Lessons of a doomed incursion
Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan
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