The March of Folly
William Dalrymple masterfully explores the roots of Western colonialism in Afghanistan
Return of a King:
The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42
by William Dalrymple
$30.00 List Price
BY TURNS EPIC, THRILLING, SUSPENSEFUL, and utterly appalling, at once deeply researched and beautifully paced, Return of a King should win every prize for which it’s eligible. Yet William Dalrymple—author of From the Holy Mountain (1998) and The Last Mughal (2007)—has done more than write a brilliant work of history; in these pages he also holds up a distant mirror to the West’s more recent, and comparably disastrous, military incursions into Afghanistan. His book describes, among much else, the opening moves of the Great Game—the intelligence battle between colonizing powers for ideological and territorial supremacy in central Asia. It is, in some ways, a conflict that continues even now. As Kipling’s youthful spy hero of Kim says, “When everyone is dead, the Great Game is finished. Not before.”
For most Americans, the First Afghan War, which took place from 1839 to 1842, is probably remembered, if at all, as the backdrop for George MacDonald Fraser’s very first Flashman novel, published in 1969. But Flashy’s antics, lecheries, and grandstanding are nothing compared with the truly deplorable behavior of the high-ranking British officials who appear in Dalrymple’s account. The commanders and politicians, in particular, are incompetent, supercilious, culturally ignorant, bombastic, duplicitous, and pathetically indecisive. Time after time, they marginalize the people who actually know Muslim Afghanistan or they simply ignore their advice. And in the end what was accomplished?
After all the waste and destruction of an expensive and unnecessary war of dubious
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