The Return of a King, William Dalrymple, Bloomsbury, 608pp, £25 (hardback)

In the summer of 1990, at the end of my first year as an undergraduate, I read In Xanadu (Penguin Books, 1989) by William Dalrymple, a book about a journey the author made in the avowed path of Marco Polo, from Jerusalem to Shangdu, that place in Inner Mongolia immortalised and forever bound to Coleridge’s transporting verse. Inspired by opium or otherwise, the opening lines are as magical as ever:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

It is a little over 2,000 miles from Shangdu to Kabul, and an unhurried twenty plus years from In Xanadu to The Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42. In that time, Dalrymple has worked hard to produce a body of work that might be the envy of any writer. Were he to stop writing today – and one very much hopes he does not – Dalrymple should be content in the knowledge that his corpus is filled with books that are simultaneously original and timeless, learned yet accessible and, best of all, highly regarded by fellow historians, authors and readers.
With four recent works dealing with contemporary India and Indian history, Dalrymple strays just beyond the Indus in his latest book, to write an account of the First Anglo-Afghan War. The Return of a King is a joy to read, and anyone who feels weary when they hear the word ‘Afghanistan’ should reserve judgement and plunge in. Not only is it a very well written book, with both a plot and cast of characters that drive the story at a gallop, but it also guides us through a period in recent history that we should all know better.
The First Anglo-Afghan War was a by-product of that nineteenth century, Anglo-Russian rivalry known as the Great Game, which largely took place in Central Asia, Persia and Afghanistan, and revolved around British fears of a Russian invasion of India. A friend of mine in military intelligence pre-empted any judgements about whether or not he was bright enough to work in a profession mocked as the original oxymoron; ‘Intelligence,’ he liked to say, ‘ends in –ce, not –t.’ The distinction between a final intelligence report and those responsible for gathering the information is an important one, in the 1830s as now.
With Afghanistan, the trouble started for the British before the outbreak of war for two important reasons, neither of which was directly related to the Afghans: first, the misuse of intelligence and, second, a clash of personalities between two British officers. Taken together, these two problems would soon plunge Britain into one of the most costly and fruitless wars in the country’s long martial history.
For the British, the pre-war dispute revolved around two claimants to the kingship of Afghanistan. The choices were Dost Mohammad Khan (1792-1863), the man then actually sitting in Kabul and ruling much of the country, or Shah Shuja (1786-1842), the King of the title, who lost his throne in 1809 and his entire fortune shortly thereafter. Shuja’s most famous possession, which he was also forced to cede, was the Koh-i-Nur diamond. Having been granted asylum by the British East India Company in the Punjabi city of Ludhiana, Shah Shuja launched three attempts to retrieve his crown.
There were numerous reasons for his lack of success but they can be reduced to the fact that Shah Shuja was not strong enough, he was not smart enough and, among the peoples of Afghanistan over whom he wished to rule, he was not popular enough. Yes, this was the man that Britain decided to back when it first went to war in Afghanistan. Why? Because the British authorities had to chose between the contradictory messages being received from two of their own.
On Dost Mohammed’s side there was Sir Alexander Burnes (1805-41), ‘an energetic, high-spirited and resourceful young Highland Scot whose skill in languages won him swift promotion.’ Burnes also had the distinct advantage of having made several trips to Afghanistan, not only canvassing local opinions along the way but also meeting and being hosted by Dost Mohammad in Kabul. The contra view was offered by Sir William Hay Macnaghten (1793-1841), head of the East India Company’s bureaucracy and newly appointed chief advisor to the Governor General, ‘a bookish scholar, linguist and former judge from Ulster’, who had never set foot in Afghanistan or met any of the local actors. Yes, this was the man whose opinion sent Britain to war.
War is not attractive. It is very ugly. Wars in Afghanistan are no exception. It is something of a surprise that we keep fighting them. Wars can produce moments of unparalleled courage, heroism and self-sacrifice, the horror of combat perhaps forging a space where men and women may demonstrate the best qualities of our species alongside the most damnable. But wars are made even uglier when they are the result of stupidity, when ignorance triumphs over reason.
Britain’s Governor General in India at the time, the man ultimately responsible for the decision to go to war, was Lord Auckland, a man who ‘knew little about Indian history or civilisation [and] still less about Afghanistan’. Writing from Afghanistan, virtually all of Burnes’s notes, letters and more formal intelligence reports, covering matters military and political, landed first on Macnaghten’s desk. A confirmed Russophobe, Macnaghten was terrified of Russian incursions into Afghanistan long before the Russians had any such plans.
Time and again, Macnaghten doctored or otherwise amended Burnes’ reports, often with snide and sarcastic marginalia that called into the question the knowledge and judgement of the man on the ground. Time and again Auckland took these at face value, agreeing with the man who stood before him instead of trusting the acumen of our man in Kabul. In the event of victory, Auckland could have expected to rest on his laurels. Instead, in the wake of ignominious defeat, he carried only disgrace for the rest of his life.
The 20,000-strong invading British army were in possession of the major cities, including Kabul, by August 1841, but Dost Mohammad had already fled to fight another day, which he did very effectively. Long considered Britain’s preeminent Afghan authority, Mountstuart Elphinstone wrote, ‘I have no doubt you will take Kandahar and Kabul and set up Shuja; but for maintaining him in a poor, cold, strong and remote country, among a turbulent people like the Afghans, I own it seems to me to be hopeless’, before continuing, ‘I never knew a close alliance between a civilised and uncivilised state that did not end in mutual hatred in three years.’
Deciding that their own ‘Mission Accomplished’ moment had arrived, the British turned their attention to another foreign war before the job in Afghanistan was finished. Instead of being able to secure his apparent victory for Shuja, Macnaghten was left with insufficient funds to build a new fort in Kabul, leaving the troops with inadequate accommodation or protection. Deadlier still, cuts to the campaign’s budget meant that there was not enough in the war chest to continue buying the loyalty of those who controlled the Khyber Pass. And there was the matter of public drunkenness and cavorting with local women. By early November, the British were confronting a full-scale rebellion in Kabul, and there were no friends without. The retreat from Kabul, which began in January 1842, saw the gradual slaughter of the British column of 16,000.
There is so much more to this story than one military defeat after another, and a stunning cast of heroes and villains that make it the very model of a pantomime war, were it all not so bloody and true, and painfully familiar today. In considering the nineteenth century characters, the Afghani warlords and Russian spies often – not always – win the reader’s sympathies, against one’s instinct. There is little sign of British ‘fair play’ in these sobering pages.
William Dalrymple already has a sizeable fan base and they will no doubt guarantee his latest book is a commercial success. However, it would be a shame if this book did not reach a wider audience than those who already appreciate the Scottish-born, Delhi-based writer. In part, it was the current war in Afghanistan that prompted Dalrymple to cast an eye back and consider this earlier conflict. As British and American troops continue a painfully slow withdrawal from Afghanistan, one cannot help but wonder what impact this book might have had on policy makers if it had come out in 2001, when presumably Dalrymple was busy working on White Mughals (Penguin Books, 2002). However, although The Return of a King was not published then, one delights in the fact that it is out now.
The parallels between the First Anglo-Afghan War and the current war in Afghanistan are eerily close, and to read the one will aid one’s grasp of the other, ongoing conflict. This is reason enough to read this book, but it is so much more than a ‘lessons learned’ document. The story of the First Anglo-Afghan War is incredible, complex and dramatic, elements that make it irresistible for a storyteller, and Dalrymple handles his subject with the sure pen of one who can write a great book. The Return of a King is his greatest book yet.

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