The battle for Afghanistan: 170 years on, the same mistakes

William Dalrymple talks about the relevance of the first Anglo-Afghan war.

Sahar Habib February 28, 2013
British High Commissioner (right) addresses the audience, as the author listens intently at the reception. PHOTO: THE EXPRESS TRIBUNE


A reception was held to celebrate William Dalrymple’s latest book “Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan” at the British High Commission on Tuesday, following the author’s appearance at the Lahore Literary Festival last weekend.

The 608-page book chronicles in meticulous detail, using never-before translated Afghan sources, the first Anglo-Afghan war in 1839 which was a colossal failure and resulted in a crushing defeat for the British.

In 1839, two great empires dominated the world, the British and the Russians. In explaining the operation of the British East India Company, Dalrymple said it was like any other corporation but with an army. The British controlled 40% of the world economy and as the Russians expanded further south, Afghanistan was seen as a crucial geo-strategic advantage. In order to gain a stronghold in Afghanistan, a crucial gateway into India, the British invaded the country.

However, the threat of Russian presence in Afghanistan, the basis of the invasion, was exaggerated, somewhat like the imaginary weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Dalrymple said. (There is a personal connection here as well; Dalrymple’s great-great-uncle Colin Mackenzie fought with the British army that invaded Afghanistan.) What follows is a chronicle of the unpreparedness, ignorance and arrogance of the British army as they marched into Afghanistan, and a war which ultimately resulted in an embarrassing withdrawal three years later.

“In both cases, the invaders thought they could walk in, perform regime change, and be out in a couple of years. In both cases they were unable to prevent themselves getting sucked into a much wider conflict,” Dalrymple writes, “While the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have lasted longer there are strong parallels to the events of the past decade and important lessons that ought to have been learnt form history.”

Guests mingled as drinks and hors d’oeuvres floated around. Dalrymple spoke for about an hour, providing a teaser of his book with irony and humour, frequently referencing 19th century equivalents of WMDs and George W Bush. He also used a slideshow of art to illustrate how misguided the British had been during the invasion.

Dalrymple explained that, having worked as a travel writer and historian in the Central Asian region for many years, it had become increasingly obvious to him that history was repeating itself as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq unfolded. He said, while speaking to The Express Tribune, that he was drawn to the idea of writing about “Britain’s worst [military] defeat” but was unsure about whether it was even possible to write this book. That was until he came across archives and source material in the Indian National Archives and Punjab archives in Lahore.

What makes this book stand out though is Dalrymple’s research into Persian and Dari material from the Afghan National Archives, which had surprisingly never been translated and was virtually unknown in the West.

This contemporariness is a huge part of what has made this book so well-received. “I wrote my fist book in 1989. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and this has been my most successful, best reviewed book,” Dalrymple said, speaking to The Express Tribune. When asked about what he plans to write next, he said he’s not sure yet but that he would love to write a cultural history of South Asia.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 28th, 2013.


12 | 8 years ago | Reply

@Raj Kafir: but the article has nothing to do with what is taught in Pakistani schools!? but you found something for trolling...

Abdullah khan | 8 years ago | Reply The sikh defeated untrained Tribal lashakar of pashtun at pir sabbaq near NOSHEHRA While Durrani Army of Afghan was neutral and Afghan pashtun defeated the Trained Army of Ranjeet sing in peshawar killing hari sing tha Sikh general.
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