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Baiting the Tigers Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan

By William Dalrymple

(Bloomsbury 567pp £25)

As William Dalrymple shows in this definitive study, Britain’s first invasion of Afghanistan in 1839 bore marked resemblances to the war currently being waged in that unforgiving land. Then as now, the conflict was based on ‘doctored intelligence about a virtually non-existent threat’. Getting into Afghanistan was relatively easy but the infidel occupation provoked a fierce resistance that made getting out hideously problematic. The same tribal rivalries and alien stupidities bedevilled the campaign. Atrocities occurred on both sides and the cost in blood and treasure was inconceivably greater than any benefit that the invaders might have gained. When the present British forces withdraw, David Cameron will undoubtedly proclaim victory, as the governor-general of India did in 1842. But, Dalrymple observes, the Herat Museum that displays the detritus of other abortive attempts to subjugate Afghanistan, ranging from Victorian cannon to Soviet helicopter gunships, will undoubtedly be able to add shot-up American Humvees and British Land Rovers to its collection.

much of the fresh evidence seems to be of more poetic than historical significance, the stuff of Afghan mythology. But Dalrymple employs it discriminatingly, providing a rich new dimension to a familiar story.

He embellishes that story with personal impressions gleaned from journeys through the Himalayan badlands, where he braved dangers not commonly encountered in the course of academic research. He pens deft portraits of a large cast of characters, and includes a host of recondite details, noting for example that Afghanistan grew 44 different varieties of grape, the finest being khaya-e ghulaman (‘young man’s testicles’).

Of course, as Dalrymple acknowledges, history does not repeat itself exactly. The first British assault on Afghanistan was unique in important respects, not least in being the opening gambit in the Great Game against Russia – the Lion’s centurylong struggle to secure India’s northwest frontier against the Bear. It is Dalrymple’s achievement to elucidate this distinctive initial episode through a treasure trove of original sources. Many of them he unearthed abroad, mining archives in Kabul, Lahore and Delhi (even finding first-hand material in Moscow) and somehow coping with the languages involved. Admittedly

Afghans prepare to ambush the British cantonments outside Kabul

And he writes elegantly, appreciating, like all masters of his craft, that history should aspire to the condition of literature. Long though it is, Return of a King is less sprawling than his earlier White Mughals and, like a great classical tragedy, it grips the reader’s attention from start to finish.

The king of Dalrymple’s title is Shah Shuja, who was toppled from his Kabul throne by a hostile clan in 1809 and spent the next thirty years trying to regain it. He failed thanks largely to Dost Mohammad, who came to dominate Afghanistan,

a ‘kaleidoscope of competing tribal principalities’ in which even tribal allegiance was uncertain. Behind every hillock in that vertiginous terrain, it was said, lurked an emperor. Shuja lived in exile in India, stripped of the Koh-i-Nur diamond and attended by a retinue of mutes and eunuchs (he liked to deprive unsatisfactory servants of their tongues or genitals).

Dalrymple plays up Shuja’s intelligence, sophistication and courage but admits that he was arrogant even by royal standards. Pathologically determined to maintain his sovereign status, Shuja described his countrymen as a ‘pack of dogs’. The best-informed British observer in Afghanistan, Alexander Burnes, thought Shuja hopelessly unpopular. And when a Russian mission arrived in Kabul, Burnes urged the governor-general of India, Lord Auckland, to counter it by clinching an alliance with Dost Mohammad, who was willing. But Auckland, a smug, ignorant mediocrity, allowed hawks in his administration, such as William Macnaghten, to persuade him to return Shuja to his kingdom as a British puppet. It was a calamitous decision, on a par with the 1956 invasion of Suez, which was masterminded by another member of Auckland’s family, Anthony Eden.

In fact Tsar Nicholas I, though anxious about British probing into his empire’s soft underbelly, had no designs on India. The subcontinent was, in any case, protected by the greatest natural rampart on earth – Disraeli said that those who worried about the Russian menace consulted only small-scale maps (though there were as yet no largescale maps of central Asia). Auckland, however, succumbed to the widespread paranoia about the security of the recently consolidated Raj. He disregarded Russian back-pedalling, which removed Britain’s casus belli, a circumstance disguised by the selective publication of Burnes’s dispatches – the ‘dodgy dossier’ of its day, as Dalrymple says. And Auckland ignored prescient warnings from Afghan experts about the impossibility of sustaining Shuja f e b r u a r y 2 0 1 3 | Literary Review 5

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