William Dalrymple book launch: Return of a King

A British-Indian force attacks Ghazni fort during the First Afghan War in 1839 (Wikipedia)

When NATO forces leave Afghanistan next year, India, Pakistan and even China could make it a theatre for their own proxy wars and interests, bestselling historian William Dalrymple told a London audience, based on researches for his most recent book.

Mr Dalrymple told a packed auditorium of more than 100 people on 26 June that after the Americans leave, Afghanistan with its pro-India President could become an Indo-Pak proxy theatre, with India having development interests and previously arming the Northern Alliance, and Pakistan supporting the Taliban.

“It’s the biggest question for 2014,” he said after discussing Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan and Britain’s catastrophic 19th-century invasion of and retreat from the country and subsequent negotiations with the previous ruler, “when I gave this talk to the White House a month ago, they wanted to know ‘how do you negotiate with them, how can you be sure they will keep their promises?’”

He added that he told his senior US listeners of the effects on the Pakistani populace of drone attacks, as until recently a largely unregulated assassination policy targeted against any large group carrying weapons — which people in the region often did — and that a wedding party of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s extended family had been bombed earlier this year.

The award-winning author of White Mughals and In Xanadu drew several parallels between the modern-day invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the British occupation of the latter in 1839, notably that the ‘dodgy dossier’ of the day — skewed intelligence used as a basis for war — was an accidental sighting of a Cossack cavalry cohort on an unofficial preparatory diplomatic expedition. This whipped into frenzy contemporary hawks, convinced that Russia was an imminent threat to British India, and led to invasion.

“There is a rule in geopolitics that you can create the monster with your own fear,” Mr Dalrymple said, drawing a comparison with the US invasion of Iraq attracting al-Qaeda extremists to the country in great numbers, where they had not been previously.

He told of an enormous caravan of 21,000 troops and 38,000 camp followers — with 3,000 camels bearing the regimental wine cellar — setting off from British India and arriving in Kabul after only a small number of combat fatalities, installing their own candidate Shah Shuja, while existing ruler Dost Mohammad surrendered.

Mission accomplished, the British set up camp in a worryingly exposed area outside the capital, where Mr Dalrymple pointed out that NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the US Embassy are currently based.

He said that, as with the aftermath of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, another conflict drained resources from the occupation – Hong Kong in 1839, Iraq in 2003 – and with terrible consequences. With diminished troops, and little to tax in Afghanistan despite the region’s historical silk route caravan trade, British payoffs to Gilzai tribesmen for keeping open the borders stopped, meaning no communications or supplies could get through. Training an Afghan national army was paid for by taking estates off the Afghan nobility, alienating them.

“The point of empire-building is not to lose vast amounts of money, generating no revenue — Iraq has oil reserves, or you could tax the wealthy farmers of the Punjab. Of course, we now know that there are mineral reserves in Afghanistan,” Mr Dalrymple said.

Worse, British men began consorting with Afghan women.  The trigger came when renowned intelligence agent Sir Alexander Burnes was killed, partly due to a particularly vexatious amorous encounter [since disputed by a more recent biography of the celebrated spy.] Those responsible vanished into a crowd, which became a mob, which became in a few months a full-blown insurgency, outnumbering the British ten to one.

Decimated by Gilzai snipers in the passes, cut off from supplies, and facing nightly temperatures of up to minus 30 degrees, the retreat from Kabul went down as one of Britain’s greatest imperial disasters. Of thousands that set off, barely a handful made it out, the rest dead, captured, abandoned to die in the snow, or sold into slavery in Central Asia.

The British would return with a scorched earth policy, burning down half of Kabul, before, as with US talks with the Taliban today, negotiating former ruler Dost Mohammad’s return to Afghanistan.

Mr Dalrymple said: “Every Afghan knows this history. I think Karzai is a much more remarkable character than he is given credit for, when you hear how he attacks America, it’s because it’s popular with the Afghans, so it’s an impossible game he has to play.”

While tracing the route of the retreat, Mr Dalrymple found himself at a conference of elders, hearing one say ‘we are the roof of the world, here you can see everything, but we don’t have the strength to control our own destiny’ and ‘these are the last days of the Americans. Next it will be China.’

The book is the first to make use of contemporary Afghan sources, including the previously untranslated memoirs of Shah Shuja, letters, and two epics composed at the time, shedding new light on this notorious episode in history.

The event was hosted by the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, which was founded in 1901 and is a charity promoting greater knowledge and understanding of Central Asia and countries from the Middle East to Japan. The society hosts lectures and encourages debate on a wide variety of topics, from literature and the arts, exploration and the environment, to cultural, military and political history and current affairs.

First published in The Times of Central Asia, 28 June, 2013

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About James Willsher

Newspaper and magazine reporter since 2004, has freelanced in Russia and Central Asia, and does local government PR. Likes green tea and interviewing people / places. Phil Garrett was a pen name. @JGWillsher jamesgwillsher@hotmail.co.uk
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