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on 8 September 2016
An excellent detailed account of the Afghan war- we really should know our history before embarking upon half baked schemes in foreign lands
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 8 April 2013
Fearing Russian designs on India in "The Great Game", the British tried to gain influence in the potential Achilles' heel of Afghanistan. Ignoring expert advice, they chose the wrong side in reinstating the honourable but hidebound Shah Shuja whom they imagined would be more malleable than the shrewd reigning monarch Dost Mohammed.

If this regime change reminds you of more recent events, there are also parallels in the lack of strategic planning and a "longer view", and neglect of the topography, climate and culture of the area. In breathtaking arrogance admittedly combined with crazy courage, the first 1839 British invasion of Afghanistan set off in winter, ignoring the several feet of snow in the mountains, omitting to clear rough terrain for gun carriages or to protect themselves against ambush and constant sniping once they entered the narrow mountain passes. The problem was compounded by the thousands of camp followers, women and children with presumably no means of support if they stayed behind.

If the detail is often overwhelming, the quirky truth which is stranger than fiction grips one's attention: three hundred camels needed to carry the military wine cellar whilst elsewhere troops could not advance owing to lack of camels to transport vital supplies. One regiment even brought its own foxhounds, which somehow survived to hunt jackals later!

It is all the more poignant that, having reached Kabul after suffering terrible privations yet still gaining the upper hand, the army squandered its advantage under dithering leadership so that in the ill-advised, typically chaotic eventual retreat only one man made it back to Jalalabad, not counting the thousands left behind as captives.

In what resembles an epic novel, Dalrymple describes how the British sent an Army of Retribution to salvage a little honour by taking brutal reprisals which would now be regarded as the most vicious war crimes, but in the end the government wrote off the vast sums spent on the unsuccessful regime change.

Apart from the numerous astonishing anecdotes and vivid character studies, one of the most interesting aspects of the book is the extensive quoting from the colourful prose of the historians of the day: "Abdullah Khan Achakzsi.....launched an attack like a fierce lion or the serpent that inhabits the scented grass".

Although Dalrymple supplies a list of all the main characters with accompanying explanations, I found this too indigestible as an opener, and recommend keeping your own notes of "who's who".

My only criticism is the inadequate maps. Also, apart from the reduced weight, this is less suitable for a Kindle in that maps and family trees are illegible on the small screen, plus it's too fiddly checking out details from previous pages as is often necessary in this type of book. It's also harder to appreciate on the Kindle that the main text is shorter than it seems, the last 30 per cent of the book being notes.

This is a fascinating account, although it focuses narrowly on 1839-42. For a wider sweep, try "Butcher and Bolt" by David Loyn.
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on 29 May 2017
This W. Dalrymple's book is magnificent, cruel story of the First Afghan war, where British army suffered the great looses. Moreover, this is not only a war story, it perfect explains how Afghanistan become such country as we know now; author precisely decribes customs, landscape and diversity of nation. it's story about British and Russian objectives to rule Asia; like a XIX a. Cold war. For me, this books was important, because W. Dalrymple mentioned young Lithuanian soldier Yan Vitkevich, who worked as a Russian spy in Asia. Frankly, author did some mistakes in book. He wrote, that Vikevich was a Polish and was born in Vilnius (which was Poland city). In fact, Vitkevich (Lithuanian, Jonas Prosperas Vitkevičius) was a Lithuanian nationality and was born in Lithuania village (untill now you could see his manor house in Lithuania), studied in Lithuanian Vilnius University and belonged to Lithuanian (Samogitian) nobility. Moreover, Vilnius, never been Poland city, it was created by Grand Duke of Lithuania, Gediminas and till now is capital of Lithuania. However, this book is fantastic.
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on 25 November 2016
astonishing value, excellent service
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on 11 November 2016
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on 30 March 2016
excellent book and service
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on 24 October 2016
A very interesting well researched book
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on 29 April 2017
A gift for a friend who served in Afghanistan a few years ago. Enjoyed by both of us and gave a good insight into the history of this troubled country.
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on 26 June 2017
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on 10 March 2013
If you start at the end, you will see how William Dalrymple assembled a prodigious mass of documentation (listed in the bulky bibliography that follows) including not only English (-language — for many of the protagonists were Scots or Irish) printed and manuscript sources, but a plethora of hitherto neglected Persian (-language — Farsi was the language of the Kabul court) documents culled from Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

If you start at the beginning, you will see this drama contains a formidable dramatis personæ ranging from Lord Auckland and Shah Shujah to Lady Sale’s cat. Their actions and interactions are recounted in a masterly and authoritative style.

It is not, in some senses, a satisfactory drama; as in proper tragedies, the characters have flaws; they have also remarkable qualities, and the cross-cultural communication in a colonial situation, though marred by many misunderstandings, does reveal substantial skills in the British — ranging from a good knowledge of Persian (Farsi/Dari), an interest in archaeology and history, and a genuine ability to know and appreciate the new cultures they encountered …

The first Afghan war was based on a mistaken belief that British (actually, East India Company) interests in India were about to be undermined by a Russian invasion of Afghanistan, so it was determined to replace the acting ruler Dost Mohammed by deposed Shah Shujah. The Shah’s very legitimate claim to power was, for his countrymen, undermined by his association with unbelievers, and the British underestimated both their and his unpopularity, and failed to support him.

So it was that the British deserted him in his hour of need, and were thoroughly routed in an ignominious retreat. Nearly all the interesting and worthy characters die a miserable death.

‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ (Santayana?) — this dictum is sadly applicable to the Afghan case, where the British have now waged four unsuccessful wars. Dalrymple is keenly aware of the ironies of history, and notes that Hamid Karzai is of the same clan as Shah Sujah. It is said he has read Dalrymple’s book, and it would be fascinating to know his comments.
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