Return of a King by William Dalrymple, Penguin 2012
In 1839, England invaded Afghanistan for the first time in that century and then twice more over the next 80 years. The reason was British concern that Russia would move south, take control of Afghanistan and obtain a southern outlet to the Indian Ocean. If control of the land route from Europe to India was lost, then British trade with the jewel in the crown would be threatened.
The Anglo-American occupation of Afghanistan in the 21st century is in many ways a repeat of these first three wars, although today the threat is not Russia but various terrorist gangs which reside in Afghanistan making life miserable for the West. The end result is likely to be the same today with now the American, Canadian and British troops withdrawing without leaving behind a friendly Afghan regime. (Russia was evicted a few years earlier.)
There is no Afghan regime today. Rather there is a piece of real estate called Afghanistan occupied and ruled by a series of Afghan tribes. Sometimes they cooperate and sometimes they fight each other. Outsiders who get involved have to decide which group to back knowing that these local allies may at some point turn on them. What is taking place today is a repeat of what Dalrymple writes about in Return of a King and the first Afghan war, 1839-1843.
The first Afghan war was fought by the private army of the British East India Company, not directly by Britain. On the ground this army liaised with Britain’s representative in India (which then included Pakistan and Bangladesh) who was the Governor General appointed by the British government, and later became Viceroy. Mountbatten was the last Viceroy at independence in 1947.
Dalrymple’s description is an historical masterpiece of the events surrounding the war making use of reports, letters, and diaries of those involved on both sides. Although a listing of the principal players is provided at the outset, together with maps, it became challenging for this reader to follow who was doing what to whom, where and when. In some ways the impact of the events are lost in the amount of detail provided, and the need to continually refer back to the list of players and places.
Around the time of the first Afghan war, Gilbert and Sullivan were born. Between 1871 and 1897 they collaborated on 14 comic operas which are still performed today. Much of the comedy could have been extracted from the wartime events. Consider the following. The British army of the Indus in 1840 consisted of 1,000 Europeans, 14,000 East India Company sepoys (Indian soldiers), 6,000 irregulars and 38,000 Indian camp followers. The guns and baggage were carried by 30,000 camels with a General requiring 260 camels to carry his kit, and a Brigadier 50. The military wine cellar required 300 camels and a junior officer might have 40 servants. One regiment brought its pack of foxhounds, and its officers would have jams, pickles, cheroots, potted fish, and pate served on tables with plate glass crockery and wax candles. Harrods and Fortnum and Mason had a good start supplying foreign markets with fashionable delicacies.
Some tribes and tribal leaders served with the Afghans and some with the British. Members of the losing side would often join the winners leaving the British at times with a bunch of losers. The brutality inflicted by both sides makes Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo look like nursery school, and harks back to the butchery of England in the 14th century when people were hung, drawn and quartered. One just doesn’t expect this in the 19th , 20th and perhaps the 21st centuries. Women were active participants with the opposing armies but performing duties which to-day would be considered inappropriate, except perhaps by General Petraeus. One of the best kept diaries often quoted by Dalrymple was kept by the wife of a British general. She and her husband survived, despite some unusual experiences.
Return of a King is a great read emphasizing the view that not much has changed in Afghanistan over the past 200 years, and may never change as long as tribalism survives financed by the opium consumed in both east and west.