The road to ruin

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, by William Dalrymple, Bloomsbury, RRP£25, 608 pages

'Entrance to the Bolan Pass from Dadur' from ‘Sketches in Afghanistan’ (1838-1842) by Louis and Charles Haghe after James Atkinson

One of the most astonishing things about the western involvement in Afghanistan of the past decade, and the British shambles in particular, has been the failure to learn from or, indeed, to read accounts of previous failed interventions – even those by the officers of British regiments whose later incarnations are fighting in the country today.

Ignorance of Afghan history has not stopped a procession of contemporary “experts” from throwing about the cliché that we are in the grip of a new “Great Game”. Aside from its lack of imagination, this parallel misses the most important point about the original: that, far from being a vital issue in 19th-century geopolitics, it was in fact something between a sideshow and an illusion. Within a few years of Rudyard Kipling’s coining the term, the British and Russian empires wound up their rivalry in the region when faced with the real common threat of Wilhelmine Germany. This belated recognition of the pointlessness of the entire affair did not, of course, bring back to life the countless people who had died in the course of these imperial adventures over the previous 70 years.

In his brilliant new book on the first Anglo-Afghan war of 1839-42, Return of a King, the British historian and travel writer William Dalrymple describes the tragic beginnings of the Great Game in Afghanistan, and how unnecessary it all was. The invasion to dethrone and replace the Afghan ruler Dost Mohammed Khan was prompted by fears of a Russian takeover of the country that were the merest paranoia. The Russians had no plans whatsoever at that time to invade India through Afghanistan; nor could they have done so, since their frontier was still hundreds of miles to the north, across the deserts of central Asia. The whole “threat” consisted of one semi-official emissary, Ivan Vitkevich (or rather Jan Witkiewicz, since he was Polish by birth), who was later disowned by the Russian government.

The report of Vitkevich’s arrival in Afghanistan was, however, enough to send the Governor-General of India, Lord Auckland, and an increasingly Russophobe political class and media in London, into a state of hysteria. Exploiting the bitter rivalry between two branches of the royal clan, the British sent in an army to depose Dost Mohammed and replace him with his rival Shah Shuja, who had been living in exile in India.

As Dalrymple writes: “Shah Shuja remains a symbol of quisling treachery in Afghanistan: in 2001, the Taliban asked their young men, ‘Do you want to be remembered as a son of Shah Shuja or of Dost Mohammed?’” Dalrymple notes – as do the Taliban – that Hamid Karzai, the present western-installed ruler of Afghanistan, is from the same sub-clan of the old royal tribe as Shah Shuja.

Initially, the conquest seemed to go well. Dost Mohammed’s army was quite easily defeated, and with the help of generous British bribes, large numbers of Afghan chiefs and their followers swore allegiance to Shah Shuja. The British were convinced that Afghanistan was now secure and stable under their client ruler.

But the British had not understood the fury that the presence of a large Christian (and Indian Hindu) army in their country would cause among conservative Muslim Afghans, especially when British officers started sleeping with Afghan women. More importantly, they had not realised that most Afghan chiefs had not sworn permanent or unconditional loyalty to Shah Shuja, but only to accept his overlordship as long as it was to their advantage. When the British pushed Shah Shuja to raise taxes to pay for a modern administration, and cut their own subsidies to the tribes, the chiefs lit the fuse to the revolt that would explode at the end of 1842 and destroy an entire British army.

Some of Dalrymple’s ancestors played a prominent role in the British conquest and administration of India. His great-great uncle, Captain Colin Mackenzie, was one of the few British officers to emerge from the Afghan debacle of 1842 with any credit. However, this is far from being yet another account of a colonial war seen through the eyes of the colonialists. As with Dalrymple’s other books on British Indian history, White Mughals (2002) and The Last Mughal (2006), the greatest new contribution and the single greatest strength of this book is its employment of Afghan and Indian sources to examine the war from the point of view both of the Afghans themselves and the Indian soldiers who made up the majority of the “British” force.

The other thing that has marked out Dalrymple’s historical works is his unflinching look at British imperial atrocities. Others have touched on the sequel to the annihilation of the British Kabul garrison, when the British “Army of Retribution” fought its way to the Afghan capital and deliberately destroyed most of the city. Yet previous British accounts have tended to omit the most horrific details, even though they were amply recorded in memoirs of the time.

These included the massacre of much of Kabul’s Hindu minority, who had taken no part in the war, and an attempt to do the same to the Qizilbash Shia, who had been British allies. Having made their point, the British then withdrew with such haste that they failed to ransom many of their own Indian soldiers who had been captured during the retreat, and who for their service were left in Afghan slavery – despite appeals by British officers of the regiments concerned. Dalrymple describes how the British withdrawal was accompanied by a wretched mass of Afghan refugees and crippled British Indian soldiers – “a whole variety of groups whose lives had been uprooted and ruined by Auckland’s failed adventure”.

Even 170 years later, the events described in Return of a King still have the power to shock – and so they should. It is to be hoped that any future British leader contemplating intervention in Afghanistan, or any other part of the Muslim world, will read Dalrymple’s book. For while it is first and foremost a valuable contribution to the history of Afghanistan and the British Raj, it is also intended to draw parallels and convey lessons about the latest western involvement in the region – lessons, it is worth noting, that were not lost on the more intelligent British officials of the time.

The first is a warning against civilisational hubris. Before the British invasion of 1839, a British intelligence chief warned: “There is nothing more to be dreaded ... than the overweening confidence with which we are too often accustomed to regard the excellence of our own institutions, and the anxiety that we display to introduce them in new and untried soils. Such interference will always lead to acrimonious disputes, if not to a violent reaction.” If he had still been around, Sir Claude Wade could have said exactly the same (and with as little effect) to the Soviets in the late 1970s and the Americans and their auxiliaries in 2001.

The second lesson concerns money. Every intervention in Afghanistan has turned out to be far more expensive than was foreseen by its planners. Yet attempting to economise invites disaster. As Dalrymple describes, there were multiple reasons for the Afghan revolt against the British occupation; but the destruction of the British forces began when local British officials, under pressure from London to make cuts, radically reduced the money being paid to the tribes along the route from Kabul to India – at which point they rebelled and cut the passes. The British had assumed that the tribes’ professions of loyalty to the British client ruler in Kabul, Shah Shuja, somehow meant that it was no longer necessary to pay for that loyalty. If US officials in future try to cut their financial support to the bloated Afghan national security forces that they have created, they will discover that they have made the same mistake.

The final lesson concerns the need to understand Afghanistan on its own terms, and not fit it into simplistic international frameworks – least of all those understood in terms of good versus evil and “you are either with us or against us” (a phrase used by President George W. Bush and previously by a Russophobe British official in the 1830s). This in turn means not demonising the Afghan enemy of the moment. Not only in 1842 but after another Anglo-Afghan war in 1878-80, the British ended by helping on to the throne one of their former enemies (in 1842, Dost Mohammed, against whom they had launched the whole mess) in order to put the country back together again.

American officials in the 1980s were full of moral fury against the Soviet-backed communist regime in Afghanistan. After 2001, they recruited former communist officers to help fight against descendants of the Pashtun Mujahedin whom America had helped little more than a decade earlier.

In view of this past record, it would not surprise me in the slightest if in the years to come the west finds itself relying on the Taliban to create order in large parts of Afghanistan. Certainly, the British survivors of 1842 would have found nothing unexpected in such an outcome. But then, one of the most depressing aspects of Dalrymple’s account is that most British officials only really tried to learn about Afghanistan when they were on the verge of abandoning the place.

Anatol Lieven is a professor in the war studies department of King’s College London and author of ‘Pakistan: A Hard Country’ (Penguin)

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