“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” This book brings that quote to life! More than the book itself, kudos to Dalrymple for choosing a subject that has so much of relevance in the contemporary era! In fact, I wish it were written a few years earlier. ‘Return of a King’ is the story of the British (East India Company) invasion of Khurasan (modern day Afghanistan) in 1839 in an effort to establish their man Shah Shuja ul-Mulk, (descendant of the Ahmad Shah Durrani, regarded to be the founder of the modern state of Afghanistan) on the Kabul throne in place of the incumbent Dost Mohammed. That was the easy part, but as one Afghan commented then, the British had gotten in, but how would they maintain this status quo, or even get out? In a couple of years, the Afghans, in an ever changing mixture of coalitions, rebelled against the British and massacred them on their way back to Hindustan. The British then created an Army of Retribution to avenge this, and ended up bringing things back to square one.
What set off this chain of events is something I have read about in some Sherlock Holmes adventures and seen alluded to in other works like ‘Kim’. The Great Game, an international milieu of intrigue that pitched the mighty powers of the time – Russia and Britain – against one another. Afghanistan, as per British intelligence, was where Russia was poised to strike next, to control Central Asia. This was supposed to be achieved with Dost Mohammed’s help. The Russian plans were far less threatening than reported by the British and ended up creating a war that need not have been. There is some amazing parallel here with what the Russians (80s) and the Americans (now) tried to do in Afghanistan! More