William Dalrymple Talks About Afghanistan

In an interview with the Hindustan Times, promoting his new book, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-42:

What is fascinating with this story is that at every level at every stage it has strong parallels with the two recent neo-colonial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Iraqi element is that the war is the result of the manipulation of intelligence. The Weapons of Mass Destruction in this case is a sighting of a Russian envoy and a party of Cossacks at dawn in 1837 heading over the Iranian border into Afghanistan. This is turned into evidence that the Russians are about to invade Afghanistan and then charge down the Khyber Pass and prise British India from the Raj. It is almost complete nonsense. In 1839, two years after this sighting 18,000 troops followed by 40,000 camp followers set off to invade Afghanistan. They marched the troops through the desert in Sindh and soldiers died of thirst on desert tracks and in avalanches while carrying artillery through mountains.

The war today is fought with the same actors, and the same demarcations of territory. In Kandahar, there is a valley called the Argandab with a Sufi shrine called Baba Wali at the crest of a hill, where Mullah Omar had a bungalow and where bin Laden lived. It was the edge of the British territory then and is the edge of ISAF territory now. One day, I was looking down this hill and saw an American patrol crossing a bridge, an IED going off and plumes of smoke rising up. In 1842, it was on the same bridge that the British were attacked. The parallels are so close and there is not a happy ending to this story. The British would be out of there by the end of the year and the Americans the next year.

Luckily, a Brit survived to tell the tale:

Dr. William Brydon on his pony makes it to Jalalabad. He survives because he has a copy of the Blackwood’s magazine, the New Yorker of its time, rolled up inside his cap. It is a hardback book and when an Afghan fighter strikes him, the book saves him.


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