'Return of a King' makes Britain's 19th-century ill-fated Afghan venture come alive

(U.S. readers may draw their own parallels)


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William Dalrymple has managed to take the historical tale of truly tragic British misadventures in Afghanistan in the mid-19th century and turn it into a thrilling, amusing and educational three-track tour de force, relevant to today and even the immediate future.


"RETURN OF A KING: THE BATTLE FOR AFGHANISTAN, 1839-42"

By William Dalrymple
Knopf ($30).


The basic line is that the British installed in India did not consider the political situation in Afghanistan to be ideal from their point of view. They decided to install a different king, Shah Shuja ul-Mulk, in power in Kabul by a combination of attempted wily maneuvering and military force. The Afghans themselves, considered collectively, did not take to this idea at all and, in reaction, not only forced the British out, but also slaughtered most of them and their Afghan allies as they tried to withdraw from Kabul in the middle of winter.

The first track is the story itself, replete with colorful sketches of the Afghan, British, Russian and other players in what came to be called the "Great Game" in that part of the world. They run on the European side all the way from British and Russian master spies, some of whom come to very sticky ends, to the Victorian wives of some of the unbelievably stuffy and incompetent British government and East India Company figures. Some of the most apparently insufferable women come out very well in the withdrawal ordeal.

On the Afghan side, the cast of characters includes the ambitious but perennially ill-fated Shah Shuja, cast badly as a puppet by the British, let down by them stupendously in the event, but remaining faithful to them to the nasty end of his own life. The shah, the king in the title, was clearly a victim of British military and other incompetence in the end.

The story of maneuvering, manipulation and downright viciousness on the part of the various Afghan leaders, tribes and regional powers is so complicated as to make it starkly clear that any foreigner or foreign power that attempts to manage Afghans to their own ends is doomed to fail -- and may even be doomed to die.

There is at least part of an education on Afghanistan to be had from the book, the second harvest from reading it. The harsh, unforgiving climate and terrain of most of the place, as well as its gardens, valleys and green parts, are portrayed as an active background to what happens to the people. It is a country where funds -- in the form of gold, jewels, horses and other property -- play a large role in what can be accomplished. Everyone can be, and expects to be, bribed.

One jewel, the Koh-i-Nur, the world's largest diamond, changes hands several times, and he who has it flaunts it. The description of what happens to the British and their underdressed Indian troops as they try to abandon Kabul in the snow is simply brutal. Bodies were found frozen stiff months later.

A central characteristic of the Afghans is that they hate non-Muslim foreigners who try to rule them.

The place names are familiar to anyone who has been following U.S. involvement in Afghanistan since 2001: Jalalabad, Kabul, Kandahar, Peshawar. I strongly encourage anyone trying to learn from the book to work with a map at hand.

Finally, Mr. Dalrymple doesn't make a big thing of it, but he does offer occasional commentary on the parallels between the British venture into Afghanistan and America's current struggles there. It is not a place to try to do something either on the cheap, or quickly. Trying to make enough sense of the interplay among Afghan leaders and tribes, particularly among the dominant Pashtuns, to be able to get something done, is an absolutely daunting task. The war drained the East India Company's treasury.

The Afghans themselves have a hard time of it with each other, with a full menu of smotherings, beheadings, blindings and other atrocities featured in relations among them.

The idea of American soldiers trying to work with and among Afghans is something better not thought about. President Hamid Karzai does not equal Shah Shuja, but there is a lot to learn from this book. It is also highly amusing, mostly for the cast of characters, tragic ends though many of them meet.

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Dan Simpson, a retired U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (dsimpson@post-gazette.com).


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