In the spring of 1839, a gaudy pageant of 20,000 British and East India Company troops marched into Afghanistan. Led by lancers in scarlet cloaks, the party included more than 30,000 baggage-toting camels. Their mission was to overthrow the nation's ruler, who the British believed favored the interests of their Russian rivals, and to restore exiled king Shah Shuja ul-Mulk to the throne he had lost 20 years earlier.
Thanks to their superior resources, Shah Shuja was rapidly returned to power. The British forces, however, had no answer for the question posed by regional leader Mehrab Khan: "You have brought an Army into the country," he observed. "But how do you propose to take it out again?"
Almost as soon as Shah Shuja was installed in Kabul, the divided Afghan people rallied behind calls for jihad and drove out the foreign invaders, the latter led by an ailing commander who had last seen battlefield service at Waterloo. It was an astonishing victory. According to British writer William Dalrymple, "At the very height of the British Empire, at a point when the British controlled more of the world economy than they would ever do again, and at a time when traditional forces were being massacred by industrialized colonial armies, it was a rare moment of complete colonial humiliation."
In "Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-42," Dalrymple chronicles the disastrous British misadventure. The book moves at such a clip that at times it evokes the boys-own-adventure stories of George MacDonald Fraser, but it is a serious work of history that expands our understanding of the war of 1839-42 by drawing on sources found in Russia, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, many never before translated into English.
Dalrymple mostly refrains from comparing the 19th century conflict with our contemporary situation, but the parallels are clear to anyone who reads the news. The British invaded Afghanistan to further their own strategic self-interest, they offended the Afghans' sense of honor by imposing a ruler, they alienated potential allies by failing to understand local customs and they declared victory prematurely.
Dalrymple concludes, "After all the waste and destruction of an expensive and unnecessary war of dubious legality, with the honour and reputation of British arms tarnished . . . the British had left Afghanistan much as they found it."
As Dalrymple discovered on a recent visit to the region, the names of the fallen of 1842, long forgotten in the West, are still "common currency" in Afghanistan. With the help of books such as this one, perhaps we, too, can learn the lessons of the First Anglo-Afghan War.