William Dalrymple: Not Learning from the Past in Afghanistan

Historian finds parallels between first Western invasion and NATO occupation

NEW YORK, April 22, 2013 — Asia Society New York welcomed back historian and travel journalist William Dalrymple, whose latest work, The Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42, about the British East India Company's disastrous invasion of Afghanistan in 1839, holds a number of cautionary lessons for the current United States/NATO occupation of that country.

Working from Afghan primary sources never before tapped by English-language historians, Dalrymple's book tells a story of imperial hubris on an epic scale: the decision by the East India Company, in response to a largely fictitious Russian threat to British interests in India and Central Asia, to invade Afghanistan and install as its puppet ruler Shah Shuja, a monarch who had been deposed decades earlier in an internal Afghan conflict. After an initial period of success, the occupation was caught off-guard when the Afghan people rose up against the foreigners in 1841, and ultimately routed them.  

At Asia Society Dalrymple summarized this grim tale with an eye for the kind of vivid, stranger-than-fiction detail that brings history to life — mentioning, for instance, that in 1839 one British regiment brought its own foxhounds with it to the front — and a certain amount of sardonic humor.

Describing how the hyperactive libido of the British agent in Kabul Sir Alexander Burnes incurred the wrath of the local population, Dalrymple said, "It's a particularly bad idea to seduce the girlfriends of powerful Afghan warlords." Burnes did that, and ended up being the first British victim of the Afghan uprising, hacked to death and decapitated while trying to escape disguised in native garb.

Later, after recounting how the British retreat from Kabul met with utter catastrophe — a force of 18,000 British soldiers, Indian sepoys, and camp followers was reduced to exactly one man who made it to Jellalabad — Dalrymple described how his on-the-ground research in present-day Afghanistan brought home the parallels between the events of roughly 170 years ago and the past decade. Attending a jirga, or tribal council, near Jellalabad, he spoke to a group of elders about how the British invasion resonated down to the present day.

"It's exactly the same... . The foreigners come here for their own interests," one elder told the historian. But, he and the others agreed, the Americans would be gone soon, just like the British and the Soviets before them. "It's just a matter of time."

Video: Highlights from William Dalrymple's lecture (5 min., 13 sec.)

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