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When the Great Game Dawned

Like so much else in India’s recent past, the First Afghan War (1839-42) means little to India’s elites. But the military history of the British Raj has been a specially neglected domain. With their many other preoccupations, India’s historians have had little time for the story of war, peace and statecraft in the subcontinent before independence or after.

Jan 5, 2013

C. Raja Mohan'

BooK: Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan

Author: William Dalrymple

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Price: Rs 799

Pages: 567

Like so much else in India’s recent past, the First Afghan War (1839-42) means little to India’s elites. But the military history of the British Raj has been a specially neglected domain. With their many other preoccupations, India’s historians have had little time for the story of war, peace and statecraft in the subcontinent before independence or after.

As America’s longest war comes to a close in Afghanistan, there is considerable interest in the West in the history of the Afghan wars. That the American occupation is ending in failure, a quarter century after the Russian troops retreated from Afghanistan, has enhanced the reputation of the country as a “graveyard of empires”.

In writing this fascinating account of the First Afghan War, William Dalrymple is inspired by the image of tenacious Afghans ousting foreign rulers and the striking similarities between America’s faltering war in Afghanistan and the first and most disastrous foray of British India into the country.

With his diligent historical research and lucid storytelling, Dalrymple paints the First Afghan War in great detail. Locating the war in the context of the Great Game between Great Britain and Russia, Dalrymple narrates the misadventures of the East India Company’s army on the Indus in Afghanistan.

After quick success at regime change in Kabul — replacing Dost Mohammed Khan with Shah Shuja — the Raj is lulled into complacence and is overwhelmed by a ferocious insurrection. A promised safe passage to the embattled Company troops turns into a massacre of the retreating columns. Calcutta responds by sending a new force of retribution that burns down parts of Kabul but is quickly convinced that withdrawal of troops and restoration of Dost Mohammed Khan is better than prolonged confrontation in Afghanistan.

Dalrymple approvingly quotes the assessment of the chaplain of the British Indian army, Reverend G.R. Kleig in 1843 that the First Afghan War was “begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, and brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it”.

Others have told the terrible tale recently. Most notably Jules Stewart’s Crimson Snow: Britain’s First Disaster in Afghanistan provides a historical perspective that enriches the current debate on military strategy.

In the hands of Dalrymple, the drama of the war comes alive and presents a definitive message about the danger of exaggerating threats — the Russian one in the case of the Great Game and the al Qaeda more recently — and the grandiloquent agenda of nation-building in other societies.

“We in the West may have forgotten the details of this history that did so much to mould the Afghans’ hatred of foreign rule, but the Afghans have not,” Dalrymple observes.

“The West’s fourth war in the country looks certain to end with as few political gains as the first three, and like them terminate in an embarrassing withdrawal after a humiliating defeat, with Afghanistan yet again left in tribal chaos and quite possibly ruled by the same government which the war was originally fought to overthrow,” he concludes.

The real prospect of the Taliban returning to power after more than a decade of American occupation underlines Dalrymple’s insights into the First Afghan War. But there is a problem.

In Dalrymple’s story of arrogant West versus fiercely independent tribals, India is largely incidental. The first three Afghan wars were not just about the Great Game — the rivalry between Great Britain and Russia. They were also about securing India’s northwestern frontiers.

Dalrymple does concede that the First Afghan War had produced a stable frontier for the Raj for a while. But the Afghan wars were part of a much larger story about modern India: the very construction of the subcontinent’s territoriality.

The Afghan wars in the north-west, Anglo-Burmese wars in the east, Calcutta’s quest for influence in Xinjiang and Tibet, and the turning of Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim into protectorates were all about defining secure frontiers for the Raj. They were part of a great debate in the Raj about the rewards and dangers of the “forward policy” in the 19th century, on where and how to affix India’s borders and delimit its territorial sovereignty.

Nearly 170 years after the First Afghan War, that is still a work in progress. Pakistan is struggling to stabilise its Afghan frontier. The last two Afghan wars are not simply failed interventions from Russia and America. They were and are about Pakistan’s successful manipulation of the internal politics of Afghanistan, its provision of sanctuaries to insurgents and its nurturing of extremist ideologies. Like the Raj, Rawalpindi today seeks a client state in Kabul.

The story of Afghanistan does not begin or end with Western interventions. All great Indian empires — not just the Raj, but also the Mughals and the Mauryans — had trouble controlling the territories across the Indus. These empires faced continual threats from the north-western frontiers and when the empires of the plains became too weak, they had to endure devastating invasions from rulers based in Afghanistan.

Dalrymple’s rewarding excavation of the Raj’s military history will hopefully inspire a few Indian writers to look beyond the current Western angst on Afghanistan, unravel the complex interactive dynamic between trans-Indus territories and the empires built on the Gangetic plains.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a Contributing Editor for The Indian Express\

www.indianexpress.com/news/when-the-great-game-dawned/1054656/0

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