Bloomsbury, £25 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

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

Both a ripping yarn and a warning from history, an epic of a past débâcle echoes through the present

William Dalrymple is a master storyteller, who breathes such passion, vivacity and animation into the historical characters of the First Anglo-Afghan war of 1839-42 that at the end of this 567-page book you feel you have marched, fought, dined and plotted with them all. I found myself so missing the company of doughty old Lady Sale, dashing Akbar Khan, waspish Emily Eden, the sexy devil-may-care Scottish spy Alexander Burnes and his all-knowing Kashmiri secretary Mohan Lal, that once I had finished I turned straight back to the beginning.

This also allowed me to re-read the author's skittish and flirtatious acknowledgements back-to-back with the strategic gravitas of Dalrymple's concluding chapter. Return of a King is not just an animated and highly literate retelling of a chapter of early 19th-century British military history, but also a determined attempt to reach out and influence the politicians and policy-makers of our modern world. The parallels between the disastrous British occupation of Afghanistan in 1839, and the post 9/11 occupation of Afghanistan by the US and some of its NATO allies, are so insistent that they begin to sound like the chorus of a Greek tragedy.

To take some of the most telling examples: the site of the British cantonment outside Kabul in 1839 is now occupied by the US Embassy and NATO barracks; both Dost Muhammad in the 19th century and Mullah Omar in the 20th century sought to give themselves political legitimacy by proclaiming Jihad and by physically wrapping themselves in the mantle of the Prophet held in a sanctuary at Kandahar; the current President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, and the British-supported Shah Shuja come not only from the same tribe but from the very same clan, the Popalzai, while the infamous leader of the world-threatening Islamist Taliban, Mullah Omar, hails from the same traditional leadership clan (the Hotak) of the Ghilzai tribe which formed the backbone to the resistance in 1841.

Perhaps most tellingly of all, we have exactly the same misguided habit of allowing intellectual desk-bound policy-makers to overrule local expertise, the same bureaucratic massaging of factual reports into dodgy dossiers, and exactly the same refrain touted back in the 1830 (by one John McNeil) - "he who is not with us is against us" – as later used by President Bush.

But it would undersell Return of a King to frame it is as just a cleverly camouflaged political and diplomatic lecture, with a consistent theme of "Bring our boys back". Although the 19th-century British invasion of Afghanistan was a complete, abysmal and expensive failure, it did have very important consequences that helped form the world today.

First, the destruction of a British Army of the Indus as it left Kabul is described by Dalrymple as the combined "Waterloo, Trafalgar and Battle of Britain" that gave Afghanistan its national identity and self-esteem. In my own experience with some of the wounded Mujihadeen who fought the Russians, I can confirm with what pride Afghans of all ethnicities recalled this victory and delighted in telling you which ancestors had fought there, as well as asking about yours, and knowing by heart the names of all the principal British generals and politicians.

Secondly, it forged the very concept of Afghanistan as a separate, Islamic nation dominated by an alliance of Pathan tribes ruling from Kabul. Before the British invasion, the prevailing concept was of Khorassan, a culturally Persian empire of disparate peoples that looked to the Central Asian empire of Timur and the Mughal empire of Babur for its references.

Dalrymple has unearthed new documents that go to show how strongly Afghan tribes and cities were wedded to their dynastic and cultural loyalties. Only a catastrophe on the scale of the British invasion helped break this and help forge a new identity. Thirdly, Dalrymple makes it clear that the bizarre political frontiers of our modern age were directly created in this period.

This war finally broke the unity of Khorassan which had embraced modern Afghanistan, the North-West Frontier province of Pakistan and Kashmir in one block of Highland culture; Peshawar was then the old winter capital of Kabul, not a border town.

On a more intimate level, Dalrymple's extensive researches have corrected a number of assertions. He shows us that although the British occupation of Afghanistan was a doomed long-term strategy (too far, too expensive, for no cogent reason), there was nothing inevitable about the military defeat. By taking us through the experiences of the victorious garrisons of the Army of the Indus that held on, at both Kandahar (under General Nott) and Jahalabad (under General Sale), we understand that it was only the combined idiocy and paralysis of Generals Shelton and Elphinstone that led to the catastrophe, even if the Afghan rifle had superior range and accuracy to the British musket.

In addition, Dalrymple reveals just how complicated and divided the Afghan political landscape was. He goes a long way to revive our sympathy for Shah Shujah, a Charles I-like figure of personal charm and decency, without diminishing the character of his rival, Dost Muhammad. After hearing the many stories of murder, assassination and torture, it becomes obvious that there was absolutely no way that these two leaders, of the Sadozai and Barakzais dynasties, were ever going to make a united front. Most surprising is Dalrymple's discovery that the initial revolt against the British was not the work of a conspiracy of Jihadist Mullahs but a disgruntled band of Kabul-based ex-courtiers and royalists.

Time and time again, character, clan and chance, seem to dictate Afghan policy as much as any overreaching principle. So we find it was the godson of the Shah, overlooked in a round of recent honours and gifts of kaftans, who assassinated his old master in a fit of pique. It is this mastery of the intimate details, as well as the landscape and the grand rivalry between empires, with which Dalrymple wins our trust and keeps our interest.

There is no need for Flashman or Kim to flesh things out, for it is all here: be it Burnes dancing a reel on his dining-room table in Kabul, the Christmas meeting between two master spies on either side of the Russian and British Great Game, the gruesome rituals of Afridi vengeance on the bodies of their foes, or the lethal-sounding cocktail that Ranjit Singh, masterful one-eyed emperor of the Sikhs, shared with his guests while firing off a thousand intelligent, highly pertinent questions. He and Dalrymple would have got on famously.

Barnaby Rogerson's books include 'The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad' (Abacus)

Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003