An impending peace deal may (finally) put to an end the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, some nineteen years after American, and later NATO, troops intervened to topple the Taliban-led government. The U.S.-backed Afghani government and the same Taliban are now negotiating a cessation of hostilities. This is something that is long overdue for the beleaguered Afghani people, who have been in an almost constant state of war since 1979. In short, it should be good news for all those concerned.
But the fact of the matter is, there will probably continue to be low-grade conflict in Afghanistan, and indeed, the recent cease fire has already been broken by both sides. And once all foreign troops have departed, a power struggle will begin between the government forces supported by the West on one side, and the Taliban on the other. Unfortunately, that has been the Afghan way for some time.
It was with this in mind and to try to better understand the situation, that I took up William Dalrymple’s history Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42. Written seven years ago, when NATO was in the midst of a military surge in Afghanistan, Dalrymple’s book elucidates the eternal struggle for power in a country that seems so remote from the rest of the world, and yet finds itself time and again a battleground for great powers. Darymple’s book focuses on the competition between Great Britain and Russia, and on their Afghan proxies. In short, Britain—concerned about Russian designs on Afghanistan and hence on neighboring India—decided in 1839 to send an Anglo-Indian army through the Khyber Pass to re-install on the Afghan throne a recently deposed royal family who were friendlier to British interests. Within three years, that army was utterly destroyed in an ignominious retreat. One sole British Army surgeon survived to make it back through the Khyber Pass to British India.
Dalrymple’s mastery of primary Afghani, Pakistani, Russian, and British sources, combined with his understanding of local history and tribal interactions in the Hindu Kush, is remarkable. He goes in-depth with profiles of Afghani, Sikh, and Pashtun leaders such as Dost Mohammad, his son Akbar Khan, and of course Shah Shuja. An interesting and eerie fact that Dalrymple points out is that Shah Shuja, who the British were intent on returning to power in 1839, has direct tribal lineage to Hamid Karzai, the president who ran Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014 with U.S. and NATO support. And the tribe that opposed and ultimately defeated Shah Shuja—the Ghilzai—today make up a large percentage of the Taliban.
Dalrymple’s colorful descriptions of the major players include a Scottish agent, Alexander Burnes, who dressed as an Afghan and was a polyglot, and his Russian nemesis, Ivan Vitkevich, who was actually a Pole of noble birth and equally fluent in the manors, dress, and languages of the local tribes of Central Asia. The British prospered when they heeded the advice of the shrewd Indian agent Mohan Lal Kashmiri, but incompetent higher ups, such as the top British political man in Afghanistan, William Macnaghten, were loath to do so and they met a bloody end. Afghan tribesmen, engaging in asymmetric, guerilla warfare with antiquated weapons were able to defeat the greatest military power in the world. Sound familiar?