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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)

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