William Dalrymple is the definitive modern historian of the East India company's reign in India during the 18th and 19th centuries. With already two brilliant books - 'The White Mughals' and 'The Last Mughal' - on the subject, he has now written this masterly chronicle on the disastrous British misadventure in Afghanistan during the years 1839-1842. In his words, this first British war in Afghanistan was one of colonial arrogance, hubris, folly and cultural collision. What else can you call a foray where 20000 troops marched into Afghanistan in 1839 and only one returns to Peshawar in 1842?
Dalrymple shows in this book that the 'Great Game', popularized by Rudyard Kipling in his novel 'Kim', was actually the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Alexander Burnes, the dashing Scottish intelligence officer, was sent out to Central Asia as a spy to gather information on the threats, which were non-existent then, from Czarist Russia to British interests in India. Burnes did his work and wrote a successful book on the subject which were read by the Russians. As a result, they get suspicious and send Yan Vitkevich, a Polish adventurer and explorer, to Bukhara and then on to Kabul to gather their own intelligence on this question. Thus, the hawkish paranoia in Calcutta and London ended up making a non-existent threat a reality. So, the Great Game begins and still goes on, a full 170 years after it began.
Burnes and his brilliant Indian assistant and intelligence chief, Mohan Lal Kashmiri, give excellent advice to Calcutta and London on the state of affairs in Central Asia and the course to be followed, which was to support Dost Mohammed Khan as the Amir of Afghanistan. But policy was made by George Eden, William Mcnaghten and Claude Wade. Eden was the Governor General of India who had little knowledge or interest in the region. William Macnaghten was a bookish Russophobe who was Eden's chief advisor while Wade was a Persian scholar who had never been in Central Asia. They decide to reject Burnes' advice and decide to overthrow the incumbent Dost Mohammed and install Shah Shuja as a puppet king to do the British bidding in Central Asia.
An army of 20000 men is raised and they bumble along their way across the Indus river and the Khyber pass losing thousands of camels and horses and ending up emaciated, dispirited and worn-out in Kandahar. But luck is on their side as they encounter little resistance due to Dost Mohammed Khan fleeing Kabul with his loyalists. In spite of rejecting Burnes' advice, the British end up successfully occupying Afghanistan for two years, with Shah Shuja as king. But then, in 1842, the Afghans rise up in jihad and explode in a violent counter-attack which ends in the British army retreating ignominiously back to colonial India after being thoroughly routed by the Afghan tribes. The retreating troops get massacred mercilessly by the Afghans. But the story doesn't end there. There are hostages left behind in Kabul and Britain had to extract revenge and restore its 'honor'. So, an army of Retribution goes back to Afghanistan and repays the hatred and brutality in full measure, matching what would now be called 'war crime' for 'war crime'. Still, it was not feasible to continue occupying Afghanistan forever and so Britain withdraws, leaving Dost Mohammed Khan once again in power after all the carnage and destruction and expenditure of vast sums of money.
Dalrymple points to many eerie parallels with the current NATO occupation of Afghanistan. NATO went in to the country in 2001 to overthrow the Taliban. They did so and installed Hamid Karzai who, just like Shah Shuja in 1839, is seen as a Western puppet by the Afghans. Coincidentally, Karzai belongs to the same tribe as that of Shah Shuja. After twelve long years of occupation, NATO will retreat back in defeat in 2014, leaving possibly the Taliban, who are already said to be in control of 60% of the country, back in power. Just as Dost Mohammed Khan did in 1842. Interestingly the Taliban is made up from the same Ghilzai tribes who drove Britain out in 1842. Dalrymple also points out that Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy to the region, played much the same role that William Macnaghten played in 1839. Sir Cowper-Coles, the British Special Representative in 2010 in Kabul, described Holbrooke as a 'bull who brought his own china shop wherever he went'. Dalrymple says that this description sums up Macnaghten's style perfectly 174 years before. Finally, 170 years on, NATO is leaving Afghanistan for much the same primary reason for which Britain left - that Afghanistan was too poor then as it is today, for the occupiers to tax the country and make the occupied pay for their own subjugation!
This book shows how history can be written like a thriller without sacrificing facts and scholarship. One special feature of this book is that Dalrymple has used sources of research which have been used for the first time ever. Research material for the book has been sourced from British, Persian, Russian and Urdu archives. But the most interesting source is the nine previously untranslated full-length contemporary Afghan accounts of the conflict, including the autobiography of Shah Shuja himself. That makes the book unique.
The book has a big lesson for the powers which still want to play the Great Game. As Dalrymple recounts elsewhere, when Harold Macmillan was handing over the prime ministership of Britain to Alec Douglas-Home, he was supposed to have said, `My dear boy, you'll be fine as long as you don't invade Afghanistan.' Pity that Tony Blair never knew about it!
A 'Must read' for anyone interested in the subject.