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Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42by William Dalrymple
Synopses & Reviews
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.
“A masterful history....And as the latest occupying force in Afghanistan negotiates its exit, this chronicle seems all too relevant now....The signal achievement of this work is that it makes a nearly two-century-old war seem disturbingly fresh. It makes for grim reading. Like the current adventure in Afghanistan, this first one was undone by the unsustainable cost of occupation, waning political and public interest, and the need to divert resources....Mr. Dalrymple’s book is a timely reminder of the way that wars can begin with promise but end in disgrace.” The Economist
“[The Afghan] saga has been recounted many times, but never that I can recall as well as by Dalrymple. He is a master storyteller, whose special gift lies in the use of indigenous sources, so often neglected by imperial chroniclers....Almost every page of Dalrymple’s splendid narrative echoes with latter-day reverberations.” Max Hastings, The Times (London)
“[Return of a King] shows all the elements we have come to expect from Dalrymple: the clear, fluid prose, the ability to give complex historical events shape, story and meaning, the use of new local sources to allow the voices of the people...to be heard alongside the much-better documented accounts of the invaders, the deep knowledge and affection for the magnificently rich culture of the Mughals and their various copiers and a lack of patience with tiresome orientalist visions of the ‘proud Pashtun’ or ‘noble Afghan.’ This is clear-eyed, non-judgmental, sober history, beautifully told.” Jason Burke, The Observer
“Dalrymple, in his sparkling new history of the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42), draws striking parallels between that 19th century conflict and NATO’s current Afghan imbroglio....More is the pity that Dalrymple’s book — the first serious study of the war for almost 50 years, and the only history in English to use extensive Afghan sources — was not available in 2001....Extensively researched (with much new material) and beautifully written, it covers the story from the perspective of both invaders and invaded, and is by far the most comprehensive history of the conflict yet written. It also says important things about war and why it’s waged.”Saul David, The Daily Telegraph
“Magnificent...[Return of a King] is a history of the British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839, one of those passages of history the close examination of which requires a strong stomach — and which therefore also require the most thorough investigation. 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.” Diana Athill, The Guardian
From the prizewinning historian, a masterly retelling of the first Afghan war, perhaps the West's greatest imperial disaster in the East: an important parable of neocolonial ambition and cultural collision, folly, and hubris.
With access to previously untapped primary sources, William Dalrymple gives us the most immediate and comprehensive account we have had of the spectacular first battle for Afghanistan. We see the British invade the remote kingdom in 1839, reestablishing Shah Shuja on the throne — this time as their puppet — and ushering in a period of conflict still unresolved today. We see the Afghan people rise to the call for jihad against the foreign occupiers in 1841, poorly equipped tribesmen routing an entire army of what was then the most powerful military nation in the world: more than eighteen thousand British troops retreated from Kabul through treacherous mountain passes, and only one man made it through to Jellalabad. Dalrymple illuminates the similarities between what the British faced in Afghanistan nearly two centuries ago, and what NATO faces there today. The Return of a King is both the definitive analysis of the first Afghan war and a work of stunning topicality.
About the Author
William Dalrymple is the author of seven previous works of history and travel, including City of Djinns, which won the Young British Writer of the Year Prize and the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award; the best-selling From the Holy Mountain; White Mughals, which won Britain’s most prestigious history prize, the Wolfson; and The Last Mughal, which won the Duff Cooper Prize for History and Biography. He divides his time between New Delhi and London, and is a contributor to The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker.
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