First things first. You might like to get yourself a copy of Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple. I ended up having two separate late-night discussions about this session. The book uses Afghan sources for the first time to tell the story of the first Anglo-Afghan War:
In the spring of 1839, the British invaded Afghanistan for the first time. Led by lancers in scarlet cloaks and plumed shakos, nearly 20,000 British and East India Company troops poured through the high mountain passes and re-established on the throne Shah Shuja ul-Mulk. On the way in, the British faced little resistance. But after two years of occupation, the Afghan people rose in answer to the call for jihad and the country exploded into violent rebellion.
William was a brilliant storyteller, he moved swiftly from behind the lectern and strode the stage. He used slides to demonstrate the characters and location, and covered the story of the war from its origins, and repercussions, and linked it into today’s situation – and the similarities were chilling.
Here are some of the interesting facts and observations that you will find in the book. I am only giving a sampling – there was lots of detail and information in this session (heck I took 13 pages of notes!):
- In 1837 The East India company had the largest standing army in Asia. The modern equivalent would be Microsoft with nuclear weapons.
- The British and Russians were both advancing, and “were going to meet in the unmapped territory – Afghanistan”.
- A British intelligence officer saw Russian cavalry in a valley, riding into Afghanistan, and this incident “was the weapons of mass destruction of its day” – “a dodgy dossier equivalent” – using a single piece of intelligence to misrepresent what was going on.
- Lord Auckland wasn’t a great leader.
- Troops began assembling in 1839. Their kit included 300 camels carrying the regimental wine, 30 carrying cheroots and cigars, one carrying eau de cologne. “The only thing they didn’t think of bringing was a map”.
- Afghanistan is very expensive to hold. They stopped paying off border tribes, and roads were cut off, postmen killed, and no merchants got through.
- Sleeping with Afghan women does not go well. Alexander Burns picked the wrong woman to romance, and ended up with his head used as a football and his torso strung up in the bazaar. One of the Afghans said the fraternisation must stop “otherwise these English will ride the donkey of their desires into the fields of stupidity”.
- On 6 January 1842, 18,500 men, women and children left their camp and walked out into the thick snow of the passes.
- The death rate was appalling – by the second night only 10,000 are left alive. They walk up the pass in a blizzard and only 5000 come down.
- More hideous ambushes and deaths occur.
- One Dr Brighton gets through, the only survivor until later some Gurkhas and a Greek merchant get through.
The details of this story are known by Afghans, it is part of their national belief that they can repel all invaders.
Dalrymple had a lot to say on present-day Afghanistan: “There is nothing you can do in the world more expensive than war.” What then is the alternative? Dalrymple suggests “Capitalism creates a set of incentives that stop people going to war”. Some local Afghans have said “These are the last days of the Americans, next it will be China”. China has bought a lot of mineral rights. Afghanistan is “a crossroads for every nation that comes to power”.
- William Dalrymple at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival
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