Review: Return of a King, William Dalrymple

Rating: 5 out of 5

I’ve read a bit of Mr Dalrymple and I was quite interested to pick up one of his earliest works and one which he himself said read really nicely when he picked it up again after many years. This is a history of the Anglo-Afghanistan War in the 1840’s, but it’s interesting to see how much rhymed with the US invasion in the 21st century.

In this light, it’s interesting to also bring up the author’s own comment that the book changed President Karzai’s politics to be more confrontational with the US — also bringing the title into the orbit of the Obama White House. This gives the title real modern impact even if the outcome of that saga is well known to us today.

But what else does Shah Shuja tell us? A fairly unlucky person, whose habit of putting on royal airs seems to have damaged him in many circles, his one quality was perseverance. One could also mention loyalty, which Shuja had plenty of, although the same cannot be said of his allies in the East India Company. Yet, Shuja’s inability to translate these potential qualities into lasting political victories reduces his effectiveness.

The opposition, Dosh Mohammad and his sons, present a slightly different picture. None of them are particularly loyal to any goal except their family, but this allows them to survive, to regroup, and to defeat their enemies, gaining control of the country. Luck, external forces in the British, and other factors help them, but overall their accomplishments would not have been possible without the idiocies of their opponents, the British.

Which brings us to the British incursion itself. Mr Dalrymple is very effective in showing how a badly prepared and badly led army managed to still defeat its opponents, only to be undone by the victory. The British come across as haughty and, in several notable instances, also as unwilling to actually be in Afghanistan. Yet, the orders of the Company were not to be ignored, in the end causing untold deaths and the complete destruction of Kabul.

I found the history compelling and well-written. It’s good both as a history of Afghanistan as well as a story of what to do and what not to do.

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