How the mighty have fallen

Atul K Thakur is a New Delhi-based journalist, literary critic and editor of ‘India Since 1947’. He can be reached at: summertickets[at]

Atul K Thakur

Atul K Thakur

Review of William Dalrymple’s new book Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839–42 (Bloomsbury/2012)

Imperialism never gives of its own accord. The all-season historian, William Dalrymple, echoes this message in the thickness of his latest scripture-sized book, ‘Return of a King’. In comparison to his research on India, which is always submerged in complex historiography, this new book is a rattling good read.

Afghanistan has one of the most difficult geographies on earth. Its morphing into a strife-torn country has much to do with its history of conquest and warfare. Many warriors have crossed this land over the ages, laying it to waste over and over again. Western “engagements” in Afghanistan have long been determined by strategic impulses to control and colonize the land. (The secondary reasons, such as rescuing Afghanistan’s beautiful human and natural resources, were no less nefarious.)

Dalrymple’s book focuses on the 19th century and analyzes the ill-fated reign of King Shah Shuja of the Sadozai Dynasty. The fluctuations in his reign, caused by the loosening of power and marked by humiliating defeats, forced exile and planks of homecoming, gives ample material to Dalrymple for his mammoth book. The book begins with an inquisition of Shah Shuja’s overtures to the British East India Company. The “game” was to initially counter Russian advances in Afghanistan. But soon enough the Afghans turned against British occupation. (The Afghan natives are shown by the author to be a genuinely losing side.)

king_hard_bloomsbury Anyone with a sense of history knows that the insurgency in present-day Afghanistan has striking parallels with its predecessor in 1842. The Game is repeating itself, concludes Dalrymple at the end of this book: President Hamid Karzai, in his dummy position, resembles Shah Shuja; and the Taliban are a re-enactment of the virulent Dost Mohammad. Dalrymple supplies lots of juicy details, including the sexual temptations of men at different levels of the hierarchy, not all of them suited to serious historiography.

Afghanistan has long been used as a battleground for wars by mighty and territorially ambitious external powers. This is because of its strategic geographic position between the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia. Moreover, the fragmented and polarized nature of Afghan society, which is made up of many different ethnic groups, has led to endless internal struggles, in which neighbors and external powers can participate by deploying proxies. Afghanistan in the mid-19th century was therefore a story of imperial struggle and local resistance to external aggression.

Today, despite neo-imperial intervention, Afghanistan is a better place than it was 15 years ago. But the US is repeating follies similar to the ones committed by imperial Britain in the 19th century. Dalrymple doesn’t suggest that this besieged nation will attain complete peace in the foreseeable future, though his guess – that first the US, and later China, will be the defeated imperial powers here – is probably a little far from the probable outcome.

Nevertheless, this book persuasively shows how powers become blinded in the race for strategic domination. The US has to pay, and is still paying, a heavy price in economic terms to maintain its occupation in Afghanistan, and there are fewer and fewer chances that it will recoup the money thus squandered on a land where prospects are dim for peace on the ground, much less for the extraction of mineral wealth under its soil. The US has definitely overreached in its strategies and has only made the world more violent and full with regional confrontation.

Though the author has some sense of China’s imperial ambitions and likely role in the region’s future, he overestimates it by placing the country on the side of the US as the next superpower to suffer a fall. China has no territorial loads like Afghanistan or Iraq. Why would it be in deep trouble like the US in the future? The author fails to supply persuasive reasons for why China will supplant the US from its superpower status, and in the terms familiar to us today.

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