The lessons to be learnt from a British debacle that cost an Afghan king his reputation and his life

William Dalrymple

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan

During a news conference with Barack Obama in Washington in January, Hamid Karzai mentioned sovereignty no less than six times. He used it in the context of America handing over control of detention centres and Afghan detainees, of getting foreign soldiers out of Afghan villages, and of 'interference-free' elections. Why, many may wonder, should the concept of regaining sovereignty be important in a country that faces so many other challenges?

No one who reads William Dalrymple's book on the Afghan king, Shah Shuja ul-Mulk, a pawn in the 'Great Game' restored to the throne by the British in 1839 before being assassinated three years later, will be at all surprised.

Karzai, like Shah Shuja, faces irreconcilable dilemmas, many of which are unchanged since the 1840s.

The fate of the 'king who returned' offers a harsh lesson to Afghan leaders. To this day Shah Shuja is 'a symbol of quisling treachery' in Afghanistan, his remains unceremoniously buried and his grave unmarked. Like Karzai, he came to power with the support of foreign forces, in his case the British during the First Afghan War. Both stand accused of being foreign puppets. In both cases, the foreign forces went from being greeted as liberators to being the object of suspicion, resentment and, for some, intense hatred, blamed for the country's woes.

Dalrymple, a writer and historian known for his interest in the Indian sub-continent, points to the many striking parallels between the invasion of 1839 –42 and the invasion of the Americans and their allies in 2001. Both put individuals acceptable to the invaders -- astonishingly, from the same Popalzai subtribe -- in power. Many of the battles in both wars are in the same places, with the same tribal alignments. Foreign understanding of Afghanistan's political economy and cultural sensitivities was as poor in the 1840s as it is now. 'In both cases,' Dalrymple writes, 'the invaders thought they could walk in, perform regime change, and be out in a couple of years.' The cost of the invasion, and the unwillingness and inability of Afghans to pay for it, was grossly underestimated.

Dalrymple tells a cracking good story, drawing upon new British, Indian, Russian and, above all, 'elusive' Afghan sources, including contemporary accounts and epic poems. The result is a captivating picture of one of the most foolhardy exercises in British imperial history, viewed through the eyes not just of British military and East India Company officials and their camp followers -- including the irrepressible Lady Sale, held hostage for nine months once the British abandoned Kabul -- but also of the Afghans themselves.

Diplomats, soldiers and development workers in Afghanistan would do well to read this book, not least as most are now confined to bases and bullet-proof vehicles. It illuminates the mechanics of patronage, the shifting nature of tribal alliances, the Afghans' deft hedging skills, their sense of humour, their hospitality and compassion as well as capacity for brutality, and above all, their sense of pride -- particularly when their independence and sovereignty is challenged. None of that has changed.

But Dalrymple sometimes risks taking the analogy too far. He clearly loves the country, and his exasperation with the current intervention is understandable. But there are important differences.

Afghans enjoy conspiracies, and many are convinced that the Americans want to control their country. But this underplays the importance of 9/11 as the trigger for the invasion, the significance to the West of Al-Qaeda's use of Afghan territory and, many would argue, the reduced strategic importance of Afghanistan, whether in light of the Arab Spring and other emerging threats or as a result of new military technologies including drones.

While the current foreign intervention may be foolhardy -- it has been described as an attempt to build a Westphalian state on top of a tribal society -- it has brought some dividends for the Afghans, including upgraded infrastructure, improved health, more girls' education, awareness of rights and the experience of freedom of expression. And as reformists point out, the 'good governance' agenda has century-long Afghan roots; it would be patronizing not to acknowledge this.

This intervention has also brought more cronyism and corruption, empowered warlords and criminals, and spread uncertainty among the Afghans about the future. From an Afghan perspective, security is deteriorating.

The issue now, as military withdrawal gathers momentum, is whether the West has the appetite and sense of responsibility to support the Afghans after foreign combat troops depart. If it does, and it is smart about using the many levers at its disposal, notably money and political influence in the region, then a transition is possible, one that will be far less violent and chaotic than the British debacle 170 years ago.

As Return of a King so powerfully underscores, foreign engagement, if it is not to end in waste and disaster, must be on terms acceptable to the Afghans. This requires listening to the Afghans, and greater national consensus among them on key issues -- the nature of the law, economic and social priorities and how power is distributed between the centre and provinces, and between the state and more traditional sources of authority.

None of this will be easy. Foreigners, by their actions, can make things worse, or contribute to the conditions that will make peaceful succession possible. Afghan leadership will be critical; it must be seen as sovereign, and legitimate. The 2014 elections, and how the international community supports them, really matter.

Dalrymple depicts Shah Shuja as far more competent, loyal and brave than Afghans today recognize, successfully manipulating different factions, retaining tribal loyalties against the odds and managing contradictory and humiliating foreign demands. This book should mark the return of the King's reputation.

History may judge Hamid Karzai more kindly than his contemporaries, whether Afghans including the Taliban who depict him as a stooge of foreign infidels, or foreigners who accuse him of being fickle and an unreliable partner. Unlike Shah Shuja, his agility and performance may be more appreciated once he relinquishes power after a decade of managing the seemingly impossible trade-offs between secular reformers, tribal elders, Islamist ideologues, human rights advocates, indictable warlords, extended family and foreigners at odds with each other who send, as with the British 170 years ago, thoroughly confusing signals as to their intent in Afghanistan.

Michael Keating is a Senior Consulting Fellow at Chatham House. Until November 2012, he was Deputy UN Envoy to Afghanistan

 

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