An earlier invasion of Afghanistan by the British offers some enlightening lessons for American readers in this nicely encapsulated study by a British historian.
Troubled by the expansionist vision of Russia in Central Asia and keen to protect the interests of the East India Company, the British crown cooked up a wild scheme to invade Afghanistan in 1838. The aim was to replace one crackpot dynasty for another, but the occupation went on for two years and raised native insurrection, essentially repelling the British troops and leaving a bitter aftertaste for the inhabitants of the land. Does this scenario sound familiar? Preston (Before the Fallout: From Marie Curie to Hiroshima, 2005, etc.) does an admirable job of enlarging the narrow, academic nature of the conflict for more accessible consumption. As a buffer and traditional transit point, the feudal Afghanistan was attractive to invaders from Darius of Persia and Alexander of Macedonia to the 18th-century Persian Nadir Shah, who all crossed the Khyber Pass on their way to sack and subdue India. British precursors to the region had included Mountstuart Elphinstone and his delegation, who had tread gingerly over the disputes between Afghan leaders; and Scottish officer Alexander Burnes, sent by the British on an espionage fact-finding mission to assess the navigability of the Indus in 1831. Burnes reported on the immense trade potential for the British, though the British hardly understood the region’s factionalism. Afghan governor general Lord Auckland issued the famous Simla Manifesto of Oct. 1, 1838, justifying an invasion that was no longer relevant since the Russian-backed Persians were already in retreat. The bewildered British withdrew by 1842, concluding “a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, and brought to a close, after suffering and disaster, without much glory attaching either to the government which directed, or the great body of the troops which waged it.”
Preston brings this obscure, ill-begotten conflict to a lively, pertinent center stage.