To be a great historian is to be a great storyteller, and William Dalrymple is one of the best. Dalrymple fans will be familiar with the way the celebrated author dusts off long forgotten empires and breathes new life into the rulers of the past.
In his latest offering ‘Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan’, Dalrymple sheds fresh light on a nineteenth century military campaign brushed under the rug of history – the first Anglo-Afghan war of 1839.
Afghanistan has always been the crossroads of the world. In 1839, in order to combat Russian influence in Asia, British East India Company forces took control of Afghanistan. Yet an Afghan uprising managed to decimate the British overnight. Of the 18,000 strong British force that marched out of India, only one man limped back out of the mountains.
The Afghan liberation struggle is history “Afghan children are brought up on” said Dalrymple at Asia House on Friday. Yet like many colonial exploits, this first battle for “roof of the world” has slipped from the collective memory in the West.
Dalrymple extensively researched Afghan accounts of the war, using records that contain a “different sort of truth to British military documents”. These descriptions provide insight into Afghan perceptions of the foreign invaders and reflect the way many Afghans feel living in an occupied country today.
When researching in Afghanistan, Dalrymple asked Afghan elders if they could see any parallels between that first ill-fated invasion and the current situation in Afghanistan today; “it is exactly the same” an elder replied. Many perceive the days of the current occupation to be numbered; before long the foreign troops, bankrupt and exhausted, will once again melt away.
It is thought civilisation arose in Afghanistan 5000 years ago and the history of the country is as rich and illustrious as it is fraught. The country was a great cultural centre during the Middle Ages and it has always been a land of art and poetry, boasting many ancient monuments and world heritage sites.
Afghanistan has been conquered by successive invaders, including Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, for the last 2000 years. In the early 20th century, attempts were made by Afghan Kings to introduce reforms in women’s rights and education. Unrest and regime change however saw the end of the monarchy and the last King’s rule ended in 1978.
Having seen the ebb and flow of many empires, it looks like Afghanistan may be about to see the back of yet another occupying force, but will it be the last? The elders questioned by Dalrymple seem resigned to their country’s fate; “these are the last days of America, next it will be China”.