winning writer William Dalrymple
New Delhi: Award
winning writer William Dalrymple, the author of books like "Nine
Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India" and "White Mughals",
is exploring the genesis of conflict and western interference in
the Afghanistan-Pakistan sector in his new historical treatise
"The Return of the King: Shah Shuja and the first Anglo-Afghan
War". The book has prompted Dalrymple to return to Afghanistan and
Pakistan, the areas he covered as a journalist and a travel writer
in his early twenties.
"History is coming pretty close to repeating itself. My book is a
parable of disaster, a modern story of neo-colonial influence in
the region. It is the story of the first Anglo (British) Afghan
war fought between 1834-1842 and the first ever interference of
the west (in the modern context) in Afghanistan," Dalrymple told
IANS at the Spring Fever festival, Penguin Books India's annual
Bulk of the material for the book has been sourced from archives
in Kabul and Pakistan and "eight previously unidentified volumes
chronicling the history of the period in Urdu and Persian" that
Dalrymple purchased from an unknown book-seller in Kabul.
The documents included two epic poems that were published in
Lucknow and Delhi in the run-up to the mutiny of 1857. "It is an
extraordinary resource," Dalrymple said.
According to the writer, the events of 1842 were indirectly
responsible for the mutiny of 1857 in India.
The provocation for the first Anglo-Afghan war dates back to the
early years of the great international espionage game in the north
western frontiers of the sub-continent in 1837, when Russian and
British spies were trying to map the Himalayas and gather
With the Russians expanding towards the British dominion of India,
the East India Company, which managed the Crown's affairs in the
sub-continent, feared a Russian invasion of India through the
Khyber and Bolan passes. The British invaded Afghanistan on the
basis of intelligence about a possible invasion furnished by a
single Russian envoy.
It later turned out to be a phantom scare.
The British sent an envoy to Kabul to form an alliance with the
emir of Afghanistan, Dost Muhammed, against Russia. The emir was
in favour of an alliance, but wanted the British to help him
recapture Peshawar which the Sikhs had captured in 1834.
The British declined help prompting Dost Muhammed to look to
Russia. This led the then governor-general of India Lord Auckland
to infer that Dost Muhammed was anti-British. The British decided
to install a pro-British Shah Shuja Durrani as the new ruler of
Afghanistan. Shah Shuja, whose troubles knew no end, was also in
possession of the famous Kohinoor diamond, which was forcibly
taken from him by Sikh sovereign Ranjit Singh.
Dalrymple's book begins in "1843 with an army chaplain, Reverend
G.R. Gleigh, who shortly after his return from Afghanistan, sat
and wrote his memoirs about his involvement in the greatest
"The East India Company sent 18,500 Indian and British troops to
Afghanistan in 1842. Only one man survived the campaign, making it
back to Jalalabad on a horse. Not one benefit, military or
political, was acquired with the war. It was waged on doctored
intelligence," Dalrymple said quoting from his book, which
documents Gleigh's accounts.
The germ of the book was sown last year while Dalrymple was
writing an opinion article for the New York Times.
The writer said he was reminded about the similarities between the
current situation in Afghanistan and the Anglo-Afghan war, which
triggered more than a century of foreign interference in the
"The economic realities which determine the way the war has gone
are very similar (between the past and present). The reality is
Afghanistan is still so poor. Moreover, Afghan president Hamid
Karzai is from the sub-clan as that of Shah Shuja," Dalrymple
In an opinion article in the UK-based New Statesman, Dalrymple
wrote: "It is difficult to imagine the current military adventure
ending as badly as the first Afghan war, an abortive experiment in
the 'great game colonialism' that descended into what was arguably
the greatest humiliation ever suffered by the west in the east."
"An entire army of what was then the most powerful military nation
in the world was utterly routed and destroyed by poorly equipped
tribesmen at the cost of 15 million pounds and more than 40,000
lives," Dalrymple said.
"Once again, 10 years on from NATO's modern invasion of
Afghanistan, there are increasing signs that Britain's fourth war
in the country could end with as few political gains as the first
three," Dalrymple said.