains a benchmark of resistance to imperial domination. Arguably, the defeat of the invading Soviets in the 1980s has more parallels with 1842 – the humiliation and scale of casualties for the invading force were far greater than they are for NATO now. Sir Rodric Braithwaite’s excellent Afgantsy records the failure of the Russians to protect their puppet leader, the creation of an Islamic Afghan unity against an invader and the inability of the invader to extricate themselves from a conflict ended leaving left little truly changed. Parallels can be drawn between the Russian occupation and the current NATO misadventure as well. As Mirza Ata Mohammad, perhaps the finest writer of Shah Shuja’s time put it, “It is certainly no easy thing to invade or govern the Kingdom of Khurasan [Afghanistan]”. Return of a King is a superb catalogue of imperial folly; let us hope we will not fail to learn its lessons yet again.

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