Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Don't Mess with Afghanistan in 'The Return of a King,' William Dalrymple Makes Britain's 19th-Century Ill-Fated Venture Come Alive. (U.S. Readers May Draw Their Own Parallels.)

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Don't Mess with Afghanistan in 'The Return of a King,' William Dalrymple Makes Britain's 19th-Century Ill-Fated Venture Come Alive. (U.S. Readers May Draw Their Own Parallels.)

Article excerpt

"THE RETURN OF A KING: THE BATTLE FOR AFGHANISTAN, 1839-42"

By William Dalrymple.

Knopf ($30).

William Dalrymple has managed to take the historical tale of truly tragic British misadventures in Afghanistan in the mid-19th century and turn it into a thrilling, amusing and educational three- track tour de force, relevant to today and even the immediate future.

The basic line is that the British installed in India did not consider the political situation in Afghanistan to be ideal from their point of view. They decided to install a different king, Shah Shuja ul-Mulk, in power in Kabul by a combination of attempted wily maneuvering and military force. The Afghans themselves, considered collectively, did not take to this idea at all and, in reaction, not only forced the British out, but also slaughtered most of them and their Afghan allies as they tried to withdraw from Kabul in the middle of winter.

The first track is the story itself, replete with colorful sketches of the Afghan, British, Russian and other players in what came to be called the "Great Game" in that part of the world. They run on the European side all the way from British and Russian master spies, some of whom come to very sticky ends, to the Victorian wives of some of the unbelievably stuffy and incompetent British government and East India Company figures. Some of the most apparently insufferable women come out very well in the withdrawal ordeal.

On the Afghan side, the cast of characters includes the ambitious but perennially ill-fated Shah Shuja, cast badly as a puppet by the British, let down by them stupendously in the event, but remaining faithful to them to the nasty end of his own life. The shah, the king in the title, was clearly a victim of British military and other incompetence in the end.

The story of maneuvering, manipulation and downright viciousness on the part of the various Afghan leaders, tribes and regional powers is so complicated as to make it starkly clear that any foreigner or foreign power that attempts to manage Afghans to their own ends is doomed to fail -- and may even be doomed to die. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.