William Dalrymple on his new book Return of a King

William Dalrymple tells David Robinson how he was nearly killed doing the fieldwork for his brilliant new book about Britain’s first, disastrous Afghan war

Whoever the westerner was, the Taleban sniper outside Kandahar airport must have thought that he’d killed him. He had, after all, lined up the target perfectly in his sights: a man in his mid-forties sitting in the back seat of a chauffeured car. A rather capacious head, he might have thought, as he squeezed the trigger.

“It was a perfect sniper shot,” says William Dalrymple, as he shows me a picture on his mobile phone of the bullethole in the car’s rear window. “Thankfully, there was another layer of bulletproof glass inside the car. Otherwise …” He gives a devilish grin and takes another sip of Macallan.

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We’re snug in a cosy pub in East Lothian. It’s early Saturday evening, dark outside, and there’s a roaring fire in front of our armchairs, just as there would be in the first scene of a John Buchan adventure. Dalrymple is back in Scotland on a brief visit home before flying back to India, where he and his wife Olivia live on a farm near Delhi. Always a busy man, 2013 has started in a media blur: and not just because he’s got the world’s third biggest book festival to organise but the the publicity for his latest, sensationally good history book, Return of a King, too.

I’ve known Dalrymple for a decade now, long enough to see his career open up to full bloom. The first time I met him was the day after the bank manager had given him a last-chance warning that he really must do something about repaying his £27,000 overdraft he had run up researching The White Mughals. Later that day came news that the book had won a £10,000 literary prize. The following day, I arrived at his Queen Anne cottage in Chiswick to tell him that it had won another one, also worth £10,000. Since then, there have been £1 million book deals and a visiting professorship at Princeton to add to the usual adulatory reviews.

The reason is simple. Dalrymple writes the kind of history that few historians can match. Sure, they can all add a footnote or two about our knowledge of the past, but how many of them actually change the whole way in which we look on it? Before White Mughals, which popular British historian had ever written about the full extent of interracial relationships between the colonisers and the colonised in 18th-century India, about the equality of esteem between the two cultures and its erosion by the Victorian values of the Raj? Similarly, before Return of a King, the story of Britain’s First Afghan War was certainly well-known – it was, after all, the greatest British defeat in the whole 19th century – but how many historians ever bothered to include in their accounts what the whole conflict seemed like to the Afghans themselves?

There is, though, even more than that to Dalrymple’s success. It’s not just sources, it’s style. “He is,” Salman Rushdie has pointed out, “that rarity – a scholar of history who can really write.” And, he should have added, talk: even without the whisky and the pub fireside, Dalrymple is great company.

“Invading Afghanistan is the easy part,” he says. “It’s holding it that’s hard, and that’s as true now as in 1840 when British power was at its height, when we controlled 50 per cent of the world’s economy. Everyone has conquered Afghanistan – from Alexander the Great to the Americans – but it breaks you economically: it’s breaking the US balance of payments just as it broke the East India Company. Because all that’s there is stones and land. If you conquer Iraq, you get the oil; if you conquer the Punjab, you can tax the rich farmers. But in Afghanistan, there’s nothing. You have to keep garrisons all over the place and you can’t tax the people to pay for the occupation.

“Historically, the British have known this for a while. There was a folk wisdom in the Tory Party in the 1950s that one thing you didn’t do is go and invade Afghanistan. When Alec Douglas-Home was taking office he asked Macmillan if he had any advice. ‘As long as you don’t invade Afghanistan, you’ll probably be all right,’ Macmillan is supposed to have replied.”

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But we didn’t know that in 1839, when Lord Auckland ordered the invasion of Afghanistan as a way of securing British India’s forward defences against the Russian menace. As Britain’s mighty Army of the Indus headed north into Afghanistan with its 30,000 camels and 38,000 Indian camp followers, the mission was simple: reinstall Shah Shapur on the throne at Kabul and defeat his rival, Dost Mohammad. One of the reasons we went to war was that the Russians were supporting Dost Mohammad, who subsequently became one of the great heroes of Afghan history (“their George Washington and Winston Churchill rolled into one,” Dalrymple points out). As the great invasion force headed north (40 servants for each junior officer, 300 camels for wine supplies, one regiment brought its own foxhounds) word came that the Russians had, under diplomatic pressure, withdrawn their backing from Dost Mohammad. Strategically, there was no reason at all for the war.

It’s at this point that some historical parallels begin to kick in with the present. The British chose to ally themselves with an Afghan leader – Shah Sharpur – from the very same small tribe, the Popalzai, as Afghan President Karzai. Their opponents – Dost Mohammad’s supporters – are essentially the same tribes who support the Taleban. As Dalrymple notes: “The same tribal rivalries and the same battles were continuing to be fought in the same places 200 years later under the guise of new flags, new ideologies and new political puppeteers. The same cities were garrisoned by foreign troops speaking the same language, and were being attacked from the same ring of hills and the same high passes.”

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As the western invaders’ money began to run out – again, in the 19th century just as in the 21st – they reduced their troop numbers. By 1842, the 18,000-strong Army of the Indus was reduced to a Kabul garrison of just 5,000. Go even a short way outside Kabul or the invaders’ main bases – again, then as now – and the land became dangerous for the British.

Just how dangerous became clear in the winter of 1842, when those same 5,000 British and Indian soldiers and their 13,000 camp followers made the fateful retreat to India. Picked off in ambushes en route, they made their last stand at a place called Gandamak, 35 miles from safety in the fortress of Jalalabad over the border in British India. At Gandamak, the last remnants of an entire army died when the 20 officers and 45 soldiers of the 44th East Essex Regiment were massacred by tribesmen loyal to Dost Mohammad’s son. Out of the entire army, only one Briton survived.

This, then, is the story Dalrymple has to tell in Return of a King. To make it meaningful, and not just a rehashing of a Victorian British military nightmare, he has to do two things: first, find new source material, preferably from Afghan sources. And secondly, to travel to Gandamak himself.

Finding Afghan sources turned out to be relatively easy: Dalrymple uses nine Dari (Afghan Persian) accounts of the invasion, including epic poems and Shah Shahpur’s poetic autobiography, none of which had ever been used in any previous western history of the war. He was also able to draw on newly discovered papers about Polish/Russian spy Jan Vitkevich, a key early player in the “great game”. And on his second day researching in the Punjab archives in Lahore – “one of the most romantic archives in the whole world, built as a Mughal tomb like a smaller Taj Mahal in memory of an emperor’s killed dancing girl” – he struck gold. “I found this archive from the guy who was the first British spymaster in the Great Game, full of all kind of things like letters to Afghan chiefs asking them to rise up and support Shah Sharpur. As soon as I found that, I knew I had a book.”

That in turn meant going to Gandamak. And there’s one big problem about Gandamak, which is deep in Taleban territory: getting out again. Dalrymple is on to his second Macallan in front of the East Lothian pub fire as he tells me more. “I got this lucky break. The guy who was the head of [President] Karzai’s security turned out to have read The Last Mughal. When he heard that I was in Kabul, he called me in and he fixed me up with a man called Anwar Khan Jagdalek. He was a Pashtun leader, a major commander in the fight against the Russians, and he’d also been the captain of the Afghan Olympic wrestling team. He was a big local hero, the only man who could possibly protect me.

“Jagdalek was going to go back to his village, which was about ten miles away from the last stand at Gandamak. He hadn’t been back for a while, and the villagers were going to kill a sheep and have a feast in his honour.

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“All the same, it was a bit edgy. We’d left Kabul with three truckloads of bodyguards, and on the way we picked up three more jeeps full of his guys, all carrying rocket-propelled grenades. He felt quite safe in his area but nevertheless, he had guys on the hillsides all around with walkie-talkies.”

Sherard Cowper-Coles, in 2009 Britain’s ambassador in Kabul, had already outlined the dangers to Dalrymple and given him an electronic device that he was to use if taken hostage. If he pressed the button transmitting his GPS location to the embassy, he would also have five seconds in which to identify his captors.

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At Jagdalek’s village, they were still ten miles away from Gandamak. Dalrymple wanted to press on, but the villages wanted to take their hero on a tour of his childhood haunts and then, under a trellis of vine and pomegranate blossom, eat course after course of kebabs and mulberry pullao. By the time they finished eating, the sun was beginning to set behind the mountains. There wasn’t a chance in hell of being able to push on to the scene of the last stand. Disappointed, Dalrymple rode back to Jalalabad with Jagdalek’s convoy.

When they got there, they realised how lucky they had been. Government soldiers had been sent in to burn the local farmers’ poppy crop. The villagers called in the Taleban and on the very site of the Afghan massacre of the British at Gandamak, there had been another battle. Nine Afghan police vehicles had been blown up and 100 hostages taken. “If we had arrived as planned, we would have been right in the middle of it. The Taleban would have assumed that we were government troops and it would have been a bloodbath. I wouldn’t be sitting having this nice glass of whisky with you. We were saved by our gluttony, I suppose.”

I ask him what project he’ll be working on next, and for the first time he sounds unsure. One day, he says, he’d like to write about Bruce Wannell, the leading British scholar of 18th and 18th century Persian who has worked with him on his last three histories. Specifically, he says, he’d like to write about Persharwar – where Wannell was living in the 1980s – which is where, he believes modern history changed, when mililtary aid started being directed towards the Pashtun tribes rather than the Northern Alliance tribes (“out of that, you get the Soviet collapse, first in Afghanistan and then the fall of communism, then 9/11 and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan”) Or maybe there’s a book about the end of the Ottoman empire.

“Really, though, I’d like to see if there’s some way of writing a cultural history of India. I know the landscape I want to go through, but I haven’t got the map yet.” And he talks about the exhibition of Mughal Art that he organised in New York last year and his artist wife Olivia’s “amazing” exhibition Indian contemplative painting in London.

As if on cue, Olivia comes through the pub door, ready to drive her husband to a family gathering. “Tell him what I was like when I came back from my trips for this book,” he says.

“Totally energised,” Olivia replies. “I have never seen him so fired up. He just loved it. He’s passionate about all of his projects, but with this one… Well, he hasn’t done his Boy’s Own stuff for quite a while now. In our early days. …

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“Well,” her husband interrupts defensively, “it’s just that when you have small children you don’t want them to be hanging around with the Tamil Tigers or being shot at in Kashmir. Which we both were.”

“Yes. That was for From the Holy Mountain. And I was stoned. And,” she adds accusingly, “I was pregnant too.”

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He was, he admits, completely out of his depth back then. “There was the PKK uprising in eastern Turkey where I was nearly …and going through the intifada in the West Bank, nearly got into trouble there, to say nothing of what happened in upper Egypt. Still,” he says, picking up his phone again and looking at the picture of the Kandahar car and the sniper’s shot through the rear window, “nothing like that ever happened”.

The Dalrymples go off to their family party. I drive back home across the flat, dark fields of East Lothian. I lead such a quiet life, I can’t help thinking.

• Return of a King is published by Bloomsbury on 4 February, priced £25