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In the spring of 1839 British forces invaded Afghanistan for the first time, re-establishing Shah Shuja on the throne, in reality as their puppet, and ushering in a period of conflict over the territory still unresolved today. In 1842, the Afghan people rose in answer to the call for jihad against the foreign occupiers, and the country exploded into violent rebellion. In w In the spring of 1839 British forces invaded Afghanistan for the first time, re-establishing Shah Shuja on the throne, in reality as their puppet, and ushering in a period of conflict over the territory still unresolved today. In 1842, the Afghan people rose in answer to the call for jihad against the foreign occupiers, and the country exploded into violent rebellion. In what is arguably the greatest military humiliation ever suffered by the West in the East, more than eighteen thousand cold and hungry British troops, Indian sepoys and camp followers retreated through the icy mountain passes, and of the last survivors who made their final stand at the village of Gandamak, only one man, Dr Brydon, made it through to the British garrison at Jellalabad. An entire army of what was then the most powerful military nation in the world was utterly routed by poorly equipped tribesmen. The West's first disastrous entanglement in Afghanistan has clear and relevant parallels with the current deepening crisis today, with extraordinary similarities between what NATO faces in cities like Kabul and Kandahar, and that faced by the British in the very same cities, fighting the very same tribes, nearly two centuries ago. History at its most urgent, The Return of a King is the definitive analysis of the first Afghan war. With access to a whole range of previously undiscovered sources, including crucial new material in Russian, Urdu and Persian, and contemporary Afghan accounts including the autobiography of Shah Shuja himself, prize-winning and bestselling historian William Dalrymple's masterful retelling of Britain's greatest imperial disaster is a powerful and important parable of neo-colonial ambition and cultural collision, folly and hubris, for our times.


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In the spring of 1839 British forces invaded Afghanistan for the first time, re-establishing Shah Shuja on the throne, in reality as their puppet, and ushering in a period of conflict over the territory still unresolved today. In 1842, the Afghan people rose in answer to the call for jihad against the foreign occupiers, and the country exploded into violent rebellion. In w In the spring of 1839 British forces invaded Afghanistan for the first time, re-establishing Shah Shuja on the throne, in reality as their puppet, and ushering in a period of conflict over the territory still unresolved today. In 1842, the Afghan people rose in answer to the call for jihad against the foreign occupiers, and the country exploded into violent rebellion. In what is arguably the greatest military humiliation ever suffered by the West in the East, more than eighteen thousand cold and hungry British troops, Indian sepoys and camp followers retreated through the icy mountain passes, and of the last survivors who made their final stand at the village of Gandamak, only one man, Dr Brydon, made it through to the British garrison at Jellalabad. An entire army of what was then the most powerful military nation in the world was utterly routed by poorly equipped tribesmen. The West's first disastrous entanglement in Afghanistan has clear and relevant parallels with the current deepening crisis today, with extraordinary similarities between what NATO faces in cities like Kabul and Kandahar, and that faced by the British in the very same cities, fighting the very same tribes, nearly two centuries ago. History at its most urgent, The Return of a King is the definitive analysis of the first Afghan war. With access to a whole range of previously undiscovered sources, including crucial new material in Russian, Urdu and Persian, and contemporary Afghan accounts including the autobiography of Shah Shuja himself, prize-winning and bestselling historian William Dalrymple's masterful retelling of Britain's greatest imperial disaster is a powerful and important parable of neo-colonial ambition and cultural collision, folly and hubris, for our times.

30 review for Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan

  1. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    “When everyone is dead, the Great Game is finished. Not before.” - Rudyard Kipling, Kim “Only eighty survivors from the [British] column managed to make it alive over the Jagdalak holly-oak barrier…Most of these – some twenty officers and forty-five privates of Shelton’s 44th Foot, and a couple of artillerymen and sepoys – were exposed and surrounded at dawn as they stood, uncertain of the correct road, at the top of the hill of Grandamak…Overwhelmingly outnumbered…and with only twenty muskets an “When everyone is dead, the Great Game is finished. Not before.” - Rudyard Kipling, Kim “Only eighty survivors from the [British] column managed to make it alive over the Jagdalak holly-oak barrier…Most of these – some twenty officers and forty-five privates of Shelton’s 44th Foot, and a couple of artillerymen and sepoys – were exposed and surrounded at dawn as they stood, uncertain of the correct road, at the top of the hill of Grandamak…Overwhelmingly outnumbered…and with only twenty muskets and two rounds of ammunition each between them, the troops decided to make their last stand. They were offered quarter but refused. Many felt their regiment had been disgraced after running away…on the evening of 23 November, and now they were determined to die fighting and so redeem regimental honor. They formed a square, and defended themselves, ‘driving the Afghans several times down the hill’ until they had exhausted the last of their rounds, and then fought on with their bayonets. Then, one by one, they were slaughtered…” - William Dalrymple, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42 The list of British imperial disasters is as long as my kids’ letters to Santa. As an American, I am of course fond of Yorktown, where General Charles Cornwallis found himself trapped between George Washington and the French, leading to an eventual surrender that convinced Great Britain that it was wiser – and cheaper – to let the thirteen American colonies go. But that is only one example in a veritable roll call of mistakes, shortsightedness, and hubris leading to calamity. In 1879, in South Africa, Colonel Henry Pulleine and the 1st/24th Foot were crushed between the converging horns of Cetshwayo’s Zulu impi. Some thirteen hundred British troops were killed, and the first invasion of Zululand turned back. In 1885, in Egypt, Charles Gordon refused to abandon Khartoum. After a protracted siege, Mahdist forces sacked the city and destroyed the garrison. Gordon was killed. In 1942, Singapore, the Gibraltar of the East, surrendered to the Japanese after a weeklong siege. This loss, at least according to Churchill, topped all. In Return of a King, however, William Dalrymple offers a different candidate for the title of supreme folly of the British Empire: the 1839 invasion of Afghanistan, and the subsequent retreat through the dark defiles of the Hindu Kush. The so-called First Anglo-Afghan War is a bit of an obscure subject that had a mini-renaissance following the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. At the time, warnings abounded about the “Graveyard of Empires,” positing that any military intervention was doomed by harsh terrain and byzantine tribal politics. While Dalrymple – who published this in 2013 – certainly has a few things to say about America’s failure to tame Afghanistan, he does so mainly by way of a few parting remarks in his Author’s Note. Rather than draw comparisons or enumerate mistakes, Dalrymple is mainly content to deliver an extremely readable popular history of a relatively complex saga. This is first and foremost a narrative, with a keen eye for its varied cast of characters. The “king” of the title is Shah Shuja of the Sadozai tribe, who seized power in Kabul in 1803. His rule lasted some six years, before the Barakzais – along with Shuja’s half-brother – defeated him, forcing him into exile. The British East India Company offered him asylum, and Shuja used that space to launch several failed attempts to regain his throne. Following Shuja’s exit, a man named Dost Mohammad Khan rose to power in Afghanistan, ultimately naming himself an Amir and declaring jihad against the Sikhs. Meanwhile, Great Britain’s interest was in guarding India, the crown jewel of its empire. When Russia began sniffing around Afghanistan, the Company began to worry that the Tsar was trying to encroach on their borders. The Great Game was afoot, and the first question the Company had to answer was who to back in Afghanistan. A brilliant young Scotsman named Alexander Burnes backed Dost Mohammad, and worked hard to build a relationship with him. His efforts, though, were undercut by super-bureaucrat William Hay Macnaghten, who filled the ear of Governor-General Lord Auckland with poisonous remarks about Dost Mohammad. Macnaghten preferred Shuja. In the end, relying on casus belli that actually disappeared before things could get started, the Company invaded Afghanistan to install its willing puppet Shuja on the throne. All things considered, the invasion started well. But that changed in a hurry. As Dalrymple explains, calamity did not spring from any one thing. Part of the problem was cultural, with a large number of Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs taking up residence in a majority-Muslim land. There were numerous insults, both real and perceived, many of them regarding the treatment of Muslim women. Part of it was economic, as the invasion drained the coffers of the Company (whose existence as a quasi-state organization needed a better explanation), leading to the decrease of subsidies to the Ghilzai, who controlled some of the most important mountain passes (and who would otherwise plunder supply caravans rolling through their territory). Finally, the situation deteriorated through no small measure of British conceit and blundering. Macnaghten habitually lied to his superiors; the gout-ridden General William Elphinstone, the Commander-in-Chief in Kabul, was both physically and mentally unfit to lead (the poorly-devised British cantonment was surrounded by high-ground and – for some reason – left the supplies outside the garrison); and Burnes allowed himself to become the target of vitriol by his ceaseless pursuit of Afghani women. The result was murder, mayhem, and an ill-fated escape through the mountains in winter. A force of around sixteen-thousand men, women, and children left Kabul for Jalalabad under false promises of safety. (The women and children were camp followers; they were – by far – the majority of the column). Once in the passes, they died by the score, ambushed by an ad hoc coalition of Afghani forces led by Dost Mohammad’s son, Mohammad Akbar Khan (one of the more fascinating personages among a selection of fascinating personages). Those who did not fall to the long-barreled jezail, or to the blade of sword and knife, often died of frostbite or hunger. Only one Englishman, a doctor, made it alive to Jalalabad, thus giving rise to the legend of the lone survivor. In truth, there were dozens of European hostages – including the indomitable Lady Sale, who kept an invaluable diary – who eventually returned home, along with about two-thousand Indian troops (many Indian soldiers were reduced to begging in Kabul; others were sold into slavery). The culminating event of this debacle was the last stand of the 44th Foot at Grandamak where, to quote Kipling, it did not take long for “[t]wo thousand pounds of education” to drop “to a ten-rupee jezail.” Dalrymple covers this all with an amazing facility for keeping things straight. Though he is an expert, he writes for the layperson (this is only the second book on the First Anglo Afghan War I’ve read, and I never got lost). He is not a prose stylist, but his descriptions of the geography – aided by his own visits to the area – are pretty marvelous. He also does a good job weaving the first-person accounts into his own writing. The most impressive thing about Return of a King, however, is the research. It is immense and – as Dalrymple explains in his acknowledgments – undertaken at no little risk to himself. He unearthed a lot in the archives, and was aided by a lucky find of Afghani sources at a Kabul bookstore. Dalrymple’s use of these primary documents – including an epic poem – adds an incredible roundedness to the tale. This is not simply about the plight of the hapless British column, but about the Afghans defending their territory. To that end, Return of a King has a melancholic coda. While Great Britain was embarrassed (with those in service to Great Britain losing much more), she did not crumble and dissolve in the Hindu Kush. Shortly after the retreat, the unsubtly-named Army of Retribution returned, killing people and laying waste to villages in a fashion that would be remembered forever. The Empire itself would keep churning on for another century or so. Similarly, as the world focuses on other things (this was written during the Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020), America seems to be preparing for a quiet pullout, ending a decades-long involvement that has cost untold lives and uncountable dollars. As with Great Britain – and belying Afghanistan’s moniker – America will not be buried there. Her future, cloudy as it is, will not be decided by an inevitable decision to leave. Afghanistan itself, on the other hand, will continue to suffer from the same realities that make her impervious to foreign armies: harsh terrain; ageless loyalties and enmities; and competing religious traditions. In the end, sadly, it seems the only thing that can unite Afghanistan is the arrival of a would-be occupier.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Joshua Rigsby

    I know so little about life in central Asia, its history, culture, language, or anything else. Dalrymple's book was revelatory in many ways. I had no idea that British interests in the region were inspired by a desire to counter Russian activities, and ultimately protect the British money-making colonies in India. The characters Dalrymple paints are fascinating: from the Russian and British agents tasked with bending the ears of kings and tribal rulers, to the Afghan nobility themselves. There i I know so little about life in central Asia, its history, culture, language, or anything else. Dalrymple's book was revelatory in many ways. I had no idea that British interests in the region were inspired by a desire to counter Russian activities, and ultimately protect the British money-making colonies in India. The characters Dalrymple paints are fascinating: from the Russian and British agents tasked with bending the ears of kings and tribal rulers, to the Afghan nobility themselves. There is all the making of a great historical novel here, blood feuds, ancient jewels, political intrigue, and wholesale slaughter. I didn't know about the horrendous defeats the British endured, such that—Job-like—only one man out of an army of thousands was able to return home to tell the tale. Or that, in order to avenge their honor, the British marched new armies in, raped and pillaged, then left again, simply to make a point. Dalrymple gets particular credit for diving deeply into Afghan sources to either corroborate or contradict the received British version of events. The translations of poetically-rendered news clips were gorgeous, intoxicating, and so much more descriptive than their English counterparts. It really did make the experience quite rich. If you have even a passing interest in Afghanistan, whose history as the graveyard of empires feels more quickly cyclical than most, you must read this book.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Geevee

    This was a fine and critical account of the British and their advance and painful and bloody exit in Afghanistan. The author, who lives in India and has a clear liking for the region and peoples, provides good background to the main story. The build up with Britain and Russia sparring around each other over geo-political influence and extending power & favour to countries such as Persia is well told. This - the beginning of the "Great Game* - is interesting as we come across characters and event This was a fine and critical account of the British and their advance and painful and bloody exit in Afghanistan. The author, who lives in India and has a clear liking for the region and peoples, provides good background to the main story. The build up with Britain and Russia sparring around each other over geo-political influence and extending power & favour to countries such as Persia is well told. This - the beginning of the "Great Game* - is interesting as we come across characters and events that influence and appear during the story. A Central to the story however is Shah Shuja. A rather ineffective and not especially powerful leader who the British see as the key to assisting in making Afghanistan their new jewel in the crown. Shuja would be installed as a puppet and bingo job done. Mr Dalrymple provides more excellent background for the reader to get to "know" Shuja, his and his family's history, and his journey to exile in India. From here the story - intertwining with the geo-politics and regional power struggle which shapes actions and pace - develops to the British entry into Afghanistan. Success at first is then slowly and steadily eroded by errors in judgement, policy, cultural and tribal misunderstanding and misunderstandings and simple pig-headedness and misplaced superiority. The Afghans rise and starvation, illness and fighting lead to deaths on both sides. Eventually with the British hemmed in and eventually losing control in Kabul. they leave and retreat through the inhospitable and dangerous high mountain passes back to India. As the Afghan tribes under Dost Mohammed press and attack the British and Indian troops they experience their worst military disaster of the whole 19th century. Bitter cold weather couples with bitter, no quarter fighting leaves to thousands of casualties in both troops and camp followers (read wives, children, servants and others who provide services to a 1840s military column). The British regroup recognising that Afghanistan has bled its East India Company army and treasury almost dry. Re-entry beckons and an army descending in Afghanistan from two points is created and then sent into action. "Liberation" of British units surviving in some parts takes place. The circumstances are bleak for all as death and scorched earth leads to the British clearing out of the country with the aim of bringing home the remaining whites, India soldiers and servants and camp followers. They succeed; but this is not victory, it is withdrawal by killing, destroying and leaving Afghan tribes and people who had allied to the British to be left to sink or swim - mainly sink. This is an unhappy period in British history. It is not a success nor does it leave any good reputation behind - so much so that the British officers and leaders of Kabul are still known and despised. This view is not wholly accurate as the Afghan tribes themselves didn't cover themselves in glory. Had Russia taken Britain's place first or after I have no doubt they would have befallen the same outcome, and would have reacted the same. This is how wars were fought in 1840; no Geneva convention, no war crimes and no quarter from either side. Mr Dalrymple is certainly fair and has no rose tinted glasses on Britain's conduct and the way it went about Afghanistan. He is detailed, but writes with such fluidity and colour. The other real quality is the use of much contemporary information; not just British and Russian but India, Persian and also Afghan. Much of this Mr Dalrymple located himself. He also travelled the country during time of war (so during NATO's operations) and lives in the region. All in all as the British found two more times, the USSR in 1980 and ISAF/NATO from 2001 to 2014 also learned to their cost, the people, the country and the history make it impossible to bring the country and inhabitants to "heel". History repeats itself; perhaps; but failing to learn from history means repeating the mistakes of the British Indian Governor General Lord Auckland who sent his men to disgrace, destruction and death in 1842. * For readers who want to read more about this fascinating and influential period in Indo/Afghan/European history I highly recommend The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia by Peter Hopkirk.

  4. 5 out of 5

    W

    This is the story of one of Britain's greatest military defeats,the First Anglo-Afghan War of the nineteenth century. Afghanistan has never been an easy place for foreign invaders to occupy or govern as one invader after another has discovered.It has aptly been called,"the graveyard of empires". The invading British force,also comprising a large Indian contingent,suffered a staggering number of casualties,and had to retreat. The "Great Game" for control of Central Asia,was on between Britain and This is the story of one of Britain's greatest military defeats,the First Anglo-Afghan War of the nineteenth century. Afghanistan has never been an easy place for foreign invaders to occupy or govern as one invader after another has discovered.It has aptly been called,"the graveyard of empires". The invading British force,also comprising a large Indian contingent,suffered a staggering number of casualties,and had to retreat. The "Great Game" for control of Central Asia,was on between Britain and Russia,at the time. Britain wanted its man,Shah Shuja,back in power in Afghanistan. When the first British force was massacred,an "army of retribution" was sent to settle the score. It took its savage revenge,and returned swiftly. Britain would not gain a foothold,in Afghanistan. Dalrymple's account is livelier than another well known book on the subject,Peter Hopkirk's,The Great Game. The reader meets some memorable characters,most notably,Sir Alexander Burns.He was the among the first spies to travel to Central Asia,and was a key figure in The Great Game. His luck was to run out,as he stayed on,in Afghanistan.His fate is described in chilling detail,by Dalrymple. There are striking parallels to the Soviet and US invasions of Afghanistan,when both superpowers found themselves mired in endless conflict,and couldn't win.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Abubakar Mehdi

    This is a fine, fine book. Dalrymple understands the tribal and cultural intricacies that elude most western historian writing about Afghanistan or the sub-continent. The story is a rather simple one, The British, obsessed with the idea of expanding their imperial control to the whole of world, invaded Afghanistan to reinstall a puppet regime. It didn’t end well. The story begins with the power struggle between two powerful tribes. The Sadozais, the descendants of Ahmed Shah Abdali, the ruler and This is a fine, fine book. Dalrymple understands the tribal and cultural intricacies that elude most western historian writing about Afghanistan or the sub-continent. The story is a rather simple one, The British, obsessed with the idea of expanding their imperial control to the whole of world, invaded Afghanistan to reinstall a puppet regime. It didn’t end well. The story begins with the power struggle between two powerful tribes. The Sadozais, the descendants of Ahmed Shah Abdali, the ruler and conqueror of a vast Afghan empire. And their Wazir, ministers and second in commands, the Barakzais. After a long struggle Dost Muhammad Barakzai defeated and chased Shah Shuja (Grandson of Ahmed Shah), the Sadozai King out of Afghanistan. Shah Shuja, after a painful stay with Ranjeet Singh (Ruler of Punjab), left for Ludhiana where he lived under British protection. The skepticism and Russo phobia of some, led to a common perception among the British that Russians were trying to woo Dost Muhammad, and Afghanistan was to become a “Russia House” if The British didn’t take immediate action. Afghanistan was strategically important for the British to stabilize and expand their control and trade in Asia. So a plan was made, defying the intelligence reports suggesting otherwise, to invade Afghanistan and install a puppet Shah Shuja as the king, and take indirect control of Afghanistan. The Shah was then reinstalled without much opposition and with relative ease with the help of a strong British army of 20,000. But things started to get sour, The ever sensitive Afghans dislike the foreign invaders and a few most indecent encounters made them abhor their British invaders all the more so. The tribes started converging under Dost Muhammad’s son Akbar khan, who then used the narrative of “Jihad against the Infidels”, the ever useful tactic, and started a rebellion. The indecisiveness of the leadership led to widespread massacre of British forces. Men, women and children were butchered and maimed by the Afghan fighters, and only a handful of a 20,000 strong army, reached to the safety of British controlled area. A disaster without precedent and a humiliating defeat to the most powerful nation at the time. The British after brief stay, sent an “Army of Retribution”, to burn and pillage the whole country. This was a successful mission. Once again women were raped and children were butchered, this time by merciless company soldiers. And the irony of ironies is that the deceased Shah Shuja was then replaced by Dost Muhammad, the one whose regime was attacked earlier in the first place to install Shuja. Amid acts of terror and horrendous atrocities, there are instances where beauty and compassion can be seen; Lady Sale, Mackenzie, Lawrence and others who bravely endured all that befell them with sheer bravery. A beautiful narrative makes it an easy read, the scenery is described with aptness of a travelogue and the character studies are fascinating. A must read for anyone who wants to know why war is the greatest of all evils.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Ranjeev Dubey

    Between a timeless subject, a world recounted in the raw, a skilled historian and a brilliant writer, what can you get but a book you can't put down...all 2000 grams of it! I don't do 600 page hardbacks for the love of my aging wrists, and I don't do 600 page hardbacks when I've already read three previous versions of the same story (Peter Hopkirk's "The Great Game" and "On Secret Service", James Perry's "Arrogant Armies" and of course, J.A.Norris's "The First Afgan War" to say nothing about TV Between a timeless subject, a world recounted in the raw, a skilled historian and a brilliant writer, what can you get but a book you can't put down...all 2000 grams of it! I don't do 600 page hardbacks for the love of my aging wrists, and I don't do 600 page hardbacks when I've already read three previous versions of the same story (Peter Hopkirk's "The Great Game" and "On Secret Service", James Perry's "Arrogant Armies" and of course, J.A.Norris's "The First Afgan War" to say nothing about TV serials like "Far Pavillions"). But when William Dalrymple researches his subject on both sides of the conflict (again...as he did for the 1857 Indian Mutiny), what can you do but wear your tennis wrist straps and hit the quilt, coffee and tome in midwinter. I was not disappointed. This is a gripping account written in a gripping way by a man who has a grip on both his subject and its context. The contextualization of the conflict is superb, the universalization of the learning is deeply insightful. And so I say, suffer the substantial size of this masonry sized book and savor both the substance of the history and the sensation of a master at work. Just do it.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Petra-X

    Interesting background to the present situation. It's the same tribes still fighting the same enemies. It was a good history but only an average read. 3.5 stars.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Cbj

    My first book by William Dalrymple, who is a noted historian and mainstay of the Indian literary scene. Napoleon wanted to steal India from the British by marching through Afghanistan (along with Russian troops) in the first half of the 19th century. The British sent an embassy to the Afghans. They decided to place their puppet ruler Shah Shuja in Afghanistan after invading it. But a dispute over an Afghan woman (who was a harem girl of a powerful Afghan warlord) who was seduced by a British off My first book by William Dalrymple, who is a noted historian and mainstay of the Indian literary scene. Napoleon wanted to steal India from the British by marching through Afghanistan (along with Russian troops) in the first half of the 19th century. The British sent an embassy to the Afghans. They decided to place their puppet ruler Shah Shuja in Afghanistan after invading it. But a dispute over an Afghan woman (who was a harem girl of a powerful Afghan warlord) who was seduced by a British officer turned the Afghans against the British. There are other reasons too but mainly the Afghans hated the British officers seducing their women. The Afghans proceed to brutally rout a retreating British army which sent shock waves across the British empire. Before all this, the Afghans were in the habit of invading India once every year for their annual income. I guess a lot of what is happening today in the sub-continent started in the 19th century itself and continues to this day. Ahmed Shah Abdali (who is sort of like the founder of Afghanistan) and other Afghan kings used to raid India atleast once every year. This was how they earned their annual income. Abdali even tried to form an alliance with Tipu Sultan of Mysore to challenge British hegemony in India. Even the Mughals paid massive annual subsidies amounting to Rs.600,000 to these badass Afghan tribes to keep them at bay. Here is a bit from the book about this: "The British later learned to follow the Mughal model. According to a piece of imperial doggerel it became British policy to thrash the Sindhis, make friends with the Baluch, but pay the Pathans". Another interesting bit which shows that not much has changed in the subcontinent: "The Shikarpuri Sindhi money-lending community had long specialised in financing wars and dealing in arms, and the tradition continues to this day; the most notable Shikarpuris in this business today are the Hinduja Brothers, who, among many other such deals, were allegedly involved in the controversial sale of the Bofors guns to Rajiv Gandhi's government in the 1980's." And the Sikhs were total badasses. I mean these guys built a Sikh kingdom right under the Afghan's noses in Peshawar. But the Afghans declared a holy war (Jihad) on the Sikhs. And they also put pressure on the British to make the Sikhs give Peshawar back to them. Dalrymple never takes sides but seems to be more sympathetic towards the ruthless Afghans. He is a thorough historian (he quotes from numerous sources to present events from different points of view). He has a simple and elegant writing style without any great literary flourishes. Basically, it is a very no nonsense history book that is entertaining, informative and connects events from the mid-19th century with what is happening in Afghanistan today. Let me end this rambling "review" with another interesting bit from the book - the British "Army of Retribution" (an army sent to take revenge on Afghanistan for the brutal murder of retreating British forces) removed the gates off a Mosque in Afghanistan because they thought it was the same gate that Mahmud of Ghazni had stolen from the Somnath Temple. The British brought the gate back to India and paraded it in front of the Hindus, trying to show what benevolent rulers they were. As if they had restored the pride of Hindustan. But none of the Hindus in front of whom the gate was paraded showed any emotion and they seemed to be unaware of the plunder of the Somnath Temple.

  9. 4 out of 5

    happy

    Using both British/Indian and Afghani sources the author has written a superb look at the fiasco that was the first British incursion into Afghanistan in 1839-42, known to history as the 1st Anglo-Afghani War. To explain why Britain decided to go into that country, the author starts his narrative with the first meetings of the British with the Afghani gov’t in the early 1800s and with that traces the beginnings of the “Great Game” and how it affected the decisions in Calcutta and London to “Inva Using both British/Indian and Afghani sources the author has written a superb look at the fiasco that was the first British incursion into Afghanistan in 1839-42, known to history as the 1st Anglo-Afghani War. To explain why Britain decided to go into that country, the author starts his narrative with the first meetings of the British with the Afghani gov’t in the early 1800s and with that traces the beginnings of the “Great Game” and how it affected the decisions in Calcutta and London to “Invade” that central Asian country. In presenting the British case for invading Afghanistan, Mr. Dalrymple looks at the British leadership in Calcutta at the time the decision was being made. In his opinion the Governor-General, Lord Auckland, was not the most dynamic of leaders. The author basically says, the Gov-Gen let his bureaucracy make the decisions for him and he just rubber stamped them. In telling of the Bureaucratic infighting, the story of the reports from British agents in Afghanistan itself either being rewritten or flatly ignored by those in favor of the invasion is a fascinating read and brings to mind stories of more recent Middle Easter forays by western powers. When the invasion actually happens, the author makes clear that it was never the intention of the British Gov’t or more importantly the British East India Company - BEIC (which was actually running British India at the time) to annex the country, but to put a more sympathetic ruler on the throne. The British conveniently had one. The previous ruler, Shah Shuja who had been overthrown some 20 yrs before, was under British/Rajput control. It was decided to put him back on his throne with the understanding he would be much more sympathetic to British interests and opposed to Russian ones. Once the invasion starts, the author makes the case that everything started quite well. The Shah was installed in Kabul with not much problem, the Afghani tribes were bribed (given subsidies) to accept him, and pretty much the whole country was brought into the BEIC’s sphere of influence. That said, almost from the very beginning hints of trouble could be sensed. One big one was romantic liaisons between occupying troops and native Afghan women. Soldiers being Soldiers made female friends and all that that entails. High ranking British officers and political operatives took Afghan women for wives and mistresses. This did not sit well with the extremely conservative Afghan tribal and religious leaders. Later as the occupation went on, the BEIC realized that the occupation was costing much more than they could afford and took steps to reduce expenditures. This included reducing the “Subsidies” being paid to the Tribes. This was basically the last straw for the tribes. In late 1841, they rose in rebellion, not so much against the Shah, but against the British occupation. Another problem for the British was their commander, MG Elphinstone. He was so afflicted with gout, he could barely ride, had not seen active service since Waterloo, some 25 yrs before and could/would not make a decision. Before telling the story of the rebellion, the author looks at other mistakes the British made. One of the main was is the siting of the Cantonment area in Kabul. It was overlooked by high hills within easy Jezail range of Afghani Tribesmen. In addition, the ammo supply for the garrison was in different location, with the food supply in still a different site. In spite of ample warning that things were going to get bad, nothing was done to rectify these problems. Also the Cantonment was simply too large to defend with the troops available. The rebellion started on 2 November 1841 and the British in Kabul managed to hold out for 2 months. On 1 Jan, a truce was negotiated and the British agreed to leave Kabul with all of the their dependants. Appox 4500 troops and 12000 dependents left Kabul for Jalabad. What happened next is nothing but a horror story. The truce did not hold and the British were massacred in the Passes. Only one person managed to reach Jalabad, Surgeon William Brydon on 13 January, 1842. The vast majority of the rest were slaughtered in the passes. They were either shot out of hand, if captured, stripped naked and throne out in the weather, and other tortures. Not all were killed, some of the English women were taken captive. After the disaster of the Retreat, the author tells the story of the British punitive expedition the next spring. The British came with vengeance in their mind and what they did was almost as bad as what had happen to them the previous winter. They basically burned and destroyed every town, field, city in their path and killing anyone who looked at them cross eyed (as my mom used to say) including Kabul. Then the British declared victory and went back to India. Finally Mr. Dalrymple concludes his narrative with a look at the current, as of 2013, NATO expedition/occupation and compares it with what happened some 170 yrs ago. To sum it up, the British made about every mistake possible and it resulted in what in modern military terms is a “Cluster F**k”. I found this an excellent read and very eye opening. I would rate it a 4.5 star read so I’ve rounded up

  10. 4 out of 5

    Kim

    Does this sound familiar? Afghanistan is invaded by the army of a superpower keen to reinforce its power and prestige within the region. An easy victory is achieved, a puppet ruler is installed and at first things seem to go relatively well. However, resistance to the occupation force grows over time. Serious and humiliating defeats are suffered and the occupier eventually withdraws. This could describe the past thirteen years of Afghan history following the invasion by coalition forces in 2001. Does this sound familiar? Afghanistan is invaded by the army of a superpower keen to reinforce its power and prestige within the region. An easy victory is achieved, a puppet ruler is installed and at first things seem to go relatively well. However, resistance to the occupation force grows over time. Serious and humiliating defeats are suffered and the occupier eventually withdraws. This could describe the past thirteen years of Afghan history following the invasion by coalition forces in 2001. It could describe the ten years after the Russian invasion in 1979. However, in this book, it describes the first Anglo-Afghan War and its aftermath in the period from 1839 to 1842, a period which both the Russians and the Americans and their allies would have done well to remember in the succeeding centuries. I've loved Dalrymple's writing since I read his first work, In Xanadu: A Quest. His research is always meticulous and his prose engaging. That's as true of this work as it is of the others I've read. One of the strongest features of the work is Dalrymple's use of Afghan sources not previously cited in histories of the conflict. He does so to great effect, making the Afghan leaders as real as their British adversaries. Perhaps the greatest weakness, from my perspective, is the relatively short section at the end in which Dalrymple describes his research in Aghanistan. The weakness is not in what Dalrymple writes, it's that the section is too short: I would have loved to read more about Dalrymple's observations on the current situation in Afghanistan and its links to what happened there in the past. I read this work in e-book format which has its disadvantages. While I'm reasonably familiar with the geography of Afghanistan, it would have been good to consult the maps which are at the front of the book and the photographs at the back (I presume that they're in the middle of the regular book) at will, something very difficult to do with a book in electronic format. However, this was still an extremely interesting read and one I enjoyed sharing with my friend Jemidar, even though she powered through it while I limped along behind. Hegel wrote: "The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history". If ever there was an illustration of this, it's Afghanistan. Dalrymple brings that illustration to life.

  11. 4 out of 5

    fourtriplezed

    This is the second Dalrymple book I have read in a short space of time. With that I now consider that he is a extraordinarily good writer. He has had the ability to enthral, enrage and leave me wanting for more with each read. With that I have grabbed a couple more of his tomes and will be looking forward to reading them. Return Of a King is riveting narrative history. In fact lets just say that in my opinion, narrative history that is as good as it gets. There is no need to tell the story here, This is the second Dalrymple book I have read in a short space of time. With that I now consider that he is a extraordinarily good writer. He has had the ability to enthral, enrage and leave me wanting for more with each read. With that I have grabbed a couple more of his tomes and will be looking forward to reading them. Return Of a King is riveting narrative history. In fact lets just say that in my opinion, narrative history that is as good as it gets. There is no need to tell the story here, as many have covered it on Goodreads. All I need to say is that the man tells the story of his extensive research in a way that will appeal to both the professional historian and the lay reader such as myself who has an interest in the Great Game. As to the story told he has used his footnotes from newly found sources brilliantly and has an extensive bibliography that could only leave any one who is looking to learn more on this subject salivating. Highly recommended.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Daren

    I have read a lot of Dalrymple's books - most before I reviewed on GR, and have enjoyed them. There is no risk of criticism of his research, as it is always thorough, and in depth. This is even more the case here, in this great tome of a book. Here Dalrymple presents a tale of such incompetency, ego and mismanagement that he really needed to be accurate to avoid any backlash. Auckland and Macnaghten in particular are shown to make decisions against advice, to the point where reports are simply la I have read a lot of Dalrymple's books - most before I reviewed on GR, and have enjoyed them. There is no risk of criticism of his research, as it is always thorough, and in depth. This is even more the case here, in this great tome of a book. Here Dalrymple presents a tale of such incompetency, ego and mismanagement that he really needed to be accurate to avoid any backlash. Auckland and Macnaghten in particular are shown to make decisions against advice, to the point where reports are simply labelled as 'exaggeration'. Alexander Burnes, who for the first half of the book seems maligned by Macnaghten and ignored by Auckland gains much sympathy, until the Afghan perspective show his fraternising with and corruption of Afghan women shows a negative side of him. Elphinstone was shown as a terrible appointment made by Auckland, as he was physically unfit for command, and as such was responsible for terrible military and humanitarian decisions (or lack thereof). On the Afghan side, Dalrymple shows a complex and ever changing group of leaders who make alliances as quickly as they break them, and who are no more trustworthy than the British. Shar Shuja was shown as incompetent in the first half of the book, but was the only leader on the British side to come through with any dignity in the war. Such a level of incompetence was shown by the occupying British in their absolute destruction when Pollocks 'Army of Retribution' was able, with accurate planning and preparation, enter Afghanistan and sweep to victory with out setback. Revenge however for the British humiliation appeared to be the driving force, when at one point Ellenborough's command was to withdraw and abandon those British hostages/prisoners that Akbar Khan had taken, although this command was retracted in time. This is book is an incredible undertaking. It is presented in chronological order, taking in the events across Afghanistan, in a single narrative - which is perhaps more complicated than it sounds. It reads very well, is generally well paced and interesting, and doesn't appear to leave too many loose ends. Often time the names do become complex due to the similarities, but Dalrymple does a good job of maintaining the characters in a way they remain present in the narrative and not forgotten. Dalrymple's use of Afghan source material as well as the British (personal letters and journals as well as official source) provides two sides of the story and works to validate the true events and rule out those based on untruth or inaccuracy. 4 stars.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Raghu

    William Dalrymple is the definitive modern historian of the East India company's reign in India during the 18th and 19th centuries. With already two brilliant books – 'The White Mughals' and 'The Last Mughal' – on the subject, he has now written this masterly chronicle on the disastrous British misadventure in Afghanistan during the years 1839-1842. In his words, this first British war in Afghanistan was one of colonial arrogance, hubris, folly and cultural collision. What else can you call a fo William Dalrymple is the definitive modern historian of the East India company's reign in India during the 18th and 19th centuries. With already two brilliant books – 'The White Mughals' and 'The Last Mughal' – on the subject, he has now written this masterly chronicle on the disastrous British misadventure in Afghanistan during the years 1839-1842. In his words, this first British war in Afghanistan was one of colonial arrogance, hubris, folly and cultural collision. What else can you call a foray where 20000 troops marched into Afghanistan in 1839 and only one returns to Peshawar in 1842? Dalrymple shows in this book that the 'Great Game', popularized by Rudyard Kipling in his novel 'Kim', was actually the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Alexander Burnes, the dashing Scottish intelligence officer, was sent out to Central Asia as a spy to gather information on the threats, which were non-existent then, from Czarist Russia to British interests in India. Burnes did his work and wrote a successful book on the subject which were read by the Russians. As a result, they get suspicious and send Yan Vitkevich, a Polish adventurer and explorer, to Bukhara and then on to Kabul to gather their own intelligence on this question. Thus, the hawkish paranoia in Calcutta and London ended up making a non-existent threat a reality. So, the Great Game begins and still goes on, a full 170 years after it began. Burnes and his brilliant Indian assistant and intelligence chief, Mohan Lal Kashmiri, give excellent advice to Calcutta and London on the state of affairs in Central Asia and the course to be followed, which was to support Dost Mohammed Khan as the Amir of Afghanistan. But policy was made by George Eden, William Mcnaghten and Claude Wade. Eden was the Governor General of India who had little knowledge or interest in the region. William Macnaghten was a bookish Russophobe who was Eden's chief advisor while Wade was a Persian scholar who had never been in Central Asia. They decide to reject Burnes' advice and decide to overthrow the incumbent Dost Mohammed and install Shah Shuja as a puppet king to do the British bidding in Central Asia. An army of 20000 men is raised and they bumble along their way across the Indus river and the Khyber pass losing thousands of camels and horses and ending up emaciated, dispirited and worn-out in Kandahar. But luck is on their side as they encounter little resistance due to Dost Mohammed Khan fleeing Kabul with his loyalists. In spite of rejecting Burnes' advice, the British end up successfully occupying Afghanistan for two years, with Shah Shuja as king. But then, in 1842, the Afghans rise up in jihad and explode in a violent counter-attack which ends in the British army retreating ignominiously back to colonial India after being thoroughly routed by the Afghan tribes. The retreating troops get massacred mercilessly by the Afghans. But the story doesn't end there. There are hostages left behind in Kabul and Britain had to extract revenge and restore its 'honor'. So, an army of Retribution goes back to Afghanistan and repays the hatred and brutality in full measure, matching what would now be called 'war crime' for 'war crime'. Still, it was not feasible to continue occupying Afghanistan forever and so Britain withdraws, leaving Dost Mohammed Khan once again in power after all the carnage and destruction and expenditure of vast sums of money. Dalrymple points to many eerie parallels with the current NATO occupation of Afghanistan. NATO went in to the country in 2001 to overthrow the Taliban. They did so and installed Hamid Karzai who, just like Shah Shuja in 1839, is seen as a Western puppet by the Afghans. Coincidentally, Karzai belongs to the same tribe as that of Shah Shuja. After twelve long years of occupation, NATO will retreat back in defeat in 2014, leaving possibly the Taliban, who are already said to be in control of 60% of the country, back in power. Just as Dost Mohammed Khan did in 1842. Interestingly the Taliban is made up from the same Ghilzai tribes who drove Britain out in 1842. Dalrymple also points out that Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy to the region, played much the same role that William Macnaghten played in 1839. Sir Cowper-Coles, the British Special Representative in 2010 in Kabul, described Holbrooke as a 'bull who brought his own china shop wherever he went'. Dalrymple says that this description sums up Macnaghten's style perfectly 174 years before. Finally, 170 years on, NATO is leaving Afghanistan for much the same primary reason for which Britain left – that Afghanistan was too poor then as it is today, for the occupiers to tax the country and make the occupied pay for their own subjugation! This book shows how history can be written like a thriller without sacrificing facts and scholarship. One special feature of this book is that Dalrymple has used sources of research which have been used for the first time ever. Research material for the book has been sourced from British, Persian, Russian and Urdu archives. But the most interesting source is the nine previously untranslated full-length contemporary Afghan accounts of the conflict, including the autobiography of Shah Shuja himself. That makes the book unique. The book has a big lesson for the powers which still want to play the Great Game. As Dalrymple recounts elsewhere, when Harold Macmillan was handing over the prime ministership of Britain to Alec Douglas-Home, he was supposed to have said, ‘My dear boy, you’ll be fine as long as you don’t invade Afghanistan.’ Pity that Tony Blair never knew about it! A 'Must read' for anyone interested in the subject.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Akash Nair

    The timing of the book is impeccable.Impeccable because there are a lot of similarities between what is Afghanistan now and what it was then.The book describes the history of Afghanistan from 1839-1842. The similarities.. World's super-power : Then Britain , now USA. The reasons for the battle for Afghanistan are also similar.The Brits wanted to secure India's borders and feared(wrongly) Russian influence in the region.The present situation has arised from what was a cold war skirmish between USSR The timing of the book is impeccable.Impeccable because there are a lot of similarities between what is Afghanistan now and what it was then.The book describes the history of Afghanistan from 1839-1842. The similarities.. World's super-power : Then Britain , now USA. The reasons for the battle for Afghanistan are also similar.The Brits wanted to secure India's borders and feared(wrongly) Russian influence in the region.The present situation has arised from what was a cold war skirmish between USSR and USA which led to the establishment of Taliban/Mujahideen and we all know what happened later. They say history repeats itself and nothing can be a better example than Afghanistan.The Brits established a puppet regime by installing Shah Shuja(a Sadozai)on the throne.They won Afghanistan easily but failed to stay there for long and when they left Amir Dost Mohammad(a Barakzai) soon usurped power. Jump to the present, The Americans easily defeated Afghanistan and installed Hamid Karzai(a Barakzai) but find it very difficult to control.Mullah Omar ( a Barakzai) leads the resistance. The question is what happens to Afghanistan when the Americans leave? The regime of Shah Shuja was toppled within a month of the British retreat back to India.The answer is pretty evident. I have always wanted to read a William Dalrymple book and I now get why is so highly regarded.A thoroughly researched book by an historian who can write

  15. 4 out of 5

    Christopher Saunders

    Peerless account of the First Anglo-Afghan War, besting extant volumes by Patrick Macrory and Peter Hopkirk. Dalrymple presents fresh primary research, tapping Afghan, Indian and Russian archives to provide a more rounded portrait. Dalrymple counterpoints the Anglo-Russian "Great Game" with ongoing Afghan tribal rivalries. Ousted Shah Shujah manipulates the British into placing him on the Afghan throne, as more compliant than the cagey Dost Mohammed. Dalrymple fleshes out the familiar story of E Peerless account of the First Anglo-Afghan War, besting extant volumes by Patrick Macrory and Peter Hopkirk. Dalrymple presents fresh primary research, tapping Afghan, Indian and Russian archives to provide a more rounded portrait. Dalrymple counterpoints the Anglo-Russian "Great Game" with ongoing Afghan tribal rivalries. Ousted Shah Shujah manipulates the British into placing him on the Afghan throne, as more compliant than the cagey Dost Mohammed. Dalrymple fleshes out the familiar story of Elphinstone's disastrous occupation and retreat from Kabul with new interpretations. He argues Afghans would have accepted Shujah's rule if not for the foreign bayonets propping him up. Similarly, Afghan resentment of the British began almost immediately, due to rampant exploitation of Kabul's women. And British military and political incompetence, from virulent Russophobia to Elphinstone's bizarre passivity towards the rumblings in Kabul, registers with stark clarity. A masterpiece of narrative history.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Rick Slane

    Before I read this book I was wondering why the U.S. still had troops in Afghanistan. The people of this country hate having foreign soldiers in their country. Their presence probably strengthens the Taliban more than it weakens them because at least they are natives and Muslim. Some Afghans believe that the Chinese will occupy their country after the Americans leave.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Doreen Petersen

    Not a bad book. Good for understanding the early history of Afghanistan.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Yogarshi

    I stumbled upon this book first when I played a board game (Pax Pamir) based on the Great Game, which was the political and military intrigue of 19th century Afghanistan between the British, the Russians, and the local ruling clans of what was then known as Khurasan. The designer of the board game strongly recommended this book to get a more deeper insight into the times than what a board game can provide. A few 100 pages later, I'm incredibly astonished at the ability of the colonial British gov I stumbled upon this book first when I played a board game (Pax Pamir) based on the Great Game, which was the political and military intrigue of 19th century Afghanistan between the British, the Russians, and the local ruling clans of what was then known as Khurasan. The designer of the board game strongly recommended this book to get a more deeper insight into the times than what a board game can provide. A few 100 pages later, I'm incredibly astonished at the ability of the colonial British government to take a favorable situation, fuck it up completely, and then fuck it even more beyond what you could have thought possible. The entire story of the first Anglo-Afghan war and the events that preceeded it feels like watching a trainwreck happening. Given how things ended miserably for all but one of the major players of the Game, it's incredible how this part of history is not more widely known. Dalrymple has done a stellar job of crafting the narrative of these events from hitherto unused sources. All characters --- the Sadozais, the Barakzais, and the British --- are fleshed out in careful manner, with their deepest motivations, desires, and arrogances laid bare in a way that explains all their actions, including the many, many costly mistakes that shaped 19th and 20th century Afghanistan. Took me a while to get through, but definitely a solid 5/5.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Sagheer Afzal

    Another masterly tome by Dalrymple who definitely has a novelists flair for narration. What makes Dalrymple a master of his genre is that he understands that history is best realised through people, and in this book, he shows the depredations of British Imperialism. A couple of points of interest about this book. 1) When coming to the last 100 pages of this book I was struck by the similarity between today's would be jihadists and the Afghan fighters who successfully routed the British Army. Hav Another masterly tome by Dalrymple who definitely has a novelists flair for narration. What makes Dalrymple a master of his genre is that he understands that history is best realised through people, and in this book, he shows the depredations of British Imperialism. A couple of points of interest about this book. 1) When coming to the last 100 pages of this book I was struck by the similarity between today's would be jihadists and the Afghan fighters who successfully routed the British Army. Having recently read about the British colonisation of India; I was struck by how different the mentality of the Afghani native was to the Indian native. In India the British successfully co-opted an entire class of indigenous people, but in Afghanistan it seems they were not able to do so. I think a reason for this is the Afghani sense of identity was rooted solely with the tribe whereas the Indian Muslim one was perhaps more rooted in their caste. Because the caste system was founded upon the principle of bondage and servitude; Indian Muslims were more easily subjugated than Afghani Muslims. Whereas the Afghani's were more apt to make the link between the British and Infidels, presaging the mentality of Muslim extremists today. If you have lots of people of different races and religions living together but separated by caste. Then you will get an ingrained sense of hierarchy amongst the people. The British with their policy of divide and rule, were always able to control people, but with the Afghani's the only way to divide was to play off one tribe against the other. But where they ran into a stumbling block, was that in Afghan culture,self-respect was paramount. If you respect yourself you are not easily enslaved. But if you come from a culture with a deeply entrenched system of bigotry and social segregation then you are more likely to become someone's slave. Same religion but very different cultures. As always it's the culture that shapes the religious outlook, not the other way around as people mistakenly assume. A flaw of this book is that it does drag when describing the war scenes and their aftermath. But Dalrymple through the narrations of people living in that time, provides a fascinating insight into the immoral antics of Imperial Britain.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Rajendra Dave

    The tale, very gory and very sordid is told in a very readable manner. Therein lies genius of its author. Though the time span of the story is extremely short for a history- hardly a decade- the spatial canvas is sizable; spanning from Bhuj to Bukhara and Ludhiana to Herat and beyond in Persia. That covers at least five present-day nations. Casual manner in which movement of various persons - Indian, British, Afghans and Russians across this vast landscape is described makes one wonder whether o The tale, very gory and very sordid is told in a very readable manner. Therein lies genius of its author. Though the time span of the story is extremely short for a history- hardly a decade- the spatial canvas is sizable; spanning from Bhuj to Bukhara and Ludhiana to Herat and beyond in Persia. That covers at least five present-day nations. Casual manner in which movement of various persons - Indian, British, Afghans and Russians across this vast landscape is described makes one wonder whether our claim of making world smaller is a valid one! Except for the adventures of players of Great Game between Britain and Russia, there is very little to be cheerful about in this story of British misadventure in Afghanistan. This is a story of duplicity-predominantly British and cruelty- both Afghan and British.While Afghans come across open and unapologetic, British couch their acts of betrayal and their atrocities in lofty words and rhetoric.There are a few revelations -at least to me. The first one is shattering of myth of British military genius of nineteenth century. Generals of a nation that had defeated Napoleon less than 40 years ago, were paralyzed into inaction in face of insurgency by largely untrained tribal bunch of irregulars. The second is a connection between first Afghan War and the Indian war of freedom in 1857. If the author is to be believed, the first troops to join the failed struggle were the troops betrayed and deserted by their British officers in Afghanistan! The author has extensively used native sources of information- available in the form of poems and epics, in addition to the records official records maintained by both sides. This gives a rather complete picture and seamlessly interconnects the events. He draws some interesting parallels between this British misadventure and more recent American one. All in all, a must read for anyone even remotely interested in the history of India and its surroundings.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Jerome

    A riveting, comprehensive history of the first Anglo-Afghan war. In a straightforward narrative, Dalrymple describes the British paranoia about supposed Russian threats to India, which existed only in the minds of London and pretty much created a crisis out of nothing. He also describes the general ignorance of the region by the government in India, the course of the British occupation, and the eventual retreat. Dalrymple easily describes the nuances of Afghan tribal politics and how both the Bri A riveting, comprehensive history of the first Anglo-Afghan war. In a straightforward narrative, Dalrymple describes the British paranoia about supposed Russian threats to India, which existed only in the minds of London and pretty much created a crisis out of nothing. He also describes the general ignorance of the region by the government in India, the course of the British occupation, and the eventual retreat. Dalrymple easily describes the nuances of Afghan tribal politics and how both the British and the Russians often chose to ignore the intelligence of their own agents. As expected, Dalrymple draws some simplistic parallels between Britain’s war and NATO’s current effort in Afghanistan, with the usual speculation about lessons we have failed to learn from the first war. Whether Dalrymple really believes that or whether it’s just a ploy to promote his book is unclear. The conflicts do have their differences, of course: the “invaders” are nowhere near as harsh as the Taliban, and whether NATO is already defeated “militarily” is debatable. He even claims that the NATO mission there is “neo-colonial,” whatever that means. The comparisons between McNaughten and Holbrooke seem quite forced. Also, Dalrymple devotes a good deal of space to the Great Game but little to the various declarations of jihad against the Hindus by the Pathans, or on the role played by the opium trade, or on the differing aims of the British government and the East India Company. A well-written, well-researched work. There is little background about the era’s geopolitics, though, and the parallels between then and now aren't as clear as Dalrymple or his audience might like to believe.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Sash Chiesa

    Though much has been written about Afghanistan over the years, not much has been understood. This book, based on the first Anglo-afghan war is a classic example of how we fail to learn anything at all from history, sometimes even the most obvious lessons, and how ignorance and egotism have crippled, failed & backfired the engagement plans of West with Muslim or Islamic nations culminating into a continuous web of errors. With this book Dalrymple has brought forth Afghanistan as a country -with o Though much has been written about Afghanistan over the years, not much has been understood. This book, based on the first Anglo-afghan war is a classic example of how we fail to learn anything at all from history, sometimes even the most obvious lessons, and how ignorance and egotism have crippled, failed & backfired the engagement plans of West with Muslim or Islamic nations culminating into a continuous web of errors. With this book Dalrymple has brought forth Afghanistan as a country -with origins, with its own systems and traditions and the predominant Afghan identity which precedes all the tribal, ethnic, religious schisms and political/ideological divides without injecting it with prejudice or judgment. He has presented a period of history which hasn't been written about but, which is important as the roots of Afghan civil wars and internal conflicts can be traced back here. In fact, the civil war has been there since Afghanistan's inception and we see how history has been repeating itself in this case all too self-evidently. The parallels between then and now are astounding. The phobias and unjustified suspicions which the world powers had and still have of each other along with those usual misreading and miscalculation resulted in one of the greatest military disasters. Lastly, invasions are tricky and we often end up paying a heavy price in some form or the other and in recent history have been collectively paying on some or the other level. Highly recommended for a better understanding of this country even though it's not recent history.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Roger

    This is the story of the first 19th century British invasion of Afghanistan. It is the work of a fastidious historian, but it is as gripping as any novel. And always behind the story are the uncanny parallels between that invasion and the present one still in progress. You finish this book understanding very well all that is now playing out and its likely outcome. Very little of significance has changed in a century and a half. Like America and its present allies, the British for strategic reaso This is the story of the first 19th century British invasion of Afghanistan. It is the work of a fastidious historian, but it is as gripping as any novel. And always behind the story are the uncanny parallels between that invasion and the present one still in progress. You finish this book understanding very well all that is now playing out and its likely outcome. Very little of significance has changed in a century and a half. Like America and its present allies, the British for strategic reasons invaded Afghanistan to establish a puppet regime. But they never controlled the tribes or countryside, never understood the culture and left defeated after the declaration of a holy war against them. The British were massacred as they left, and and the power they had deposed quickly reasserted itself. With modern aircraft, the massacre might at least me avoided this time. What makes this story so gripping is a cast of vivid characters on both the Afghan and the British side. Dalrymple - whose ancestors played a part in the drama - uncovered records in Afghanistan, Pakistan and even Russia that other Western historians had not seen, so that - like a good novel - the humanity of both sides is equally displayed and understood. The Afghan records are more often written as poems. I could not recommend this book more for vivid storytelling, and as a way of backing into an understanding the present tragic repetition of history.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Barry Sierer

    The work of William Darymple is a treat to read. This is the second book work of Darymple’s that I have read (the first being The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857). The author does an excellent job providing context and details of the times, characters, and decisions surrounding Britain’s first Afghan war as well as a cautionary tale (largely ignored) for NATO and US forces in Afghanistan. The work of William Darymple is a treat to read. This is the second book work of Darymple’s that I have read (the first being The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857). The author does an excellent job providing context and details of the times, characters, and decisions surrounding Britain’s first Afghan war as well as a cautionary tale (largely ignored) for NATO and US forces in Afghanistan.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Bfisher

    In the west, it is called the First Afghan War; one supposes because it was the West's first modern encroachment into Afghanistan, and to distinguish it from subsequent encroachments. For me, the best aspect of this book was what seemed to be the even-handed way in which it presented the perspectives of the various British factions and the Afghani factions.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    FRom BBC Radio 4 - Book of the Week: William Dalrymple analyses the first Afghan war, 1839-1842. Read by Tim Pigott-Smith

  27. 5 out of 5

    Bettie

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. (view spoiler)[ Bettie's Books (hide spoiler)] (view spoiler)[ Bettie's Books (hide spoiler)]

  28. 5 out of 5

    Joe

    Another outstanding book by Dalrymple. This is an account of the 1839 invasion of Afghanistan in all its inglorious detail. Some startling parallels between then and now particularly in terms of British ignorance of the country and its social and political customs. You sense the British rectified this later in the 19th century, but had forgotten it all again by 2001 (the Afghans didn‘t forget the British, however, and some genuinely believed they returned to Helmand in the 21st century to avenge Another outstanding book by Dalrymple. This is an account of the 1839 invasion of Afghanistan in all its inglorious detail. Some startling parallels between then and now particularly in terms of British ignorance of the country and its social and political customs. You sense the British rectified this later in the 19th century, but had forgotten it all again by 2001 (the Afghans didn‘t forget the British, however, and some genuinely believed they returned to Helmand in the 21st century to avenge the disasters of the 19th century). Also, the same situations occur where small beleaguered British garrisons hold out against constant attack. When it comes to the incompetence of British generals in the 19th century there is serious competition for the dishonour of being the worst. For my money William Elphinstone ranks as even more hapless than Lord Raglan in the Crimea. Indeed this book could usefully be read in conjunction with Orlando Figes’s “Crimea”. However unnecessary, immoral and cynical, the invasion and setting-up a puppet government might even have worked, but for the series of breathtaking mistakes and inertia on the part of the British. The book is largely an account of these disasters and refreshingly often takes the Afghan view of the situation. Dalrymple isn’t just being wise after the event; again and again there are Afghans and lower ranking British officers and agents who provide a correct analysis of the situation and offer sensible advice which is routinely ignored by the military and political leadership. The combination of the culture of the unhurried English gentleman, and the presumed superiority of a largely self selecting and closed elite proves fatal.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Eastbelt

    Superb account of the British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839 and the subsequent revolt in 1841 which led to a disastrous retreat in which most of the army and accompanying civilians and administrators were wiped out. The author draws parallels with the situation in the present decade and the omens are not good. Dalrymple has the ability to explain complicated agreements, rivalries and geographies in a clear manner. What might have been a dry account becomes a stylish account full of fascinating Superb account of the British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839 and the subsequent revolt in 1841 which led to a disastrous retreat in which most of the army and accompanying civilians and administrators were wiped out. The author draws parallels with the situation in the present decade and the omens are not good. Dalrymple has the ability to explain complicated agreements, rivalries and geographies in a clear manner. What might have been a dry account becomes a stylish account full of fascinating anecdotes and details. His book is crammed with fascinating character sketches of both British and Afghans, such as Alexander Burnes,a British 'man on the ground' whose excellent advice was rejected by British administrators, the Commander in Chief Elphinstone who disliked India, Indians, Afghans and Afghamistans, had little military experience and was crippled by - as well as being indecisive and depressive. Or there's another British military man "Fightin Bob" Sales, always on the lookout for a fight, incisive, brave and shrewd. Not forgetting his wife, who had a good grasp of military tactics, rallied despondent troops, issued orders and successfully took her cat, parakeet and a pregnant daughter through months of brutal captivity and hardship. This is a great book. I've never read a better account of the tribal, international and geographical rivalries that have contributed to the Afghan situation now.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Charles

    Dalrymple is a good author. He's very British, and very detailed. This is one of the few books on The Great Game which uses both Afghan and British historical sources. This adds a lot more depth to the story than other books on the conflict I’ve read. Dalrymple also provides insight into the country and people of Afghanistan in 1839-42 that may be helpful in understanding it in the period 1979 to the present. My book was a hefty 570-pages. I also was lucky enough to score an author signed copy. Dalrymple is a good author. He's very British, and very detailed. This is one of the few books on The Great Game which uses both Afghan and British historical sources. This adds a lot more depth to the story than other books on the conflict I’ve read. Dalrymple also provides insight into the country and people of Afghanistan in 1839-42 that may be helpful in understanding it in the period 1979 to the present. My book was a hefty 570-pages. I also was lucky enough to score an author signed copy. Dalrymple is an accomplished writer. His prose is clean and easily understandable written to convey a maximum amount of information. His descriptions are evocative. I’ve found his histories to be more akin to journalistic stories than non-fiction. This is a talent many historians do not have. In addition, he salts his narrative of events with short anecdotes on the people, and places involved. I found this additional context to be very helpful in understanding the era and the events. I also must note his many books on South Asia share prose. For example, Koh-I-Noor: The History of the World's Most Infamous Diamond and this book share more than a few paragraphs. This is an intermediate-level work on the beginning of the Great Game. Having a general knowledge of Victorian history, particularly the history of the East India Company and the run-up to the creation of the British Raj is needed to really leverage its contents. This is very much a British history. The preponderance of anecdotes, and excerpts from correspondence, diaries, and biographies are British. However, Dalrymple has included a large amount of information from Afghan, period historical sources into the book. Most of these were translated from Persian. Persian was the language for official documentation in Central Asia. The Afghan historical documentation style is a combination of poetry and prose. These poetic descriptions provided an interesting contrast from the quoted Victorian British descriptions of the same person or event. I think the author may have overdone the quoting of so much of this poem prose. I would have been satisfied with more summation. However, this inclusion of Afghan sources adds an important local context not found in other books I’ve read on this particular conflict. This is the least (British) one-sided description of the conflict I’ve read so far. This book is a pastiche of military and diplomatic history, with the addition of lessons on the organizational behavior of the East India Company. The military history is at a high-level. There is some discussion of tactics and operations. Overall military strategy, with the exception of The Army of Retribution gets short shrift. Diplomatic history receives more attention. This is an excellent description of the people and their motivations for setting The Great Game in motion. The character studies of the folks influencing the course of events both British, Russian, and Afghan are one of the book's strong suites. In addition, the org behavior (politics) of the East India Company are likewise well done, although the author does not go deeply enough into the Crown/Company relationship. The politics and political organization of the multi-ethnic and tribal Afghanistan are also well laid out. The author root causes the engineered regime change (the Return of a King) and the debacle of the First Anglo-Afghan War to be the wrong people in the right spot at the wrong time. The Company’s politics were a destructive force which effectively kept it from meeting both the Crown and its strategic goals. Readers should not ignore the long Author’s Note at the end of the book. Here the author does an important compare and contrast between the events of 1839-42 and 1979- to the present in Afghanistan. In particular, the internal politics of Afghanistan are not too different from what they were 200 years ago. The direct descendants of Afghans mentioned in the book are names you'd recognize in the news from Afghanistan today. The book was mixed in its use of pictures and maps. The included pictures were excellent, perhaps a bit overdone. They were mostly artwork and copies of publications from the period. I would have liked to have seen some current photographs of existing locations. The use of maps was poor. There are a lot of place names in the narrative. There were only three (3) hand drawn maps included. Central Asia, Afghanistan and the British Raj are far-off lands. The borders and place names have changed (or been modernized) in the past 200 years. Even the topography has changed. I found it difficult to use a modern atlas to follow the story or to get a high resolution picture of the terrain at key points in it. More and better maps would have been helpful. The book assumes a historical background on the period and region. It is somewhat balanced in its narration, or at least more than is typical. I found it very readable. I've already read several books on the Great Game. The book added a lot to my understanding of the early part of it. I found it a worthy read for those interested in deepening their understanding of the Great Game and the early history of the influence on the Anglo-West on Afghanistan. Readers interested in an introduction to The Great Game might try The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia . Hopkirk has written extensively on the region, and his work is very readable. Folks interested in historical fiction set in the same time as this book might try Flashman . (Its great fun.)

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