From William Dalrymple - award-winning historian, journalist and travel writer - a masterly retelling of what was perhaps the West’s greatest imperial disaster in the East, and an important parable of neocolonial ambition, folly and hubris that has striking relevance to our own time. With access to newly discovered primary sources from archives in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia and India - including a series of previously untranslated Afghan epic poems and biographies - the author gives us the most immediate and comprehensive account yet of the spectacular first battle for Afghanistan: The British invasion of the remote kingdom in 1839. Led by lancers in scarlet cloaks and plumed helmets, and facing little resistance, nearly 20,000 British and East India Company troops poured through the mountain passes from India into Afghanistan in order to reestablish Shah Shuja ul-Mulk on the throne, and as their puppet. But after little more than two years, the Afghans rose in answer to the call for jihad and the country exploded into rebellion. This First Anglo-Afghan War ended with an entire army of what was then the most powerful military nation in the world ambushed and destroyed in snowbound mountain passes by simply equipped Afghan tribesmen. Only one British man made it through.
But Dalrymple takes us beyond the bare outline of this infamous battle, and with penetrating, balanced insight illuminates the uncanny similarities between the West’s first disastrous entanglement with Afghanistan and the situation today. He delineates the straightforward facts: Shah Shuja and President Hamid Karzai share the same tribal heritage; the Shah’s principal opponents were the Ghilzai tribe, who today make up the bulk of the Taliban’s foot soldiers; the same cities garrisoned by the British are today garrisoned by foreign troops, attacked from the same rings of hills and high passes from which the British faced attack. Dalryrmple also makes clear the byzantine complexity of Afghanistan’s age-old tribal rivalries, the stranglehold they have on the politics of the nation and the ways in which they ensnared both the British in the nineteenth century and NATO forces in the twenty-first. Informed by the author’s decades-long firsthand knowledge of Afghanistan, and superbly shaped by his hallmark gifts as a narrative historian and his singular eye for the evocation of place and culture, The Return of a King is both the definitive analysis of the First Anglo-Afghan War and a work of stunning topicality.
"An absorbing and beautifully written account of a doomed effort to control an apparently uncontrollably population." (Booklist)
"The author’s deep research provides a whole new take on almost every aspect of the story. Mr. Dalrymple is a skilled storyteller and fills important gaps, mining new sources.... Mr. Dalrymple’s writing is sly, charming and clever. His histories read like novels. [His] book delights and shocks." (The Wall Street Journal)
"The seductive artistry of Dalrymple’s narrative gift draws the reader into events that are sometimes almost unbearable, but his account is so perceptive and so warmly humane that one is never tempted to break away.... This book would be compulsive reading even if it were not a uniquely valuable history." (The Guardian)
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Astonishingly intelligent historical analysis
History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.
Dalrymple tells the story of the First Afghan War with deep understanding of Afghan motivations, politics and personalities. He is master also of the British and military situations in England and in India, and of the policies and leadership failures of the East India Company in its decline. There is heroism and treachery on all sides, and competence and honor are not always rewarded. This book is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand the roots of the current situations in south and central Asia. It is also a primer on political and military decision making, and it should be required reading for every Foreign Service officer and for every university student preparing for a military career.
The narration is fluid and first rate. Names of persons and places in Asian language that may be unfamiliar to listeners are articulated naturally. This makes it just as easy to follow the sequence of events among the Afghans as it is to follow the British. The Afghan subjects become as real and believable to the listener as the Europeans.
Beautifully and clearly written with sympathy and understanding of all the participants in an ongoing debacle. The portraits of the participants are masterful, although my favorite must be that of Lady Sale (whose Diary I once read, and now will reread with much greater enthusiasm), whose stamina, loyalty, common sense and courage would make her a hero in any age.
Return of a King is a triumph of balanced historical analysis. Dalrymple has told the story of the First Afghan War, its causes and consequences, with deep knowledge of the sources from both (or rather, all) sides. It is impossible to listen to this book and not have an enhanced understanding of the current political and military positions in Afghanistan.Did I forget to mention that the book is gracefully written, and that it reflects a real appreciation for the history, culture and arts of Islamic Asia?
- Robin A. Gower
- Jon Meyer