“Return of a King” William Dalrymple
Recommended Retail Price: R260.00 I Bloomsbury
When I was eight, my father, an engineer working in Pakistan, took me up the Khyber Pass. As we went higher and higher towards the Afghan border, he pointed to the plaques on the arid, rock-strewn hillsides. Each one marked that, here, on this spot, such-and-such a British army regiment had taken a pasting from local tribesmen. There were a surprisingly large number of such plaques. Even a small boy knew this meant an equally high number of heroic last stands and dead British soldiers. I thought no more of it until the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1979. They also took a pasting. Had plaques gone up to mark their passing? It seemed unlikely.
A decade or so later, it was the Americans. With British and NATO backing, their mission had been to track down Al Qa’eda leader, Osama bin Laden. It took more than 10 years for them to find and kill bin Laden, not in Afghanistan, but in neighbouring Pakistan. As I write this, just under 3 400 coalition troops have been killed and a much higher number of Afghan civilians. The Americans will leave this year; we’ll see if they leave any plaques behind. Ignore the plaques and see the pattern: superpowers invading Afghanistan come off second best, despite greater economic might and better firepower. Why this should be, again and again, becomes abundantly clear in the new work from master historian, William Dalrymple: “Return of a King – The Battle For Afghanistan”. He focuses on the very first such invasion, by Britain in 1839, which culminated in the massacre of an entire British army in January 1841.
Recall that at this point, Britain was the pre-eminent global superpower. The retreat from Kabul, the siege of Jalalabad and the slaughter at Gandamak represented the worst humiliation of Queen Victoria’s era. Recall, too, that this was the opening act of what became known later as The Great Game, Britain jostling with Russia in the snows of the Hindu Kush, trying to block an invasion of British-controlled India. To ‘secure Afghanistan’, and ‘limit the power of Russia’, Whitehall had decided to replace the current ruler, Dost Mohammed, with a man of their own choosing, Shah Shuja.
Bar a tiny handful of survivors, everyone on the British side died in exceedingly unpleasant circumstances – hacked to death by the Kabul mob or warriors in the high mountain passes. That the British were led by hopeless, dithering incompetents didn’t help, either. If nothing else, “Return of a King” should be compulsory reading for every army officer above the rank of major and every politician and bureaucrat involved in the formulation of foreign policy. At least in the case of Afghanistan, history does repeat itself and the weathered plaques carved into the rock of the Khyber Passbear grim testimony.
Reviewed by Chris Gibbons, editor, Acumen Issue 7