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Entrance to the Bolan Pass from Dadur in 1839 when the Army of the Indus marched through it

Reviewed by Farida M. Said

THE greatest military disaster in the history of British India — a “signal catastrophe,” as a participant later described it — is the subject of prizewinning and bestselling British historian and travel writer William Dalrymple’s Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan. This exhaustively researched book has a leaner storyline than his two earlier historical narratives, White Mughals (2002) and The Last Mughal (2006). “I see these three books very much as the East India Company trilogy,” he says.

In March 1839, the grandly named Army of the Indus, “led by lancers in scarlet cloaks and plumed shakos,” marched into Afghanistan (then known as Khurasan) by way of the Bolan Pass. The largest military expedition ever mounted by the East India Company, the invading force lumbered through the rugged Afghan landscape with 58,000 people, 30,000 camels (300 for the wine alone) and a pack of foxhounds for hunting. Accompanying the Anglo-Indian troops was Russophobe bureaucrat Sir William Hay Macnaghten, who was to be the British chief representative, and Shah Shuja, “the once and future king.”

The conquest proved remarkably easy. Kandahar’s capture was swiftly followed by the storming of the ‘impregnable’ fortress of Ghazni and the occupation of the capital Kabul (then Caubul). On the rout of his army by the invaders, the Afghan ruler, Dost Mohammad Khan, fled across the Hindu Kush mountains. It was time for regime change and a pliable monarch.

A grandson of Ahmad Shah Abdali, the founder of the Durrani Empire, Shah Shujaul Mulk had ruled Afghanistan from 1803 to 1809. Deposed by the energetic and able Dost Mohammad, he had lived exiled in India for three decades. In its wisdom, the occupying force re-installed him on the throne with impressive pomp and expense as the Amir of Kabul — in reality a puppet ruler.

Displeased Afghans demanded wonderingly of the invaders: “What can induce you to squander millions of rupees in coming to a poor rocky country like ours, and all in order to force upon us a rascal as king, who the moment you turn your backs, will be upset by Dost Mohammad, our own king?”

On the surface, Afghanistan appeared peaceful, so the occupiers began to enjoy themselves. With the entrenchment of the occupation, families of British officers travelled to Kabul, bringing with them their servants, grand pianos and chandeliers. In the British cantonment in Kabul, it was as if a small piece of British India had been transplanted. Cocktail parties and picnics, dances and dog shows were held in blissful ignorance of the anger outside the imperial enclave. Loathing spiralled as British officers recklessly started sleeping with Afghan women. Conservative Muslim Afghans began to view these womanising “foreign infidels,” says Dalrymple, as “treacherous and oppressive, women-abusing terrorists” who would turn their country into a brothel.

Confident that the conquest was complete, the powers-that-be sitting in distant Calcutta ordered the withdrawal of the Army of the Indus. In preparation for the brewing opium war in China, troops were returned to India, leaving only 8,000 men to prop up the puppet king.

Generous cash subsidies had persuaded reluctant Afghans to swear allegiance to Shah Shuja. When the British decided to drastically reduce the amount of money paid in bribes to tribal chiefs, including the Ghilzais who controlled the route between Kabul and Jalalabad, the country exploded into violent  rebellion. On November 2, 1841, an angry crowd surrounded Alexander ‘Bokhara’ Burnes’s residence in Kabul, protesting against his decadent behaviour. After the dashing, multilingual but licentious adventurer and his entourage were murdered by the mob, the pompous envoy Macnaghten was also hacked to pieces. Panic- stricken, the decrepit military chief, Major-General William Elphinstone, ordered a retreat from Kabul in the depths of winter.

In what is arguably the worst military humiliation ever suffered by the British, more than 18,000 frozen, starving British soldiers, Indian sepoys and camp followers perished, slaughtered by Afghan marksmen waiting in ambush in the icy mountain passes. From the high ground Afghans sniped at the British below with their long jezail rifles. The fleeing British, equipped with muskets designed for short-range volley fire, were unable to reply. The massacre by poorly equipped tribesmen shattered the myth of British invincibility.

This defeat of an entire army of what was then the most powerful nation in the world is seared into British national memory by two famous paintings: William Barnes Wollen’s “The Last Stand of the 44th Regiment at Gundamuck,” and Lady Elizabeth Butler’s “The Remnants of an Army,” depicting the sole survivor of the retreat from Kabul — Dr William Brydon — swaying into Jalalabad on his exhausted horse.

In furious retaliation for this humiliating military debacle, the British sent an ‘Army of Retribution’. Commanded by General Pollock, this avenging invasion of Afghanistan was a vicious orgy of death and destruction. As they marched through Afghanistan, Pollock’s soldiers “raped, murdered, desecrated and pillaged.” In Kabul the general ordered the dynamiting of the great Char Chattha covered bazaar that had been built by the Mughals and was the largest market in a thousand miles. His forces then proceeded to deliberately destroy most of the city. Even today, 170 years later, Afghans have not forgotten the atrocities of these red-coated invaders.

As soon as the British left, their unfortunate client ruler Shah Shuja (the king of the title) was assassinated. Ironically, the only person to emerge successful from the disastrous First Anglo-Afghan War was Dost Mohammad. Eulogised as the father of his nation, he returned to power in Kabul to rule successfully until his death.

As Dalrymple writes: “Shah Shuja remains a symbol of quisling treachery in Afghanistan. In 2001, the Taliban asked their young men, ‘Do you want to be remembered as a son of Shah Shuja or of Dost Mohammad?’” Dalrymple also notes — as do the Taliban — that Hamid Karzai, the present western-installed ruler of Afghanistan, is, like Shah Shuja, a member of the Sadozai clan. The Taliban are mostly Ghilzai, from the tribe that killed the retreating British in 1842.

This First Anglo-Afghan War (also known as Auckland’s Folly) was the first major conflict of what Rudyard Kipling called the Great Game, or what the Russians called the Tournament of Shadows — the Russo-British rivalry for mastery of Central Asia in the 19th century. Afghanistan was the gateway to the riches of India, the jewel in the crown of the British Empire. The shockingly naïve governor general of India, Lord Auckland, was persuaded by Russophobe hawks to invade Afghanistan and replace the ruler with a pro-British puppet to prevent a Russian takeover. According to Dalrymple, the Russians at that time had no plans whatsoever to invade India through Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has been called both the crossroads of armies and the graveyard of empires. In his masterly account of “a war begun for no wise purpose,” Dalrymple regrets that the failure of the calamitous 1839-1842 invasion of Afghanistan did nothing to prevent the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878-1880. The story of these wars has been told many times before, in publications such as Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game and Charles Allen’s Soldier Sahibs: The Men Who Made the North-West Frontier, but Dalrymple’s narrative is unique.

What separates his perceptive historical narrative from earlier accounts is his use of non-British and Indian sources. At the Afghan National Archives he “steeped himself in the great epic poems in Persian that memorialise Afghan heroics against the loathsome firangi (foreigners), as well as the Pepys-ian memoirs of Shah Shuja and an account of the invasion and its aftermath by Mirza Ata Mohammad.”

It has been famously said that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Dalrymple says: “The closer I looked, the more the West’s first disastrous entanglement in Afghanistan seemed to contain distinct echoes of the neo-colonial adventures of our own day.”

He also draws this present day parallel: the West’s “fourth war in the country looks certain to end with as few political gains as the first three, and like them to terminate in an embarrassing withdrawal after a humiliating defeat, with Afghanistan yet again left in tribal chaos and quite probably ruled by the same government which the war was originally fought to overthrow.”


The reviewer is a Dawn staffer Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan


By William Dalrymple

Bloomsbury, UK

ISBN 9781408818305

608pp. Rs1,395