Book review: Return Of A King: The Battle For Afghanistan by William Dalrymple

IN 1843, British army chaplain the Reverend GR Gleig, one of the fortunate survivors of the First Afghan War, in which more than 16,000 of his fellow soldiers and camp followers had been slaughtered during a catastrophic retreat from Kabul, wrote with sadness of that ill-fated expedition.

Return Of A King: The Battle For Afghanistan by William Dalrymple

Bloomsbury, £25

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It was “a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached… Not one bene­fit, political or military, has been acquired with this war.”

It would take a brave or foolhardy prime minister to proclaim another British defeat in Afghanistan, that infamous graveyard of empires, when we finally withdraw our forces in 2014, yet the parallels with Britain’s ongoing intervention are irresistible, engrossing, and frequently uncomfortable.

William Dalrymple is no shrinking violet when it comes to drawing them, whether likening the uneasy relationship between the British and their puppet king Shah Shuja to the uncomfortable embrace between the International Security Assistance Force and ­President Karzai, or the pompous and delusional bureaucrat Sir William Hay Macnaghten to the American bull-in-a-­china-shop diplomat Richard Holbrooke.

The story of the First Afghan War boasts an exotic cast, from the enigmatic Shah Shuja (the Afghan king the British briefly installed in Kabul) and his ­rival Dost Mohammed Khan, to the splendidly suave Russian spy Ivan Vitkevitch.

What separates Dalrymple’s magnificent history from earlier accounts, however, is his use of non-British and Indian sources. He has raided South Asian archives to uncover new material in Russian, Urdu and Persian.

Descending on Kabul’s old city, he acquired eight contemporary accounts of the conflict in Persian, written in Afghanistan and never before used in English language histories or available in translation. It is startling to discover that these include the gracefully composed memoirs of Shah Shuja himself. He is traditionally dismissed as a feeble quisling by later Afghan sources and regarded as a corrupt and incompetent puppet by the British. A more nuanced and attractive figure by far emerges here.

It will also surely come as a shock to some readers to find that many Afghans considered the red-coated British invaders, in Dalrymple’s words, “treacherous and women-abusing terrorists”, one of many such surprises thrown up by the newly uncovered sources.

We always say that history is written by the winners. After the First Afghan War it was written by winners and losers alike. British readers are familiar with this conflict as the ­nadir of imperial military fortunes in the 19th century, but we are rather less used to seeing it celebrated as the zenith of Afghan resistance and jihad.

The Afghans know their history: as the Taleban exhort their young men: “Do you want to be remembered as a son of Shah Shuja or as a son of Dost Mohammed?”

My only regret reading this wonderful history is that it was not published a decade earlier. Yet given the outside world’s strange addiction to invading this beguiling country, one fears it would probably have made little difference to this latest ill-guided, sham­bolic intervention. «