The South Asia Channel

A war for no wise purpose

A review of William Dalrymple’s, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42. This is a book that we should have had ten years ago, and which will still be read in fifty years’ time. It is a history of the first war fought by Westerners in Afghanistan in modern times, and is clearly ...

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/GettyImages
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/GettyImages

A review of William Dalrymple’s, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42.

This is a book that we should have had ten years ago, and which will still be read in fifty years’ time.

It is a history of the first war fought by Westerners in Afghanistan in modern times, and is clearly designed to cast a light on our present conflict there. But it is also a beautiful and moving account of a tragedy complete with imperial hubris, foolishness and great human suffering.

Its strength comes from two things, found at the front and the back of this thick but readable history. At the back is a huge bibliography, in which Dalrymple to his great credit has made an effort to include Afghan as well as British sources. Visiting Kabul, the author made great efforts to lay his hands on records of what Afghans made of the war. Several of these provide a colourful, even florid, counterpoint to the grim and introspective language of many of the British sources.  (I liked, for instance, the phrase "the bird of sense had flown out of the Wazir’s brain," used by one of these Afghan writers to describe a drunken government official.)

It is also a lively book filled with colourful characters, helpfully listed at its front. Here is Alexander Burnes, the Scottish roué and brilliant linguist whose advice (if taken) might have saved the British from war, but whose love affairs instead helped to start it. I suppose Burnes was in some attenuated way my predecessor, because in 2007 I went to Afghanistan as political counselor at the British Embassy. But we live in a more anemic age, and I could never claim to have anything like his extraordinary experiences, which culminated in his being cut to pieces on his own front lawn.

Here also is Lady Sale, a formidable woman who led a group of demoralized British hostages to freedom and a brief spell of outlawry in the mountains north of Kabul. And here is Shah Shuja himself, an "intelligent, gentle and literate teenager" who goes on to be the Afghans’ most reviled king – the king referred to in the Tolkienesque title. 

Shah Shuja was a serially unlucky man, who was evicted from Afghanistan’s throne and repeatedly failed to win it back until the British authorities, then ruling most of India, decided that it would suit their interests to help him return. They feared the possibility that the Russians might send an army through Afghanistan and saw Shuja as a reliable ally. And they relied, in making this judgment, on the views of those closest to the top British decision-makers – ignoring the advice of the tiny handful of people who knew Afghanistan best, including Burnes who was then based in Kabul. 

What followed was hubris: a huge army was assembled and escorted the bejeweled Shuja – who (whatever he had been like as a teenager) comes across as a vain and haughty man – to Kabul in 1839. 

It is worth remembering that the British army was not universally hated in Kabul from the start. Being non-Muslims counted against them, but not fatally. In fact, as this history shows, if the British had acted more sensibly they could have avoided any major confrontation with the Afghans. To quote a Greek proverb, though — from the people who knew all about hubris and tragedy — whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad. 

The British soldiers took up residence in an indefensible sprawling camp, and diminished their army through spending cuts. They undermined Shah Shuja’s authority by making it apparent that he was a Western puppet (or, as the Afghans rather charmingly put it, a "radish"). 

They conducted love affairs with Afghan women. Dalrymple has dug up a startling metaphor from the work of a poet called Maulana Kashmiri, which may help explain why: "The women of that land/ Are of such delectable beauty/ One could slay a hundred Firangis (Westerners)/ With the power of her buttocks." But when a culture of prostitution established itself in Kabul, and Afghan noblemen were cuckolded, trouble was not far behind.

What was more, when rioting began in November 1841 the British failed to respond, and when a mob surrounded Burnes’s home they abandoned him to a grisly fate. This emboldened other groups to join the rebels – who may only have intended to send the British a message, and who to begin with were a disparate and badly-organized group.

Nemesis followed. A bloody trail leads through this book from its beginning. Afghan politicians kill each other in all sorts of ghastly ways, roasted to death or chopped slowly in pieces or blown from the mouths of cannon. The British army destroys entire villages, often killing every man above the age of fourteen in villages that resist them. And when the time comes that, in an extraordinary reverse, the British find themselves at the mercy of the Afghans, their bodies end up heaped so high that they clog the passes leading from Afghanistan back into India. Barely a single one of them returned home. That included, as the book points out, not just British soldiers but uncounted Indians who accompanied them. Many of these were left to die, or sold into slavery.

Even then the sickening litany of horror is not finished. An Army of Retribution is sent by the British to restore their image as a formidable enemy, and pursues its goal with relentless cruelty. Kabul is almost wholly burned to the ground. One of the British participants lamented: "We are nothing but licensed assassins."

This story deserves to be remembered, not least because of the tens of thousands who died – for no wise purpose, as Dalrymple reminds us more than once. (The quote comes from one of the war’s few survivors.) The war ended with Shah Shuja dead and the man who had preceded him on the throne, Dost Mohammed, restored to it.

This is a fabulous history. Is it, though, a useful guide to present-day events? Looking at the successive travails of foreign armies in Afghanistan can give an impression that they are always doomed to come to a bad end. (Dalrymple seems at one point to adopt this approach, writing of the Soviet experience but also appearing to prefigure the end of the post-2001 mission: "The Afghan resistance succeeded again in first surrounding then propelling the hated Kafirs into a humiliating exit.")

The earlier passages of the book tell a different, subtler story than this. Like the early British visitors to Afghanistan, I never encountered hostility in Afghanistan as a Christian. (Being British was another story – "Angrez," English, is still a playground insult.) And plenty of foreigners have visited Afghanistan, lived there, and been advisers to its government, without encountering hostility.

If the Taliban do play the role of Dost Mohammed, taking over the country once foreign forces leave, then it will be a consequence of our own mistakes. Several of those are eerily similar to those that the British made 170 years ago. I took four lessons from my reading of this book.

First, power exercised is power diminished. The British never had greater influence than when they had a huge army on the verge of marching into Afghanistan. They never had less influence than when that army was pinned down within the country. 

Second, decisions should be taken as near to the ground as possible. In the days before the war when Alexander Burnes was based in Kabul, his advice was often disregarded – because being close to the Afghans meant being far from the centers of British power, where decisions were made. It remains true today that if an Iraqi, or an Afghan, wants to win U.S. support then they must learn English, work the Washington lecture circuit, and appeal to American popular opinion – while ignoring the much more important work of building support at home. 

Third, the British wasted mon
ey on war that might have been saved by spending small extra sums, at the right time, on diplomacy. Burnes struggled for a budget to support his early diplomatic efforts – money that was refused him, but was then dwarfed by the huge sums needed to invade Afghanistan. That has its echo today. Until recently, the U.S. budget for military bands was said to exceed that for the entire State Department. How much was invested in buying influence in Afghanistan prior to 2001, or even after it for that matter, compared with the cost of deploying over a hundred thousand soldiers there?

Fourth and most important, the Afghans themselves have to be in charge. Shah Shuja proves in Dalrymple’s book to have been a more skillful player than the British ever imagined. While they were retreating homewards through Afghan snow and sniper fire, Shuja was safely holed up in his Kabul fortress, wringing his hands at his allies’ foolish refusal to take his advice. Cleansed of his association with tainted foreigners, he even went through a brief period of resurgence.  Perhaps Hamid Karzai will have the same experience, once he is less visibly reliant on — and frequently overruled by — the United States. 

Let us hope so. If one thing stands out more clearly than anything from this book, it is that Afghanistan deserves a future better than its past.

Gerard Russell was head of the British Embassy’s political team in Afghanistan in 2007-8, and a political officer at the United Nations in Kabul in 2009.

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