Lessons of a doomed in­cur­sion

Re­turn of a King: The Bat­tle for Afghanistan

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - John Zubrzy­cki

By Wil­liam Dal­rym­ple Blooms­bury, 540pp, $29.99

AFGHANISTAN is a hard place, a grave­yard of em­pires where the bleached bones and rust­ing bat­tle tanks of van­quished armies lie scat­tered along the high passes of some of the most in­hos­pitable ter­rain in the world. The words in­va­sion and dis­as­ter, oc­cu­pa­tion and stale­mate, re­treat and hu­mil­i­a­tion have been ex­pressed in the same breath for more than 150 years. Yet West­ern pow­ers con­tinue to be drawn to that un­for­giv­ing land, to fight bat­tles against an en­emy they have never ad­e­quately un­der­stood.

The Afghanistan of the early 19th cen­tury por­trayed by Wil­liam Dal­rym­ple in Re­turn of a King has changed lit­tle. The coun­try is still the play­ground of mer­ce­nar­ies and spies, of tribal ri­val­ries and com­pet­ing ide­olo­gies. It is still mired in poverty, bound by an­cient codes of hon­our and sur­rounded by hos­tile neigh­bours keen to ex­ploit its eth­nic and po­lit­i­cal frac­tures.

Since the US-led in­va­sion of 2001 aimed at de­feat­ing al-Qa’ida and its Tal­iban back­ers, dozens of books have been writ­ten about the con­flict but there has been al­most no new schol­ar­ship prob­ing the past wars that led us to where we are to­day: pon­der­ing an­other in­glo­ri­ous exit af­ter a drawn-out con­flict that has ex­acted a heavy cost in terms of lives lost, money and pres­tige, for lim­ited strate­gic gain.

Re­turn of a King is the first ac­count of Bri­tain’s hu­mil­i­at­ing de­feat of 1842 that draws on Afghan ac­counts of the in­va­sion and its af­ter­math, in­clud­ing epic po­ems and of­fi­cial court his­to­ries. Some of this ma­te­rial was un­cov­ered in a sec­ond-hand book­shop in a Kabul bazaar. The re­sult is the de­fin­i­tive ac­count of the first Afghan war, a sweep­ing nar­ra­tive de­liv­ered in Dal­rym­ple’s fluid and en­ter­tain­ing prose.

One of the most en­dur­ing im­ages of that war is a paint­ing of the badly wounded Wil­liam Bry­don, the Bri­tish gar­ri­son’s doc­tor, as he rides his pony into Jalalabad. Bry­don owed his sur­vival to a copy of Black­wood’s mag­a­zine stuffed in­side his cap, which soft­ened a blow to his head from a knife-wield­ing Afghan. But thou­sands of oth­ers were not so lucky.

Apart from sev­eral dozen Euro­peans taken hostage, the re­main­der of the 18,000-strong in­vad­ing army and its In­dian sup­port staff was butchered as it re­treated from Kabul. At the height of its im­pe­rial power, Bri­tain suf­fered a de­feat on a scale un­matched in the his­tory of mod­ern war­fare.

The aim of the 1839 in­va­sion was to re­place

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