Of futile invasions

Lead review

Of futile invasions

Historical upheavals and failings of the first Anglo-Afghan war are recounted
in an absorbing, easy-to-grasp narrative in William Dalrymple’s ‘Return of a King’, writes Latha Venkatraman

 Futility of invasions, especially in mountainous and landlocked geography such as Afghanistan, could not have been better depicted than in William Dalrymple’s latest book, Return of a King: An Indian Army in Afghanistan.

The first Anglo-Afghan war that ran from 1839 to 1842 is primarily the British invasion of Afghanistan to reposition a king back on his throne. Return of a King is an absorbing account of what transpired during these years in a country that has a fascinating political hold across the world.

The main protagonist of the book is Shah Shuja ul-Mulk, who seized power in Kabul during sectarian riots in 1803. He belonged to the Sadozai dynasty. But in 1809, he was defeated by the Barakzais and Shah Shuja’s half-brother Shah Mahmoud at the Battle of Nimla.

Since then, Shah Shuja made several attempts to seize power, but luck did not accompany him in his grandiose plans. He remained in exile for 30 years, about half his life, moving from place to place, but never gave up hope of returning and ruling the country.

In the process, he became a pawn in the hands of British, which made its moves based on fears that Russia was planning to take over the country. The Russian threat was accentuated by Ivan Vitkevich, an emissary whose arrival in Kabul to make alliance with Dost Mohammad, the then ruler of Afghanistan. This worried the British immensely. The Russians apparently had not nurtured plans to this effect as their frontiers were still far ahead in the North, across the deserts of Central Asia.

Even as the British were planning to launch Shah Shuja in the seat of power and commenced all machinations, the exiled king himself was not consulted. Shah Shuja felt humiliated that the action for which he was waiting for three decades had been arranged behind his back “without even the most cursory reference to him as to how it would be executed.”

The British continued to drive forward the invasion plans and a full 20,000 British troops, including 14,000 East India Company sepoys, were committed — “the largest military operation undertaken by Company (East India Company) forces for two decades.” They were also accompanied by 38,000 Indian camp followers.

The invasion was to dethrone Dost Mohammed Khan and replace him with Shah Shuja as the rightful ruler.

But even as the British were making inroads, “they had no illusions as to how unpopular they were and knew that the minute they stepped outside their heavily guarded cantonments they were likely to have their throats cut”.

Shah Shuja was re-established on the throne, but not for long. The country broke into a violent uprising. Many of the East India Company troops retreated and escaped, and many were killed in rebellious attacks that followed. In April 1842, Shuja was assassinated by his own godson, thereby ending the rule of Sadozai and paving way for the reign of Barakzai dynasty.

Shuja’s “turbulent” life ended in failure as it had been when he was alive. According to Dalrymple, Shuja’s greatest mistake was to allow himself to become too dependent on the troops of his incompetent British patrons. He should have insisted on the return of all British forces immediately after his installation in 1839. The British inability to cope with the rising of 1841 was a product not just of leadership failures within their camp, but also of the breakdown of strategic relationship between the key protagonists of this game, says Dalrymple.

In Return of a King, Dalrymple opens up a slice of history and lays it threadbare for his readers to savour every moment of the great failure of the first Anglo-Afghan war. His research is meticulous and yet does not weigh on the reader throughout the narrative. Not only would historians and history students delving into the study of Afghanistan be enthralled by this kind of work, but even lay readers will find it interesting. Dalrymple’s involvement in the story of Shah Shuja is so evident that as a reader, you end up with a sense of empathy for the unlucky ruler. Not only did the writer pore through hundreds of research material, but also travelled through the country to get a greater sense of history. He draws parallels between the needless involvement of the British in that period to today’s Western obsession with the country. “The closer I looked, the more the west’s first disastrous entanglement in Afghanistan seemed to contain distinct echoes of the neo-colonial adventures of our own day,” he says.

The same tribal rivalries and the same battles continue to be fought out in the same places 170 years later, but under the guise of new flags, new ideologies and new political puppeteers, he says.  A lesson not yet learnt.

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