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Return of a King: More Than a History Book

September 25, 2013

‘Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan 1839-1842’ is not merely a retrospection of the First Anglo-Afghan war. Rather, it is a book that tells what catastrophes an ill-planned objective-less war can bring.

The book is an outcome of painstaking intellectual labor of William Dalrymple, one of the best contemporary historians of South Asia. He dug deeper into resources, fetched from all the parties involved with this war, and wrote this brilliant book which, in the end, broke its genre and has become a governance book for politicians, a strategy book for strategic professionals, a note of caution for war hawks, a travel book for those who have never seen the inhospitable terrain of Afghanistan and, in general, a reader’s delight.

Before going to the content of this colossal work, I want to make some comments on the enormous efforts taken and endured by the writer to write this book. Would the writer have easy access to variety of sources —-located in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Russia—-had he been a South Asian? Of course, Mr. Dalrymple is more a South Asian in his appearance and in his profound knowledge and understanding of subcontinent’s culture than an English. Yet, his British origin helped him a lot to access those documents.

In this book the author tried to tell a new history of the First Anglo-Afghan War, covering all the perspectives of that invasion.Two Persian epic poems, ‘Akbarnama’ written by Maulana Abdul Hamid Kashmiri and ‘Jangnama’ written by Mohammad Ghulam Kohistani Ghulam, and Shah Shuja’s memoirs ‘Waqi’at-i-Shah Shuja’ were instrumental at getting the Afghan view points across to him , as well as to the readers.

It all started with a false alarm. The paranoia that Russia could one day take over British India at one fell swoop occupied the minds of War Hawks of British East India Company day and night.

One of the spies posted in Central Asia sent a false report about Russian move and it gave birth of the Great Game. Based on that report, British made an expedition to Afghanistan which was till then little known to them and they wanted to install ‘our guy’ in the throne.

The book has interesting accounts of how diplomatic and trade missions can be used for the purpose of Intel gathering. I cannot help sharing one such incident. Lord Wellington, then President of Board of Controls of East India Company, sent a ship, in disguise of carrying diplomatic gifts for Maharaja Ranajit Singh, all the way to Indus from Bombay port. Its true purpose was to survey the waterways that could later be used as the principal transport route to Central Asia in the wake of any possible Russian invasion. The ship was full of military and naval surveyors and led by legendary Scottish Intelligence Officer Alexander Burnes. Throughout that journey, they collected valuable data: they gauged the depth of the river, scribbled down information and maps of the riverbanks and of surrounding areas.

So, simple humanitarian naval missions may be intended to covert Intel gathering operation in uncharted or little known waters.

While thwarting imaginary Russian ill-motive, the British also got themselves involved with the acrimonious disputes between two feuding ethnic groups: the Sadozais and the Barakzais.

The British backed Shah Shuja belonged to the Sadozai clan, which is also the clan of present Afghan President Hamid Karzai. On the other hand, Dost Moshammed, Shuja’s rival, belonged to the Barakzai clan. This rivalry is still going on there. Interestingly, Taliban leader Mullah Omar also belongs to Barakzai clan.

While reading this book readers can find incidents which are very similar to those taking place in Afghanistan. But it will be wrong to draw parallels between them. For instance, unlike Shah Shuja, Karzai is visionary and a friendly ruler. He does not like to portray himself as a king-sort-of figure; instead, he prefers to be a down-to-earth guy. He is very sensitive and receptive towards opponents’ concerns and always try to bridge the gap between his party and rival tribes.

Around 17,000 troops including camp followers took part in that expedition with great enthusiasm. Soon it turned out to be a damp squib.The Army started to suffer great humiliation at the hands of savage ethnic groups like Achakzai, Yusufzai, Barakzai and Kohistani. The whole Army was literally murdered, but only one Dr. Brydon survived and reached the Jalalabad cantonment. This epic escape is still alive in Lady Butler’s celebrated oil painting “The Ramnants of An Army”. Major Broadfoot in his book ‘The Career of Major George Broadfoot’ described the cause of such a disaster:

Our apathy in this respect [knowing Afghanistan] is disgraceful and so is our ignorance of the institutions and manners of the country. When a country is invaded, its resources are always used by the conquering army, the leader of which assumes the government. Lord Wellington administered the civil government of the South of France, collecting the revenues and appointing every functionary. After four years of occupation we are as little prepared to do that effectually here as in 1838; less so, for the desire to learn is diminished , as all think we are soon to quit the country. …..To acquire accurate information about the real resources of the country, the modes of collection, and the rights of the various classes in relation to the State and to each other, never seems to have been thought necessary…Consequently, we fail from our ignorance.

The Remnants of an Army 1879 Elizabeth Butler (Lady Butler) 1846-1933.  Image  source : wikipedia and

The Remnants of an Army 1879 Elizabeth Butler (Lady Butler) 1846-1933.
Image source : wikipedia and

This book is also about how religion is used to attain personal goals. When Kabul mass were fed up with the governance of Anglo-Sadozai regime and with the rising price of staple food, Afghan clergy class became increasingly suspicious of Sadozai rule and deliberately ‘omit proclaiming his names at Friday prayers’. Dost Mohammed took advantage of the situation, he removed the Holy Cloak of Prophet Mohammad (PBH) from the shrine located in Kandahar and wrapped himself in it. Then, he declared himself as Amir Al-Muminin, leader of the faithful.

Like Dost Mohammed, Mollah Omar did the similar thing and called the crowd to wage a holy jihad against the infidels. But as I have said earlier, it will be wrong to draw parallels between these two incidents. Why? As Mr. Dalrymple explains:

There is no unifying figure at the centre of resistance, recognized by all Afghans a symbol of legitimacy and justice: Mullah Omar is no Dost Mohammad or Wazir Akbar Khan, and the tribes have not united behind him as they did in 1842.

The Last Stand of the 44th Foot  at Gundermuck, 1842 by William Barns Wollen. Image Credit:

The Last Stand of the 44th Foot at Gundermuck, 1842 by William Barns Wollen.
Image Credit:

Like the book itself, Dalrymple left his masterly British signature in naming the book. ‘Return of a King’ does not only mean the return of Shuja, it may also mean the return of Dost Mohammad. Or, it may mean the arrival of retributive British Army led by George Pollock. So do not jump quickly into any conclusion while going through the pages of this book. To me, reading the book was really an enthralling and, above all, an intriguing experience.

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