Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. The moral aphorism, which was coined by American philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist George Santayana, rings true in the unfolding humanitarian crisis in the war-torn Afghanistan following the drawdown of US troops and the Taliban’s second stab at power.
Perhaps Santayana’s quotable quote is a good opening gambit to revisit Scottish historian William Dalrymple’s prophetic saga Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, which was published in 2012 and gave a vivid account of the First Anglo-Afghan war (1839-42). The book is history foretold.
The First Anglo-Afghan War, as chronicled in the annals of history, was the greatest British defeat in the 19th century when its colonial prowess was at its zenith.
Why did the colonial power get such a pasting?
Dalrymple weighs in on the historical events to put the defeat in perspective. “Afghanistan has been conquered since time immemorial — from Alexander the Great to the Americans. But the cost of an interminable war of attrition takes a toll on the invader’s economy,” he says.
Dalrymple reckons: “Holding on to the occupation of Afghanistan, which is an extension of Indian subcontinental polity from the Shakyas to the Mauryas to the Kushans and to the Mughals, has been the most difficult part.”
A close reading of the country’s evolution, or lack of it, shows that globalisation and the new millennium’s technological breakthroughs have failed to make a dent in the fractured nation. Afghanistan’s deepening ethnic faultlines have been flickering embers and triggering devastating consequences in the name of clannish supremacy and suzerainty.
“This theory holds good now as in 1840, when the colonial British controlled 50 per cent of the world’s economy,” Dalrymple explains.
History shows us that successive invasion of Afghanistan has been a road to perdition.
For instance, Iraq’s occupation can yield rich dividends in crude oil or Pakistan’s Punjab province may help extract exorbitant taxes from feudal landlords.
But perish the taxation thought, as poor Afghans won’t and can’t pay any tax.
And how can they?
All that the country has is stones and land while the mounting cost of keeping boots on the ground can be exponentially high for any invader’s exchequer.
Let’s rewind to the Great Game of Afghanistan, which was a term first coined for the 19th century rivalry between the British Indian empire and the Tsarist Russian empire in Central Asia.
History shows that in 1839, Lord Auckland, the then governor-general of India, had ordered nearly 20,000 British troops to traverse through the mountain passes into Afghanistan and installed the exiled Shah Shuja Durani on the throne as their puppet.
But the Afghans — known for their fierce independence — rebelled against the British troops, who were forced to retreat. They became sitting ducks to the Afghan tribesmen, who were loyal to the son of the Russian-backed adversary Dost Mohammad, at a place called Gandamak, located around 56 kilometres from safety in the fortress of Jalalabad and close to the border in British India.
A solitary British soldier escaped the marauding opponents. That’s how the First Anglo-Afghan War had ended in 1842.
However, Dalrymple, a consummate raconteur, takes us beyond the mundane and narrates the backstory without an iota of exasperating farrago of distortions and connects the fascinating dots between then and now.
Dalrymple says the Western construct of nationhood doesn’t stand to reason in Afghanistan, which is yet to come to terms with the concept of liberal democracy as kinship triumphs over all fancy political theories.
The historical parallels he draws coalesces the past with the past.
For instance, the British chose to ally with an Afghan leader, Shah Shuja ul-Mulk, who belonged to a small tribe, the Popalzai, like that of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Dost Mohammad’s supporters belonged to the Ghilzai tribe, which make up an overwhelming majority of the Taliban’s foot soldiers, including the group’s late founder Mullah Omar.
This matrix of kinship encapsulates the innate complexity of Afghanistan’s age-old tribal rivalries and their lust for power, which Dalrymple notes with great verve.
“The same tribal rivalries and the same battles were continuing to be fought in the same places 200 years later under the guise of new flags, new ideologies and new political puppeteers. The same cities were garrisoned by foreign troops speaking the same language and were being attacked from the same ring of hills and the same high passes,” he writes in the book.
He also lays bare the reasons behind Lord Auckland’s move to go to war.
"The hawks in the British Foreign Office had imagined a non-existent Russian threat. Dost Mohammad was always happy to make an alliance with the East India Company, and the war ended with him returning to power, just like the Taliban today. The whole war was an exercise in futility," he adds.
Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan resonates because of its breathtaking research, as he himself travelled to Gandamak, arguably one of the most dangerous places on earth.
He had used fresh research materials such as nine Dari (Afghan Persian) accounts of the invasion, including epic poems and Shah Shuja ul-Mulk’s poetic autobiography.
In retrospect, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan came to life after Dalrymple stumbled upon a hitherto unknown information at Punjab Archives in Lahore.
Claude Wade was the British spymaster in the Great Game, who had written to Afghan chiefs and urged them to support Shah Shuja ul-Mulk.
“I knew I had a book,” he reminisces.
However, perhaps, Dalrymple’s Mughal books and Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan would not have seen the light of the day had it not been for his mentor, Bruce Wannell, the wandering British scholar.
Wannell, who was proficient in 11 languages, such as Arabic, Persian, Pashto to Amharic, Spanish and Greek, had died in January 2020, at the age of 67.
The fascinating life and times of the Orientalist Wannell could well be Dalrymple’s next project, which promises to cast a magical spell on his mentor’s expertise in Iran and Afghanistan.
And the Scotsman’s tooth comb will be at work soon to decipher the sweeping broad strokes of history and unravel facts that chroniclers may have glossed over.
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