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Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42 [Kindle Edition]

William Dalrymple
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (181 customer reviews)

Print List Price: $17.95
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Book Description

From William Dalrymple—award-winning historian, journalist and travel writer—a masterly retelling of what was perhaps the West’s greatest imperial disaster in the East, and an important parable of neocolonial ambition, folly and hubris that has striking relevance to our own time.

With access to newly discovered primary sources from archives in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia and India—including a series of previously untranslated Afghan epic poems and biographies—the author gives us the most immediate and comprehensive account yet of the spectacular first battle for Afghanistan: the British invasion of the remote kingdom in 1839. Led by lancers in scarlet cloaks and plumed helmets, and facing little resistance, nearly 20,000 British and East India Company troops poured through the mountain passes from India into Afghanistan in order to reestablish Shah Shuja ul-Mulk on the throne, and as their puppet. But after little more than two years, the Afghans rose in answer to the call for jihad and the country exploded into rebellion. This First Anglo-Afghan War ended with an entire army of what was then the most powerful military nation in the world ambushed and destroyed in snowbound mountain passes by simply equipped Afghan tribesmen. Only one British man made it through.

But Dalrymple takes us beyond the bare outline of this infamous battle, and with penetrating, balanced insight illuminates the uncanny similarities between the West’s first disastrous entanglement with Afghanistan and the situation today. He delineates the straightforward facts: Shah Shuja and President Hamid Karzai share the same tribal heritage; the Shah’s principal opponents were the Ghilzai tribe, who today make up the bulk of the Taliban’s foot soldiers; the same cities garrisoned by the British are today garrisoned by foreign troops, attacked from the same rings of hills and high passes from which the British faced attack. Dalryrmple also makes clear the byzantine complexity of Afghanistan’s age-old tribal rivalries, the stranglehold they have on the politics of the nation and the ways in which they ensnared both the British in the nineteenth century and NATO forces in the twenty-first.

Informed by the author’s decades-long firsthand knowledge of Afghanistan, and superbly shaped by his hallmark gifts as a narrative historian and his singular eye for the evocation of place and culture, The Return of a King is both the definitive analysis of the First Anglo-Afghan War and a work of stunning topicality.

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* The British humiliation in the so-called First Anglo-Afghan War (1839–42) has long been viewed by historians as a classic example of imperial overreach. Still, it is a saga that makes for marvelous storytelling, filled with heroes, knaves, incompetent fools, and savage, bloodthirsty warriors. It has been told often before but perhaps never so well as by Dalrymple, a historian and travel writer. He places British intervention within the context of the “Great Game” rivalry with the Russian Empire over influence in central Asia. When the British favorite in Afghanistan, Shah Shuja, was driven into exile, British officials in India feared enhanced Russian influence there and decided to reinstall him at the point of a gun. What followed was a mixture of farce, tragedy, and horror. The British army occupying Kabul was surrounded by a hostile and harrying population. When forced to retreat back to India through unforgiving terrain, thousands of soldiers and camp followers died from cold, hunger, or constant attacks by merciless mounted Afghans. Dalrymple doesn’t shrink from drawing the obvious parallel with the current American intervention. That may, or may not, be facile, but this is an absorbing and beautifully written account of a doomed effort to control an apparently uncontrollable population. --Jay Freeman

From Bookforum

By turns epic, thrilling, suspenseful, and utterly appalling, at once deeply researched and beautifully paced,Return Of A King should win every prize for which it's eligible. Yet William Dalrymple has done more than just write a brilliant work of history; in these page he also holds up a distant mirror to the West's more recent, and comparably disastrous, military incursions in Afghanistan. His book describes, among much else, the opening moves of the Great Game—the intelligence battle between colonizing powers for idealogical and territorial supremacy in central Asia. It is, in some ways, a conflict that continues even now. As Kipling's youthful spy hero of Kim says, "When everyone is dead, the Great Game is finished. Not before." It is difficult to do justice to the evenhandedness, vivid writing, and extensive scholarship supporting every detail of Return Of A King. —Michael Dirda

Product Details

  • File Size: 19075 KB
  • Print Length: 609 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1408818302
  • Publisher: Vintage (April 16, 2013)
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B009MYAQ18
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #127,801 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
60 of 65 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History repeats itself April 17, 2013
William Dalrymple is the definitive modern historian of the East India company's reign in India during the 18th and 19th centuries. With already two brilliant books - 'The White Mughals' and 'The Last Mughal' - on the subject, he has now written this masterly chronicle on the disastrous British misadventure in Afghanistan during the years 1839-1842. In his words, this first British war in Afghanistan was one of colonial arrogance, hubris, folly and cultural collision. What else can you call a foray where 20000 troops marched into Afghanistan in 1839 and only one returns to Peshawar in 1842?

Dalrymple shows in this book that the 'Great Game', popularized by Rudyard Kipling in his novel 'Kim', was actually the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Alexander Burnes, the dashing Scottish intelligence officer, was sent out to Central Asia as a spy to gather information on the threats, which were non-existent then, from Czarist Russia to British interests in India. Burnes did his work and wrote a successful book on the subject which were read by the Russians. As a result, they get suspicious and send Yan Vitkevich, a Polish adventurer and explorer, to Bukhara and then on to Kabul to gather their own intelligence on this question. Thus, the hawkish paranoia in Calcutta and London ended up making a non-existent threat a reality. So, the Great Game begins and still goes on, a full 170 years after it began.

Burnes and his brilliant Indian assistant and intelligence chief, Mohan Lal Kashmiri, give excellent advice to Calcutta and London on the state of affairs in Central Asia and the course to be followed, which was to support Dost Mohammed Khan as the Amir of Afghanistan. But policy was made by George Eden, William Mcnaghten and Claude Wade.
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31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant book March 7, 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I am a historian myself, although not in this field. But I can tell that this book is the result of a very good historian, both regarding the use of historical sources and empirical material. And he is an excellent writer. A must read.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Afghanistan: Different players, same story May 24, 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
An interview with the author on a morning talk show prompted me to order the Kindle version that same day. His thorough research and accessible writing style (almost as readable as David McCullough) made this lengthy book fly by quickly for me. I was frequently stunned by the number of parallels between the experiences of the British, Soviets, and the U.S in this mysterious place. Perhaps most compelling were the carefully explained nuances of Afghan internal politics that appear to have changed very little in their dynamics in the more than 170 years since the events recounted in this book. Author William Dalrymple's own British heritage, combined with a prodigious knowledge of Afghan history and culture enabled him to paint a uniquely informed picture of the futility of invading and suppressing Afghanistan. The failure of the British to adapt their approach to reflect the culture and circumstances contains many lessons no less relevant today.

Among the more interesting story lines was how the British and Russian power structures were willing to ignore or refute what their envoys actually inside Afghanistan were telling them. Time after time, those governments made strategic blunders, allowing bureaucrats or aristocrats who had never set foot in the country to decide on diplomatic or military matters with profound implications for everyone involved. Even readers with strongly cynical or jaded attitudes toward politics may sometimes find it difficult to understand the amount of deceit, deception, and fragile loyalties inherent in Afghan affairs, but it was and may still be, essential to how they hold on to their own identity as a mainly tribal structure constantly under fire from some global power.
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34 of 43 people found the following review helpful
By Yug
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is s very comprehensive detailed historical review of the British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839.
The British had the choice of two alternative viewpoints and strategies. They chose the wrong one mainly because of wholly inept leadership under Lord Auckland; he in turn entrusted the actual invasion to poor leaders, partly on the basis of class distinctions.
The purpose of the invasion was to re-instate one of the candidates for king; they chose the wrong candidate. As is well known the British forces, again ineptly led, tried to leave the country once it became obvious that their mission had failed. One person was allowed to escape back to India. What is not so well known is that a second British force under a General Pollock returned to Afghanistan with the sole purpose of taking revenge, which he did. Kabul and Jalalabad were destroyed. The King that the British had rejected reclaimed his throne. Hamid Karzai the current Afghan leader is a descendant of Shuja the deposed King.
Whilst well researched the book is far too long. Much of the endless pieces of individuals correspondence could have been included in an appendix. I would have rated a shorter more concise book much more highly
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27 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent March 1, 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
A fascinating story of the First Afghan War, one of the most stupid - in planning and execution - actions in British colonial history.
One wonders at the incompetence of the British - how did they manage to acquire and keep an empire?
Dalrymple has done much original research for this book and has uncovered previously unknown facts.
The book - like all Dalrymple's writings - is exciting, entertaining and informative.
I am not sure that there are lessons for today in this history, but the reader should make up his or her own mind about that.
I read the Kindle version. The pictures and maps do not come out well but otherwise the reading experience was fine.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Super fast shipping
Outstanding! Book was in pristine condition. Super fast shipping. Many thanks.Pat
Published 19 days ago by Patricia A. Gallagher
5.0 out of 5 stars Very relevent to our geopolitical and diplomatic policy-making today....
Very relevent to our geopolitical and diplomatic policy-making today. It eloquently parallels our inept Western war-making decisions leading us into Afghanistan in 2001, and... Read more
Published 27 days ago by Peter S Grant
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
One of the best pieces of historical writing I've ever encountered. An amazing cast of characters truly come alive.
Published 1 month ago by Steven
4.0 out of 5 stars brilliant use of Afghan primary sources
This book should be made required reading, followed by written and oral exams, for every newly elected politician of whatever political stripe, and every military officer trainee... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Douglas John Shaw
5.0 out of 5 stars its characters and events the way a novelist draws you into a great...
William Dalrymple draws you into his description of history, its characters and events the way a novelist draws you into a great story. Read more
Published 2 months ago by George Watson
5.0 out of 5 stars Return of a King, I Couldn't put it Down!!
I really enjoyed the book. Once I read the first chapter which provides the Bios of everyone involved I was hooked. This book should be made into a mini series. Read more
Published 2 months ago by N##K
3.0 out of 5 stars A little verbose
Well documented narrative though a little verbose. I have some concerns about the narrative:

1. Read more
Published 2 months ago by V. Lakshminarayanan
1.0 out of 5 stars One Star
Haven't finished it.
Published 2 months ago by P. Ahlefeldt-Laurvig
5.0 out of 5 stars intense, detailed, and absorbing
Another masterpiece by dalrymple.
He brings alive a period of history that is forgotten but vital.
An amazing perspective both western and eastern.
Published 3 months ago by rohan parikh
5.0 out of 5 stars great history with profound insight.
Most history is told by the victors. In this book the author has gone to great lengths to understand both sides of the battle. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Georgia
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