Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple


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 remnants of an army, Jellalabad, January 13, 1842, better known as Remnants of an Army, is an 1879 oil-on-canvas painting by Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler.

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.


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