The March of Folly

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42 BY William Dalrymple. Knopf. Hardcover, 560 pages. $30.

The cover of Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42

BY TURNS EPIC, THRILLING, SUSPENSEFUL, and utterly appalling, at once deeply researched and beautifully paced, Return of a King should win every prize for which it’s eligible. Yet William Dalrymple—author of From the Holy Mountain (1998) and The Last Mughal (2007)—has done more than write a brilliant work of history; in these pages he also holds up a distant mirror to the West’s more recent, and comparably disastrous, military incursions into Afghanistan. His book describes, among much else, the opening moves of the Great Game—the intelligence battle between colonizing powers for ideological and territorial supremacy in central Asia. It is, in some ways, a conflict that continues even now. As Kipling’s youthful spy hero of Kim says, “When everyone is dead, the Great Game is finished. Not before.”

For most Americans, the First Afghan War, which took place from 1839 to 1842, is probably remembered, if at all, as the backdrop for George MacDonald Fraser’s very first Flashman novel, published in 1969. But Flashy’s antics, lecheries, and grandstanding are nothing compared with the truly deplorable behavior of the high-ranking British officials who appear in Dalrymple’s account. The commanders and politicians, in particular, are incompetent, supercilious, culturally ignorant, bombastic, duplicitous, and pathetically indecisive. Time after time, they marginalize the people who actually know Muslim Afghanistan or they simply ignore their advice. And in the end what was accomplished?

After all the waste and destruction of an expensive and unnecessary war of dubious legality, with the honour and reputation of British arms tarnished and British authority undermined; after spending £15 million [well over £50 billion in modern currency], exhausting the Indian treasury, pushing the Indian credit network to the brink of collapse and permanently wrecking the solvency of the East India Company; after losing maybe 40,000 lives, as well as those of around 50,000 camels; and after alienating much of the Bengal army, leaving it ripe for mutiny, the British left Afghanistan much as they found it . . . in tribal chaos.

Dalrymple opens his book in 1809, as the young Shah Shuja ul-Mulk has just recovered a lost family treasure, the largest diamond in the world, the famous Koh-i-Nur, or Mountain of Light. That same year, the British East India Company also began overtures to form an alliance with the king. Why? It was widely believed that Napoleon, then at the height of his power, might march armies across central Asia to attack India, which the emperor saw as the source of Britain’s wealth and economic power. Secret arrangements had already been made. Persia would allow the passage of the French forces, while Russia, not then on Napoleon’s hit list, would send additional troops through Afghanistan. Quite naturally, the shah was eager for British support, since France had promised his lands to Persia in exchange for its help.

As Dalrymple stresses,

the British were not interested in cultivating Shah Shuja’s friendship for its own sake, but were concerned only to outflank their imperial rivals: the Afghans were perceived as mere pawns on the chessboard of western diplomacy, to be engaged or sacrificed at will. It was a precedent that was to be followed many other times, by several different powers, over the years and decades to come; and each time the Afghans would show themselves capable of defending their inhospitable terrain far more effectively than any of their would-be manipulators could possibly have suspected.

Ultimately, the Napoleonic threat evaporated, but others soon took its place, for both the British and the Afghans. Within his own borders, Shah Shuja, a Sadozai, was harried by his family’s longtime enemies, the Barakzai clan—and by the clever and ruthless Dost Mohammad Khan in particular. By the end of 1809, Shuja’s enemies had roundly defeated him at the battle of Nimla. Over the next thirty years, the deposed monarch would endure numerous further humiliations—imprisonment by the Sikh Ranjit Singh of Lahore; the dispersal of his jewels, including the Koh-i-Nur, as bribes; and repeated debacles in battle as he tried to regain power.

During these same years, Claude Wade—“a Bengal-born Persian scholar, and godson of the French adventurer Claude Martin”—was spreading a network of “intelligencers” all over central Asia to collect, collate, and analyze useful information for the British. In 1837, one of these agents, Henry Rawlinson, happened upon a group of armed Cossacks on the Persian-Afghan frontier, and in their company he noticed a mysterious young officer. Today Rawlinson is honored as the man who deciphered ancient cuneiform, but back then, as Dalrymple notes, his skill as a horseback rider would prove his worth. He raced eight hundred miles across Persia to the British legation in Tehran, where he brought the news that the Russians were clearly up to something.


In fact, the young man who had excited Rawlinson’s suspicions—a Polish-born and complexly motivated envoy named Ivan Viktorovitch Vitkevitch—was aiming to cement a treaty between Russia and Afghanistan, now ruled by Dost Mohammad. To thwart such efforts, Britain delegated a brilliant officer of its own: Alexander Burnes, a linguist and shrewd political analyst, but also, to his eventual downfall, a sex-mad ladies’ man. This astute and personable agent got on well with Dost Mohammad, who would, in fact, have much preferred to ally himself with the British. But back in India, Burnes’s handlers and bosses—who quite simply didn’t like him—pointedly undercut his negotiations. While the Russians lavished expensive and rare presents on the Afghan leader, the British proffered only a few cheap gifts and grudged any expenditure whatsoever. Largely because of this nickel-and-diming, Britain eventually lost Dost Mohammad’s favor and support. But then Wade had long been convinced that Shah Shuja would be more useful as the puppet ruler of Afghanistan—if he could be restored to the throne.

Up to this point, the British (and Russian) men in the field will strike a modern reader as exceptionally competent, admirable, and even heroic, despite minor character flaws. But, as the Afghan stakes mounted, the political and military strategies were more and more determined by desk-bound and ignorant superiors, nearly all of them vain and supercilious martinets. The four worst were Lord Auckland, governor-general of India; his pompous chief adviser, William Macnaghten; the elderly, gout-ridden, and dithering Major General William Elphinstone; and the contumacious, overcautious, and much-hated Brigadier General John Shelton. From the moment these higher-ups decided to restore Shah Shuja by military means—in short, to invade an independent country without provocation—the real tragedy began to unfold. To justify the war, Lord Auckland proclaimed, quite falsely, that Dost Mohammad had aggressive designs on “our North West Frontier.”

The British Army of the Indus—as it was called—consisted of around a thousand Europeans, fourteen thousand Indian soldiers, known as sepoys, and at least thirty-eight thousand camp followers. Initially, the British approached this whole invasion business as rather a lark: “Three hundred camels were earmarked to carry the military wine cellar,” Dalrymple writes. One regiment had two camels transporting the best Manila cigars. A senior general insisted on 260 camels to transport his kit. Even junior officers traveled with forty servants. As Dalrymple drily observes, such luxuries “did not bode well for the effectiveness of the fighting force.”

Yet these men, as Dalrymple further notes, were embarking on “a campaign far from their own territory, through a hostile, parched and largely unmapped landscape, with only the most tenuous communications and guarded on all sides by unwilling and unreliable allies.” As the army passed through the chiefdom of Qalat, its khan presciently warned that while the British might restore Shuja to sovereignty, the invaders could never win over the Afghan people. He also issued what became a famous warning: “You have brought an army into the country. But how do you propose to take it out again?” As it happens, none but a lucky few would ever get back to India.

Many died early on in the narrow Bolan Pass, victims of dwindling supplies, Afghan brigands, and snipers armed with homemade jezail rifles. Noted for their extremely long barrels, these were designed for shooting from a distance—and were thus out of the range of British muskets. By the time the expedition emerged from the so-called Mouth of Hell, its rank and file were practically out of food and water, while the camp followers had been reduced to desperate scavenging. But at this low point, the British got lucky. The city of Kandahar fell to them without a shot, largely because the area’s tribal leaders, playing a slippery game of their own, decided to support Shuja. Yet even before the bulk of the infantry had marched out of Kandahar, the British had already begun to alienate the Afghans. A girl from a good family was attacked and raped by a foreign soldier—who was let off with a reprimand. Her family, aggrieved and dishonored, vowed revenge. Such insults were neither forgiven nor forgotten—and there would be many more.

Meanwhile, at the Gibraltar-like fortress town of Ghazni, Burnes, through another bit of luck, gained information about a weakness in one of the gates, which the British then blew up before streaming into the city and plundering it. At the same time, Shah Shuja, calling on his people to recognize his claims to the throne of his ancestors, gathered increasing support. Sensing which way the wind was blowing, Dost Mohammad quickly fled Kabul, and the shah triumphantly entered that city, the seat of the government, at the head of an army. Unfortunately, it was an army of foreigners, an army of infidels.

At this point, the British should have left—they had restored Shah Shuja to power, and he, at least, would be eternally grateful to them. His people were another matter. As one Afghan said of what was fast becoming an army of British occupation, “You are fine fellows one by one, though as a body we hate you.” But instead of heading back home, the British hunkered down in Kabul and maintained a troop presence in Kandahar and other places, constructed cantonments in the least defendable sites, preyed on the local women, undercut the mullahs’ administration of justice, and began to reduce the allowances promised by the shah to the various tribal leaders. Again and again, Shuja was forced to lose face, as the British blithely flouted Afghan traditions and expectations and repeatedly showed little sensitivity to the people under their de facto rule. One bad military mistake, cultural misjudgment, or diplomatic error followed another. Within a year, the Afghans had had enough, and one night Kabul rose in revolt. The jihad against the imperialist invaders had begun.

By this point, the reader of Return of a King is only halfway through this magnificent and shocking story. Before it is over, Burnes and his foolish boss Macnaghten will be brutally slaughtered; the retreating British army, hoping to make its way back home, will be boxed in at the Khord Kabul Pass and destroyed; the Forty-Fourth Foot will make its legendary last stand at Gandamak; and gouty Major General Elphinstone will be taken prisoner along with a handful of European wives and daughters. Under the direction of the charismatic Akbar Khan, the son of Dost Mohammad, the armies of ancient Khorasan will patiently annihilate their enemies almost to the last man. Shah Shuja himself will be murdered by his own godchild.

After word of defeats and massacres eventually reached India and then London, the initial shock and dismay were soon followed by the obvious response: The British Empire could not allow a bunch of primitive hillsmen to besmirch its sacred honor. So the meticulous but merciless Major General George Pollock was given command of the ominously named Army of Retribution. In due course, he would raze Kabul to the ground.

But with Shuja dead, who should rule Afghanistan? To the British, the only possibility was none other than . . . Dost Mohammad, with whom they cut a deal before leaving the country for good—or at least until the Second Afghan War, in 1878–80 (the one in which, as every Sherlock Holmes devotee knows, a young army doctor named John H. Watson would be wounded by a jezail bullet, with life-changing consequences). Reinstalled on his throne by those who had ousted him, Dost Mohammad would reign for twenty-one more years. Some say that he even poisoned his own son when Akbar Khan grew overly ambitious.

It is difficult to do justice to the evenhandedness, vivid writing, and extensive scholarship supporting every detail of Return of a King. For instance, Dalrymple quotes not only from obvious government sources and records, but also from the diaries of the indomitable Lady Sale, as tough as her military husband, “Fighting Bob” (her own epitaph reads: “Underneath this stone reposes all that could die of Lady Sale”). He extracts long passages from the letters of the sharp-eyed and waspish Emily Eden, Lord Auckland’s sister (and author of those witty, Jane Austen–like novels The Semi-Attached Couple and The Semi-Detached House), and from the memoirs of many now-forgotten Indians, Afghans, and Russians. He even includes translations of passages from epic Afghan poetry, in which Alexander Burnes appears (quite wrongly) as the devil incarnate and Akbar Khan as a noble, Saladin-like warrior.

Except for two or three footnotes, Dalrymple underscores parallels with the West’s more recent adventures in central Asia only toward the end of his book. “In both cases,” he writes, “the invaders thought they could walk in, perform regime change, and be out in a couple of years. In both cases they were unable to prevent themselves getting sucked into a much wider conflict.” As one Afghan informant told him, it’s always the case that “the foreigners have come for their own interests, not for ours. They say, ‘We are your friends, we want to help.’ But they are lying.” In fact, as Dalrymple observes, virtually all the nineteenth-century Afghan sources agree in portraying the British as nothing less than “treacherous and oppressive women-abusing terrorists.”

It’s sobering to read that appraisal at the remove of 170 years, when American Predator drones scour the skies over Afghanistan, and US soldiers have run afoul of the Afghan citizenry on charges of rape, murder, and desecration of the Koran. For bleakly beautiful Afghanistan, only the nationality and the weaponry of its invaders seem to change. At the very end of his book, Dalrymple recalls his attempt to visit the village of Gandamak. As it happened, that very day a battle broke out between government forces and Taliban supporters—on the very site of the British last stand of 1842. The writer ended up talking with some tribal elders, who reminded him that since the British, their beloved country has been invaded, within their own lifetimes, by both the Soviet Union and the United States. “These are the last days of the Americans,” concluded one old man. Then he added, “Next it will be China.”

Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for the Washington Post, contributes regularly to several literary magazines and cultural periodicals, and is the author, most recently, of On Conan Doyle (Princeton University Press, 2011), which received a 2012 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America.