Boxes of dusty books from a Kabul bookstall led author and historian William Dalrymple to realise NATO forces in Afghanistan are on a path first taken by the British Army in 1839.
Dalrymple’s latest book “Return of a King” uses sources never before translated into English to draw startling parallels between the First Anglo-Afghan War and today’s conflict.
Speaking before an event at Dublin’s Royal Irish Academy, Dalrymple talks of watching American soldiers under attack in Kandahar while holding a diary written 170 years before by a British officer describing attacks at the same bridge.
“There was a sensation in 2006 that history was in a general sense repeating itself but what usually happens is the closer you get to the detail, the parallels dissolve in the face of detailed evidence. What was so weird this time is the details lead to greater parallels,” he says.
In a familiar echo, an Afghan ruler at the time slyly asked a British spy: “You have brought an army into the country but how do you propose to take it out again?”
And knowing President Hamid Karzai is a member of the same small tribe as the Shah Shuja – the former ruler who the British tried to place back on the throne in 1839 – may make it less surprising the Taliban’s Mullah Omar sees himself as an heir of Shuja’s rival and successor Mohammed Dost. (All three are Pashtun but from different tribes.)
Shuja had been the Shah or king of Afghanistan between 1803 and 1809 until he was overthrown by his brother Mahmud. His father and grandfather had been the first rulers of the Durrani empire. However, Mohammed Dost ruled Kabul between 1926 and 1939 until he was pushed out by the British.
This is the third time Dalrymple has turned his eye to the complex relationship between Britain and South Asia in the 1800s. In The Last Mughal and White Mughals he mined the Muslim history of India and the Raj.
Guided to a bookseller in Kabul while on a research trip, Dalrymple gathered epic poems, letters, memoirs and even Shah Shuja’s autobiography. English historians have long denied the existence of indigenous sources from the period, according to Dalrymple.
But the award-winning author first travelled to Asia from Scotland as a journalist and he says this training still drives his work.
“It seemed inconceivable to me there would be no records. As a journalist you are used to going out where you start the story and you don’t know anything.
“You are trained to go to the place, you are trained not be afraid to ask questions and there is that willingness to follow your nose,” he says.
Dalrymple says Hamid Karzai has read the book – in three nights apparently - so he is waiting to see if David Cameron gets in touch. But he is not holding his breath.