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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Of how history keeps repeating itself in Afghanistan

Book: Return of a King — The Battle for Afghanistan
Author: William Dalrymple
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 567
Price: Rs 607 on Flipkart

"It is certainly no easy thing to invade or govern the Kingdom of Khurasan," wrote  the 19th century Afghan writer Mirza 'Ata (who has been described by Dalrymple in an interview as "extremely urbane and witty observer"). As NATO troops prepare to pull out of Afghanistan in 2014, my favourite author, William Dalrymple, has come up with Return of a King, a powerful reminder of how history repeats itself, over and over, in that country. What I love about his books is the way Dalrymple bridges the past and the present through the footnotes and his anecdotes. Here are some examples from Return of a King, which is based on the events that led to the catastrophic First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42):

"The Shikarpuri Sindhi money-lending community had long specialised in financing wars and dealing in arms, and the tradition continues to this day: the most notable Shikarpuris in this business today are the Hinduja brothers, who, among many other such deals, were allegedly involved in the controversial sale of the Bofors guns to Rajiv Gandhi's government in the 1980s."

"It is a book written by James Burnes, A Sketch of the History of the Knight's Templars (1840), that first links the Freemasons to the Templars and Roslyn Chapel near Edinburgh. It is the ultimate progenitor of a wash of popular nonsense like The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code."

"The same title (Amir al-Muminin or the Commander of the Faithful) was later taken by Mullah Omar of the Taliban who in 1996 looked explicitly to the example of Dost Mohammad (who had awarded himself the title in February 1835 before called for battle to liberate Peshawar, the Afghan winter capital, from Sikh control) for inspiration for the founding of the Taliban Islamic Amirate of Afghanistan."

"This (The question Mehrab Khan of Qalat asked Scottish agent Alexander Burnes (1805-41) was: 'You have brought an army into the country, but how do you propose to take it out again?') has become a famous line and is widely remembered even today. In 2003, it was repeated to me (Dalrymple) by Javed Paracha, a wily Pashtun lawyer who has successfully defended al-Qaeda suspects in the Peshawar High Court. In his fortress-like stronghouse in Kohat, deep in the lawless tribal belt that acts as a buffer between Pakistan and Afghanistan, Paracha had sheltered wounded Taliban fighters — and their frost-bitten women and children —fleeing across the mountains from the American daisy-cutters at Tora Bora, and was twice imprisoned in the notorious prison at Dera Ismail Khan. There he was kept in solitary while being questioned — and he alleges tortured — by CIA interrogators. Despite seeing at close quarters what modern western weaponry was capable of, he knew his history, and never believed NATO would succeed in its occupation of Afghanistan. When I (Dalrymple) went to interview him in Kohat soon after installation of President Karzai he quoted Mehrab Khan's line to me as evidence of the futility of the attempt to install another Popalzai (Durrani Pashtuns) in power."

The last survivors of Her Majesty's 44th Foot at Gandamak. Pic courtesy:  Southern Cross Review
"... the Dasht which stretches from Spin Boldak at the foot of the mountains south of Kandahar is now a virtual desert with only a little spring grazing and the dwarf oaks confined to the mountain slopes. But the descriptions left by members of the Army of the Indus reveal a greener landscape as do the place names: Chaman, the present-day border post between Pakistan and Afghanistan in these parts, means 'meadow' in Persian."

"The arrival of the US-led coalition in Kabul in 2002 had a similar effect (to that in 1841 when the sudden flood of silver rupees and letters of credit into the country after the advent of British troops resulted in an increase of prices of some basic products by 500 per cent), leading in a few months to a ten-fold hike in house prices." 

"The same tactics (the destruction of the vineyards and cutting deep rings around trees of two centuries' growth by the Army of Retribution) were used by the Taliban against the orchards and vineyards of the Shomali Plain when they finally lost patience with the mainly Tajik villages of Parwan in the 1990s."

"On my (Dalrymple's) extended visits to Afghanistan to research this book in 2009 and 2010, I set myself two goals. Firstly, I wanted to try to find the elusive Afghan sources telling of the war which I was certain had to exist and which I have in due course used to write this book. Secondly, I was keen to see as many of the places and landscapes associated with the First Afghan War as was possible in a situation where ISAF's (International Security Assistance Force) hold on Afghanistan was already visibly shrinking everyday. By 2010, the Taliban had a strong presence in over 70 per cent of the country and Karzai's government had firm control of only twenty-nine out of 121 key strategic districts. That 70 per cent included most of the route of the British retreat of January 1842 which I knew I would have to travel if I was to have an idea of the geography I was going to write about."

"For the Afghans the war changed their state for ever: on his return. Dost Mohammad inherited the reforms made by the British and these helped him consolidate an Afghanistan that was much more clearly defined than it was before the war. Indeed Shuja and most of his contemporaries had never used the word 'Afghanistan' — for him, there was a Kingdom of Kabul which was the last surviving fragment of the Durrani Empire and which lay on the edge of a geographical space he described as Khurasan. Yet within a generation the phrase Afghanistan existed widely on maps both within and outside the country and people within that space were beginning to describe themselves as Afghans."

* The words in the brackets are mine, to elucidate the context of the note.

1 comment:

Mirza Ghalib said...

First off, those familiar with William Dalrymple's earlier works, notably 'White Mughals' and 'The Last Mughal' will not be disappointed with 'Return of a King'. The book contains what most of his readers will have now come to expect from a Dalrymple book - (1) meticulous research, (2) characters whose virtues and vices are duly brought out, (3) anecdotes (all stemming from his extensive research) , and (4) a style of story telling which ties in his research and the characters beautifully.

To those interested in this genre, but who have not yet read Dalrymple's work, I strongly recommend you to buy this book, as well as 'The Last Mughal'. You will find them most enjoyable.

While the story takes up about 500 pages of the book, it should be able to keep readers engrossed (I finished reading my copy in 3 days). The pace picks up at key moments and slows down whenever the story demands. As reported in various media, the book will draw parallels to the current occupation of Afghanistan, and viewers will not fail to see why.

All in all, William Dalrymple's 'Return of a King' is a good read and is highly recommended.