EdBookFest | William Dalrymple and David Robison
‘Place yourselves on the step between Persia and Afghanistan in the year 1837, as you watch the newly coronated Shah of Iran march to Herat.’ So began William Dalrymple’s immensely gripping book festival talk. As with many things in life, the first Anglo-Afghan conflict came down to money – Greed for it and then failure to find it. William Dalrymple explores this conflict and the ripples we still feel from it today in his latest work ‘Return of a King: The Battle For Afghanistan.’ The Historical work follows the development and disintegration of the 19th Century (and first of many in that region) Anglo-Afghan conflict. Notionally in conversation with David Robinson, Books Editor for the Scotsman, Dalyrymple instead dominated the stage with his professorial-like delivery and wealth of knowledge.
A dazzling 40-minute summary of the key moments of the entire conflict was volleyed at the audience, beginning with a chance encounter between a lost East India Company intelligence officer and some Russian Cossacks in the middle of the desert. The disturbing parallels between our own Afghan war and the trumped up WMD claims soon became apparent, and were a sign of what one senses will be an undercurrent of the book: we are idiots, who fail to learn from the past. One hopes the recent military focus on Syria will not proceed so ignorant of the past as some of our previous efforts. One Brit, making the case for the use of force in Afghanistan in 1837 stated that ‘he who is not with us is against us’, and sentiment eerily reminiscent of Bush’s post 9/11 rhetoric. The immense speeding up of conflict in both situations is telling.
In opposition to this, Dalyrmple tells us of Abdullah Khan Achak’s observation (which was part of a speech responsible for spurring the Afghans into rebellion) that ‘the English will ride the donkey of desire into the field of stupidity’, and links it to an anecdote from his time researching the book. After narrowly avoiding a firefight, Dalyrmple spoke to some local Afghan leaders about their perceptions of the Western world which seems constantly to be invading them. ‘We are the roof of the world’, they told him, ‘from here you can see everywhere’. The appeal of Afghanistan isn’t lost on its inhabitants then, but they are also aware of the impossibility of making anything from it. The simple fact that thus far there’s been no money to be made in the region has always driven aggressors away before local force could. This doesn’t stop greedy eyes from constantly sizing the region up though. ‘[These are] the last days of the Americans. Next, it will be China.’
Reflecting on the Afghan conflict of our own lifetime, Dalrymple lamented the gross misuse of funds in the region: ‘every time we dropped a daisy cutter, we could have built a school’. The money we spent on military aggression could have been used to build Afghanistan as nation and into a strong ally. Much like Iraq, we ‘were treated as liberators’ there initially, but, as Dalrymple notes ‘we overstayed our welcome by thirteen years’. Our own inflated ideas of authority and reputation have been the stumbling blocks of two Afghan wars, one Iraq, and now, perhaps, a Syrian. Dalyrmple’s latest book is less a history lesson and more a how-not-to for the future.
Words: Joanna Thompon