Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan
Even on the austerest telling, the grisly events of the first Anglo-Afghan War (1839–42) have all the qualities of a fable. The British of the East India Company, fearful of the prospect of the Tsar’s soldiers marching down the Hindu Kush, decide that the only way to secure their Indian possessions is to install a pliant ally on the throne of Kabul. An army marches from the Punjab to support the former king Shah Shuja against—as they must now regard him—the usurper Dost Mohammad. It captures Kabul easily enough.
Not long afterwards begin the uprisings, little ones and big. Two British political officers are killed brutally. Several tactical blunders later, the occupying army—officers, their wives and Indian soldiers—retreat through snow a foot deep, too starved to face off bands of Afghan marauders. Nearly all of them perish. When the news reaches Calcutta, an “army of retribution” that lives up to its name is sent up the Khyber. Yet the war ends with Dost Mohammad back in power and proving to be just the sort of reliable ally the British had refused to believe he could be.
All this and a great deal more we know from a handsome array of documentary sources, many of them calling for the historian to go no further than the India Office records of the British Library. William Dalrymple, however, goes further, to the Indian and Pakistani archives and to booksellers in Kabul, from whom he acquires Persian-language accounts of the war which no Western historian has drawn on before. Some of these are poems in an epic style, probably “the last survivors of what was […] once a very rich seam of poetry dedicated to the Afghan victory”, a victory which for the Afghans was “their Trafalgar, Waterloo and Battle of Britain rolled into one”. But there are also soberer histories by contemporary witnesses and the sad, literate memoirs of Shah Shuja himself.
These sources tell us much that the British sources do not and much, from ignorance or decorum, that they could not. They give us a clearer picture of the dissensions within the Afghan resistance and the range of Afghan’s motives: love of freedom and hatred of the infidel occupier, certainly; but also the prospect of settling internecine rivalries. They give us too a sense of how the resistance was composed of variegated individuals. At their most vivid, these sources reveal what went into the making of the rebels’ view of the British as “treacherous and oppressive women-abusing terrorists”. Not even the imperial records quite acquit the British of the charge.
But while Dalrymple’s long quotations from the Afghan sources hint at what a history of the war from an Afghan perspective would look like, they intimate also that his is not that history. For all the grim relish with which we are told tales of torture and massacre, Dalrymple’s world is a romantic one, full of dauntless men facing impossible dilemmas: the last fifty or so years of theoretically-engaged historiography have left little trace on his prose. Rather, Dalrymple seems content to share Kipling’s conviction that “there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, / When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!”
There is enough here of old-fashioned military history, all battle-tactics and musketry, to satisfy the market for that sort of thing. At the same time, there is sympathy for the much derided “politicals” of the Afghan campaign, the dashing (until decapitated) Alexander Burnes and the learned, if dangerously obtuse, William Hay Macnaghten. Dalrymple’s sympathy for their scholarship and courage survives the derision of British historians, who thought their influence baleful, and of Afghans, who thought them, respectively, a lecher and a fool. Dalrymple fiercely defends Burnes in particular, arguing that his political instincts, which favoured a British alliance with Dost Mohammad, were ultimately proved sound. The travel writing of Dalrymple’s early career—In Xanadu, From the Holy Mountain—place him squarely in the tradition of Burnes, himself a traveller and stylist of some talent, and it is possible that Dalrymple perceives him as a kindred spirit. Well, it takes all sorts. But one is curious to see what historians of less romantic sensibilities will make of the sources he has uncovered.
This book keeps for the most part to narrative, but there are glimpses every so often of the historian as sage. Dalrymple cannot help noting parallels between the war of 1839 and the war of 2001. Then as now, there was warmongering informed by ideology rather than evidence. Then as now, Afghanistan’s terrain and climate, and the complex politics of its tribes, made it a hard country to garrison and govern. Dalrymple is keen to make something of this: “due to the continuities of the region’s topography, economy, religious aspirations and social fabric, the failures of 170 years ago do still hold important warnings for us today”.
The “us” deserves a raised eyebrow, but let’s not be too post-colonial about it. Dalrymple is neither a theorist nor a polemicist. He is not the one to produce the gallimaufry of guilt, grief, and anger to which his material lends itself. He wants to tell a good story, with an eye to his Anglo-American readership. But what is troubling here is the ambiguity in the idea of a warning from history. What is history’s warning? That Afghanistan is unwinnable? Or that it is winnable if occupying armies pay proper heed to the friendly counsels of the obliging historian?
Dalrymple is no warmonger. Yet there is something lamentable in his dutiful attempts to demonstrate the aching relevance of it all. Those attempts are concessions to a marketplace in which history is expected to deliver pithy lessons ready for the morose perusal of the Sandhurst cadet. As it is, they stand in tension with a more appealing vision of the historian’s calling, and a more generous vision of the Western reader, which is also to be found in this book.
There is a moment in the narrative, after the near-destruction of the retreating British army, when Akbar Khan, the leader of the resistance, appears before his hostages, some among them officers’ wives. Dalrymple here treats us to a long, almost Homeric, passage from the Muharaba Kabul wa Kandahar of Munshi Abdul Karim:
The hostages all stood in line, trembling and fearful, to express their gratitude. Commander Akbar comforted them, and, showing great respect to General Elphinstone and the Minister’s widow, offered them sable-lined cloaks of cloth-of-gold, which he himself draped around their shoulders. He gave each of them a warm sheep-skin poshteen and with tears in his eyes, said ‘No-one can foretell, no-one can alter the decrees of fate and Divine Will! The old men of Kabul in my army tell me that such extremes of snow and ice have not been seen in these parts in living memory. Have no fear – I will protect you and send you to the warmer clime of Laghman to rest and recover, until the sun enters the house of Pisces, the snows melt and the road to Hindustan will once again be open.’ […] Once the hostage guests had reached Laghman, spacious apartments were set aside for the ladies, with serving girls in attendance. Food too was generously provided: grains and meat, the fat sheeps’ [sic] tails, chickens, eggs, as well as all kinds of dried and fresh fruits.
A different historian would have left out that last sentence, the important point about Akbar Khan’s treatment of the hostages having been made. But Dalrymple wants us to know about the fat sheep’s tails. There are other such moments in this book and each wilful irrelevance reveals another history concealed inside this one. This hidden history is less solicitous of the needs of occupying armies, less anxious to inveigle itself into the zeitgeist. It retains its interest in Afghans when they are employed in other things than fighting foreigners. It trusts its reader to be interested in them because they are interesting.
Nakul Krishna  is reading for a D.Phil. in Philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford. He is a contributing editor at the Oxonian Review.