William Dalrymple On Return Of A King
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HH: Special edition of the Hugh Hewitt Show. On the very day that the New York Times carries a front page story, With Bags Of Cash, CIA Seeks To Influence In Afghanistan. And in yesterday’s New York Times, the French ambassador in Afghanistan had frank words on his departure from that country, very foreboding words. I’m so pleased to welcome into the studio William Dalrymple, the author of Return Of A King: The Battle For Afghanistan, 1839-42. We are in fact going to consider the future of Afghanistan and its retreat from Afghanistan, the West’s retreat, by virtue of going back to 1942, much like the retreat in 1842 was done by way of Kabul, William Dalrymple. We’re going to go way back in order to understand completely where we are. Welcome, it’s great to have you in studio.
WD: Very good to be here.
HH: Let me give a little intro. You are a historian, a travel writer, a graduate of Cambridge, born on the Firth of Forth, which I just like to say.
WD: It’s a nice sound, isn’t it? I like to say it.
HH: You’ve lived most of your life in India.
WD: Correct. As an adult, I moved to India at the age of 18, and have been more or less there ever since traveling around the whole region – Af-Pak, India.
HH: Fair to say that Saddam Hussein changed your life?
WD: Saddam Hussein did change my life, as with so many. I was planning to go, after school, I also wanted to be an archaeologist. I grew up on Indiana Jones movies and so on, and was heading off to dig in Iraq, aged 18. I’d arranged this whole thing from school. And literally, about a week before I was due to go, I got a message that Saddam Hussein had closed down the British School of Archaeology in Baghdad, and said it was a nest of British spies, which for all I know, is probably true. And I had nothing to do. I had a whole year before I was going to go up to Cambridge.
HH: A gap year.
WD: A gap year, so my best friend was going to India, a country I had no interest in, and in fact, had a mile aversion to. I had a brother who was kind of a typical sporting hero at school, who as the younger brother, I worshipped. And he went off to India, leaving Oxford, where he’d been a double blues. He played for Oxford in cricket and rugby, came back from India as this sort of bedraggled hippy.
HH: Oh, dear.
WD: (laughing) …with these long locks of hair smoking of chillum…
HH: Carrying a sitar…
WD: …full of Lord knows what, carrying a sitar, filling the house with terrible Indian tack. And that, I think that sort of betrayal, as I saw it, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen how Indians make, south Indians make coffee. They pour it from one silver beaker to another. I mean, anyway, the whole thing, I thought, was not going to be me at all. And I rather went into it with a heavy heart. But it was like a lightning strike. I arrived there on the 26th of January, 1984, at the age of 18, and it very literally transformed my life. I fell in love with the place, and I’m still thee 25 years later.
HH: And you are married to Olive. You have three children. You live out on a farm outside of Delhi. Where did you meet Olive? In India, or back in Scotland?
WD: Well, everyone assumes that Olive and I met in India, because she’s now a very distinguished miniature artist. She paints sort of, well, except they’re not miniatures. They’re in a sense maxatures. She’s trained in the Indian miniature techniques. Our marital bathroom is a kind of mess of ground up lapis lazuli and malachite being reduced to paint textures and paint pigment, and gum Arabic. I mean, it’s like a sort of chemistry lab, a medieval chemistry lab. But in actual fact, we met through an Indian in London. She was at Oxford, I was at Cambridge, and she came out and took pot luck in India. It went off to a very bad start, I should say. The day she arrived, I was going ahead of her, and had a house organized and all that kind of stuff. She’d given up a scholarship at art school to come out and join me, so it was kind of a big deal. And she arrived, and her luggage went missing, so no suitcase. New country, big change in life. On the way in, on the drive into Delhi from the airport, I am feeling a bit wobbly. By the time we’ve arrived there, I’ve got a temperature of 103, and got probably the illest I’ve ever been in India ever, I mean, before Olive sets, it happened to be the very day, the morning she arrived for the first time. And I had something called viral fever, which is like this sort of terrible thing.
HH: You are recreating in your transport…the company sending out young third sons to India along with their sweating, unhappy wives in exile for decades.
WD: Yeah, I’m some sort of hangover. I’m 200 years too late on the scene. Sadly, there’s no fortunes for me to make, unless all your listeners go out and buy all my books. That’s important.
HH: I have the book, by the way. Listen, let’s plug away. The Return Of The King: The Battle For Afghanistan, is an amazing book. And I devoured it in less than a week. It is linked at Hughhewitt.com. Not surprisingly, because as one of William Dalrymple’s profilers has said, he has collected a, “clutch of awards,” including the Sunday Times young British writer of the year, the Wolfson Prize for History, and the Asia House Award for Asian Literature. He’s something of an Indiana Jones, as he already referenced. I’ll repeatedly be describing very old sources for his very new books, which include In Xanadu, which you wrote at 22. Am I correct about that?
HH: You got thrown out of Iran and not imprisoned for the rest of your natural days at 22?
WD: I went through Iran on this trip In Xanadu. I was aged 21 at the time. And actually, Iran was fine. It wasn’t dangerous. They were in the middle of this ghastly war with Iraq, and at every roundabout, at every bus stop, there were these pictures of these hooded martyrs. It was a very miserable time to be either an Iraqi or an Iranian, these two nations by these sort of crazy governments were just going at each other and murder in huge quantities. What the kind of First World War was for the nations of Europe, the mid-1980s were between Iran and Iraq, was for these nations. And huge numbers of people dying in sort of heroic charges against each other for nothing, you know.
HH: The Martyr’s March, I just, it does make me shudder. You’ve also written a number of books of history, but also most recently, Essays On The Holy Men Of India, Nine Lives In Search Of The Sacred And Modern India. So you are very eclectic. You’re a historian, a travel writer, and something of a writer about, of religion.
WD: But the way you’ve read it, it makes it sound like it’s sort of crazy, diverse stuff. In actual fact, it’s a very tight, little geographic…
WD: Well, geographical spread. I write about, almost entirely, about South Asia and Central Asia, with occasional work on the Middle East, particularly the Christians in the Middle East is a great interest of mine. And I wrote a book about 20 years ago called From The Holy Mountain, looking at all the Christian minorities, which is a story which of course has only gotten more and more tragic since then with the trouble that the Copts are in, in Egypt. As we speak, that one of my main interlocutors in Syria, Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim was kidnapped last week.
HH: Oh, no. I did not see that. Just yesterday, I heard a sermon from a Methodist making the rounds in Southern California, Arun Andrews with Zacarias International Ministries talking about the church in India. It is much persecuted, but it’s also not doing too badly, is it?
WD: The church in India is not much persecuted. The church in Syria at the moment is going through a lot of trouble.
HH: I meant some of the attacks in India.
WD: Well no, I mean, I would dispute that. There’s a lot of problems for the Pakistani Christians who are in a very bad situation. The church in India is thriving. As in here in the U.S., there is great competition between the traditional churches and the new evangelicals who are…
HH: Oh, good to know that.
WD: But only occasionally, very occasionally, there’s been trouble between Hindu fundamentalists and the Christians. But it’s pretty rare.
HH: What is your spiritual direction at this point?
WD: I grew up a Roman Catholic. I come from a very religious family. My brother is a Roman Catholic priest. My uncle was a Roman Catholic priest before him. And there are letters from a great uncle who wanted to become a Roman Catholic priest, but died on the fields of Founders in 1917, in the First World War. I grew up, I sent off to a really rather incredible Catholic school in Yorkshire, called Ampleforth in the wilds, which would have been a lousy education unless I had been interested in rocket science or physics or something. But the subjects I was interested in, which was history, theology, art history, was fantastically well taught by these rather incredible, rather brilliant monks. But it’s very difficult in a country like India to hang onto the idea of an exclusivity of truth in religion in a country where there are so many religions. And India has always had this effect for centuries, I think, on people that have lived there. They come with very strong ideas of faith that they’re brought up in, and end up believing in something that, some formulation such as there are many ways up the mountain.
HH: Early in your travels, you spent time with Mother Teresa.
WD: Correct. That was my first year in India. I taught for a while, and then ended up working in this remarkable home for the dying in Delhi, watching Mother Teresa’s nuns minister to these dying people. And we mentioned before we went on air that Hitch was a great friend of the show and a friend of yours, and he was a great friend of mine. And one of the things we used to disagree with very strongly was about Mother Teresa, because…
HH: We chose not to discuss it, actually.
WD: You disagreed with him, too, on that track.
HH: We did. Well then…
WD: I kind of know where he’s coming from, and there are all sorts of aspects of the Mother Teresa nuns which were medieval, I suppose, in their understanding of the world. But nonetheless, at the end of the day, the amount of good that was done in those homes by those nuns a million times outweighed any anxieties that he should have had. I think he really just needed to go and spend some time in those homes and hang out with the nuns. And had he done that, rather than doing the Hitch thing of firing off from his laptop in Washington, I think he would have had a rather different impression.
HH: With that opening baiting of the hook, I hope you will stay with us through this hour and beyond, because Return of A King by William Dalrymple is really quite a set of keys to unlock the situation that we are looking at right now. But we have to go back before we can go forward, and we will begin to do so when we come back from break.
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HH: William, a couple more biographical questions. You told the New York Times, “My family is traditionally one of lawyers, so I’ve inherited a legal brain, and history writing seems to suit it. I find it much easier to write.” I will dread if you launch a thousand lawyers writing history books. It’s not that easy to do, and lawyers ought not, I mean, it’s not. How long did this book take?
WD: For this book, about five years in all. The Return Of A King is about the first Anglo-Afghan war. The Brits march into Afghanistan in 1839 through the Bolan and Khojak passes, the same routes that the Taliban used to get into Afghanistan today from Qatar and Pakistan. And 18,00, the story in a nutcase is 18,000 troops march in, one man comes out. Dr. Brydon, the assistant surgeon, is the only man to make it out alive. It is the greatest disaster in British imperial history.
HH: And it was immediately avenged by the Army of Retribution, which we will come to. But you also said in your New York Times interview, you find history books much easier to write than travel books. If you choose a subject like this, which has a very clear narrative, you just gave it, it gives writing a clarity and ease. Well actually, I think that’s unfairly, after I read the background on this, you went back and forth to Afghanistan into Kandahar, which I really, I know a lot of NGO people. In fact, our young call screener, Marlon, has been to Afghanistan as a Marine. I know a lot of people who have been to Afghanistan. Nobody goes to Kandahar unless they’re sent there with an M-16 and a tank.
WD: Well, I was perhaps a little bit underbriefed on this, because I mean, just to put this in context before I tell the story about Kandahar, a lot of Kandahar is really fairly safe. And anyone listening to this that wants to go and visit Afghanistan, you’ll be surprised, probably, to hear that it’s very easy to get an Afghan tourist visa. You can get one almost over the counter. And even now, Kabul, Herat, which is an astonishing place…
HH: You made it, I never, ever imagined I would want to go to Herat. I’m still not going to go, but now I want to go and visit it.
WD: Herat is one of the world’s great wonders. It’s up there with Angkor Wat, the pyramids, you know, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. This was, this forgotten moment in Timurid 15th Century Herat, where what Robert Byron called the Oriental Medicis, had this extraordinary civilization, some of the greatest miniaturists, some of the greatest builders, the greatest tile workers. And the remains, the shot up remains of that still survive in Herat, not a tourist to be seen. But it’s a place on a par with Agra, the Taj Majal. It’s one of the great wonders of the world.
HH: And you got into the tombs of Tamburlaine. You got into…
WD: The tomb of Tamburlaine himself is in Samarkand, and so is in modern Uzbekistan.
HH: Oh, okay.
WD: But Herat is on a par with that. And anyone listening to the show, weirdly enough, at the moment, you can get to Herat with great safety. You can get to Kabul with a fair amount of safety. You can get to Mazar. What is going to happen next year, we’ll probably be talking about in the rest of the show. But if anyone that has a taste for adventure and wants a different tourist trip this summer, you could do a lot worse than go to those three places. Fly between them. Don’t go by road.
HH: And I’m going to go to the end of the interview just to give a preview of it. You also drove the road of the retreat, the disastrous retreat. And thanks to gluttony, you were saved by sin. You did not end up in a spontaneously combusting shootout between…
HH: What was it, the government and the farmers? The Taliban and the farmers? The cowbows and the farmers can be friends? What happened?
WD: It’s kind of, you know, every day scene of farmers in Afghanistan. No, there’s this, the end of the retreat, the place where the Brits have their last stand. For the British, this is our Custer’s last stand. This is Little Big Horn and all the rest of it. Gandamak is the place where the last 200 of the 44th Foot, the last 200 men alive on this retreat, out of 18,000 who have set off, form a square at the top of the hill, and decide they’re not going to get any further. They’re going to die here, and they’re going to try and save the honor of their regiment. So the captain, who’s the senior most figure left after all the generals have been taken hostage, and a whole lot of other serious catastrophes, takes the regimental colors, and he wraps it around his chest. They form a square, and they fight to the last bullet. They then carry on with bayonets. And only the captain is saved, because they think he’s worth a ransom, because he’s got this lovely, colorful Union Jack around his waist. One man taken hostage and survives. And the modern British camp in Helmand is called Camp Souter after that one survivor.
HH: And you drove that? But you stopped.
WD: So I drove that route. I mean, I should say just before this, we didn’t quite finish the Kandahar story. On arrival in Kandahar, having had a perfectly easy time in Kabul, Kabul these days is a bit like a kind of French finishing school. Lots of gorgeous French girls out there with NGO’s, I mean, the New York Times correspondents have a whale of a time there, so don’t feel sorry for them when you read these reports of embeds and so on. It’s a party town. But oddly, it is. It’s one of these places living on the edge. You’re never quite sure whether you’re going to get killed tomorrow, and you just live wildly. I sort of came back and sort of just wanted to sleep for a week in Delhi after my time in Afghanistan. But Kandahar is hairy, very hairy. And I luckily had been set up with one of these security companies who were going to look after me when I was in Kandahar. And as a favor for a friend, they picked me up at the airport. As we were driving out of the airport, we got a sniper shot in the back of the car, went through the back window, and then it hit, luckily, the armored stuff. But it was perfectly aimed for the back of my head. And so that would have been the end of me had I brought my picture…
HH: Was that before or after recreating the route of the retreat?
WD: This was before it, so the next…
HH: Okay, so you kept going? Good.
WD: Well, luckily, we were in an armored car.
HH: Had a book to finish.
WD: Exactly. I had a book to sell. And so we did the route of the retreat, so set off from Kabul in the footsteps of this disastrous last march. And I’d been set up by Karzai’s head of security, a guy called Amrullah Saleh, who’s like the kind of Afghan head of the CIA. He had read my previous book. And I was summoned into him on my second night in Kabul, which is not something you particularly relish, being pulled in by a secret policeman in a town like that. And I then got lectured by him about my last book. It was not good enough. You’ve got…
HH: On the Mughals, the Last White Mughal.
WD: The Last Mughal, the last emperor, last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, the story of India’s attempt to gain independence from the Brits in the mid-19th Century, the largest anti-colonial revolt to take place anywhere in the world in the 19th Century. Anyway, for some reason, he didn’t like this book. But he said next time, you’re going to do better, and he kitted me out in order to do the retreat so I could actually see what it was like with this warlord, who’d just come in to join Karzai’s government, who’s a guy called Anwar Khan Jegdalek. And Anwar Khan Jegdalek was the former, I’m not joking, was the former captain of the Afghan Olympic Wrestling team. And he’s about 18 foot tall by about 16 foot wide, this geezer, and sort of crazy, I mean, I wasn’t going to use the expletives I was about to use on your family radio show, but a crazy guy. And he had been, throughout the war against the Soviets, the head of Hezb-e-Islami, who are quite a rough bunch of guys. Anyway, I sent off for this guy I’d never met before into Taliban country, because Gandamak, the place where the last stand of the British took place, where they formed that square, is now just beneath Tora Bora, site of a more recent last stand. And it’s the heart of Taliban territory. So we set off from Kabul down the Khord-Kabul pass, up the Tezin Pass, down Jagdalak. And at that point, we got to his village. And the villages regard this guy as a kind of demigod. He’s the big local man.
HH: Conquering hero returns.
WD: Conquering hero returns. So immediately, our car is stopped, we have sheep killed, kabobs. We didn’t get to Gandamak until late that evening to discover there’d been this enormous gun battle. Had we arrived earlier, we’d have been…
HH: More on what he was retracing…my guest in studio is William Dalrymple. His book, Return Of A King, will repay your time immensely.
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HH: I’m shocked, shocked, William Dalrymple, that there’s gambling going on here. When you were making your way along the route of the British retreat in 1842, the disastrous retreat which makes up the heart of the narrative, Return Of A King, had palms been greased? Why were they helping you? And then complete the story about getting there.
WD: No, I don’t think any palms had been greased. I think this was a personal favor by this guy, Anwar Khan, who’d read my books. And it was a lot of, I mean, in this part of the world, as anywhere else, it’s personal relations. People do things for you not just for cash, but certainly in Afghanistan, there is a very, very long tradition of buying influence. And in a sense, this is something the British learned. They used to say, I can’t remember the exact phrase. It was something along the lines of beat the Balochis, thrash the Sindhis, but pay the Pathans.
HH: You know, that, when I was reading about Sir Macnaghten refusing, downgrading the pay, and that’s the turning point in your narrative.
HH: This is the stupid move of all time.
HH: I’m going to cut their salaries now that we’ve conquered the country, and of course revolt, which is brewing, breaks out. We’ll come back to the specifics. When I read this story, which is by a friend of yours, I gather.
WD: It’s the same thing. Exactly, Matt Rosenberg, yeah.
HH: We can’t possibly make this same mistake, right? There’s a chance that the government survives after we leave if we subsidize it.
WD: Yes, I think there’s every reason to think that Karzai’s got a future after you guys retire. Whether, what happens in the south of the country is a big question. Already, the Taliban controls 70% of it, and that influence is not going to get any less after 100,000 American combat troops are withdrawn. So in a sense, I think there’s two possible outcomes. One is there can be a negotiated settlement, and the Taliban are basically given the Pashtun south in some sort of power-sharing deal, or there’s a civil war, and Karzai and the northerners control Kabul and the northern half of the country, and they fight the Taliban for the control of the south. Either way, you know, the country is already effectively partitioned.
HH: Let me tell you what, as I read this book and took my copious notes, and the outline, of course, is already blown to Hell. But let me go back to…
WD: Well, we’re going all over the show.
HH: We’re going all over the place, but if you begin with Steven Pressfield’s The Afghan Campaign, and you read The Looming Tower, which is on your ten key books of Afghanistan, and then you read Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America…
WD: Wonderful book, yeah.
HH: And Jake Tapper’s The Outpost, I have a good grasp of Afghan history. But there’s that big block. Now Peter Hopkirk’s books, I read years ago.
WD: Wonderful books.
HH: I read The Honorable Company. I kind of knew about it, but had your book been written prior to the invasion, I think the invasion would have occurred. But I also think given some of the lessons that are in Return Of A King on how to deal with this culture, the occupation might have been done differently, and might still be done differently. In fact, as you went about writing Return Of A King, how often were you struck by similarity of mistake then, inchoate mistake now?
WD: So there’s two questions, really, you’re asking. One is first of all, about, you know, what we did wrong and how we should…I’ll do that question first. My personal view, just my own view, is that there is a very good case for American intervention in 2001 after 9/11. There are those who argue that the Taliban could have been pressurized to give up bin Laden, and there’s some very good evidence that in fact they were preparing to do so. But either way, politically, it was probably impossible to do anything except some incredibly dramatic gesture of conquering Afghanistan. What we should have done, in my view, is that having gone in, having introduced democracy, having had elections, America and her allies, who had incredible sympathy. A) America had sympathy with the rest of the world because of 9/11, the Taliban were hated, everyone was pleased to get rid of the Taliban in Afghanistan, everyone was very pleased to get Karzai as a replacement, both in Afghanistan and around the world, everyone was sympathetic with what the situation was in, say, January of 2002. Everything to play for. What we should have done, it’s easy to say this now, of course, but what we should have done is we should have made the gesture of concrete actions to show that we wanted to help Afghanistan without much cost, and certainly at a millionth of the cost of what we’ve actually spent in that country on armaments, weapons, bombs, all the rest of it. We could have built roads, we could have built some schools, we could have built some hospitals. There were tiny efforts at this. The provincial reconstruction teams, which you see doing amazing work around Afghanistan, did that, but on a tiny scale. Had we really gone in and spent some money rebuilding this country, we could have got out that year or the next year and left them to it. And it may not have been the world’s greatest democracy, and even with 20 years of the best possible tailwind behind it, Afghanistan would only have come up to the level of Pakistan after 20 years of it, because I mean these guys have bombed themselves back into the Dark Ages.
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HH: It’s a book that everyone’s going to want to read and talk about, for one of the reasons, yesterday’s New York Times carried a story quoting the French ambassador to Kabul in his farewell, his name is Bernard Bajolet, I believe, “that the Afghan project is on thin ice,” he said. “Collectively, the West is responsible for a chunk of what went wrong, though much of the rest of the Afghans were responsible for, that the West had done a good job of fighting terrorism, but most of that was done on Pakistani soil, not on the Afghan side of the border, and that without fundamental changes in how Afghanistan did business, the Afghan government, and by extension, the West’s investment, would come to little.” William Dalrymple, we were talking when we went to break just about that.
WD: Difficult to disagree with any of that. I met Bernard in Kabul, and he’s a very sort of typical French, he looks like De Gaulle, says his mind. And who can deny that the current situation in Afghanistan is catastrophic? I mean, we have poured in money. You guy have poured out your blood. There has been the longest conflict in American history, and we’re almost back to where we began again. The Taliban already control about 70% of the south, and after you guys pull out next year, it’s not going to get any easier. When you go to, the most shocking thing for me coming is that when you go to Afghanistan now, after 12 years, after a lot of money has been poured into that country, trillions of dollars have been poured into that country, there is no development. When I first went there in 2009 to begin researching this book, there wasn’t even a road from the airport to the main town. There was no street lighting, there’s no sewage, and that’s Kabul. Out in the boonies, there’s no roads, there’s no, even the provincial governors are illiterate, there’s no, the teachers are illiterate. It’s just desperate. And at a fraction of the cost, we could have, you know, it wouldn’t have cost but a hundredth of the cost to have built freeways everywhere, and modern hospitals.
HH: Take a few minutes…
WD: As it is, this country is the most desperately poor country, and only two or three others in the will, still.
HH: Take a few moments, William Dalrymple, to read what you were going to read. We’ll do it again in the other hour, but it just seems to me timed appropriately for the interview, and I don’t want to stay locked in an outline when in fact a reading from Return Of A King is so apropos right now.
WD: Okay, so we’re heading on the route of the retreat. We’ve just narrowly avoided getting killed at Gandamak, because that morning, the government has come in to burn the poppy crop of this village, Gandamak, site of the British last stand in 1842, just below the site of Osama’s last stand in December, 2001, Tora Bora. The villages, the previous year, had had to have the government come in and burn their poppy crop, which is a big disaster for a poor village. An they’d been promised compensation. The deal was they’d just give out their poppy, the opium gets destroyed, the international community pays compensation to the villages. But the compensation never turns up. Some petty official, as is typical in Afghanistan, pockets the money, the villages get nothing. So they go into Jalalabad, and they say listen, we haven’t got the money to do anything else. All we have is poppy seeds. We’re going to plant it again. If you come and burn it next time and give us no compensation, we will resist. The government listens, doesn’t do anything. The day that I’m setting off for the village, unbeknown to me, there’s a party setting out from Jalalabad to burn the poppy crop. The villagers resist, they take 90 hostages, they shoot up five police jeeps, three or four people are killed. The following day, we’re in Jalalabad. I’m with this guy called Anwar Khan Jagdalak, who’s a big local warlord leader, ex-Hezb-e-Islami, now a minister in Karzai’s government. He’s called in to negotiate between the government. As a local, he’s sympathetic to the villagers, but he’s a government man. So he has to sit on this Jirga. The elders from Gandamak, these very distinguished looking old guys with beards, they don’t want their children to starve. They just want the compensation that they should have got, but they haven’t got it. And in order, in a sense, to protect, to put some food in their children’s mouth, they’ve fought this battle. So we’re sitting in Jalalabad at a Jirga. Behind us, Predator drones are taking off. Jalalabad is one of the big drone bases. And in kind of movies, when you see drones, there’s always one being sort of commanded from somewhere in Virginia. These things in Jalalabad, it’s like a kind of New York taxi ride, because they’re sending off one after another, almost completely silent. They’re rather sinister things. You can’t hear them take off. It’s just these strange looking planes taking off behind you and circling the hills around. And at the end of it, Jagdalak introduces me to the elders of this village. And I asked them, you know, do you see any parallels between then and now? And their answer was it’s exactly the same. Both times, the foreigners have come here for their own interests, not for ours. They say we are your friends, we want to help, but they’re lying. Whoever comes to Afghanistan, even now, they will face the fate of Burnes and Macnaghten. These are the two British governors, names largely forgotten except for readers of Peter Hopkirk today, but very well known in the Afghan countryside. These illiterate farmers know the names of these guys, because this victory over the British is what Yorktown is to you guys, what the Easter rising is to the Irish, what Gandhi and the salt march is to the Indians, what the Battle of Britain and Trafalgar is to us Brits. So they all know these stories. “We are the roof of the world, said one of the elders. From here, you can control and watch everywhere. Afghanistan is like a crossroads of every nation that comes to power. But we do not have the strength to control our own destiny. Our fate is determined by our neighbors.” And then they tell this story. They said, “Last month, some American officers called us to a hotel in Jalalabad for a meeting. One of them asked me why do you hate us? And I replied, because you blow down our doors, enter our houses, pull our women by the hair, and kick our children. We cannot accept this. We will fight back, and we will break your teeth. And when your teeth are broken, you will leave, just as the Russians and the British left before you. It’s just a matter of time. What did he say to that? He turned to his friend and said if the old men are like this, what will the younger ones be like? In truth, all the Americans know their game is over. It’s just their politicians who deny it. This, he said, is the last days of the Americans. Next, it will be China.”
HH: On that note, we will take a break. Next, it will be China. The last days of the Americans, all of this flows from a remarkable book, and that exchange is reproduced in Return Of A King in the closing chapter on lessons learned or not learned. However, it need not be that dark or that despairing. We’ll talk about that which has been done right, and we are going to dive deep into what actually happened in 1839-1842. It is a riveting story, and it could have been written with different weaponry and different accents, but the same story again and attain.
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HH: The audience has been hearing, William, about many names. And of all of them that you’ve written about, if you could summon one from the grave to sit down and spend a day talking to, so that you would have an in-depth understanding of why they did and what they did, and how it went wrong, who would that one be?
WD: Can I have three?
HH: No, you can’t. You can tell me number two and number three, but you can only pick one. You can lay out three. I know the three, but I want to know which one of those three.
WD: The two I’d have dinner with, who I’d choose to have dinner with? I’d probably choose the hero of the book, this guy, Shah Shuja, who is the…
HH: I am surprised.
WD: Well, no. Shah Shuja is this guy who traditionally in Afghanistan is regarded as the puppet, who in the West was regarded as a washout, the guy we installed who screwed up and destroyed the whole 19th Century British project in Afghanistan. In reality, if you look at the accounts from the time, if you look at the epic poems that the Afghans themselves wrote, but particularly if you look at his autobiography, he is this extraordinary man. He is a guy who is beset by bad luck time and time again. He inherits, age 13, the fragments of his father’s empire, the Durrani empire, which used to run all of Afghanistan, all of Pakistan, Kashmir, Eastern Iran, Northern India. By the time he inherits it, it’s a bit like sort of Game Of Thrones, we had the music.
HH: Always, every hour.
WD: I love it, yeah.
HH: Watched it last night.
WD: Exactly, Daenerys Targaryen.
HH: Yeah, don’t screw with her dragons.
WD: Jon Snow’s girlfriend actually is my wife’s first cousin.
HH: No kidding.
WD: I’ve only ever seen her in a ball cap, and suddenly, there…
HH: You have no idea what you’re talking about, Jon Snow.
WD: I have to say, the next time I see her, I’m not going to be looking at her quite in the same light.
HH: No, you’re not. But we all are.
WD: She actually looks just like my wife. Anyway, to keep on track here, where were we?
HH: Shah Shuja, and the other two.
WD: Shah Shuja. So Shah Shuja is kind of like one of these characters in Game Of Thrones. He inherits this incredible medieval empire, aged 13, but it’s already imploding. His brother, who’s been king before him, has been blinded by these tribesmen. Shah Shuja manages to lose the empire by the age of 21, and is wandering in the high Himalayas, his men wiped out by snowstorms…
HH: Tortured in prison, his diamonds stolen.
WD: Well, there’s actually that kind of wildling scene from Game Of Thrones.
HH: Yeah, it is.
WD: He loses the whole army in the snow. I mean, all that stuff. If you like Game Of Thrones, this is a similar sort of flavor.
HH: It’s in my notes. You bet. I wouldn’t have guessed you would have seen Game Of Thrones, but there you go.
WD: No, no, Game Of Thrones reaches the most surprising places. It’s the combination of the kind of narrative, the medieval history, which has all sorts of references with that full frontal heroic nudity.
HH: Yeah, endless. Endless.
WD: And it leads to all these extraordinary kind of things that don’t normally happen. I mean, we don’t normally have my father-in-law and my 13 year old son watching full frontal.
HH: Hold right there. It’s sort of like the Tudors meet dragons. I’ll be right back with William Dalrymple.
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HH: The story has not actually changed since 1842. It’s being retold with an extraordinary amount of relevance, and in fact, so relevant that we’ve been talking about Game Of Thrones during the off-air time, and how in fact this resembles it so much. I asked you, William Dalrymple, and thank you for being here. The book is linked at Hughhewitt.com, and people need to get it and enjoy it. If you could sup with any of these characters, and you came up with Shah Shuja, who is this extraordinary, and you began to tell the story. Tell the whole audience the story of him…
HH: And we have ten minutes. And then I also want to know something, Macnaghten and Burnes.
WD: So do a little bit on Shah Shuja first. Shah Shuja is this extraordinary character who inherits the empire and loses it, but who never gives up. He’s tenaciously going back. Army after army is defeated. Three times, he fails to get his kingdom back. And finally, he’s picked out of obscurity and put back on the throne by the British, and that’s where the real trouble begins. This guy’s relevant today, because he’s chief of the same tiny sub-tribe as President Karzai. In other words, the West has put the same guy on twice.
WD: It’s extraordinary. I’ll just read a very short quote from the beginning of his autobiography, which is that this story about the first Afghan War has been told many times before, but never with the Afghan side of things. And I did these journeys through Afghanistan, getting shot up in Kandahar, all this kind of stuff, in order to collect the original Afghan sources. And only if you go to the homes of these old Afghan noblemen do you get hold of these sources.
HH: Or the right book stall in Kabul.
WD: Or the right bookstore in Kabul. That’s actually the best source of all.
HH: Amazing story.
WD: I managed to get six on one hour, six previously unused diary sources, including Shah Shuja’s autobiography.
WD: And this guy comes across as Pepys.
WD: I mean, he’s got incredible self-knowledge…
HH: Explain the Pepys for the American audience.
WD: Pepys, the great Tudor diarist who did an 11 volume diary, which is the most personal look into the human soul that we have from that period of British history.
HH: As well as big events like the Great Fire. Yeah, you bet.
WD: Exactly. Now here, Shah Shuja is writing, here’s what he writes at the beginning of his autobiography, explaining why he’s writing the story of his reign. “Great kings have always recorded the events of their reigns, some writing themselves with their natural gifts, but most entrusting the writing to historians and writes so that these compositions would remain as a memorial on the pages of passing time. Thus, it occurred to this humble petitioner of the court of the merciful god, Shah Shuja al-Mulk Durrani, to record the battles and events of his reign, so that the historians of Khurasan, that’s modern Afghanistan, should know the true accounts of these events, and thoughtful readers take heed from these examples.
HH: So if you could summon him up, what would you want to know that you don’t know from the, because that’s one of the keys, I think, to bringing people back. I would ask for Sir Macnaghten for reasons I will explain in a moment. I thought you were going to say Alexander Burnes.
WD: He would be my second choice.
HH: Okay, and so explain to people what you would get from Shah Shuja that you don’t already know, because it is an intimate portrait. And these epic poems are really quite amazing that you discovered and have brought to light for the West to enjoy. And they’re actually, did you do the translations?
WD: No, I know a little Dari, but the guy who did the translations is a specialist in 19th and 18th Century old Persian…
HH: Really well done.
WD: A guy called Bruce Wannell, who himself is a story. He was one of the very first Westerners living in Peshawar at the time when Charlie Wilson begins the whole thing of arming the Mujahedin. And he is the translator for the girl who open the MI6 operation. She goes into Peshawar, falls in love with a French intelligence officer, and Bruce is their translator. I don’t know how much he knows of what’s, I need to have this conversation properly with him one day, but he is there when MI6 and French intelligence opening in Peshawar beginning to arm the Mujahedin in, you know, 1982, or whatever it is, 1981. And he’s also witness of the first and crucial thing for modern world history, which is the moment that the Pakistani ISI begin diverting money not in a sense to the good guys like Massoud, but to the crazy guys like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who throw acid in girls’ faces.
HH: Let me take a moment at this point, because I want my audience not to get lost in my enthusiasm for the book, and our highway and byways.
WD: We’re all over the place today.
HH: I know, and so I’m going to give you a little structure. If you’ve read Peter Hopkirk, the Great Game or Like Hidden Fire, you will know this, but not many of you have. Here’s the sequence – intrigue, invasion, occupation, revolution, retreat, resolve, a siege at Jalalabad, and retributions. And then we’re going to do lessons learned and not learned. All right, so that’s, we begin with intrigue. 175 years ago, a young Brit named Alexander Burnes arrives in Peshawar. What’s he doing there? What’s his role in the story in a country where you say, quoting now from the very beginning of the book, “Blood feuds became almost a national pastime, the Afghan equivalent of country cricket in the English shires.”?
WD: Sir Alexander Burnes is a figure straight out of Game Of Thrones, not least because he’s incredibly oversexed. Burnes is this handsome, young, multilingual, rather dashing servant of the East India Company. Now the important thing to remember, and again, I think we should explain this to an American audience, it’s not actually the Brits who conquer India in the 18th and 19th Century.
HH: It’s the Company.
WD: It’s the Company. And it’s a rather terrifying thing, because it is a company. It has a boardroom, it had issues, annual accounts, it has annual general meetings like any other company. It also has the largest standing army in Asia. And I mean, the modern equivalent will be Microsoft with nuclear submarines, or Pepsico with fighter jets.
HH: It may have them.
WD: Well, thank God we don’t. I can’t imagine Bill Gates with nuclear weapons. He’s quite dangerous enough. Anyway, so the Company is what’s fighting this war. And the Company, this multi, this armed, weaponized, multinational, is engaged in trying to seize Afghanistan. But first, they need some information. So they send up Alexander Burnes, and there’s this fantastic sort of precursor. We move from sort of Game Of Thrones, and I suppose more to James Bond here, a 19th Century James Bond. They need to map the Indus River. They’ve already realized that in order to penetrate the markets of India, they got the Ganges, they send their steamships up the Ganges. They want to do the same on the Indus, but the Indus is occupied, as today, by all these sort of dodgy frontier tribes, Pathans taking pot shots. How do they get to map this river? So what they do is they come up with this very elaborate ruse. Ranjit Singh, who’s the king of the Punjab, loves horses.
HH: Remarkable character in your book, by the way.
WD: Wonderful character. One-eyed crazy guy, runs, actually, an incredible operation, and he gets, he summons from Europe all Napoleon’s sacked generals to train up his troops in the Punjab. And they make the one army in India that the British can’t defeat. The Sikh army have better weapons, better guns, and this sort of proxy Waterloo is about to break out between the Sikhs and the British.
HH: And give people who are listening just a sense of where the Punjab is relative to Khyber and to the Lower Indian…
WD: So the Punjab straddles the modern Indian-Pakistan border. It’s south of Peshawar, it’s south of Afghanistan. It’s north of Delhi. It’s a flat country, very rich, full of rich land, rich traders, rich merchants. Everyone in history has wanted to seize it. The Indus is the river which runs up from the bottom of Pakistan from Karachi towards Lahore, the capitol of the Punjab. The British want to map it. So they come to this brilliant plan. Alexander Burnes is going to present to Ranjit Singh six Suffolk dray horses, these huge, English cart horses. And they know that Ranjit Singh is going to fall for this, because he loves horses. He’s actually declared a single war to capture one stallion in the previous decade. And he says absolutely, of course you can send the horses by raft up the Indus. We don’t want them damaged. And then the British had this other clever idea. They’d find some old carriage which used to belong to the Lord Mayor of London, and they’re going to present that to Ranjit Singh, too. Inside the carriage is a whole team of Royal Naval hydrographers and geographers and mappers and cartographers busy taking soundings of the depths of the Indus, measuring the amount of water flow. So by the time this crazy raft with these cart horses and this old carriage get to Lahore, they’ve got the map of the Indus. They know all the scientific data about the flow of the river. Burnes then goes on to…
HH: Young man.
WD: Young man.
HH: Young man.
WD: 32, and despite having this habit of sleeping with all the women all the way, which often runs him into trouble, and does in the end lead to his death…
WD: He goes through Afghanistan, through Central Asia, and his job, officially he’s just a gentleman writing a travel book. Actually, he’s an intelligence officer taking detailed notes. And his job is to see whether the Russians, who have been moving south as fast as the British have been moving north out of India, and everyone thinks these two empires are going to clash. This is like the Cold War of the 1840s. His job is to see whether there’s any Russian agents or any Russian activity in these great caravan cities, Bukhara, Tashkent, Samarqand, these wonderfully resonant names, he goes there and there’s nothing there. He goes home, he writes a travel book, the travel book becomes a bestseller, it’s translated into French, the Russians read the French version, and they immediately send off their agents to Bukhara. They weren’t there before. So just as you guys invaded Iraq to try to get rid of al Qaeda, al Qaeda wasn’t there until you invaded. You created, in a sense, the very demons that you’d been frightened of. So the British do the same at this period of time.
HH: There is an argument on that point, but I don’t want to divert. Vitkevitch shows up in, and he meets Rawlinson, and so we have all this stuff happening as a consequence of Burnes.
WD: So Vitkevitch is another of these extraordinary characters.
HH: He’s amazing.
WD: Each, I mean, any one of these guys would be a biography themselves. Vitkevitch is the first Russian agent of the Great Game, except he’s not Russian. It turns out that despite this Russian name, he’s actually a Pole. Aged 14, he’d been engaged in anti-Russian liberation struggles in Poland. He gets sent off to the steppe in chains, and he rescues his career by becoming the Russian agent.
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HH: We’re having too much fun, but I must say, it’s a very deadly serious subject. It results in the loss of 18,000 British troops in their invasion of Afghanistan. It is very much relevant for every conversation we have today, including the front page of the New York Times. I want to read from Page 177 in Return Of A King. “On the morning of 8 May, 1839, just as Shah Shuja was riding in triumph through the gates of Kandahar, the dead body of a man in his early 30s was discovered by a cleaning lady. And the discovery took place in a top floor room of the Paris Boarding House in the shuttered back streets of St. Petersburg. The man had apparently locked his door from within and had then blown out his brains.” This is the story of Mr. Vitkevitch, and it’s a tragedy, and it’s also, William Dalrymple, really an ominous telling of what’s going to happen to the Russians when they come en masse 150 years later.
WD: So Vitkevitch, who’s actually a Pole, who’s been sent off in chains to the steppe, age 14, makes a decision. Two of his friends who are sent off with him commit suicide, because they are in a sense slave soldiers in the Russian steppe. Again, to do Game Of Thrones, it’s like being sent north of the wall or something.
WD: They’re in the snows of the steppe. It’s a miserable life. Vitkevitch decides he’s going to survive. And the only way he can survive is if he goes off and works for the very people who destroyed his life, the Russian empire. And he makes it and he Russianizes his name, and he begins to learn Arabic, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, all the languages of the steppe. And he becomes, by virtue of this linguistic ability, his bravery, and his kind of devil may care attitude, the first Russian secret agent in Central Asia. And by the age of about 26, these guys are all in their early 20s, this extraordinary story, he’s unraveled the British intelligence network. The British have set up this system whereby these merchants, normally carpet sellers operating between Central Asia and India, are mapping and sending news of what’s going on from the caravan cities of Central Asia. Vitkevitch unravels these networks, destroys everything that Burnes has set up. So these two rival young men, both in a sense from the peripheries of their empire, Vitkevich, who’s actually a Pole working for the Russians, Burnes, who’s a Highlands Scot, who’s working for the East India Company, not from the center of London or an establishment Englishman. He’s a fringe guy, too. These two guys through ambition and hard work and linguistic ability are the two rival agents. And there’s this wonderful moment on Christmas day in 1833 when they meet in Kabul and have a dinner party together.
HH: It is incredible. In fact, I’m thinking of it right now in episodes of an HBO series itself. This might be serialized, because it is, it’s wonderful in many respects. It’s God awful in other respects. There’s a third part. There’s Vitkevitch, there’s Burnes, but I want to talk about Macnaghten, because Game Of Thrones analogy, think about the most incompetent meister at King’s Landing, giving always the wrong advice at always the wrong time, but with perfect authority. He’s an Ulsterman, from an Ulster family, and so I kind of get the whole Ulster deal. Tell people both his job, his role, and his not insignificant courage.
WD: Sir Macnaghten is one of these classic Orientalists of this period. He has, by the age of 22, he’s translated Arabian Nights, he’s a great lawyer, he has fantastic linguistic ability, but he’s not a practical man. Here’s what his deputy has to say about him. “Poor Macnaghten should never have left the secretary’s office. He is ignorant of men even to simplicity, and utterly incapable of forming and guiding administrative measures. The judicial line would probably have suited him best, and even then only in the court of appeal, judging only written evidence.” So this guy is a great scholar, but he has got no idea how to actually run an occupation, or he’s not the man to be sending out there. And he hates Alexander Burnes. Alexander Burnes is half his age, he has far more sex, he’s far more glamorous, he’s had a bestselling…
HH: He’s knighted.
WD: He’s been, seen the Queen. He’s been knighted, and Macnaghten hasn’t yet been knighted. Basically, Burnes, who disapproves of this war, is bought off with the promise of a knighthood, again, a very sort of, I mean, this sort of thing happens in my country the whole time. Offer a knight, and everyone just goes down on all fours and does whatever the government tells them to. And Burnes, there’s a tad little complexity. There are two rival spy centers at this period. There is the eastern half of India, which is run from Bombay, and Burnes is part of the Bombay presidency intelligence network. He’s based in Gujarat, in what’s now in India, looking into what’s now Karachi and Eastern Persia. And that’s their sort of area of influence, and they’re sending out their information gathering, and what they call intelligences into that area, these guys in disguise pretending to be horse merchants, these young British guys equivalent who’d now be fighting in Helmand. But in those days, you know, in disguise, pretending to be merchants, mapping, getting information. A rival center of intelligence is run by a guy called Sir Claude Wade, who if you like, is the M. running the spy operation out of Ludhiana. And Burnes goes to Afghanistan. He knows the country by personal experience. He’s half the age of the old spymaster, M., who’s sitting in Ludhiana. And again, it’s very familiar. We know today this battle between the young guys who actually know the place, been on the ground, and the staffers back home who have never been there, but try to defend their office against young guys coming up, it’s a very familiar situation. And it’s all about departmental hatreds and jealousies.
HH: That’s what’s amazing. It absolutely is. It’s the Department of Operations versus the people who are answering to Congress and not wanting to disclose.
WD: Or those movies when you have the FBI against the CIA. So it’s the same sort of thing. So…
HH: or Boston, where you have the FBI versus the CIA not being able to catch the Chechen who ought to have stayed five months and 29 days in his country, or Misha. Go ahead.
WD: So Burnes goes to Kabul, and he says that yes, the Russians are here, Yes, this guy, Vitkevitch has made entreaties. But the ruler of Afghanistan, Dost Mohammad Khan, really wants an alliance with the Brits. We don’t have to invade. We really don’t need to send troops up the passes.
HH: And Dost Mohammad Khan tossed out Shah.
WD: Yeah, he tossed out the previous guy.
WD: He’s now in charge. And he says it’s very easy. All you have to do is help him negotiate, get this border city back, Peshawar. It can easily be done. We can control and have huge influence in Afghanistan without sending in a single man firing a single bullet. This is clearly the sensible and obvious thing to do. But he’s ignored, because his, the spy chief hates him. He’s got this other plan. He’s sitting in Ludhiana in the Punjab, his neighbor is Shah Shuja, the old ruler. And he thinks that for his own personal benefit, if he can get Shah Shuja onto the throne, then his name will be made, his career will be made, and he can kick this younger whippersnapper, Alexander Burnes, into touch. So, and this is how decisions are made in great empires.
HH: And this is the Company.
WD: Exactly, yeah.
HH: So this is a private organization with ties to the government back in Great Britain, but it’s running its own sort of thing. So we’ve got to move the story up to the point where after all this debate, someone decides we’ve got to go, but not without, in a minute to the break, there is a marvelous piece of writing where you describe Lord Auckland’s transit from his summer capitol to his winter quarters, and how the Brits would move through India. I’m surprised that you can live there peacefully, still, given the excess of the…
WD: I’m sometime surprised, too. I mean, it’s very odd. The Brits behaved extremely badly in India for a very, very long period. The Company is born in 1599, which is the year that Shakespeare writes Hamlet. It, by the time that they’ve gone, it’s Noel Coward. It’s that huge area of history, between 300 years of history. And I don’t quite understand why they didn’t want the British even now. I live there. And I never, you know, it’s not like being a German in Israel or something. You know, you don’t have to answer forever for the crimes of your forbearers.
HH: And remarkable detail on how the Raj, and that’s what it was called, the Raj, lived, and how they made decisions, and the incredibly stupid people that got to make them, Lord Auckland among them.
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HH: William Dalrymple, one of those places where I put down the book is when Shah Shuja, coming from the southern invasion, or the army of the Indus comes in from the south once the Brits decide to take over Afghanistan in 1839, stops in Kandahar, which they take rather easily. And he seeks out the stole of the prophet. And I had not thought of it in years, but then I remembered that is what Mullah Omar did. Explain what the shawl is, what its significance is, and what Shah Shuja was doing that Mullah Omar did 170 years later.
WD: Well, the whole, in a sense, the point of this book is that everything echoes. Everything about this invasion has been repeated. We have the same cities being occupied by troops speaking the same languages, being sniped at by guys from the same tribe. One little anecdote, I was sitting in Kandahar reading the diary of Henry Rawlinson in 1842, who used to sit in this lovely shrine looking out over the Arghandab Valley, just below where Mullah Omar and bin Laden planned 9/11 in this compound, the place where they seized the laptops in December, 2001 that proved the link between al Qaeda and 9/11. He describes sitting in the shrine, watching these British lancers come down the hill, over the bridge over the river, and taking on the Ghilzai cavalry at the bottom. As I was reading this passage, which I photocopied with me and brought just to try and get, you know, link myself with this guy I was writing about 170 years ago. As I was reading, down the hill comes this enormous anti-blast vehicle, these huge things that you guys have brought to Afghanistan to withstand the IED’s. They look like things out of Star Wars, a couple of Humvees behind it. This American patrol comes down the hill, crosses the bridge over the Arghandab, two hundred yards in, the IED goes off. And so you have exactly the same microgeography, the boundary between, in a sense, the occupation and the government, and the resistance is exactly the same, 170 years later. When the Americans invade in December, 2001, after 9/11, Mullah Omar goes to Kandahar and he puts on the cloak of the prophet, and declares himself the leader of the faithful, Amir al-Muminin. And this is echoing what Dost Mohammad did against the British in 1842. These things just, it’s like ripples and echoes from history.
HH: Is the shawl still there? Is the…
WD: It’s still there. I’ve been to the shrine, yeah. I went two years ago.
HH: So he would not dare remove it? Mullah Omar would not dare remove it?
WD: No, no. It lives there, but you know, if ever he comes to power, which is not unlikely in the next few months, he can come back and put it on again.
HH: Put it on again.
WD: But I mean, even the rhetoric is the same. In just in the lead up to the invasion, when the British are in a sense creating the atmosphere for war, here is the British ambassador in Tehran. We should declare that he who is not with us is against us. We must secure Afghanistan. And then you know, the kind of issues you have in the New York Times op-ed page, what is the duties of an occupation, should we go there just pragmatically, conquer them, lock the whole thing down, or should we be introducing democracy, helping women’s rights…
HH: Again and again.
WD: So here’s what the spymaster, Sir Claude Wade, Burnes’ rival, writes in 1839. “There is nothing more to be dreaded or guarded against, I think, than the overweaning confidence with which we are too often accustomed to regard the excellence of our own institutions, and the anxiety that we show to introduce them in new and untried soils. Such interference will always lead to acrimonious disputes, if not a violent reaction” So what he’s saying basically in Rumsfeld speak is don’t do nation building.
HH: But there’s also something we did avoid. And I wanted to make sure we make some contrast as well. Page 156, early on in this, the approach of the army, a young girl is raped, a girl of good family. And the first act of resistance to the British in 1839 soon begin thereafter. The American troops have had a few atrocities in Afghanistan for which great repentance has been made. But the amount of years that we have been there, and the level of care with which I think they have taken to not do that, has been extraordinary.
WD: Well, yes and no. What is certainly true, and what is a big contrast with this, is there’s been no rapes, there’s been, as far as I know, very few affairs between American soldiers or American officers and women in Afghanistan. I mean, the troops…
HH: I’m coming to that, yeah.
WD: And the British government, and the American civil authorities are locked down in Kabul. They can barely go out. I mean, I’ve been there, tried to get these guys to come to a party or a book launch. They have to, it’s like, sort of getting permission from the headmaster. They have to apply in triplicate a month before if they’re going to leave the base. So there’s been very little of that. What there has been, of course, there inevitably is there’s been huge amount of civilian deaths with drone strikes…
HH: Collateral damage.
WD: Collateral damage, drone strikes that have hit the wrong guys, wedding parties, going after…I mean, in modern terms, the equivalent of that rape which begins the resistance, there’s a moment when in 2001, Karzai’s going to come to power. A whole lot of his tribesmen are going to Kabul, and they’re bombed by the Americans who think they’re Taliban.
HH: We’ll come back on that note, because that is what happens in the occupation, really needs to be heard.
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HH: You had a book launch in Kabul? Do I understand this correctly?
WD: I did. I don’t know whether you’ve ever had on this show this guy Rory Stewart…
WD: …who’s this young Brit, who’s kind of Alexander Burnes’ sort of reincarnation, who’s this former MI6 officer who went to Kabul, founded this art school in Kabul in 2002, the way they learned calligraphy and tile work, and is trying to revive the ancient arts of Afghanistan. He has this gorgeous fort, and we had the book launch there. Karzai’s brother came, direct descendant of Shah Shuja. We had all this, Amrullah Saleh, the former head of Karzai’s intelligence. We had this guy, Anwar Khan Jagdalak, the wrestling champion who took me on my route to the retreat. All these guys turned out.
HH: What do they drink at a book launch in Kabul?
WD: I have to tell you, well, you have two sorts of book launches in Kabul. You have the public one and the private one. The public one, I’m afraid to say, is Pepsi Cola.
HH: Now I’ve got to also ask you, they changed the cover for America. Why did they do that? I love this cover, but I am always confused what the publisher is thinking about. Oh, the English audience are going to like the carved swords, the curved swords and Afghanistan, but we’d better show a mountain to file in a lot of troops for the Americans. What is that?
WD: Well, yeah, I like both covers. I don’t know which is better. This is a more elegant, more sort of historical one. The British one is more obviously commercial. It looks like a kind of Dubai inflight magazine or something, or Emirates Airways, or Taj hotel. But the scene on the front of the American cover is the British going into Afghanistan. And it is this fantastic moment in the book. The British have 21,000 troops, 38,000 Indian camp followers. They go off with 30,000 camels through this unmapped passes. One regiment brings its own pack of foxhounds, just in case they do a bit of hunting on the way. 30 camels are carrying nothing except claret. There’s one British general needs 260 camels to carry his uniforms and his medals. One, I think seven camels that carry nothing except cheroots and cigars. And one camel goes into Afghanistan carrying nothing except eau de cologne.
HH: It’s remarkable, and Elphinstone, your general, has got gout, and is sick from the beginning. There is so many absurdities…
WD: And even more absurd, on their way into Afghanistan, they’ve got the claret, they’ve got the eau de cologne, and they’ve got the cheroots. They haven’t brought a map. The only thing they haven’t got is a map. They have no idea where they’re going. And anyone that knows that part of the world, you know, where’s Afghanistan? Oh, go straight.
HH: What’s remarkable, by the way, did you read the audio version?
WD: The audio version? Is there an audio version?
HH: I don’t know.
WD: No, no. I think there is one. I didn’t do it.
HH: Oh, you’ve got to read it, because obviously, you can do the pronunciation, and you’ll be able to do the poetry, and I would listen to it again. But they get through Kandahar, they come up to this giant fortress at Ghazni, they have a suicide attack of 2,000 holy warriors. But they do have, Americans are familiar with the Sharpe series, obviously, and Bernard’s been a guest for three hours here talking about Sharpe. They have British courage. I mean, they blow the gates off, oh, they’re going to get a 1,000? Well, we better go in.
WD: Well, it’s a classic situation. British history is full of idiotic leaders and terrible mistakes. British intelligence tells them when they’re in Kandahar, they’re on their way, they’re leaving Kandahar, they’re on their way to Ghazni. British intelligence says that Ghazni has no walls. So these poor guys who’ve been carrying this enormous heavy artillery up the Bolan and the Khojak passes, through the deserts, the sepoys falling off mountain ledges, trying to, these huge wheels, these enormous gun barrels. They’ve hauled this thing as far as Kandahar, and then the general said oh, no, leave it all behind. We won’t need it in the next place. There’s no walls. I’ve got clear intelligence here there’s no walls. They arrive, and it is the largest fortress in Central Asia. They can’t go back. They’ve just spent five days crossing a desert. They haven’t got any food. They’re completely stuck. So one guy volunteers, and he goes and they do a mock attack, a feint at the back of the fortress. And all the Afghans rush around and defend it. and then this guy just walks up with a barrel of gun powder, there’s five of them that do it, and they roll the gun powder to the gate, and then they just blow the gun powder. They haven’t got cannons. They haven’t got a single cannon. And that works, amazingly. In they go through the gate, they take the fortress through incredible courage, and this is the one big battle on the way in, the capture of Ghazni.
HH: And then the country falls to them.
WD: So again, rather like with you guys in 2001, everyone said you can’t take Afghanistan, this is an impossible mission, and to everyone’s surprise, actually, it’s like a knife through butter. Actually, Afghanistan falls without any trouble. And to add to the pleasure of it, the Russians, who are the great rivals, they’ve tried to do another expedition at the same time to take the great city of Khiva. That expedition is lost rather like sort of Game Of Thrones, the wildlings, they’re lost in a blizzard in this wild, bleak country at Khiva. So the British have not only captured this Kabul, Afghanistan with barely a casualty, their rivals, the Russians, have lost an army. So it’s a double win.
HH: Now there’s a key thing. There’s a key episode in Return Of A King which Americans have got to hear about, because Macnaghten gets to Kabul, and he’s the dopey guy with blue glasses. I still don’t understand the blue glasses.
WD: Blue tinted glasses. What’s going on, on top…
HH: But well, do you know they’re in Master And Commander. They have the character who plays Stephen Maturin wear blue glasses. I’d never seen them before until I read about them. Macnaghten’s got these amazing blue spectacles. But he’s out riding, and the vanquished ruler, Dost Mohammad, rides up. Now this becomes crucial to world history. Tell people about this experience.
WD: This extraordinary thing. So Dost Mohammad, who is the ruler who’s been ruling Afghanistan for 30 years since he kicked Shah Shuja out, who’s actually extremely popular, he’s regarded as a font of justice, he has an Islamist twinge to him, but anyway, after resisting for two years…
HH: Hold on, tell it afterwards, because I want three minutes for this. People need to hear this segment when we come back from break. I mistimed that. Return Of A King has got so many different stories in it, that you’re not going to want to miss even a single one of them. It is linked at Hughhewitt.com. William Dalrymple is its author. If you’re just tuning in, William Dalrymple is the author of, among other things, From the Holy Mountain, White Mughals, and the bestselling City Of Djinns. By the way, is City Of Djinns about India?
WD: It’s about the capital of Delhi, yeah, sorry, the capital of India, Delhi. It’s a book I wrote when I was 25, and it’s where I still live, 25 years later.
HH: When we come back from break, we may get to India. Now Robert Kaplan comes by occasionally, and he wrote the book, Monsoon. Have you read Monsoon, yet?
WD: No, I’ve just ordered it, funnily enough, yeah.
HH: I just fell into it and said no one will ever understand India who hadn’t lived there as long as you have, so perhaps you’ll tell us a little bit about India when we come back from break.
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HH: It’s a short segment, William Dalrymple, but Dost Mohammad has been vanquished by the invading Brits in 1839, Macnaghten is the British counselor general, the envoy. He is riding one day. Tell people what happened.
WD: So Dost Mohammad has been fighting with few troops up in the mountains, little bits of resistance. He hasn’t got enough troops to fight the Brits head on, but he’s always swooping down from the hills, fighting a quick action, disappearing. After two years of this, or about 18 months of this, he has enough. He realizes he’s not going to get anywhere. So he does what many rulers at the time do. They choose basically to surrender and wait for a better day. He knows that if he comes and surrenders to the Brits, they’ll treat him honorably, and that he can save his fire for another day. So he comes in. And having just defeated the British in a small action in near what the Bamiyan Buddhas that the Taliban blew up in 2001, he defeats the British in a small cavalry action there, and having in a sense done his honor, he can come in with his head held high. He literally appears incognito at Macnaghten’s feet, grabbing his stirrups, and handing him his sword when Macnaghten is going out for an evening ride. I mean, an impossible to imagine thing happening today. It’s like Petraeus is out there in his Humvee, and Mullah Omar turns up and hands in his Kalashnikov. But this is what happens.
HH: And then they send him, Mohammad.
WD: They send Dost Mohammad back to India to the very house that Shah Shuja used to live in.
HH: And so how long does he stay there?
WD: He stays there until the British are defeated and move out of Afghanistan. And then you have this extraordinary meeting when he meets the governor general at the very end of the story, and he said we’re going to send you back. All I ask, let’s just have an agreement, you won’t attack our country, we won’t attack yours. And they shake a hand on that, and Dost Mohammad keeps to that. There’s the great Indian uprising which breaks out in 1857, and the rebels, the Indian rebels, beg Dost Mohammad Khan to charge down the Khyber and help them, but he doesn’t. He keeps his word, and he stays in Afghanistan, and he never interferes again.
HH: So after a cost of 15 million pounds in 1840, which you say is $50 billion dollars today, the man who was on the throne, who was removed, is returned to the throne by the Brits, and peace reigns for 40 years?
WD: 25 years, yeah.
HH: 25 years.
WD: I mean, as we speak, you guys over at the CIA are busy talking to the Taliban in Qatar, so it’s the same sort of thing going on now. And Karzai knows this. This is why Karzai is so, coming up with all this anti-American stuff at the moment. He knows that this negotiation is going on behind his back with his enemies.
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HH: If you’re just joining us, let’s retell, William Dalrymple, for people that just wandered in, the brief history of what we’re talking about, 1839-1842.
WD: So this is, the background of this is the Great Game, this sort of Victorian Cold War with Britain and Russia facing off in Central Asia, both empires wanting to conquer what’s now Afghanistan. The Brits get there first. They march 18,000 troops into Afghanistan. What we’ll hear in a second is it ends very badly. Of those 18,000 troops, one man comes out alive.
HH: It’s a remarkable tale. In the earlier conversation with William, I had gotten us to the point where Kabul is now occupied by the Brits, and things begin to go very badly wrong. The thing I want to spend just a moment on, because it again, it’s one of those moments where I put down the book, I’m pleased to call Jake Tapper a friend of the show. And he wrote this book called The Outpost last year, and I spent three hours talking with him about it, about Combat Outpost Keating in Eastern Afghanistan. It could not have been built in a worse place, incredibly impossible to defend, resupply, or in any way relieve if bad things happened. And this is the sorry three year story of what happened at Camp Combat Outpost Keating. I quote now from Page 198 of Return Of A King. The occupation of Kabul is followed by the construction of cantonment for the British troops. “It must always remain a wonder,” you quote an expert at the time as saying, “that any government, any officer or set of officers, who had either science or experience in the field should in a half-conquered country fix their forces in so extraordinary and injudicious a position.” That could easily have been written about Camp Combat Outpost Keating, or any of many other bases. And it marvels, still that they did this.
WD: This, I think, is the point, that Afghanistan can be conquered. It’s a myth that Afghanistan has never been conquered. If you’re anyone that knows the medieval history of that country will know it was very successfully ruled by dynasties like the Mughals. But it’s extraordinarily expensive to occupy, and it’s problems like these distant outposts which you have to keep resupplied, you have to keep the roads open, and obviously, in Victorian times, you didn’t have choppers to drop in supplies. And it is just in the end, people conclude it’s not worth it. Dost Mohammad, the guy who the British throw out, says this is a land of stones and men. Why have you come here? And empire after empire can take Afghanistan. They can keep Afghanistan. But they realize they’re going to have to hemorrhage blood and money, and in the end, most just conclude it’s just not worth it. You guys haven’t been defeated, but you have made the calculation it’s just not worth paying for.
HH: Give people some of the dire details of first of the seize of Kabul before the retreat begins.
WD: So the British in their confidence, and the ease of their conquest, rather like you guys in December, 2001, just marching in and taking the country, so the British do in 1839. And there’s this brief period when it looks as if it’s going to be very easy. The British, the Memsaabs are called up from Calcutta, Lady Sale arrives with a grand piano, and unmarried daughter…
HH: Tell people who Lady Sale is.
WD: Lady Sale is this fabulous old harridan who’s the wife of the British general. She’s kind of Margaret Thatcher in Victorian clothes. And she handbags every Afghan noble, and there’s absolutely no one that can stand up to her. She plants her kitchen garden, and she says my sweet peas and geraniums were much admired, and that the kitchen garden, the potatoes especially thrive. And she’s giving it out, her daughter’s being courted by every single single male in Afghanistan. There’s cricket and horse racing, and open air amateur theatricals. The foxhounds that they brought from India are out hunting, and Alexander Burnes throws a Christmas party with his sporran and his Highland dress and his kilt and all the rest of it. And it looks like they might even annex Afghanistan, and make it, Kabul the summer capital of the Raj. So it’s all going very well for the first year. And then, well, first thing that happens is they realize the cost. They realize they can’t afford to keep it. So what do they do? They train up an Afghan national army. It’s beginning to sound a bit familiar.
WD: And this again causes trouble, because in order to pay for the army, they have to take away land in the states which have been given out to the old feudal nobles, so you irritate all the tribal chiefs. Secondly, they then can’t afford to keep up the subsidies that they promised to all the border tribes. Now everyone in history has paid these guys, the Afridis and the Ghilzai, who control the passes. It’s just easier than fighting them. There’s this guy, Nadir Shah, who loots Mughal Delhi in 1739. He runs off with the largest diamond in the world, the Koh-i.-Nur, and the famous Peacock Throne. He pays these guys on the way in, and he pays them on the way out. And it’s just how, what you do in that…
HH: They’re just toll keepers.
WD: Yeah, rahdari, it’s called. You pay these guys, and you don’t have any trouble with them. Macnaghten breaks his word, he says he’s going to give them however much money they’re going to get. He cuts it by three-quarters, and at that point, the roads have cut, the post don’t get through, any traitor that tries to get through ends up getting his throat cut on the way. And then the final thing the Brits do is they start going off with the Afghan women. There are 30,000 single males in the cantonment, these women start going in, in broker in the evening, and coming back a little bit richer in the morning. And finally, Alexander Burnes seduces the girlfriend of the leading nobleman, Abdullah Khan Achakzais, and he gathers his friends and says these British stretch the hand of tyranny to dishonor private citizens great and small. Making love to a slave girls isn’t worth the ritual bath that follows it, but we have to put a stop to it right here. And this is the phrase I love. “Otherwise, these English will ride the donkey of their desires into the field of stupidity.”
HH: I read that, so I was afraid you were going to quote it literally, because there are a couple of words you left out there.
WD: Yeah, I did.
HH: And then he raises the nobles.
WD: So he then burns down Burnes’ house, he cuts Burnes’ head off, kicks it around like a football, hangs up the trunk of Burnes’ body on a meat hook in the Bazaar.
HH: And the British are surrounded inside the city and outside of their cantonment, and also inside.
WD: Macnaghten goes out to negotiate, and he’s shot dead by the chief negotiator. William Elphinstone, who’s the gout-ridden general, gets onto his horse, falls off the horse, the horse falls on him, and that’s the end of Elphinstone. So it’s catastrophe. Then they’ve stupidly left their arms and their food in two outlying forts. They haven’t brought it within the barracks. They’ve kept it outside with a small guard of Indian sepoys. Those are overwhelmed in the first 24 hours of the uprising, so within about a week, the British are down to eating their foxhounds.
HH: And you note throughout, at any moment, had they formed a British square and marched into the city, they could have routed them.
WD: It was this thing of just letting the small, this originally, a guy pissed off at his girlfriend is sleeping with somebody else, and he’s outside Burnes’ house. And that rolls into, snowballs into this massive revolt. It’s not planned, there’s no organization, but within two weeks, 100,000 Afghans have gathered to take on four and a half thousand British soldiers.
HH: There’s one line that you quote one of the people at the time. “The eyes of the whole Afghan nation were now, however, opened. Every man was our enemy, and in lieu of the high character which we were hitherto born, we were looked upon with the most utter contempt.”
WD: That’s a quote from the Times, isn’t it? Yeah.
HH: Yeah, and if that happens now, I don’t believe that that is the case, is it, in Afghanistan now, that the Americans and the Brits and the other NATO allies are held in contempt? They may be held in suspense, but not in contempt.
WD: No, there has to be said, there’s a joke even going around in the international community. The name of the international force is ISAF, and the joke goes around that it’s, I can’t do it on a family show, but basically, not very good at fighting.
HH: All right, well, what about the idea that at home at the time, another parallel, the Palmerston government falls, it’s replaced by Peel. Peel has no investment in this. He doesn’t want to get tagged with this. It’s not unlike President Obama coming in after President Bush. It is the same.
WD: It is the same.
HH: It is the same.
WD: It’s the same. And in the end, what always happens is these wars are determined not by the needs on the ground, it’s the politics at home. That’s what happens in a democracy.
HH: The retreat begins on January 6th, 1842. How many people leave on January 6, 1842?
WD: Four and a half thousand troops, only 700 of them Brits. The rest of them, and it’s the middle of winter, are these poor Indian soldiers from Northern India, from Bihar. They’ve never seen snow before. They’re in their little shorts they’re wearing, and they’re going out into minus 20, and they have no idea what to do.
HH: Six days later, there are 80 left.
WD: Six days later, there are 80 left.
HH: Two weeks later, Dr. Brydon makes his way into Jalalabad, correct?
WD: It is a complete wipeout. First of all, they had their tents stolen. This is the first thing that goes wrong. And by the following morning, the Indian troops are just lying down on the now, wake up to find their legs and their hands looking like charred logs of wood. The Afghans know what to do. There are Afghans with the Brits still, there’s pro-British Afghan forces. When they don’t have any tents, they simply dig a hole in the snow, they light a fire in the middle, and they fan out in a circle, body to body, put their cloaks over each other, and their combined body heat and the combined cloaks means that they’ve all got their bits in the morning when they wake up. But the poor old Indians just lie down in the snow with their frostbitten, they’re incapacitated. They can’t fire their muskets, they can’t walk. And they’re herded into the Khord Kabul pass weather, it’s this incredible ambush. This is Lady Sale, this woman who had walked in with her grand piano. “The confusion was fearful. We had not proceeded half a mile but when we were heavily fired upon. The pass completely choked up, and we were stationary under heavy fire.”
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WD: I don’t know who’s choosing the music, but that was the Doors that we just heard?
HH: It is. Adam has got your, he’s figured out what is on your iPod. When last we were chatting, the formidable Lady Sale is about to be taken captive. I have to digress in the event that we might not get back, because I have to cover a bunch in two segments, in essence, but she’s remarkable. They take her away into captivity. She is a movie. She is Meryl Streep.
HH: She is Lady Thatcher. She is whatever you want her to be.
WD: You’re quite right, and this is in every movie. Lady Sale is the story, isn’t she?
WD: She, when she’s captured, here she is, when she’s actually been fired on in this death ambush, “The pony my daughter rode on was wounded in the ear and the neck. I fortunately had only one musket ball in my arm. The others passed through my cloak near the shoulder without doing me any harm.” And in the end of the story, after she’s been captured, she leads a jailbreak. She seizes the guns of her captors, and the men are sitting there like vegetables. After nine months in captivity, they’ve kind of lost their will. And she said am I going to do this alone? And she leads them all to freedom. And then at the end, the very end of the story, she becomes a circus actor, her diary gets serialized in the Times, she becomes a national celebrity. Her husband gets killed in the Sikh War, the next big war that follows. And she goes off as a widow to Capetown in South Africa, and she has the great epitaph of her day. Here Lies All That Could Die Of Lady Sale.
HH: Oh, that is grand.
HH: There’s also a grand footnote you drop. You don’t drop many footnotes, but you drop a footnote that out of a union of a British officer and an Afghan woman comes the commander of the Khyber Rifles for twenty years?
WD: Yeah, this guy obviously can speak both Dari, Pashtun and English, and he starts this famous frontier force, the Khyber Rifles.
HH: That is just, okay, back to what happens. Meanwhile, they’re very nice to her when they capture, I mean, not very nice. It’s tough.
WD: No, no. I mean, I think what’s important to say is that the Afghans are oddly chivalrous. But at the end, there’s a great hierarchy of chivalry. If you’re a Brit from the officer class, and are likely to be worth something in a ransom, you get magnificently treated. At the other end of the scale, the sepoys, these poor Indian troops who’ve joined the Company army, are basically fighting as mercenaries, have never been trained to do winter warfare, have no idea how to survive in the mountains, these guys are sold off en masse in slavery. And the Uzbek slavers have this particularly unpleasant thing they do with their slaves. They take a long sewing needle used for carpet making, and they sew a horsehair rope through the clavicle, the chest of their captives, and then attach the other end of that rope to the saddle of the captor. Your hands are tied behind your back, and you’re led off to captivity in the slave markets of Central Asia. And this apparently breaks a man. If you don’t keep up with your captor, you just have your chest ripped open. And 5,000 of these sepoys, so many are captured, that the price of slaves in Central Asia plummets for a generation.
HH: By the way, are the sepoys of this era honored at all in modern India where you live?
WD: Well no, and it’s, I mean, no one really can ever remember the sepoys. But more recently, there are many upset feelings about the many Indians who fought for the British in World War II. You know, they were fighting against the Japanese and Burma, and they have no honor. And many of them are still alive, and you often read about their feelings about being written out of the national story.
HH: You noted it earlier, but even to this day as you retrace this route, people in the villages along this route remember the names of the Brits who led to this. This is real history to them.
WD: Well, this is the important point. I mean, we all, Britain, America, wanders into Afghanistan. We can debate whether that was a good or bad thing, whether it was the only thing we could do. But the reality is we were ignorant of the history. A few people had read Peter Hopkirk, but we just don’t know this stuff. The Afghans have been brought up on this story of the heroic resistance to the British. Everyone knows it, just like every American kid knows about George Washington, every Indian knows about Mahatma Gandhi, every Irishman knows about Michael Collins and Easter Rising, so every Afghan today knows about Wazir Akbar Khan. The diplomatic area of Kabul today is named Wazir Akbar Khan. They also know that Shah Shuja, of whom Hamid Karzai is descended, is known as a quisling, as the guy who sold Afghanistan down the river.
HH: Akbar Khan, whose name has not come up, is the man who leads the charge to drive them out, massacres them along the way, then treats Lady Sale with a great deal of deference, but then goes a bridge too far, to borrow another British analogy, and goes after Jalalabad, and runs into the wrong guy.
WD: And the wrong guy is Lady Sale’s husband, General Sale. And the Sale’s, as you say, are the movies. I don’t know who, Meryl Streep, who’s going to be General Sale, do you think?
HH: I have no idea. I’ll think about it.
WD: Maybe Tommy Lee Jones?
HH: No, no, you’ve got to be, Pierce Brosnan sells the tickets. There you go.
WD: Pierce Brosnan, okay. And yes, so after the massacre of the army of Kabul, there’s still two last garrisons standing out. One is in Kandahar under this fabulous guy called General Nott, and the other one is Jalalabad under General Sale. And there’s no help coming for them for the winter. The passes are closed, the snow is thick, they can’t get any reinforcements from London. But after the snows melt the following spring, the Brits send in their crack officer. This guy is called General Pollock. He’s the kind of Field Marshall Montgomery of the day. And he is incredibly meticulous. He won’t move an inch until he’s made sure that every sepoy has got 3,000 rounds in his pack, he’s got every single camel he needs, every bullet cart. Only then will he move. And when he comes in, it’s called the Army of Retribution, and they basically commit what we today would regard as war crimes of the highest order. They burn every field, they cut down every tree, they unroof every house, and they…but they get to Kabul, they destroy the greatest bazaar in Central Asia, the Charchata. They just dynamite it. It was built by the Mughals at the same time as the Taj Mahal. It’s this gorgeous thing. They just destroy the whole thing and march out again.
HH: When they come up and they stall for a moment, I have to show you as I make notes in the back of my book as an outline for me, I have in the largest type, withdraw via Kabul and leave decisive proofs of the power of British army. People won’t understand what withdraw versus Kabul means.
HH: It’s wonderful.
WD: The politicians don’t want to take responsibility for all this. And they’re sitting in Jalalabad, which is virtually on the border of India, and they can just head off, it’s five miles. To withdraw via Kabul means basically it is a way of telling them to go into the country, destroy Kabul in the middle of the country, and head back out again.
HH: And they left very little of Kabul.
WD: Kabul, again, we think of Kabul today as this sort of bombed out mess. Kabul, before this war, is the great bazaar town of Central Asia. It’s got gardens for miles, this magnificent Mughal tile work, arcaded bazaar in the center built in the 15th Century. What we always forget is that Afghanistan has this incredibly rich medieval history, that there are these extraordinary rules, the Timurids, who have wonderful calligraphy, gorgeous tile work, amazing colleges where scholars from all over the world congregated. It’s just within the last 200 years that Afghanistan has become this kind of dead end, desperate place. But for the rest of history, these places we today regard as incredibly remote and impossible were the crossroads. In Roman times, you have traders coming from the Mediterranean selling silks, buying silks and carpets, selling all the goodies from the West and bringing gold. If you go to the Kabul museum, see the stuff that was rescued, the incredibly brave custodians hid stuff when the Taliban were there. Today, there are incredible treasures. So Afghanistan is not a basket case. It’s not that Afghanistan can’t be rich. It’s not that Afghanistan can’t be healed. In the past, it’s been a major center of civilization. It’s been an incredible place. And the future, if everything goes well, need not be disastrous.
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William, as we talked at great length about this wonderful book and this incredible war, people will be confused if they don’t understand the history, because they go from India and Afghanistan, and they’re wondering well, where is Pakistan? And today, as we sit possibility on the brink of an Indo-Pak war, what happened here? Just fill in the audience who are saying what are you talking, they’re just rolling through. What happened to Pakistan?
WD: So Pakistan is only created in 1947. And until that time, all of India, from about 1850s, is ruled by the British. But when they leave, they partition it into largely Hindu India, but with a large Muslim minority, and almost entirely Muslim Pakistan. Things begin to go badly wrong in Pakistan through a series of military coups, but they are a richer country than India throughout the 1970s and 80s, and all this problem with jihadis only begins after my intelligence service, MI6, you guys, the CIA, and the Saudis begin to arm the Mujahedin against the Soviets. This is the beginning of this downturn that the country takes. And the reason that the Pakistani secret service, the ISI, continue to fund the Taliban is not in a sense to screw with you guys, or indeed with Karzai. Their worry is India. And this is very important to remember. We often see it, you know, self-centeredly in a sense through the prism of the West against the Taliban. That’s actually not what it’s about at all. The reason the Taliban are armed, trained and given safe houses is that Pakistan, which is a fraction of the size of India, but which feels itself, or certainly the military there, feel themselves at war with India in some existential sense since 1947. They can’t bear the idea of being surrounded by two wings of India. The Indians have always aided the Afghans. When Najibullah and the Soviets was there, India was Najibullah’s closest ally. When the Taliban were there, the Indians were arming Ahmad Shah Massoud in the Panjshir Valley, and building hospitals for the wounded Tajik fighters in Tajikistan. And the great fear that the Pakistani army has is that they’ll be caught in a nutcracker – Indian-trained troops, or Indian troops in Afghanistan, and a billion, 1.2 billion Indians to the south. The solution to this problem has to lie in India and Pakistan. If we can get India and Pakistan to mend their fences, and the dispute there is Kashmir, then Pakistan need not support these jihadis. They need not…
HH: We need a Rajit Singh.
WD: We need some Rajit Singh.
HH: You know, that is an amazing aspect of this, because, and we talked about it a little bit earlier, the Punjab is what kept the Company at bay.
HH: And it’s what allowed the Company to invade, and it remains the key right now, doesn’t it?
WD: So much of what is now Pakistan was ruled by a Sikh state, run by this amazing ruler, the one-eyed lion of the Punjab, Ranjit Singh. And Ranjit Singh is a class act. He out-negotiates Macnaghten. Macnaghten had originally wanted the Sikhs to do this invasion for him. And what was originally planned as a Sikh invasion in British interest, by the time Rajit Singh’s run rings around the British negotiators, becomes a British invasion in Sikh interest. So the Punjab, yes, is this rich area between Afghanistan and India, and is the key to it.
HH: Well, this is a great question for two minutes to the break and Tom Cotton coming up after the break. Congressman Cotton joins us. If the Company could take and hold all of India, and the British empire could take and hold all the world, why couldn’t they figure out Afghanistan and the Punjab, for that matter?
WD: They could have taken Afghanistan, and the Army of Retribution goes in and it conquers it. The point is that it’s, such is the geography, such is the militancy of these tribesmen who are fiercely independent like, you know, tribesmen anywhere in the world, like the Scots Highlanders or anyone else. The Highlanders are difficult to control. Hill men do not like answering to the plains. They’re stocky, independent-minded guys, and they’ve never really, you know, they’re happy to be paid to support somebody, but they’re not just going to lay down their arms and be told what to do by anyone else. So the Brits had the option, like you guys still have the option, of staying in Afghanistan. No one’s defeated you. You know, this is a difficult fight, but you’ve made a calculation that it’s not worth your while doing so. That’s what the British decides in 1842.
HH: If in fact that remains the calculation and a retreat, do you believe that the Afghan Taliban will again allow Osama bin Laden-like Arabs, you know, The Looming Tower, which Lawrence Wright’s been a guest on this show many times.
WD: Great man, great man.
HH: And a great book, important book.
WD: Fabulous book.
HH: Do you think they would allow them the same ease of access and passport stamps as before?
WD: Well, it’s very difficult to say, because very little is really known about the Taliban high command. I was with Bruce Riedel, the former CIA guy in charge of this area in the Brookings Institute in D.C. earlier in the week, and he said we know nothing still about the Taliban. He said that I’ve seen all the files, and they are as empty as the journalists. There is no biography of Mullah Omar, and we really don’t know this guy.
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HH: I’ve been enjoying my conversation with William Dalrymple, author of Return Of A King: The Battle For Afghanistan, 1839-42. He spent so much time in Afghanistan, he’s now crossing the United States headed towards Washington, D.C. Coming up from Arkansas back to Washington, D.C., one of the two, I believe, veterans, three veterans of the Afghan-American war in the United States Congress, Congressman Tom Cotton. Congressman, welcome, let me introduce you to William Dalrymple. Perhaps you two will meet down the road. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to read Return Of A King yet.
TC: Good afternoon, Hugh, and Mr. Dalrymple.
TC: It’s nice to make your acquaintance on the radio.
HH: Tom, what I wanted to ask you, Congressman, is about the story in the New York Times today, With Bags Of Cash, CIA Seeks Influence In Afghanistan. Does that shock you at all? Because it’s the mistake the Brits made in 1840. They cut off the payments to the tribal leaders, and disaster followed.
TC: No, Hugh, I can’t say that it shocks me, or that it scandalizes me. When we sent Green Beret A teams into Afghanistan in 2001, they were armed with rifles and machines guns and laser range finders. They are also armed with backpacks full of cash. And sometimes, those tools are necessary when you’re conducting a war to win over local influencers who can be critical to winning over the support of the local population.
WD: Exactly the same thing happened when the British went into Afghanistan in 1839. In Lahore, there’s an archive which has the spy intelligence network reports from 1839, and there are about 200 letters from Sir Claude Wade, who was a British spymaster, to various tribal chieftans, who are, and this is softening them up pre-invasion, saying if you support us, here’s what we’ll give you. And it’s just simple bags of repeats. It’s exactly the same.
HH: And Congressman Cotton, when you were there as an Army Ranger, were you aware of the British legacy in Afghanistan? Were you aware of the echoes of history from these first two, the first war and then the war of retribution against the Afghans?
TC: I was. You know, I had read some general histories of the country that had some shorter coverage of those wars, nothing like Mr. Dalrymple’s recent book. And then obviously, also, the recent Soviet history. So I had some awareness of the echoes of history in Afghanistan, and hoped, and still hope, that we can avoid some of the mistakes that those earlier countries did.
HH: Are you an optimist, Tom Cotton, about maintaining the Karzai government after we are gone in 2015?
TC: I am hopeful. I am worried that as has happened in Iraq will happen in Afghanistan. President Obama will withdraw precipitously. We will not be able to consolidate the gains we have made there, and that Afghanistan in general is a harder country to govern than Iraq give its size and population and literacy rates, and lack of natural resources or economic growth potential. But we have made significant gains over the last few years, as you know, in the south. And we’re trying to make those gains with an economy of troop forces in the east. But I am hopeful that we can maintain Afghanistan as some kind of peaceful representative government that has control over its territories and is allied to the West.
HH: William Dalrymple, you’re skeptical?
WD: I am skeptical. I mean, I think the north is consolidated, and Kabul will survive as Fortress Kabul. But already, I mean, you know, a huge surge can just about beat the Taliban back to the edge of Kandahar and all this. But the south is still, the reality is that there are an awful lot of supporters of the Taliban in the south. At the end of the day, the Taliban are there because they do, however much we may abhor everything they believe in, and be disgusted by their attitude to women, they do represent the authentic voice of the ultra-orthodox rural villager in various parts of the south, the Pashtun south.
HH: Tom Cotton, is there at some point where the Americans have to say that we will give up a half of the country to medievalism just to be free of the cost of this, provided that they can’t issue passports to terrorists?
TC: I’m not sure that we would say that we would have to give up a half of the country or that we need to cede any territory as a whole, but I do worry that it could become what it was before 2001, which is a terrorist safe haven. At the same time, we do have to recognize that not every country and not every people are Western capitalist constitutional democracies, and maybe make an accommodation to customs and morays for the sake of some measure of stability and peacefulness in the domestic government, and an alliance internationally.
HH: William Dalrymple, is President Karzai capable of, or his tribe, of holding the country?
WD: Well, I think Karzai, I have to say, having spent 90 minutes with him and talked a great deal to him, and spent a week with his family with Quayum and Mahmood, I think they are cannier than many people make them out to be, because of the kind of emotional comments he makes, which is often aimed very, I think, cannily at a populist Afghan audience. He’s a democrat. He has to play popular politics like any politician has to, and he has to appeal to his, you know, there’s not American voters out there. He has to get the Afghan votes. I think anyone that survived twelve years in this turbulent environment as he has shouldn’t be underestimated. But it’s going to be very tough in a lot of the south. And you know, he’s widely despised in a lot of the Pashtun south.
HH: Last question, Congressman Cotton. When you were last there, was the Afghan army getting up to the level of competence one would have expected after twelve years of Western training?
WD: Yes, Hugh. In the summer of 2009, when I left the country, the Afghan army was growing both in size and in competence and proficiency. I found it always to be more proficient than the Iraqi army, in part because that country has had such a long history of warfare recently, so there’s been ample opportunities for training and experience. And from all of the reports I’ve heard, both from friends on the front and now as a congressman, that progress has continued over the last three and a half years.
HH: Last minute to you, William Dalrymple.
WD: Well, as well as you guys training the Afghans, a lot of the Afghan army is getting sent to India. There’s been a lot of infantry training in India at the moment. And I’ve talked to the people in charge of the training centers in Pune and in Chennai, where this is going on. And they said that these guys are incredibly brave, but that they are enormously undisciplined, that you know, sometimes they just don’t cooperate, because they want to go to sleep, and there’s a huge problem of drug abuse, too. There’s widespread abuse of every sort of narcotics in the Afghan army. I’ve been arrested. I was arrested in my last trip. The same, the day after I was given the red carpet treatment by Karzai in the palace, I was arrested by some completely stoned policeman up on the hills above Kabul when I was going for a walk. And I wouldn’t like to be caught by those guys, I tell you.
HH: Congressman Tom Cotton, always a pleasure, Congressman.
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HH: A remarkable conversation with William Dalrymple. Return Of A King is his book, the battle for Afghanistan. I thought I’d give you the floor for three minutes to conclude his hour, William.
WD: What I’d like to do is talk about my last conversation on Afghanistan, just before completing this book. And I did the route of the retreat, followed the route where these poor sepoys were captured and massacred and sent off to the slave markets, where the Brits were gunned down, where Lady Sale was captured. And indeed, my own great uncle, who was one of my reasons of interest in this, was one of the hostages who was taken hostage, Colin Mackenzie. And I talked to Jagdalak, this guy who’d been sent to guide me to Gandamak, which is just behind Tora Bora, in the heartland of the Taliban. This old Hezb-e-Islami commander took me on this route. And when we finally got speaking to the elders in Gandamak, this is the conversation. I said do you think what’s happening today, any similarity to before? They said it isn’t just similar, it’s exactly the same. Both times, the foreigners come here for their own interests, not for ours. They say we are your friends, we want to help, but they are lying. What they know and what we’ve forgotten is that Shah Shuja is from the same tribe as Hamid Karzai. The guys who brought down Shah Shuja in 1839, the Ghilzai tribe, are now the foot soldiers of the Taliban. It’s the same tribal configurations, the same tribal war’s going on under new flags. For them, nothing has changed. And they said whoever comes to Afghanistan, even now they will face the fate of Burnes and Macnaghten, the British leaders. We are the roof of the world, they said. From here, you can control and watch everywhere. Afghanistan is like a crossroads for every nation that comes to power, but we do not have the strength to control our own destiny. Our fate is determined by our neighbors. And then they told me this story, which has remained with me, and it’s a very sort of chilling and extraordinary conclusion, which I made the conclusion of the book. Last month, he said, some American officers called us to a hotel in Jalalabad for a meeting. One of them asked me why do you hate us, and I replied because you blow down our doors, enter our houses, pull our women by the hair, and kick our children. We cannot accept this. We will fight back, and we will break your teeth. And when your teeth are broken, you will leave, just as the British left before you. It’s just a matter of time. What did you say to that, I asked? He turned to his friend and said if the old men are like this, what will the younger ones be like? In truth, all the Americans here know their game is over. It’s just their politicians who deny it. This is the last days of the Americans, said the elder. Next, it will be China.
HH: Now on a concluding note, don’t they realize they’re going to lose all the money, the money that the New York Times talks about today when we leave?
WD: I don’t think that’s the top of their priority list. But then, you know, China is a serious thing. The Chinese…
HH: …are coming.
WD: And the Chinese…
HH: There are mineral deposits in Afghanistan.
WD: Yeah, this is the point. And I mean, in a sense, they’ve got it right in a way that we haven’t. The Afghans can be bought. They can be conquered, and they can be bought. But what they can’t be is defeated in battle. The Chinese have not fired a bullet, they have not sent in a soldier, but they bought the entire mineral deposits of Afghanistan. The Chinese car industry has got enough copper for 200 years. We haven’t done that.
HH: On that note, William Dalrymple, thank you. Amazing book, America, Return Of A King: The Battle For Afghanistan is linked at Hughhewitt.com.
End of interview.