Bloomsbury £25

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory