A familiar tragedy: Britain’s first war in Afghanistan

William Dalrymple's book Return of a king: The Battle for Afghanistan (2013) is a study of Britain's first war in Afghanistan. Here, he speaks to Rob Attar about how it may change our view of the conflict, and what parallels can be drawn with the fighting in recent years

Concerned that Russia was expanding its influence in the region, Britain invaded Afghanistan in 1839, ousting ruler Dost Mohammad and replacing him with Shah Shuja, who had been king from 1803–10. (Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the February 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

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In context: the First Anglo-Afghan War

Concerned that Russia was expanding its influence in the region, Britain invaded Afghanistan in 1839, ousting ruler Dost Mohammad and replacing him with Shah Shuja, who had been king from 1803–10. Insurrections later broke out, compelling the British garrison to flee Kabul. Believing they had been promised safe passage, a large contingent of British and Indian forces attempted a retreat in January 1842, but were ambushed by Afghan troops, leading to the deaths of around 18,000 soldiers. Abandoned in Kabul, Shah Shuja was killed. British forces managed to recapture Kabul later that year and elsewhere laid waste to the countryside but eventually decided to pull out of the country altogether. Dost Mohammad returned to Kabul in 1843 and his dynasty would remain in power until the 1970s.

How does your book change our understanding of the war?

It is one of those old chestnuts that’s already got a shelf-and-a-half of books written about it. So it seemed the only point of dedicating four years to this was to try to completely rewrite the story, obviously with a view to seeing it in the light of what is going on now, but more specifically trying to cover both sides of the story, which has never been done before. To date, not one book on the war has used a single Afghan source. Everything we have is entirely from the British side.
I did several trips to Afghanistan to search out more sources and by the end I had nine full-length Afghan accounts of the war. What emerged from them was that the war had a completely different dramatis personae and a more fractured regional make-up than the British seemed to be aware of. They saw an undifferentiated wall of bigoted bearded Afghans coming towards them but in reality the resistance was divided by tribe, ethnic group and language.
My most exciting find was the autobiography of Shah Shuja. He had been written off by the British and Afghan nationalists as a weak and hopeless guy, but I think he was wonderful. He was a poet, civilised and immensely likeable. He just didn’t have military luck ever in his career.
Astonishingly he was from the same sub-tribe, the Popalzai, as current Afghan president Hamid Karzai. We’ve put the same guy in twice! And he was brought down by the Ghilzai who today make up the foot soldiers of the Taliban. This is the same tribal war, continuing under slightly different flags, 170 years later.

Has your research changed your view of the war’s origins?

The account I give is subtly, but not completely, changed from previous versions. The basic reason for the British invasion was a blown-up fear of Russian intervention and here there are parallels, oddly enough, with the war in Iraq, with a ‘dodgy dossier’. A group of hawks manipulated intelligence to exaggerate a threat that didn’t exist in reality as substantially as they thought it did.
There was this episode when a young great gamer, Sir Henry Rawlinson, was riding through Persia to join the Shah of Persia’s camp in the north-west of the country. One night Rawlinson found himself in the very dodgy borderlands between Persia and Afghanistan and, just as dawn was breaking, he witnessed a party of horsemen coming down the valley towards him. He saw that they were Russian Cossacks heading in the direction of the Afghan border. He headed them off at the top of the pass and found them eating their breakfast.
There was a young Russian officer who refused to talk to him in Russian, Persian or French but agreed to chat in Jagatai Turkish (they were better linguists in those days). He told Rawlinson he was on his way to the Persian camp so Rawlinson rode straight there to see the Shah. The Shah said that the Russians were nothing to do with him but were going to open diplomatic relations with Dost Mohammad in Kabul.
This was the yellowcake of its day [in 2002, it was claimed that Saddam Hussein had been trying to obtain yellowcake uranium to develop weapons of mass destruction]. For 30 years hawks had been worrying about Russia moving towards Afghanistan and there was this whole literature already in London about Russia taking Afghanistan then sweeping down the Khyber and expelling the British from India. There was no evidence for this at all until this chance discovery.
There was this new governor general, Lord Auckland, who had inherited a group of belligerently hawkish and Russophobic advisors, led by the hopeless William Macnaghten. They ignored the advice of the one British official in India who really knew Afghanistan, Alexander Burnes. He was sending despatches saying that Dost Mohammad wanted to ally with the British rather than the Russians, but they didn’t listen and advised Auckland to oust Dost Mohammad and bring in what they described as the ‘ousted legitimate ruler’ Shah Shuja.

How did the British fare in the early military operations?

The war followed the same trajectory as the current conflict. Everyone warned that it would be catastrophically difficult, but in fact they conquered the country almost instantly with minimal casualties. Then you had, as happened in 2001, the government crowing that they’d seen off the naysayers and it was going to be easy. For the first year it did seem to be so. The Afghans were very friendly and their noblemen went hunting, did amateur theatricals and played cricket with the British. But slowly it began to unravel, from Helmand, working northwards. There was more and more resistance until the British found themselves surrounded in Kabul without any control of the countryside around it. Again, it was exactly the same as the situation today.

Where did this resistance come from?

Here my interpretation is different from that of the British. They assumed that the Afghans were rising up against Shah Shuja as much as themselves but it’s quite clear that a lot of the resistance was from irritated royalists who wanted Shah Shuja to shed his allegiance to the British. They thought the British were abusing agreements he’d made with them, which was indeed the case.
The initial idea had been that Shah Shuja would be given rule and the British would just help him enforce it, but, rather like with the tensions between Karzai and the British and Americans, increasingly the British got irritated with their own puppet and tried to bully him or take unilateral action. Macnaghten and Burnes gradually despaired of ever running Shah Shuja effectively and just took control of Afghanistan themselves.
What we get very clearly from Afghan sources is the motivations of individual leaders, which were all quite different. Abdullah Khan Achakzai was a young aristocrat whose girlfriend was seduced by Burnes, so for him it was a personal slight. He made a wonderful speech the night before the rebellion saying: “We have to put a stop right here and now, otherwise these English will ride the donkey of their desires into the field of stupidity, to the point of having us all arrested and deported into foreign imprisonment.”
Aminullah Khan Logari was a self-made man who had worked his way up for over 60 years of service. He was treated very peremptorily by a young British official who threw him off his lands. It was people such as Logari and Achakzai who kicked the whole thing off. They called everyone to arms and, within a few days, 50,000 had gathered in Kabul to fight the British.

Did the British just retreat then?

There were two quite substantial battles that they lost through their incompetence and then they retreated. It was during the retreat under the promise of safekeeping that they got shot down. The East India Company at the time still used the Brown Bess musket, which was great in a flat European field like Waterloo but couldn’t fire long distances or uphill. The Afghans had these clumsy big jezails that took an hour to load but nonetheless could fire a mile downhill and were perfect for mountain warfare.

How did the British allow this catastrophe to happen?

It was quite fantastically incompetent British leadership. As well as Burnes and Macnaghten, who were always at each other’s necks, there was this gout-ridden old general called William Elphinstone who hadn’t seen action since Waterloo and was an invalid. On the first morning of the revolt he tried to get on his horse, which fell on top of him and he was more or less out of the action from there. By their own indecision and hopelessness the British lost the war very quickly. They lost all their food and ammunition within about 48 hours and it was only a matter of time before they had to retreat.

Was it a political or military decision to pull out of the country altogether?

Retreat was inevitable once they’d lost their food and ammunition, so that was a military decision. The Kabul garrison was wiped out but there were others surviving in Jalalabad and Kandahar. They were reinforced and the following spring they returned and laid waste to southern Afghanistan.
This army of retribution committed war crimes on a grand scale, raping and murdering women and children.
After that, the decision to pull out was an economic one and this is also true of the later conflicts. Resistance can be defeated but only at huge cost, because the country is so diffused and the geography makes it so difficult. Plus there is no way of defraying the cost of the occupation. If you invade Iraq you can take the oil, or in the Punjab you can tax the rich, fertile land, but the entire tax revenue of Afghanistan never paid then and doesn’t pay now even a fraction of the cost of occupation.

How might your book inform policy makers today?

It’s too late to do much now because we’re pulling out pretty promptly but I do think there’s a huge amount to be learned from the Afghan version of events. It gives a precision into understanding the resistance, which has been lacking to date.
The story of the First Anglo-Afghan War provides clear warnings about the dangers of being trapped in Kabul, surrounded and with no allies, having fallen out with the people you put into power. The problem is that each generation fails to learn these lessons.
George Lawrence was one of the troops taken hostage during the retreat and so survived to write his memoirs. He saw history repeating itself in the 1870s with the Second Anglo-Afghan War and he roused himself to write a letter to The Times. He said: “A new generation has arisen, which instead of profiting from the solemn lessons of the past, is willing and eager to embroil us in the affairs of that turbulent and unhappy country… The disaster of the retreat from Kabul should stand forever as a warning to the statesmen of the future not to repeat the policies that bore such butter fruit in 1839–42.” He wasn’t listened to in 1870, and this is now the fourth lost Afghan war.
William Dalrymple is a writer and historian, based in India. His 2003 book, White Mughals, was awarded the Wolfson Prize, while The Last Mughal (2008) was the recipient of the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize for History