A while back I blogged about Great Britain’s first disastrous attempt to invade Afghanistan.
That post barely scratched the surface of the story, so I was delighted when Shelf Awareness sent me Diana Preston’s The Dark Defile:: Britain’s Catastrophic Invasion of Afghanistan, 1838-1842 to review.
In The Dark Defile, Preston tells the story of Great Britain’s ill-fated attempt to interfere in Afghani politics in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, handling the inevitable parallels between the 19th-century British experience and modern events with a light touch and solid historical research.
Paranoid about Russian expansion into Central Asia, the British government sent the Army of the Indus into Afghanistan in 1838 with orders to overthrow the existing ruler and replace him with a British puppet. The expedition ended with the slaughter of the British forces as they retreated from Kabul.
Reading The Dark Defile is like watching an impending train wreck in an old movie: You are at turns horrified and fascinated, all the while hoping for a last-minute save that never comes. Preston uses diaries, letters and official accounts by both major and minor figures to illustrate the series of personal, political, and military errors of the First Afghan War. While politicians in London suppressed reports in which the British representative in Kabul argued against the political coup, one elderly general was given command of the expeditionary force because the climate of Kabul would be good for his health. Troops were housed in indefensible cantonments; subsidies to Afghani tribal leaders were cut. And when Afghan forces rebelled in the streets, British leaders hesitated to send out their troops. In the end, only one member of the expedition survived.
The Dark Defile is more than just an account of Britain’s “Great Game” in Central Asia gone wrong. Preston ends with a critical assessment of Britain’s “conspiracy of optimism” in Afghanistan, and its impact on future relationships between Afghanistan and the west.
I talked so much about the book that My Own True Love read it after I was done. His review was pithier than mine: “That was a hell of a book. Heartbreaking.”
Pretty much sums it up.
The heart of this review first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers