Review: Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, By William Dalrymple

How we lost the war – all over again

'History never repeats itself exactly," William Dalrymple writes in The Return of a King, his account of Britain's ill-fated occupation of Afghanistan in 1839-42. What became known as the first Afghan war was the result of British paranoia about the threat of a Russian assault on India, the jewel in the imperial crown, by way of Kabul. The present-day Western excursion came about following the tragic events in New York on 11 September 2001.

But although the causes are different, Dalrymple, through a deft telling of the 19th-century misadventure in this fine history, puts the similarities of the two wars in unsettlingly sharp relief.

Back then, blinded by what they imagined was a devious Tsarist plot to advance on their most prized colonial possession, British administrators wilfully shunned the chance to see off the threat by making a deal with Afghanistan's ruler, in favour of a policy of regime change.

The incumbent, Dost Mohammad Khan, was displaced by Shah Shuja, a pliant exiled king, who rode in on the back of the grandly named Army of the Indus, an enterprise of Her Majesty's blinkered servants (consisting, among the sepoys and other supplies, of no less than 300 camels earmarked to carry the military wine cellar).

Just how blinkered became apparent rather swiftly, when a series of mistakes, including complacency about the strength of the occupation in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary and a premature diversion of resources, brought the adventure to an early end. A critical factor was the decision to cut costs in exactly the wrong place. As the Afghan occupation began to weigh on the empire's bottom line, subsidies to tribes that had stood by the puppet-king of Afghanistan were rolled back, a move that swiftly brought the "entire edifice of the occupation crashing down". In the end, Dost Mohammad returned to power.

Today, another set of occupying soldiers is in the process of leaving. They arrived for a different reason. But, like their distant predecessors, their departure has much to do with costs associated with their Afghan adventure at a time when their masters in Washington can barely afford the expense. "Then as now," the author notes at the end, "the poverty of Afghanistan has meant that it has been impossible to tax the Afghans into financing their own occupation." Today, the cost to the US is more than $100bn a year. "It costs more to keep Marine battalions in two districts of Helmand than the US is providing to the entire nation of Egypt in military and development assistance," he writes.

Moreover, more than a decade since the West first got involved, there is the prospect of Afghanistan being left, yet again, in tribal chaos, once the exhausted foreign forces are finally home.

So, history never repeats itself exactly – but Dalrymple, in clear, engaging prose, shows how it often comes worryingly close.