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The first endgame in Afghanistan

The length of William Dalrymple's Return of a King is more than compensated by the depth with which the subject has been dealt

Pavan K Varma 

William Dalrymple combines in himself three remarkable talents. First, he is a researcher par excellence. Second, he has the insight of a historian. And third, as a writer of exceptional dexterity, he is able to make historical research very readable.

I first heard Mr Dalrymple speak about Return of a King in May 2012 at Mountain Echoes, an annual literary festival organised in Bhutan. It was a compelling narrative of the first Afghan war, which ended with Britain’s greatest military disaster in the 19th century; and the comparisons with the involvement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) in Afghanistan today were more than obvious. Naturally, I was waiting for the book to be out later in the year, and the wait was well worth it.

The story is told in graphic detail (the book is over 500 pages), but it unfolds like a cinematic screenplay through the lives of the principal dramatis personae — their personalities, personal quirks, motivating ambitions and family background are etched out to make them living characters travelling along with the reader’s journey. It is not easy to recount dry historical facts in this manner, but Mr Dalrymple – as he has done with all his historical – personally travelled to the principal venues, revisited the sites of battles, forts, palaces, towns and ordinary homes, and talked to scores of people to capture the flavour of the times about which he is writing. In addition, he has located crucial new material in Russian, Urdu and Persian from archives in South Asia and used, for the first time in English, nine previously untranslated full-length accounts of the conflict, including the autobiography of the key Afghan king, Shah Shuja.

Very few writers have the luxury of this kind of detailed research. Travel to actual sites costs money. Locating hitherto undiscovered texts requires both patience and literary “staying power”, especially because many of these texts are not in English and the services of a translator are necessary. Mr Dalrymple is able to do this perhaps because he takes five years to research and write a book. I suppose the advance he receives from his publishers makes this kind of expense possible. In any case, as a result of the research investment he makes in fleshing out the subject, his historical narrative becomes the antithesis of the narration of history as mechanical, textbook chronology.

The central message that emerges from the fast-moving narrative – peopled by a plethora of memorable characters: English, Afghan, Russian, French and Indian – is that foreign powers need to be very careful before they heedlessly decide to make another country the playground of their subjective imperial ambitions. America’s unnecessary military foray into Iraq is a good example of such behaviour. Imperial hubris is no match for the fierce pride of those sought to be dominated, and remote geopolitical calculations are no antidote to the sobering and ominous realities on the ground. This caution is particularly relevant to a country like Afghanistan, where a complex and bewildering tapestry of deep-seated tribal and ethnic loyalties lurks permanently – and lethally – below the surface pageantry of court decorum and the ebb and flow of normal life. These realities still define Afghanistan. That is why, as the blurb itself highlights, “there are clear and relevant parallels with the current deepening crisis” in Afghanistan and the West’s first disastrous encounter with that troubled country. Mr Dalrymple’s point is that “there are extraordinary similarities between what Nato faces today 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”. That point comes through very clearly for the discerning reader.

It does not quite follow, however, that those who make strategic policy are discerning readers. I doubt very much whether Mr Dalrymple’s tome will influence the way in which the big powers see their role in Afghanistan. Not because the book is not persuasive, but because policy makers in the Chanceries of the world and in war rooms thousands of miles away are cocooned in an insular world. As colonial masters, the British were perhaps more perceptive than the other colonisers of their time. The fact that they, too, were defeated by Afghanistan says a lot for the challenge that country poses.

In an age of Twitter brevity and short attention spans, a book of this size may daunt the average reader. My advice to all those interested in history, and even more so in a story told with gripping verve, is that they take the trouble to pick up a copy. They will find that the length is more than compensated by the depth with which the subject has been dealt.

Author-diplomat Pavan K Varma’s new book Chanakya’s New Manifesto: To Resolve the Crisis Within India will be released in January 2013

William Dalrymple
Bloomsbury Publishing
608 pages; Rs 799

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First Published: Fri, December 28 2012. 00:24 IST