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"Much of the Western journalism in Afghanistan today assumes that any Afghan who takes up arms against the West is a fanatical intolerant Muslim who is doing it for religious reasons"


William Dalrymple's new offering, Return of a King, is a fabulous account of the First Anglo-Afghan War and its disastrous consequences. As another defeat looms large in Afghanistan, he talks about the obvious parallels and divergences in an interview with Saurabh Kumar Shahi
SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | Issue Dated: January 20, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : William Dalrymple | Return of a king | Anglo Afghan War |

What prompted you to write a book on the First Anglo-Afghan War? Did you find enough curiosity among the readers to lap up this subject?
The reason I write any book is not primarily what the readers want, I have to say. The first rule to write a successful book is you need to be passionate about it yourself. Having said that, I must add that it is a consideration. There are thousands of books I want to write on subjects, like my family history etc., who no one else will be interested in reading about. So, readers are a consideration. But it is not the only consideration. While I knew it would not be as successful in India as, say The Last Mughal; as the subject is not directly related to India, I expected it to sell in countries who are affected in one way or other by Afghanistan, including the 50-odd countries that are part of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). So I thought it was a risk worth taking. Although you are right, it is not a famous story anymore. Very few people know this tale and fewer still know Shah Shuja. So it was a gamble. But the story was fabulous - the simple cinematic image of 18,000 soldiers marching in a country and only one man managing to return past Jalalabad is a driving force. It is such a strong and eternal image that it will work for a thousand years to come.

The impressive bibliography suggests that you brought in a whole new set of research materials for this book, including those from Afghan poets, chroniclers as well as British officers. Often such materials tend to be partial and exaggerated and incorporate folklore...
Sure, it is a different sort of source to the British colonial source. So, if you have a letter from Lord Aukland saying I want to move 5,000 troops from Barrackpore to Lucknow, you can be sure enough that 5,000 sepoys moved. When an Afghan poet says “A hundred thousand brave horsemen charged over the hill and made the Firangis flee for their life”, you obviously don’t take it with the same literal sense. But it is incredibly helpful in many ways, especially the way it portrays Afghan attitudes, and also who the people doing the fighting were – their motives. As with much Western journalism in Afghanistan today which assumes that any Afghan who takes up arms against the West is a fanatical intolerant Muslim who is doing it for religious reasons. The interesting part is that in Afghan sources you get very distinct reasons. The religious factor is there, and it is expressed as it is in rhetoric. But individual reasons are well defined by the Afghan sources. Abdullah Khan Achakzai participated because his girlfriend was seduced by Burnes. Aminullah Khan Logari joins in because his land is taken from him. However, you have to use them carefully. But you use British sources carefully too as they come with their own problems, including incorporating the imperial views.

It is not difficult to see some very obvious parallels between the 1842 war and now. Was there a deliberate attempt on your part to illustrate these parallels or were they so obvious that they would have come to light even without a little help from the writer?
I guess it was so obvious that I did not need to overdo it. The only times I explicitly talk about the parallels are in the introduction and conclusion. In the main body of the book, except the odd footnotes where I pass through a territory and say that it is now a US base or garrison, nothing is deliberate. Again, I have also pointed out differences. I think it is important to say that Hamid Karzai, with all his corruptions and failures, is at least a democrat. And similarly, Mulla Omer, although he has great following in some areas in the south, especially in and around Kandhar, is by no means a dominating central figure of resistance in a way that Akbar Khan and Dost Muhammad were in 1842. But readers would be awed by the astonishing parallels nonetheless.   

Something that struck me the most is the pretty limited role played by non-Pashtun ethnic groups such as Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras in the War. They appeared to have remained on the peripheries of the Great Game  most of the time, but not any more. What has changed?
Tajiks today are very different from what they were in the past. They  are now firmly set against Pashtuns. Even in the Afghan National Army, they don’t mix and have separate battalions and barracks. The difference is also because Afghanistan as a nation did not exist back then. There were different rulers in Kandhar, Herat and Kabul. The Uzbeks in the north were pretty independent. It was basically this conflict that provided Dost Muhammad the machinery to unite Afghanistan when he came back. The patriotic Afghan notion that Afghanistan was formed by Ahmad Shah Durrani does not hold much water. He was basically raised among Punjabis in Multan.

In the West and Russia, the War was always seen as the culmination of the efforts by Alexander Burnes and his rival Ivan Vitkevitch. You have humanised both the characters, stripping them of all the legendary flab. How difficult was that?
What you do is you go back to your sources. And you read people’s letters and diaries. And then you try to access the character as you would do to someone you know today. It is like when you write about any modern political leader in India, you read their speeches and listen to what people say about them and then reach a conclusion. I have a method. I keep a card index for each character and write down my impressions along with what people say about them in sources. And Burnes is a fascinating character who in my opinion gets the facts right on most occasions. And then he is the first martyr. But he is also fatally ambitious. So, at the end, although he knows the facts on the ground and having opposed any such adventures in the past, he comes behind the invasion only because he wants to become the resident governor. In the end, he wasted himself sitting in Afghanistan, seducing local women and perpetually drunk. All the promises that he showed initially came to nothing. It was completely wasted.

What also struck me was the way how Human Intelligence (a la Burnes) was ignored by the bureaucracy and armchair experts to start this disastrous War. The situation has hardly changed.
The important fact is how much more these guys were clued-up than their modern counterparts. They had people on ground who exactly knew what was happening. Yet, there were problems within the British camp as it is today between the British and American Occupation Forces. Then, as today, people had individual compulsions and motivations. And likewise, you have this very fractured Afghan resistance, then and now. Even then they were far less unified than the British used to think. The experts then were well prepared and were trained in local languages and dialects apart from local culture and customs. It is impossible for commanders now to do so. Burnes and Norton were fluent in Persian and many were fluent in Pashto too. Yet, they failed in 1842. They allowed themselves to be deceived and misled and lost the War.

Treachery, backstabbing, usurping, dishonour of promises made; Pashtuns seemed not to mind any of these. What happened to the fabled Pakhtunwali?
What is interesting is that the legendary Pakhtunwali is not mentioned once in either the Afghan texts or the British ones. The Pakhtunisation of the Afghan identity takes place in the late 19th century under Emir Abdur Rahman Khan. Notably, all the major characters here are Persian speaking. It is the end of the Timurid world rather than the familiar world of Pakhtunwali.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017