Afghanistan: the great game of thrones

Historian William Dalrymple's new book charts the disastrous British attempt to set up a puppet king in Afghanistan in 1839, writes Manreet Sodhi Someshwar

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 February, 2013, 4:29pm

Return of a King
by William Dalrymple 

Britain had conquered most of India by 1939, but its empire was stalled at Punjab by the powerful Sikh king Ranjeet Singh. Russia, the other big empire of the time, was moving south through Central Asia.

What stood between these two empires was the fractious, mountainous region of Afghanistan, for centuries the gateway to Hindustan for invaders. But what if Russia decided to follow in the hooves of those conquerors? Eager to secure its prized treasure of India, Britain decided to pre-empt the Russians by invading Afghanistan.

Thus began the Great Game, a term coined by Sir Henry Creswick Rawlinson, an Englishman who first sighted Cossacks in the disputed borderlands between Persia (today's Iran) and Afghanistan in 1837 and alerted his superiors. "As so often in international affairs, hawkish paranoia about distant threats can create the very monster that is most feared," writes William Dalrymple in Return of a King, a chronicle of the first Anglo-Afghan war from the spring of 1839 when the invasion began to the autumn of 1842 when the Union flag was lowered.

The deposed Afghan king, Shah Shuja, had earlier sought British protection and had been living in Ludhiana, Punjab. The British decided to reinstate him on the throne and manage the country through this puppet. There was a second opinion to back the incumbent ruler and gain Afghanistan without bloodshed. However, the administration was rife with internal politics and nepotism, which resulted in twin policy tracks that were hostile to one another. The shah's backers won eventually and amassed an "army of the Indus" to defeat the incumbent ruler, Dost Mohammed Khan. It was made up of 58,000 men and 30,000 camels, and with Ranjeet Singh's assistance, was able to take Kabul and install the shah.

Still, the British were loath to let Shah Shuja make decisions and this led to him being viewed by his people as a puppet. They worsened matters by having increasingly public liaisons with Afghan women, some of whom were married. The British were strangely sanguine: to fight the Opium war in China, they recalled a large contingent from Kabul, and reduced handouts to rebel groups who guarded their supply routes.

The volatile situation was further compounded when they interfered in the mullahs' administration of justice. "All this came to a head in July 1840 when, at the instigation of Mir Haji, the ulema [Muslim scholars] began to omit proclaiming the name of Shah Shuja at Friday prayers, on the grounds that the real rulers were the kafirs," Dalrymple writes. Afghanistan was ripe for jihad and the Afghans rose in revolution.

One of the original motives for the first Anglo-Afghan war was promoting commerce between India and Afghanistan. That initiative and the war ended with the British burning down the great Char Chatta covered bazaar, that visible symbol of bustling trade in Kabul. Originally built during the reign of Shah Jahan and renowned as a superb example of Mughal architecture, it was one of the greatest buildings in Central Asia.

Carried out to avenge the killing of English official Sir William Hay MacNaghten, whose body was displayed on a butcher's hook at the bazaar, the savage destruction was chronicled by Mirza Ata, a historian, as another sign of British duplicity. Dalrymple quotes an Afghan proverb that sums up the popular Afghan sentiment towards the manner in which the English conducted themselves: "When you're not strong enough to punish the camel, then go and beat the basket carried by the donkey."

In Return of a King, the eighth book from the best-selling and award-winning writer, Dalrymple asks why the English strayed so far from their original intent.

In India, where Dalrymple has been based since the mid-1990s, the author is immensely popular but also draws his share of criticism. Sunil Khilnani, author of The Idea of India, has mockingly credited him with creating the genre of "Bollywood history". Historian Ramachandra Guha has said his "knowledge of this country is so superficial".

However, Return of a King is based on rigorous scholarship. Dalrymple accessed a wide range of newly discovered material in Russian, Urdu and Persian from archives in South Asia, and delved into nine previously untranslated contemporary Afghan accounts, including the autobiography of Shah Shuja. Packed with colourful characters, his book is an engaging narrative about political ambition, cultural collisions and imperial hubris.

Mark Twain said history doesn't repeat itself, it rhymes. In the case of Afghanistan, it clangs. Dalrymple picks startling similarities between the situation in Afghanistan in 1840 and the present.

First, the political geography of Afghanistan continues to impact the way invasions evolve within the country. "The significance of Kabul's location is one issue - adjacent to both the Tajik population of Kohistan, on one side, and the eastern Ghilzais on the other."

Another striking parallel is the continuing impact of internecine tribal warfare. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is from the Popalzai tribe and lacks a real power base; Shah Shuja was from the same sub-caste as Karzai and viewed as a British puppet.

At the end of Kim, Rudyard Kipling's novel about the Great Game, his eponymous hero says: "When everyone is dead, the Great Game is finished. Not before." When the British withdrew from Kabul after two years of occupation, it was in the middle of a frozen winter. Of the 700 British soldiers and 3,800 Indian sepoys, only one survivor made it to the British garrison town of Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan. This half-dead man, Dr William Brydon, was immortalised in a painting titled The Remnants of War.

So the first Anglo-Afghan war ended with Britain's greatest military humiliation: an imperial army routed by ill-equipped tribesmen. "The only man who gained from the war was the very man whom the war was designed to depose. In 1843, after staying as the guest of the Sikh Khalsa in Lahore, Dost Mohammed rode to Peshawar," Dalrymple writes.

It was no accident that the first war for Indian independence, commonly referred to as the Revolt of 1857, came after the fiasco that was the first Afghan war. The sepoys who marched into the frozen Khyber hills, whose bodies were strewn in the Bolan and Khyber passes, fuelled the legends the Persian presses printed in Uttar Pradesh, home state of the sepoys and the catalyst of the mutiny.

When the British first marched into Afghanistan, a tribal chieftain rode up to them. "You have brought an army into the country. But how do you propose to take it out again?" It is a question every invading army - the British, the Russians and now Nato - has been at a loss to answer.