The First Western War In Afghanistan Was An ‘Imperial Disaster'
by NPR STAFF
April 25, 2013 3:26 AM
Almost any news article about the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan may mention past foreign armies that came to the country and went down to defeat. Our next guest explores one of the most famous defeats of all. Our story begins in 1839. Two powerful empires, Great Britain and Russia, were caught in a military chess match, trying to outmaneuver one another for dominance of Central Asia.
The writer William Dalrymple has taken an unusually deep look at what happened next. His new book "Return of a King," details British efforts to win Afghanistan by putting an ousted Afghan monarch back on this throne.
This is for the Afghans what Washington is to you guys. For the British, I suppose, the Battle of Trafalgar or Waterloo is for us. This is the great national liberation struggle.
There's one called the "Jangnama," there's another called the "Akbarnama," after the leading Afghan freedom fighter of that time. Indeed, the main diplomatic enclave in Kabul today is still called Wazir Akbar Khan, after the man who defeated the British. There's also - and this is, in a sense, the richest thing I found, I think - was the autobiography of the man the British installed.
INSKEEP: Okay. So you were able to gather historical documents to get the facts from the Afghan point of view. You had these epic poems to provide color commentary, and you discover a central character who becomes more than a name, this guy that we would think of as a puppet ruler who was installed. But Shah Shuja was originally a legitimate king of Afghanistan, right?
They drag this artillery up mountainsides, and they actually get to Afghanistan. They hardly fight a battle, but they lose a quarter of their force to dehydration and bad planning and starvation, and it's this hellish march. Such is the surprise when they turn up in Afghanistan. The rulers of Kandahar flee. They take Kandahar without a shot being fired.
Shah Shuja is installed in his old palace in Kabul. It looks as if it's a huge success. You have a whole winter when the British are just going shooting and ice skating and taking the foxhounds out for exercise.
He's taken the girlfriend of one of the Afghan leading noblemen, and this nobleman attacks his house. Such is the ease with which he kills the deputy governor. They then go on to capture the arms and the ammunition of the British force, which has stupidly been left in an isolated position outside the main British cantonment. And this siege then begins.
The British governor in charge of the whole force goes out to negotiate, is shot dead by the negotiating party. So the British have lost their general, their governor. They're surrounded. They have no money. They have no arms. They have no option but to surrender.
Which was it for the British?
It's difficult enough for an Afghan to unite all the different tribes, all the different ethnicities, all the different forms of Islam. And a combination of idiotic leadership, a lack of understanding of the country and arrogance and overconfidence means that when the British go into retreat, 18,000 men, women and children leave the British fortress on the 6th of January, 1842. Six days later, one man alone makes it through to Jalalabad.
INSKEEP: The latest book by William Dalrymple is "Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839 - '42." Mr. Dalrymple, thanks very much again.