A war in vain

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A war in vain

William Dalrymple is not just a historian, but a storyteller too. His account of the first Afghan war is based on a number of sources not studied yet, notes AVS Namboodiri.


Eminent historian and travel writer William Dalrymple’s latest book, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, is about the first Afghan war from 1839 to 1842, but his account of a local war has a timeless relevance and universal value.

Dalrymple’s earlier works on British history in south Asia — White Mughals and The Last Mughal — established his reputation as an authority on the events of the early days of colonial consolidation which shaped the recent history of the subcontinent. He has excelled himself in his account of the Afghan war, casting fresh light on an imperial policy, rooted in ambition, fear and misjudgment and describing how poorly it was planned and executed. Britain’s Afghan imbroglio has been written about extensively, but the Dalrymple touch makes it come alive in many ways not yet narrated and commented on.

The first British campaign in Afghanistan was an unmitigated disaster. An army of about 58,000 people and 30,000 camels with necessary supporting infrastructure marched to Afghanistan because Britain feared that the Russians wanted to take that country for an entry into India. The strategic conflict for control of Central Asia, called the Great Game, was on. Afghanistan was the traditional route of all invasions of the Indian subcontinent and it was once suspected that even Napoleon had an eye on India.

The British army got bogged down in the passes with no escape route. The grand campaign that started with thousands of troops ended in disaster. It is thought that only one soldier returned with his life. This has been immortalised in a painting, ‘Remnants of an Army’ by Lady Elizabeth Butler, which shows a British doctor, the sole survivor, collapsing on a pony near a fort in eastern Afghanistan. The Afghan misadventure was perhaps Britain’s biggest military debacle. It spent about 15 million pounds — equivalent of today’s 80 billion dollars — for no return, and lost all men, materials and a good part of its reputation. When the British army went in, a local chieftain asked: “You have brought an army into the country. But how do you propose to take it out?” The question has not been answered by the British or the Russians or the Americans who went into Afghanistan later.

Poor planning

Britain’s plan was doomed from the beginning. In order to secure India’s gateway, it wanted to install in Kabul a king who would be loyal to it. Shah Shuja, the deposed king of Afghanistan, was living in exile in India for three decades and Britain thought that the frontier would be secure if the then ruler Dost Mohammed was replaced with Shah Shuja. Even though Kabul was conquered and Shah Shuja placed on the throne, it threw Afghanistan into turmoil. The people would not accept a puppet king and the British army ran into the most dire situations. The soldiers ran amok and alienated the people.

Afghanistan’s economy collapsed and the revolt became too hot to contain. The militant tribes turned against the occupying army and the battle was lost. To avenge the humiliating defeat, the British sent an army of retribution again, which pillaged villages, committed atrocities on people, including women and children, and destroyed everything in sight. However, the British again retreated, Shah Shuja was eventually assassinated and Dost Mohammed came back to power and ruled Afghanistan till his death. Shah Shuja is considered a traitor to this day in Afghanistan. Afghans were till then fighting among themselves. The Afghan war introduced a new element — a religious war against outsiders. This would later take many forms in Afghanistan’s history.

Dalrymple is not just a historian, but a storyteller also. The book is not only an account of a military campaign. It also brings into vivid light the personalities, places and the human situations that were involved in the planning and execution of strategies. It also analyses where and how the whole campaign went wrong. Dalrymple’s account is based on a number of sources which have not been studied till now. They include Persian literature, court histories, public archives, private letters, Shah Shuja’s biography and even stories remembered through centuries. The reader gets a sense of how Afghans responded at the local levels to the situation which was arising in their country. His style is simple and is fully evocative of the great tragedy that took in its grip a simple, poor but proud people.

The war was planned in London on the basis of misconceptions and baseless fears. The Russians had no plan to attack India through Afghanistan. The whole campaign was an exercise in futility not just in the sense that all wars are ultimately futile. But the British experience in Afghanistan holds lessons for the modern world also. One major lesson is that the lessons of history are hardly learnt. Another super power, after a long occupation, is planning to leave Afghanistan now, much in the same way as the 18th century super power withdrew from there. Dalrymple notes an eerie parallel. Hamid Karzai, installed by the western powers in Kabul, belongs to the Sadozai clan to which Shah Shuja belonged, and most of the Taliban are from the Ghilzai tribe which decimated the British army.

The West forayed into Afghanistan twice after the first war: the second Anglo-Afghan war of 1878-1880 and the Russian invasion in 1979. The present war of the US and NATO forces is the fourth. Dalrymple says: “The West’s fourth war in the country looks certain to end with as few political gains as the first three, and like them, to terminate in an embarrassing withdrawal after a humiliating defeat, with Afghanistan yet again left in tribal chaos and quite probably ruled by the same government which the war was originally fought to overthrow.” In that sense, his narrative is a chronicle of events which would happen later, sometimes even in the case of details. History repeats itself in many ways. Names of actors have changed, but the essence of the story remains the same.

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