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Writer William Dalrymple turns to first Anglo-Afghan war

Monday March 14, 2011 12:04:19 PM, Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS

Award 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 literature carnival.

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 intelligence.

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 military catastrophe".

"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 region.

"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 said.

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.






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