Over the last few years, books on the Great Game and the First Afghan War have not been in short supply. William Dalrymple’s monumental Return of a King has won the contest for public attention, but this is just one of a score of good recent works. With so many writers engaged in this field, one must ask whether there is actually anything new left to say.
With Afghanistan in the Age of Empires, Farrukh Husain has shown that there is. Husain’s originality comes primarily from his differing cultural perspective. In contrast to other recent authors, he is a Muslim of Afghan descent. His ancestors were custodians of the Koh-i-noor diamond in the Afghan court in the 19th century. This book must be one of a very limited number to be written by an Afghan Muslim on the Great Game for a mainstream Western audience (I am, I must confess, aware of no other), and as such it challenges many of the assumptions about the origins of the conflict that others take as fact.
The conventional explanation for the ill-fated British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839 is well known. British officials feared that Russia would invade India via Afghanistan. Rather than making an alliance with the ruler of Kabul, Dost Mohammad, they wished to place a puppet ruler on the throne to ensure that