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“The Chaous Baushee”: The British respected their foe in the First Afghan War

As the West prepares to withdraw from another bruising encounter with Afghanistan, two books appear which underline the dangers of going there in the first place. As every pub pundit knows, invading Afghanistan is probably a bad idea. Just how bad is evident in William Dalrymple's history of the First Afghan War. The sensible approach is spelled out in Con Coughlin's account of Winston Churchill's 1897 encounter with the Pashtun warrior tribes of the North West Frontier. That is, that "the less the outside world interfered with the affairs of the frontier tribes, the less inclined the frontier tribes would be to interfere with the outside world" — a formula that could be applied usefully to the whole region.

Having said that, the spectacle of British armies' repeated attempts to bludgeon, bribe and bamboozle the Afghan clans into submission makes for great history. The story of the march into Afghanistan in 1839 to oust the supposedly pro-Russian Dost Mohammed Khan and the traumatic exit three years later has been told many times, but never with the verve, wit and dramatic force that Dalrymple brings to bear. Books are shrinking, victims of busy lives and diminishing attention spans. This one is a heroic 500 pages, but the galloping pace of the narrative will keep you turning them eagerly. The tale is full of great British characters: the envoy William Macnaghten blinking behind his outsized blue spectacles, unable, despite his acknowledged abilities, to see disaster looming; his brilliant but fatally lascivious deputy Alexander Burnes; and the boorish Brigadier Shelton, whose military stupidities compounded Britain's monumental political errors. 

Until now, though, we have not known much about the Afghans. Dalrymple's researches turned up several previously unused Persian-language contemporary accounts that give a real feel for the character and motivations of the main Afghan players. They include some marvellous epic poems, rolling in rich metaphor, that give the view from the other side. The culture they reveal make it easy to understand why many Britons found the Afghans more to their taste than the Indians they had a much easier time ruling. To be sure, they were treacherous, ruthless and capable of appalling barbarity. But then so were we, as the numerous atrocities against the locals detailed in both books make clear. In their favour, the tribal warriors had a proper respect for good horseflesh and fine clothes and loved a fight, qualities that in the eyes of General William Nott made them "fine looking fellows indeed" and "quite the gentlemen".

The British knew who they were dealing with. Many of the players of the Great Game were soldier-scholars, linguists, historians and anthropologists who had a deep knowledge of local cultures. This brought them to the sensible conclusion that it was unwise to meddle with the Afghan way of doing things. "There is nothing more to be dreaded or guarded against," advised the spymaster Claude Wade, "than the overweening confidence with which we are too often accustomed to regard the excellence of our own institutions and the anxiety that we display to introduce them in new untried soils. Such interference will always lead to acrimonious disputes, if not to a violent reaction."

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