Author and historian William Dalrymple sees history repeating itself in Afghanistan

This article is from 2013

Author and historian William Dalrymple sees history repeating itself in Afghanistan

His book, The Return of a King, draws parallels between historic and modern conflicts in the country

Renowned Scottish historian and travel writer William Dalrymple invites us to consider the striking parallels between the current situation in Afghanistan and the first Anglo-Afghan War of 1839-42. His book on the subject, The Return of a King, earned rave reviews for the compelling narrative which expertly crafts often hard-to-stomach material into a beautifully versed and informative read. The narrative follows Britain's disastrous 1839 invasion of Afghanistan, also known as Auckland’s Folly, part of ‘The Great Game’ between the British and Russian Empire to gain control of Asia. A strategic conflict born out of the British desire to pre-emptively control Afghanistan before the Russians is eerily paralleled by events which Dalrymple says has ‘direct resonance and echo into what’s going on today.’

‘What happened in the first Afghan war,’ Dalrymple explains, ‘is essentially a close parallel to Iraq: a bunch of hawkes wanting a war took a piece of dodgy intelligence, manipulated it, and turned it into something it wasn’t.’ As a character in The Return of a King explains, ‘Afghanistan is like the crossroads for every nation that comes to power... But we do not have the strength to control our own destiny. Our fate is determined by our neighbours’. With such force behind one country, separating the most powerful super powers on Earth in what resembles a giant game of Risk, is it any wonder that Afghanistan has been the source of so much spectacle and debate over the centuries? The cause for the repeated failure by foreign invaders is due to the disparate conglomeration of tribes that make up the population. Often hostile amongst themselves, it is unsurprising that when the fourth entity to knock on its door is America, trouble soon follows.

Yet back in the 1830s it was the Earl of Auckland, the Governor General of India, who reinstated an exiled King and led to one of the most disastrous retreats in British History. The extent to which history is repeating itself is striking: ‘Amazingly, Shah Shujah, who the British put into power in 1939, is the direct forebear of Hamid Karzai (the current president of Afghanistan),’ Dalrymple notes. ‘It’s a segue so effortlessly into the contemporary; it’s a very similar war, with Kabul again being the centre of the occupation, and the tribes who are in rebellion are the same tribes who were involved last time.’ So interconnected are the players of this game that the opposing Ghilzai tribe who dethroned Shah Shujah are today the footsoldiers of the Taliban.

Chaired by Magnus Linklater, this talk delves deep into the compelling story of a world at war and gives the other half of a story which has, until now, been told exclusively from the British perspective. ’It was the great moment of national liberation,’ Dalrymple exclaims in reference to the 1842 retreat from Kabul, where the entirety of the British contingent were wiped out by Ghilzai warriors. Gathering information from a variety of sources ranging from epic poems to letters, and three whole court histories, Dalrymple has masterfully woven together an historical account in novel form. ‘My writings are entirely non-fictional’ he explains, ‘I’m very much of the view that history is a sliding scale between the social-sciences at one end and high literature at the other, and I’m very much at the literature end.’

26 Aug, 10am, £10 (£8), Baillie Gifford Main theatre.

William Dalrymple

There are striking parallels to be drawn between the current ignominious situation in Afghanistan and the first Anglo-Afghan War of 1839-42. William Dalrymple’s history of that earlier conflict, The Return of a King, is earning rave reviews for its extensive research, not to mention its relevance to today’s Afghanistan.

Elsewhere on the web