Return of a King

Written by William Dalrymple
Review by Mike Ashworth

In the spring of 1839, British forces invaded Afghanistan for the first time, ostensibly to re-establish Shah Shuja ul-Malik on the throne he had been evicted from 30 years previously. In reality this was a cover for a blatant expansion of British interests, challenging a perceived, but in reality non-existent, threat from the Russian Empire. On the way in, the British faced little resistance, and the Shah was restored to his throne. However, after two years the Afghan people rose in anger against a perceived occupation, under a puppet ruler, by a people who had little or no regard for the Afghan people or their culture. The First Afghan War ended in Britain’s greatest military humiliation of the 19th century.

Dalrymple has used a wide range of sources, including previously undiscovered material, to produce what is an authoritative history of the First Afghan War. Told through characters on both sides of the conflict, the book provides a remarkable story of military and political incompetence and a disregard of an ancient civilization which still echoes today. Dalrymple has produced a highly readable book which will appeal to both student and lay person alike. Highly recommended.