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Dalrymple, William. Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-42, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2013 (515pp.$30)

The elephantine, racist and slightly bizarre Western imperial enterprise had some surprising impulses, none more than the one that impelled British troops into Afghanistan (then as now, a vague collocation of tribes, loyalties and religions at best) during 1839. After the battle of Friedland on June 14, 1807, a victorious Napoleon met with Russian Emperor Alexander II in the marshlands of the river Nemer, where Russian forces had, despite their defeat, reassembled in good order, reinforced by 200,000 militiamen. Instead of pursuing a war, Napoleon pursued an alliance with Russia, one that would allow France to seize India and impoverish Britain by securing avenues over which French troops could attack India through Persia. When the British government got wind of this supercilious (but not, Whigs thought, totally impossible) plan, there was nervousness and over-reaction.

William Dalrymple, author of seven previous books on history and travel, including “The Last Mughal” and “City of Djinns,” which won the Young British Writer of the Year Prize and the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, examines Britain’s first Afghan war through the lens of newly discovered archives in Russia as well as extensive travels to obscure libraries in war-ravaged Afghanistan. “Return of a King” is a work of monumental scholarship marred by patches of dull writing and extensive quotes from archival material. It is, nonetheless, a definitive history of the First Anglo-Afghan War as well as an unsurpassed cautionary tale.

During 1838 a cabal of political hawks in England’s government convinced the dilettantish governor-general of India, Lord Auckland, to engage in a military adventure to replace the supposedly pro-Russian ruler of Afghanistan, Dost Muhammad, with an exiled former warlord named Shah Shuja, who would, the theory went, be pro-British. By 1839 the plan was under way, seeing a huge colonial British Army cross the Khyber Pass to occupy Kabul. Unfortunately for the British, its compounds, cantonments, barracks and civilian installations, accommodating nearly 16,000 soldiers, Indian sepoys, wives, children and camp followers, came under attack as a rebellion gained traction. Eventually, the British were forced to retreat. Disorganized, beset by cold and in the mountains of the Khyber deep snow, they were slaughtered nearly to the last man by Pashtun tribesmen who picked them off from lofty perches.  Naturally, the British came back in the form of an Army of Retribution, and retook Kabul in 1842. Along the way it committed terrible atrocities, leaving a young Neville Chamberlain disgusted with himself and the world. These events remain remarkably alive for Afghanis as well, who consider this war their Waterloo and Trafalgar rolled into one.

While “Return of a King” does not crackle to life as it should, it is still a remarkable book, beautifully made and chock full of lovely photographs and three helpful maps. Some critics have charged that Dalrymple’s historical comparisons are overdrawn and lacking causal specificity. But his book shows that the imperial enterprise in Afghanistan is folly pure and simple, no matter the century, no matter the color of the uniform. Those who pay the price for outside interference are Afghans, some living, some dead, some soon to die.