Return of a King is the story of the mid-19th century British misadventure to restore the Afghan king Shah Shuja to his throne. Like much that William Dalrymple has written recently, it is an oversize narrative told through a cast of compelling characters, British and South Asian, caught up in a period of historical significance, in this case one of Britain’s great military disasters. It is a very readable book, and it has been extensively researched.
But research is one thing, the use a writer makes of it is another. I am no expert on Afghanistan, but at the very beginning of the book, because of Ranjit Singh’s role in the early stages of the conflict, Dalrymple ventures into the history of Punjab and of Sikhs. He quotes an Afghan source, Siraj ul-Tawarikh, while describing a battle for the fort of Jamrud between Sikhs led by Ranjit Singh’s general Hari Singh Nalwa and Afghans led by Akbar Khan, son of the Afghan ruler Dost Mohammed. Jamrud had been captured and fortified by the Sikhs after they had taken Peshawar. The quote goes, ‘In the heat of the furious combat, Akbar Khan encountered Hari Singh. Without recognising each other, they exchanged blows and after much thrusting and parrying, Akbar Khan won out, knocking Hari Singh to the ground, and killing him.’
This was neither a version of events I had read before in any Sikh source nor did it seem to make sense in the context of a battle where both sides were armed with guns and artillery. I turned to the footnote, where Dalrymple states, ‘Fayz Mohammed, Siraj ul-Tawarikh, vol I, p.186. The Amir who commissioned the Siraj left a marginal note on the mss: “I heard from some elderly men that Hari Singh was riding on an elephant and heading into the fray when suddenly a bullet struck him in a fatal spot and he died. It is not known who killed him.” Whatever the truth, Afghan literature has always assumed that it was Akbar Khan who personally dispatched Hari Singh, and he is credited with the deed in Kashmiri’s Akbarnama and several other epics.’ Already we are in the realm of literature rather than history.
Dalrymple himself notes that the Afghan sources he has used include ‘two remarkable heroic epic poems—Akbarnama, or the History of Wazir Akbar Khan, of Maulana Hind Kashmiri, and Jangnama, or the History of War, by Mohammed Ghulam Kohistani Ghulami, both of which read like Afghan version of The Song of Roland…’ He also mentions that two ‘late-nineteenth-century histories, Tarikh-i-Sultani, or The History of the Sultans, and Siraj ul-Tawarikh, The Lamp of Histories, are official court histories of the kings of Afghanistan and give the perspective from the point of view of Dost Mohammed’s successors.’ The version I had read then belongs to a court history of Akbar Khan’s clan written almost 50 years after the events and this has been supplemented by epic poetry. No wonder the description of that scene belies reality.
For a great part of this book, this is not a problem since contemporary British accounts of the invasion of Afghanistan are available for many of the incidents, but when we are reading about events such as the death of Nalwa, no such account is available as corroboration. This leaves a reader such as me, no expert in the history of Afghanistan, unsure about the narrative pace of the story, and whether it owes this to the nature of epic poetry or a skilled retelling of history.
This reliance on Afghan sources also makes it difficult to uncritically accept one of the claims made for the book, stated explicitly on the jacket, that the ‘West’s first disastrous entanglement in Afghanistan has clear and relevant parallels with the current deepening crisis; there are extraordinary similarities between what the Nato faces today in cities like Kabul and Kandahar, and that faced by the British in the same cities, fighting the very same tribes, nearly two centuries ago.’
This essentialism, of an unchanging Afghanistan, is a narrative that Afghans would be happy to have outsiders believe. At the very end of the book, two tribal elders talk to Dalrymple: ‘“Last month,” said one, “some American officers called us to a hotel in Jalalabad for a meeting. One of them asked me, ‘Why do you hate us?’ I replied, ‘Because you blow down our doors, enter our houses, pull our women by the hair and kick our children. We cannot accept this. We will fight back, and we will break your teeth, and when your teeth are broken and you will leave, just as the British left before you. It is just a matter of time’.’’’
This Afghan self-belief has found considerable resonance in a certain romantic strain of British travel writing about the country. Bruce Chatwin embodied this perfectly while writing about Robert Byron’s Road to Oxiana in his 1982 essay ‘Lament for Afghanistan’: ‘In 1962—six years before the Hippies wrecked it (by driving educated Afghans into the arms of the Marxists)—you could set off to Afghanistan with the anticipations of, say, Delacroix off to Algiers. On the streets of Heart you saw men in mountainous turbans, strolling hand in hand, with roses in their mouth and rifles wrapped in flowered chintz. In Badakhshan you could picnic on Chinese carpets and listen to the bulbul. In Balkh, the Mother of Cities, I asked a fakir the way to the shrine of Hadji Piardeh. “I don’t know it.” He said. “It must have been destroyed by Genghiz.”’ Unsurprisingly, Chatwin concluded: ‘Were he (Robert Byron) alive today, I think he would agree that, in time (everything in Afghanistan takes time), the Afghans will do something quite dreadful to their invaders—perhaps awaken the sleeping giants of Central Asia.’
The early Dalrymple was an inheritor of this tradition, and it often shows in this book. But the facts on Afghanistan don’t support such essentialism. For one, Afghanistan was captured not once, but twice by a largely Indian army, with half its recruits from Bengal, despite the avowed fierceness of its warriors. For another, the problem with holding Afghanistan has had more to do with economics than an Afghan love of independence. The country simply does not generate enough of a surplus to sustain the kind of standing army needed for the purpose. The British bled financially while holding Afghanistan, as did the Russians later, but in both cases—first with Shah Shuja and then Mohammed Najibullah—a local ruler could continue ruling even after the British or Russians left the country. In Najibullah’s case, his government fell only after Boris Yeltsin cut off funding, and the Taliban, bolstered by American money, took over.
If this is accepted, then it is possible to take a more realistic view. For example, the growing awareness of Afghanistan’s mineral resources suggests that if these are properly extracted—not in the fashion of a colonial power making use of them, but a sovereign country signing reasonable agreements—then there is no reason that a future leader of Afghanistan cannot control the country. Tribalism will recede when it no longer makes sense as a way of life, unlike now when it is the most efficient way to operate in a resource-starved country.