If U.S. involvement in Vietnam seems disastrous to some Americans, they should read this brilliant account of the British invasion of Afghanistan for a truly monumental disaster spread over decades more than a hundred years ago. The pawns of the title were the natives of Afghanistan, whose state was seen as the military and political pivot for consolidating the Asian states and resisting the encroachments of Russia, Persia, France. Unwilling villains of the resulting chaos were the board members of the East India Company, and the accompanying war was called the East India Company Campaign. The Company had been given charge of the military operations, which alone was an insuperable blunder. By several continued blunders during the military ""occupation,"" many imbecilic moves turned magically into triumphs until it looked as if the British really had prevailed. Soon, though, the incredibly twisted internecine politics and fracticidal conflicts among the states themselves sucked the British into one of the worst defeats in their history (which has since been ignored and forgotten). Macrory's description of 4,500 British officers, their wives, troops and native soldiers, plus many thousand camp-followers, all on a death march in midwinter, is unforgettable. (At first count, only one man escaped death or capture.) The resolute idiocy of the British is fatally contrasted with the ferocity of the Afghans--and in this there may be a message for today.