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The past as prelude: Dalrymple briefs White House on Afghanistan

New York: Delhi-based British historian William Dalrymple who is the author of Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42 was invited last week to give a briefing to the White House on Kabul’s complicated past.

Dalrymple sees eerie parallels between the British East India Company’s ill-fated 1839 invasion of Afghanistan and the current American presence in the country. Despite nearly two centuries between them, Dalrymple sees a corollary between the two episodes and the lessons one ought to draw from them.

“It was a briefing with National Security, the CIA and Defense,” Dalrymple told the Evening Standard. “They were incredibly well briefed about the current situation in Afghanistan but people in those positions don’t necessarily have the cultural and history background.”

Dalrymple’s book chronicles how on the basis of a spectacularly ill-informed assessment of the Russian threat in the region, Britain opted to invade Afghanistan and depose Dost Mohammad Khan in favour of British-friendly monarch Shah Shuja.

Delhi-based British historian William Dalrymple says that as the US prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan, history is repeating itself. Image credit: Penguin India

Delhi-based British historian William Dalrymple says that as the US prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan, history is repeating itself. Image credit: Penguin India

Shah Shuja was cast aside in 1841 by a revolt by the Afghan people, who went on to drive out the British. The British retreat from Kabul met with utter catastrophe, a force of 18,000 British soldiers and Indian sepoys was reduced to just one soldier who made it to Jellalabad. The British later re-installed Dost Mohammad Khan, with assurances that he would not attack India or support the rebels.

Dalrymple told the Asia Society in New York that he attended a jirga, or tribal council, near Jellalabad, where he spoke to a group of elders about how the British invasion resonated down to the present day.

"It's exactly the same…the foreigners come here for their own interests," one elder told Dalrymple. But, he and the others agreed, the Americans would be gone soon, just like the British and the Soviets. "It's just a matter of time."

Dalrymple reminded the Obama administration that Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, is a tribal descendant of Shah Shuja, while the Taliban foot soldiers hail from the Ghilzai tribe, chief antagonists of the British. Mullah Omar who is spearheading the Taliban insurgency against the US-led NATO forces and the Karzai government is a Ghilzai, as was Mohammad Shah Khan, the resistance fighter who supervised the slaughter of the British Army in 1841.

“Although few in the West are aware of it, as the United States prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan, history is repeating itself. We may have forgotten the details of the colonial history that did so much to mould Afghans’ hatred of foreign rule, but the Afghans have not,” Dalrymple wrote in The New York Times.

What's next for Afghanistan? Dalrymple doesn’t see the Taliban returning to power. Its forces, some 2,50,000 at their peak, have dwindled to around 25,000 but they are unlikely to shy away from the battle for Afghan hearts and minds. Dalrymple sees slim chances of the Karzai regime being able to retain power without heavy US support. The best hope, Dalrymple believes, is for a negotiated settlement between the Karzai coalition forces and elements of the Taliban.

India is concerned that once US troops pull out of Afghanistan by 2014 a resurgent Taliban will allow Afghanistan to become a haven for Islamic jihadists obsessed with Kashmir. There are worries that without the American security umbrella Afghanistan could revert to the kind of chaos that beset it in the mid-1990s from which the Taliban grew all-powerful.

Dalrymple, the co-founder of the Jaipur Literature Festival, has lived in India on and off since 1989. He spends most of the year at his Mehrauli farmhouse in Delhi.

Updated Date: May 09, 2013 07:23 AM

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