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Diana Preston is an Oxford-trained historian and the author of the acclaimed A First Rate Tragedy, The Boxer Rebellion, Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy, Cleopatra and Antony, and Before the Fallout: From Marie Curie to Hiroshima, which won the 2006 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Science and Technology. With her husband, Michael, she has coauthored A Pirate of Exquisite Mind and Taj Mahal. She lives in London, England.
This book is an eye-opener on Afghanistan from almost 175 years ago that provides lessons still relevant today.
Because the British had concerns for India from the possibility of threats from Russia, they looked to the territores across the Indus River as a buffer to protect their interests in the subcontinent. The region of the Indus River is one of the oldest cradles of civilization, similiar to Mesopotamia. This region contains Afghanistan, the Punjab, which was ruled by the martial Sikhs, under Ranjit Singh, and Sind, which controlled the delta of the Indus and dominated access to the Arabian Sea. (The author provides two valuable maps of the region and Kabul.)
The cast of characters of the natives of this region is very extensive. While the author does a meticulous job of a confusing who's who, you are better off staying with the main players, as so many of them had so many sons by various wives that it is difficult to recall. You will become familiar with Shah Shuje, the exiled king of Afghanistan, Dost Mohammed, current king of Afghanistan, and his son, the treacherous Akbar Khan.
The British list must start with the Governor-General of India, Lord Auckland, described as a man rather without vices than possessing virtues, then we follow with his aide William Macnaghten, the envoy Alexander Burnes, the imcompetent General William Elphinstone and a host of lesser player. In the end, the British decided it would be in their best interest to encourage Ranjit Singh to invade Afghanistan and impose the elderly and unpopular Shah Shuje on the people and throw out Dost Mohammed. Auckland did seek the advise of Sir Henry Fane, his experienced military commander in chief, on the extent of direct British military involvement.Read more ›
Those are the words of British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston in October 1838 as Britain is contemplating an invasion of Afghanistan to place a puppet king on the throne of that country, thus dashing Russian hopes to dominate Central Asia (and protect all roads leading to British India). As the blurb on the inside jacket of Diana Preston's brilliant, fast-paced new book succinctly states:
"Some 170 years ago, Britain sent a powerful army into Afghanistan to protect its national interests. It was catastrophically destroyed. This is the story of the First Anglo-Afghan War and the start of the "Great Game.""
More than that, Diana Preston's elegant, witty writing had me shaking my head throughout, astonished at how we and our allies are apparently doomed to repeat past mistakes, since we certainly haven't learned from them. From the flimsy premise for the British invasion of Afghanistan in 1838 to the rose-colored glasses firmly in place for William Macnaghten, the British envoy in Kabul, Preston catalogues one military miscalculation and diplomatic misstep after another, building an incredibly shaky house of cards that inevitably tumbles down. By 1842 the supposedly indomitable Army of the Indus was forced into an ill-timed and fatal retreat through the snowy and frigid mountain passes of Afghanistan, exposed to freezing temperatures, startvation and repeated horrific attacks by Afghan tribesmen of which "only one Briton survived uncaptured."
Preston starts with the flimsy premise for the invasion, when Britain believes it's jewel in the crown, India, is threatened by Russia's imperialist ambitions, Iranian aggression and warring Afghan tribes (sound familiar?Read more ›
There have been several books written about the British incursion into Afghanistan in the mid 19th century, and I have read a few of them. Each one, although going over the same basic story, has a unique perspective to present to the reader. That is how I found this new, and quite well-written, book.
There is no doubt that the British government made a huge mistake in helping to remove a relatively popular ruler in Afghanistan, and replace him with someone more to their liking, but not to the people of that country. To assist the ruler, they stationed soldiers in the country, and even wives and children came along, giving the Afghans the distinct impression that they were there for the long haul.
Even when it appeared that the population was getting restless, and there was a distinct possibility that there would be serious trouble, the British leaders downplayed that, or ignored it completely. They even placed their cantonment in a most vulnerable spot, and had much of their supplies stored some distance away. When the trouble did come, they were basically unprepared, and tragedy ensued.
It's a cautionary tale about a larger, more powerful state seeking to impose its views and values on a much smaller, potentially less developed, state. Treating the citizens as of a lower class than the occupiers didn't help at all. In the century and a half that has passed since this series of incidents, the Afghan people have shown conclusively that they are not willing to endure being subjected to occupation by a foreign power, be it Britain, Russia or the US. It's a good and timely book, and I feel it is well worth reading.