"The consequences of crossing the Indus once to settle a government in Afghanistan will be a perennial march into that country."--The Duke of Wellington, 1838 "There is nothing more to be dreaded or guarded against in our endeavor to re-establish the Afghan monarchy than the overweening confidence with which Europeans are too often accustomed to regard the excellence of their own institutions and the anxiety that they display to introduce them in new and untried soils."--Claude Wade, January 1839. Convinced in ...
"The consequences of crossing the Indus once to settle a government in Afghanistan will be a perennial march into that country."--The Duke of Wellington, 1838 "There is nothing more to be dreaded or guarded against in our endeavor to re-establish the Afghan monarchy than the overweening confidence with which Europeans are too often accustomed to regard the excellence of their own institutions and the anxiety that they display to introduce them in new and untried soils."--Claude Wade, January 1839. Convinced in 1839 that Britain's invaluable empire in India was threatened by Russia, Persia, and Afghan tribes, the British government ordered its Army of the Indus into Afghanistan to oust from power the independent-minded king Dost Mohammed and install in Kabul the unpopular puppet ruler Shah Shuja. Expecting a quick campaign, the British found themselves trapped by unforeseen circumstances; eventually the tribes united and the seemingly omnipotent army was slaughtered in 1842 as it desperately retreated through the mountain passes from Kabul to Jalalabad. Only one man survived. Diana Preston vividly recounts the drama of this First Afghan War, the opening salvo in the strategic rivalry between Britain and Russia for supremacy in Central Asia. As insightful about geography as she is about political and military miscalculation, Preston draws on rarely documented letters and diaries to bring alive long lost characters--Lord Auckland, the weak British Governor-General in India; his impetuous aide William McNaghten; the prescient adventurer-envoy Alexander Burnes, whose sage advice was steadfastly ignored. A model of compelling narrative history, The First Afghan War is a cautionary tale that resonates loudly today.
No nation has successfully occupied Afghanistan, known as “the graveyard of empires,” and many have been defeated by the harsh climate and unforgiving terrain as much as by fierce tribal forces. The British were no exception, and Preston, L.A. Times Book Prize winner for Before the Fallout: From Marie Curie to Hiroshima recounts in chilling detail the trials and tribulations of the ill-advised British colonial campaign in the early 1840s. After a two-year attempt to take Kabul and install an Afghan figurehead, the British ruled for barely a year, concerning themselves primarily with obtaining foreign delicacies and throwing garden parties while ignoring the growing danger, before they were forced from power and driven to a disastrous retreat. In the end, only one British soldier escaped to safety, and, Preston writes, the governor general of India, Lord Auckland, upon hearing of the army’s annihilation, “could scarcely believe... that an army of well-trained, well-armed British troops could be wiped out by tribesmen with only muskets and spears.” Relying heavily on the personal diaries, correspondence, and official papers of the doomed British force, Preston grippingly illustrates the dangers of committing a nation to foreign conflicts without adequate understanding and foresight. 8 pages of b&w photos; 2 maps. Agent: Michael Carlisle, Inkwell Management. (Feb.)
An earlier invasion of Afghanistan by the British offers some enlightening lessons for American readers in this nicely encapsulated study by a British historian. Troubled by the expansionist vision of Russia in Central Asia and keen to protect the interests of the East India Company, the British crown cooked up a wild scheme to invade Afghanistan in 1838. The aim was to replace one crackpot dynasty for another, but the occupation went on for two years and raised native insurrection, essentially repelling the British troops and leaving a bitter aftertaste for the inhabitants of the land. Does this scenario sound familiar? Preston (Before the Fallout: From Marie Curie to Hiroshima, 2005, etc.) does an admirable job of enlarging the narrow, academic nature of the conflict for more accessible consumption. As a buffer and traditional transit point, the feudal Afghanistan was attractive to invaders from Darius of Persia and Alexander of Macedonia to the 18th-century Persian Nadir Shah, who all crossed the Khyber Pass on their way to sack and subdue India. British precursors to the region had included Mountstuart Elphinstone and his delegation, who had tread gingerly over the disputes between Afghan leaders; and Scottish officer Alexander Burnes, sent by the British on an espionage fact-finding mission to assess the navigability of the Indus in 1831. Burnes reported on the immense trade potential for the British, though the British hardly understood the region's factionalism. Afghan governor general Lord Auckland issued the famous Simla Manifesto of Oct. 1, 1838, justifying an invasion that was no longer relevant since the Russian-backed Persians were already in retreat. The bewildered British withdrew by 1842, concluding "a war 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 attaching either to the government which directed, or the great body of the troops which waged it." Preston brings this obscure, ill-begotten conflict to a lively, pertinent center stage.
Diana Preston is an Oxford-trained historian and the author of A First Rate Tragedy, The Boxer Rebellion, Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy, and Before the Fallout: From Marie Curie to Hiroshima, which won the 2006 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Science and Technology. With her husband, Michael, she has coauthored A Pirate of Exquisite Mind and Taj Mahal. She lives in London, England.