- Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839 – 42 by William Dalrymple
“These English will ride the donkey of their desires into the field of stupidity”: there is no more pointed or poetic assessment of foreign military intervention in Afghanistan than this one, attributed to an Achakzai khan, rallying his peers to action against the British occupation of the country in 1841. Dalrymple’s new book offers a supple and engaging treatment of that “field.” A story of hubris, arrogance, and ignorance, recounted in beautifully written prose, it gives the reader a detailed frame of familiarity, along with many of the leaves of grass populating it. One is left with a palpable sense of acquaintance with the actors involved. The Afghans in particular leap from the page, no longer one-dimensional caricatures out of British morality tales but fully developed agents of a real-life drama. In Return of a King, both the timelessness and timeliness of a well-known, macabre tale are implied, though they are not fully explored. The reasons for and the consequences of the British, Soviet, and American interventions in Afghanistan differed widely, but it is clear that each government purchased a ticket for the same donkey ride. [End Page 521]
Benjamin D. Hopkins is associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University. He is the author of The Making of Modern Afghanistan, coauthor of Fragments of the Afghan Frontier, and coeditor of Beyond Swat: History, Society, and Economy along the Afghanistan-Pakistan Frontier.