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Sex, lies and slaughter

William Dalrymple talks about his new book on the first British-Afghan war and how the world never seems to learn from history. Basharat Peer writes.

books Updated: Jan 21, 2013 16:39 IST
Basharat Peer

Return of a King
Wiliam Dalrymple
Rs. 799 pp 567

William Dalrymple can be deceptive. He cultivates an image of nonchalance. It is rare to see him pontificate about the difficulties of research across languages, and the art of popular history in a social setting. He is most likely to speak about a hike or a trip to Istanbul. Then, a few years pass and he has produced another tome of meticulously researched history. Dalrymple's gregarious exterior hides a disciplined writer, who disappears from public view for months, looking for unused manuscripts, finding the right translators, and typing for hours on a wooden desk in a hut in a corner of the garden of his house in Mehrauli. For his new book, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-42, Dalrymple worked in archives in Delhi, Lahore, and Kabul, and found the most important Afghan accounts of the first British-Afghan war in an old Kabul bookshop. Here are excerpts from an interview:

What made you write this book?
There are a lot of books about Afghanistan, but few about Afghan history. What brought me to write this book was thinking about Afghan history after rereading Peter Hopkirk's classic The Great Game. It is a bit dated and features a lot of "treacherous Orientals". Return of a King is the first book about the first Afghan war using Afghan sources, telling the stories from an Afghan point of view as well. It is the defining conflict that the Afghans remember as the source of their independence that they alone in this region never succumbed to colonial rule. 18,000 soldiers of the East India Company marched into Afghanistan in 1839 and, according to legend, one man returns alive from this debacle. The British army is destroyed at the peak of the British Empire.

Why do they invade Afghanistan?
What is fascinating with this story is that at every level at every stage it has strong parallels with the two recent neo-colonial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Iraqi element is that the war is the result of the manipulation of intelligence. The Weapons of Mass Destruction in this case is a sighting of a Russian envoy and a party of Cossacks at dawn in 1837 heading over the Iranian border into Afghanistan. This is turned into evidence that the Russians are about to invade Afghanistan and then charge down the Khyber Pass and prise British India from the Raj. It is almost complete nonsense. In 1839, two years after this sighting 18,000 troops followed by 40,000 camp followers set off to invade Afghanistan. They marched the troops through the desert in Sindh and soldiers died of thirst on desert tracks and in avalanches while carrying artillery through mountains.

What happens when they reach Afghanistan?
Afghanistan is not a country at the time but a series of rival principalities. A king called Dost Mohammad ruled Kabul. It took the British a year to reach Kandahar and they took the Afghans by surprise. Dost Mohammad escapes to Bukhara where the ruler imprisoned him. Kabul was quiet for two years. The British set up camp, go duck shooting, the memsahibs arrived, and they even talked about moving the summer capital to Kabul. Eighteen months later, the call for jihad is made. Dost Mohammad escapes and arrives in Afghanistan and the country erupts in rebellion. The British lose their weapons and agree to retreat for safe passage. They begin this retreat on January 6, 1842. Eight days later, one man makes it through. The whole army is slaughtered, captured, or lost in the mountains. It is the greatest loss in British imperial history till the fall of Singapore in 1942.

Were the Afghans united?
British official Alexander Burns seduces the mistress of Abdullah Khan Achakzai, a young leader. Achakzai cuts Burns to pieces. Soon after, men from all tribes arrive in Kabul and the Afghan resistance swells to 20,000. The British think it is a united Afghan opposition but it is a diverse set, who rally against them for various reasons. We get people like Achakzai and others like Amanullah Khan whose lands were taken away by the British. The brothers, Mir Masjidi and Mir Haji, who are Tajik Pirs from Kohistan had been promised money by the British, which they didn't pay. They are a range of groups fighting for different reasons, but there is a strong feeling that they are all Muslims and the British kafirs have crossed a red line.

Why were the British slaughtered if they were granted safe passage?
The British narrative is that these were treacherous Muslims who reneged the promise, but the reality is that the promise of safe passage was made by Kabul elites and not by the Gilzai tribesmen in the passes. It is, in fact, the bitter winter that kills most makes them unable to fight, while the Afghans know how to survive the winter. The Indian troops from Bengal and Bihar have no idea how to save themselves and get frostbite.

Who was that one man who survived?
Dr. William Brydon on his pony makes it to Jalalabad. He survives because he has a copy of the Blackwood's magazine, the New Yorker of its time, rolled up inside his cap. It is a hardback book and when an Afghan fighter strikes him, the book saves him. In the weeks following, a few Gorkhas who have survived arrive as well.

What happens after that?
The British send an army led by a ruthless General George Pollack, which lays waste to Afghanistan. They cut down every tree, rape women, kill children. And leave behind a smouldering mess. And this lesson of history is never learnt.

What did it remind you of?
The war today is fought with the same actors, and the same demarcations of territory. In Kandahar, there is a valley called the Argandab with a Sufi shrine called Baba Wali at the crest of a hill, where Mullah Omar had a bungalow and where bin Laden lived. It was the edge of the British territory then and is the edge of ISAF territory now. One day, I was looking down this hill and saw an American patrol crossing a bridge, an IED going off and plumes of smoke rising up. In 1842, it was on the same bridge that the British were attacked. The parallels are so close and there is not a happy ending to this story. The British would be out of there by the end of the year and the Americans the next year.

Basharat Peer is the author of Curfewed Night