IT WAS THE FAMILIAR STORY OF THE OCCUPIERS BEHAVING BADLY
the popular ruler, Dost Mohammed, who was allegedly leaning towards the Russians, with the exiled king Shah Shuja. The statesman Mountstuart Elphinstone warned his superiors that while a sufficiently large force might be able to take Kabul and place Shuja on the throne, maintaining him in a poor, cold and remote country among a turbulent people such as the Afghans was a hopeless undertaking. Instead of remaining neutral towards the Russians, the Afghans would become dis- affected and join any side that would drive the British out.
Though this is primarily a narrative of colonial misadventure and the maligned motives of its key protagonists, Dalrymple draws parallels with the first Afghan war and the USled mission to drive out the Taliban after 9/11.
The Army of the Indus, as the British force was dubbed, went into Afghanistan utterly unprepared (one regiment employed two camels to transport its stock of cigars, another travelled with a pack of foxhounds). Hawkish military chiefs ignored the advice of more seasoned observers on the ground. Although the initial takeover was a relatively easy and bloodless affair, the course of the occupation was hampered by imperial hubris.
Once the British found that Afghanistan brought little in the way of profit for the occupying forces, they began looking for an exit strategy. Britain’s governor-general in India, Lord Auckland, was instructed to train up a local Afghan army to support Shah Shuja, but the king saw this as undermining the traditional network of patronage between him and the nobility, who had their own cavalry. It also left unresolved the question of whose orders the army would follow, those of the ruler or their paymaster, the British.
At the same time Shuja was increasingly tainted by his association with the British infidels and the growing perception he was a puppet ruler. The mullahs began omitting the king’s name from Friday prayers and British troops came under sporadic attacks. When the news came that Dost Mohammed had escaped captivity in Bukhara by bribing his guard, the political agent in Kabul, William Macnaghten, wrote: ‘‘ The Afghans are gunpowder and the Dost is the lighted match.’’
Dalrymple’s use of Afghan sources comes to the fore when nailing down the causes of the uprising. He draws on the work of the contemporary chronicler Mirza ‘ Ata Moham- mad to show the trigger for the uprising was the growing anger of the nobles with the British occupation, in particular the decision to cut the allowances of the Ghilzai chiefs, the sidelining of Shuja and the sacking of his vizier Mullah Shakur.
But it was the familiar story of the occupiers behaving badly that would light the match that started the final conflagration. In the words of one contemporary Afghan source: ‘‘ The English drank the wine of shameless immodesty, forgetting that any act has its consequences and rewards.’’
The most licentious of these, the explorer, soldier and spy Alexander Burnes, was the first to be killed, his headless body ‘‘ left in the street to be eaten by the dogs of the city’’. Ironically it had been Burnes who had argued most strongly against deposing Dost Mohammed. His nemesis, the hawkish Macnaghten, met an equally gruesome end, his severed head displayed on a spear in the Char Chatta bazaar.
Dalrymple also reveals that the Afghan resistance was far more fractured than commonly realised. Some groups were pro-Shuja, but merely wanted to get the British out. Others wrapped themselves in the cloak of religion and jihad.
In the end, however, the British never stood a chance. Their poorly defended cantonment, built on a flat plain overlooked by enemy fortifications, rapidly ran out of food, water and ammunition. When the decision to retreat from Kabul was made, the remaining troops, their wives, children and camp followers set off across the snow-covered passes that blocked the way to the British garrison at Jalalabad. Those who didn’t drop to ‘‘ a ten-rupee jezail’’ died from frostbite and starvation.
The final withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan next year will be a more orderly affair. A large, well-trained Afghan army and police force will step into the vacuum left behind by the US and its allies. Elections next year will mark the transition from the Hamid Karzai era to a more legitimate and, it is to be hoped, more competent leadership.
But the lessons of history laid out so dispassionately by Dalrymple suggest that rather than being the endgame, this latest war will be merely another chapter in the recurring narrative that is Afghanistan’s turbulent history.
(1879), by Elizabeth Butler, portrays William Brydon arriving at Jalalabad in the first Afghan war