William Dalrymple: The Battle for Afghanistan

June 10, 2015

By Olivia Acland

On Tuesday 2 June, acclaimed writer and historian William Dalrymple joined an audience at the Frontline Club for a fascinating talk on his latest book, Return of a King – The Battle for Afghanistan, in partnership with the London Press Club. The work is the third volume in a series examining the history of Great Britain in South Asia during the 19th century.


“Eastern Iran and the west of Afghanistan, and a war is about to break out,” Dalrymple began by way of setting the scene. “The new Shah of Iran has announced that he is going to retake the disputed border city of Herat.”

Dalrymple then launched into an account of a young British horseman, sent to Afghanistan in order to investigate the latest developments in the ongoing war. The man strayed off course, where he encountered an unexpected scene.

“What he sees next changes the history of Iran, Afghanistan, India and Central Asia for the next hundred years. Because what he sees coming towards him is not the Afghans, not the Persians, not the drug runners. It’s not the foot pads, or the Dacoits … it is a fully uniformed regiment of Russian imperial Cossack cavalry.”

The horseman managed to get word back to Britain that the Russians were invading Afghanistan; mobilising the British to do the same. In fact, Russian troops were visiting the country on an unofficial diplomatic mission.

Dalrymple said jokingly, “It couldn’t happen today. Imagine an intelligence cock-up creating a war and a complete misreading of the situation. Luckily we have the checks and balances in place to make sure that this could not possibly happen in the 21st century.”

Dalrymple continued to draw parallels between the colossal mistakes committed during the 1838 British invasion of Afghanistan, and those of the recent war beginning in 2001. He showed images of the key characters in the story, bringing them to life and pointing out their modern day counterparts. Much to the amusement of the audience, Dalrymple compared the over-sexed Scottish diplomat and explorer Alexander Burnes to Conservative MP Rory Stewart.

He wittily described the error that lead to Burnes’ death in Kabul. “Winter on its way, the first snow falling – this is the moment that old Alexander Burnes decides to seduce the girlfriend of Shah Shuja’s leading warlord in Kabul. This is not a good idea.”

An audience member asked how the British managed to fail so catastrophically in Afghanistan. The author responded: “Ultimately the reason this failed was economics. The company [East India Company] was not making a profit out of it, so they didn’t put enough resources in. There were only four and a half thousand troops on that retreat.”

Another audience member asked Dalrymple to comment on whether the British have finally learnt their lesson when it comes to foreign invasions, particularly with regard to Afghanistan.

Dalrymple responded: “I think, in a sense, it’s really too late to learn our lesson. This chapter is over. Next up, if it isn’t China, it’s Pakistan and India fighting over Afghanistan.”

Return of a King is available to purchase here.