Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple
I follow William Dalrymple on Twitter and was following all the updates surrounding Return of a King when it came out more than a year ago. I was intrigued but was not sure if I was ready at that point to read about the British invasion of Afghanistan. So I dithered and dithered. Just last month I read about The Sunday Book Club (@TSBookClub, an online book group that discusses book related matters on twitter with a chat every Sunday between 15.00 & 16.00 IST) and their challenge where participants had to volunteer to read a random book assigned to them and then post a review. The rest, as they say, was history and I soon found myself reading Return of a King.
I have only read one book (Nine Lives) by Dalrymple before and even though I had enjoyed that book, I was not quite sure what to expect from Return of a King. Some of my fears seemed confirmed when I opened the book and started reading the Dramatis Personnae. Having no previous exposure to Afghan history – my head was literally reeling in minutes. I realised that this was not a good thing to do- so I just started with the actual book.
The book starts in 1809 and goes all the way to beyond 1842- starting with tracing the lineage and history of the then ruler Shah Shuja and ending with the withdrawal of British troops after a catastrophic defeat.
The context of British interests in Afghanistan essentially start with French & Russian interest in India and how they planned to use Afghanistan as a gateway to invading India. This spurred the British to start taking an interest in the region- making allies of local rulers in order to thwart any attempts from a Franco-Russian alliance. However even after the fall of Napoleon, Britain and Russia continued to play a game of shadows with the assumption that eventually their empires had to collide in Central Asia.
Dalrymple draws on a number of sources (he made extensive visits in the region)- including a few Afghan ones that had not been tapped before to portray the situation. He clearly lays out the reasons for why the British strategy then (and he draws modern comparisons as well and the more recent invasion efforts of the country) could not succeed.
We are made to understand that apart from a few exceptions Afghanistan never existed as one united country- that it was always a region dominated by warring tribes and the only things that could mostly hold them together was money or the promise of it. The region by itself could not generate revenues to support itself and hence any invasion and occupation was a big drain on the treasury of the East India company (as it has been since on the resources of any nation(s) attempting to occupy it). Forced with a ramp up or back out choice- the British decided to back out after a disgraceful defeat which could have been completely avoided at all costs.
There are important and obvious parallels that Dalrymple draws with the current situation of Afghanistan and the first failed British invasion in the early 19th century. History repeats itself- to be more specific human history repeats itself. But that is only because we humans are similar in how we act but refuse to learn from the past. We therefore keep making the same mistakes, leading to a particular situation repeat itself.
Technically there wasn’t really a situation between Russia and Britain that was not provoked or made worse by propaganda, misinformation and personal interests and ambitions at that time. The biases, prejudices and jealousy of a few men caused thousands upon thousands of lives to be lost and the course of the history of one region to be changed forever.
One can also draw parallels with the modern corporate world- companies decide on strategies based on partial information/ misinformation. Managers keep their eyes closed to uncomfortable situations merely because the person pointing it out to them risks turning out looking better. Therefore they stay the course- insisting that they have the better understanding and experience until the entire situation blows up in their face.
This book is a great read. Dalrymple’s style makes the history easily readable and understandable. Anybody with an interest in history must read this book. I am also now motivated to finish the other Dalrymple books sitting on my shelves.
Here’s his official website: http://www.williamdalrymple.uk.com/