February 22, 2020
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Here’s To You, Sekunder Burnes

Unused sources inform a history of the First Afghan War—the deceit on both sides, craven heroes, and a royal licking

Here’s To You, Sekunder Burnes
Tribhuvan Tiwari
Here’s To You, Sekunder Burnes
Return Of A King
By William Dalrymple
Bloomsbury 2012 | Pages: 608 | Rs. 799

Regime change is not solely the prerogative of the American neo-con elite. It was first put into practice by the British East India Company in 1839 in Afghanistan. They didn’t call it regime change then, simply restoring an exiled king to his throne. William Dalrymple has covered the entire episode and its tragic fallout in Return of a King. Unlike other books on the period between 1839-42, the finely written Return of a King uses multi-lingual sources, not the usual eyewitness accounts or scholarly works from single-language sources. Dalrymple has sourced material from all participants of the tragic First Afghan War—British, Afghan and Indian (including the Punjab Archives in Lahore, Pakistan). It makes for a riveting account. The writing is typically Dalrymple: newsy, informative and interspersed with titillation. Even a supposedly god-fearing place like 19th century Afghanistan provides plenty of that diversion.

The East India Company invaded Afghanistan to reinstate Shuja ul-Mulk as the ruler. He had been greying in Ludhiana, surviving on a Company dole, while Amir Dost Mohammad Khan consolidated his rule in Afghanistan. Conspiracy theorists believed that the capable Amir would ally with the Russians, and both would act on their evil designs on India. Thus, the invasion plot was hatched. Ranged on the Russian side of the Great Game was the fascinating character of Ivan Viktorovitch Vitkevitch, Jan Prosper Witkiewicz in his native Polish. From a Russian prisoner to arguably its greatest player of the Game, Vitkevich was to die tragically at his own hands, an episode handled in a  moving passage. In the British corner was the romanticised figure of Alexander Burnes. Ultimately he bested Vitkevitch to ruling in Kabul, but died a tragic death at the hands of those he had naively believed could be manipulated. He remains the centrepiece of British military romance from the First Afghan War. And he is also the chief villain. An interesting contemporary, Charles Masson, observed, ‘I augured very faintly on the success of his mission...either from his manner or from his opinion “that the Afghans were to be treated like children.”’

As British preparations became apparent, Burnes put aside his belief that Dost Mohammad Khan offered the best option for the Company’s imperial interests. And thus was born ‘Army of the Indus’, which wasn’t from the lands of the great river, and didn’t travel much on its rich waters. Instead it had to avoid Ranjit Singh’s Punjab and enter Afghanistan by way of Bolan Pass and the harassing Balochis, described in a brilliantly written chapter, The Mouth Of Hell. After exiting hell it was Kandahar, Ghazni and then Kabul. So the campaign should have ended, but for the ineptitude of the British. Their proposals for ‘reform’ got the goat of Afghan chieftains. In their desire to institute a professional military, they withdrew payments from ‘ghost-payrolling’, little realising that this was the practice in the East—the Indian system of mansabdari. The glue was getting unstuck between Shah Shuja ul-Mulk and his chiefs. And what little of it that remained in Kabul was evaporating under the fornicating excesses of the foreigner. In Afghan eyes, Alexander Burnes of Montrose was the chief fornicator and the first to pay when the fuse was lit. From then on, it was a tale of siege, slaughter, retreat and treachery. The book correctly highlights the treacherous conduct of British officials and their conspiratorial policies.

This book seeks to draw parallels between the First Afghan War and the current NATO-ISAF campaign in Afghanistan. That is where its politics gets hazy. In fact the Iraqi invasion of 2003 offers a better analogy—how evidence was manufactured and the honourables even lied to the world, much like in 1839. Operation Enduring Freedom of 2001 to rid Afghanistan of Taliban/Al Qaeda had a globally justifiable cause. Even if Mullah Omar wore the same cloak allegedly worn by Prophet Mohammed, as did Dost Mohammad Khan, ‘whose resonance was immediately understood by all Afghan,’ the analogy is a weak one. The only similarity being that both were fighting their own, but in the latter case there was a direct Pakistani role, and which continues till today. The first armed Afghan groups were raised and trained by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in 1975, long before any Soviet presence. The book is silent on that, instead blaming the West for what bedevils Afghanistan today. Just as the conduct of Afghans is not so simple, neither is their history. The First Afghan War created some myths which got perpetuated.

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