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Piers Brendon

Baiting the Tigers

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan
By William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury 567pp 25)
Afghans prepare to ambush the British cantonments outside Kabul

As William Dalrymple shows in this definitive study, Britain's first invasion of Afghanistan in 1839 bore marked resemblances to the war currently being waged in that unforgiving land. Then as now, the conflict was based on 'doctored intelligence about a virtually non-existent threat'. Getting into Afghanistan was relatively easy but the infidel occupation provoked a fierce resistance that made getting out hideously problematic. The same tribal rivalries and alien stupidities bedevilled the campaign. Atrocities occurred on both sides and the cost in blood and treasure was inconceivably greater than any benefit that the invaders might have gained. When the present British forces withdraw, David Cameron will undoubtedly proclaim victory, as the governor-general did in 1842. But, Dalrymple observes, the Herat Museum that displays the detritus of other abortive attempts to subjugate Afghanistan, ranging from Victorian cannon to Soviet helicopter gunships, will undoubtedly be able to add shot-up American Humvees and British Land Rovers to its collection.

Of course, as Dalrymple acknowledges, history does not repeat itself exactly. The first British assault on Afghanistan was unique in important respects, not least in being the opening gambit in the Great Game against Russia - the Lion's century-long struggle to secure India's northwest frontier against the Bear. It is Dalrymple's achievement to elucidate this distinctive initial episode through a treasure trove of original sources. Many of them he unearthed abroad, mining archives in Kabul, Lahore and Delhi (even finding first-hand material in Moscow) and somehow coping with the languages involved. Admittedly much of the fresh evidence seems to be of more poetic than historical significance, the stuff of Afghan mythology. But Dalrymple employs it discriminatingly, providing a rich new dimension to a familiar story.

He embellishes that story with personal impressions gleaned from journeys through the Himalayan badlands, where he braved dangers not commonly encountered in the course of academic research. He pens deft portraits of a large cast of characters, and includes a host of recondite details, noting for example that Afghanistan grew 44 different varieties of grape, the finest being khaya-e ghulaman ('young man's testicles'). And he writes elegantly, appreciating, like all masters of his craft, that history should aspire to the condition of literature. Long though it is, Return of a King is less sprawling than his earlier White Mughals and, like a great classical tragedy, it grips the reader's attention from start to finish.

The king of Dalrymple's title is Shah Shuja, who was toppled from his Kabul throne by a hostile clan in 1809 and spent the next thirty years trying to regain it. He failed thanks largely to Dost Mohammad, who came to dominate Afghanistan, a 'kaleidoscope of competing tribal principalities' in which even tribal allegiance was uncertain. Behind every hillock in that vertiginous terrain, it was said, lurked an emperor. Shuja lived in exile in India, stripped of the Koh-i-Nur diamond and attended by a retinue of mutes and eunuchs (he liked to deprive unsatisfactory servants of their tongues or genitals).

Dalrymple plays up Shuja's intelligence, sophistication and courage but admits that he was arrogant even by royal standards. Pathologically determined to maintain his sovereign status, Shuja described his countrymen as a 'pack of dogs'. The best-informed British observer in Afghanistan, Alexander Burnes, thought Shuja hopelessly unpopular. And when a Russian mission arrived in Kabul, Burnes urged the governor-general of India, Lord Auckland, to counter it by clinching an alliance with Dost Mohammad, who was willing. But Auckland, a smug, ignorant mediocrity, allowed hawks in his administration, such as William Macnaghten, to persuade him to return Shuja to his kingdom as a British puppet. It was a calamitous decision, on a par with the 1956 invasion of Suez, which was masterminded by another member of Auckland's family, Anthony Eden.

In fact Tsar Nicholas I, though anxious about British probing into his empire's soft underbelly, had no designs on India. The subcontinent was, in any case, protected by the greatest natural rampart on earth - Disraeli said that those who worried about the Russian menace consulted only small-scale maps (though there were as yet no large-scale maps of central Asia). Auckland, however, succumbed to the widespread paranoia about the security of the recently consolidated Raj. He disregarded Russian back-pedalling, which removed Britain's casus belli, a circumstance disguised by the selective publication of Burnes's dispatches - the 'dodgy dossier' of its day, as Dalrymple says. And Auckland ignored prescient warnings from Afghan experts about the impossibility of sustaining Shuja in 'a poor, cold, strong and remote country, among a turbulent people'. To paraphrase the Duke of Wellington: when the difficulties of invading Afghanistan are over, the real difficulties begin.

Many British officers who set out from the Punjab at the head of a 20,000-strong army regarded the expedition as a hunting trip. They equipped themselves with every luxury, one regiment employing two camels to transport its stock of cigars, another travelling with a pack of foxhounds. But hunger, thirst and exhaustion amid crag and abyss, as well as incessant harassment by guerrilla warriors, soon disillusioned the invaders. One likened their advance on Kandahar to Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. By mid-1839, though, they had foisted Shuja on a sullen Kabul. Macnaghten, an obtuse pedant who considered the Afghans naughty children, to be bullied and bribed by turns, became British political agent.

His task was to build an Afghan national army - a painfully familiar project - to prop up Shuja so that British forces could withdraw. Instead Afghan hatred of the Christian and Hindu intruders crystallised into a jihad, led by Dost Mohammad's ruthless son Akbar. Sporadic outbursts of violence culminated in the murder of Burnes and Macnaghten, whose dismembered torso was hung on a meat hook in the Kabul bazaar. Having neglected to quell the uprising, to fortify the garrison or to safeguard his supplies, General Elphinstone, a gouty bumbler who had last seen action at Waterloo, embarked on the most ghastly evacuation in British history.

In blizzard conditions his long column, swollen by 12,000 camp followers and an immense baggage train, crawled out of Kabul. Afghans, later characterised by a Scottish officer as a 'race of tigers', attacked it ferociously. They butchered stragglers, seized pack animals and plundered bullock carts. Many soldiers, most of whom were sepoys, froze or starved to death. More were killed in precipitous passes, their foes on the heights firing long-barrelled matchlocks (jezails), which outranged British muskets. The jaws of one 'terrible defile' became choked with corpses. Akbar accepted the surrender of a few women, children and wounded men, whom he treated chivalrously. Nearly all the rest were slaughtered. Mounted on a dying pony, a single European, assistant surgeon William Brydon, reached the safety of Jalalabad.

The catastrophe seemed to shake the foundations of the British Empire. Lord Ellenborough, who succeeded the discredited Auckland in 1842, reversed his policy, restoring Dost Mohammad after the assassination of Shuja and accepting the Himalayan boundary of the Raj. But Ellenborough also authorised the dispatch of an army of retribution to punish the Afghans and salvage British prestige. It massacred, pillaged, raped and destroyed on an epic scale, razing villages and burning much of Kabul, including the splendid 17th-century bazaar in which Macnaghten's lacerated torso had been displayed. (Interestingly, Dalrymple's Afghan sources accuse the British of preternatural brutality, particularly towards women, the very charge that the British have always levelled against the Afghans.) Far from restoring national honour, needless to say, Ellenborough's savage reprisal sowed seeds of enmity that even now spring up as armed men.

As Burke maintained, those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. Despite the fate of Elphinstone's army there have been three further British incursions into Afghanistan, all fatal and futile. The first of them prompted Gladstone to inveigh against the irredeemable guilt of unnecessary war. The last is a monument to the vanity and folly of Tony Blair, who wanted to walk tall next to George W Bush and was culpably ignorant of history. Leaders will have no excuse in future. William Dalrymple's Return of a King is not just a riveting account of one imperial disaster on the roof of the world; it teaches unforgettable lessons about the perils of neocolonial adventures everywhere.


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Piers Brendon is the author of The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781-1997 (Jonathan Cape).


John Murray


Royal Literary Fund