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 of India 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