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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Almost any news article about the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan may mention past foreign armies that came to the country and went down to defeat. Our next guest explores one of the most famous defeats of all. Our story begins in 1839. Two powerful empires, Great Britain and Russia, were caught in a military chess match, trying to outmaneuver one another for dominance of Central Asia.

The writer William Dalrymple has taken an unusually deep look at what happened next. His new book "Return of a King," details British efforts to win Afghanistan by putting an ousted Afghan monarch back on this throne.

WILLIAM DALRYMPLE: It is the greatest imperial disaster the British Empire ever suffered. It makes Yorktown seem like a picnic in the park.

INSKEEP: Yorktown meaning Britain loss of their empire in the United States.

DALRYMPLE: Exactly. It is a total wipeout of an entire army, the army of the most powerful empire in the world at that time.

INSKEEP: And if you read any history of the British Empire, you get an account of this. It is horrifying, no matter how many times you read it, and yet you, in this history, end up taking a different approach to the story. We normally read about it from the perspective of the bumbling and ultimately defeated British army.

DALRYMPLE: Correct. The key, it seemed to me, if you were going to revisit what is one of the, as you say, the great sort of old chestnuts of imperial history, was trying to - with the Afghan side, too. And I traveled all around Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010, gathering Afghan accounts. And it turned out there's a very, very rich sea of Afghan primary sources about this war.

This is for the Afghans what Washington is to you guys. For the British, I suppose, the Battle of Trafalgar or Waterloo is for us. This is the great national liberation struggle.

INSKEEP: What kind of documents are there in Afghanistan, after all these years of war, that you can find from the 1830s and '40s?

DALRYMPLE: Well, bizarrely, there's extremely well-preserved national archives in Afghanistan. The Taliban may go around knocking down the museums, but they don't knock down the archives. But the richest sources I found were two extraordinary epic poems written immediately after the war, rather like the "Song of Roland," these are kind of almost mythologized, but containing lots of interesting information about Afghan attitudes to the British, and so on.

There's one called the "Jangnama," there's another called the "Akbarnama," after the leading Afghan freedom fighter of that time. Indeed, the main diplomatic enclave in Kabul today is still called Wazir Akbar Khan, after the man who defeated the British. There's also - and this is, in a sense, the richest thing I found, I think - was the autobiography of the man the British installed.

INSKEEP: Okay. So you were able to gather historical documents to get the facts from the Afghan point of view. You had these epic poems to provide color commentary, and you discover a central character who becomes more than a name, this guy that we would think of as a puppet ruler who was installed. But Shah Shuja was originally a legitimate king of Afghanistan, right?

DALRYMPLE: He was - I mean, today, we think of Afghanistan as this poor, benighted country riddled by war. But in the Middle Ages, Afghanistan was one of the great centers of culture in the region. And Shah Shuja is very much, in a sense, the last ebb of this moment. He's a great admirer of gardens, a connoisseur of poetry. He's an enormously civilized figure, and by the standards of the time, merciful and lenient and liberal.

INSKEEP: But in the early 1800s, he lost his job.

DALRYMPLE: This guy - who has inherited the remains of his grandfather's empire at the age of only 17 - he's kicked out. He takes refuge in British India, where the British tuck him away and give him a pension, realizing that this guy could be useful in the future. Then, with the Great Game building up between Britain and Russia, there's competition for Asia between these two European land-based empires.

INSKEEP: The British going out of their base in India, which they controlled, and the Russians, of course, spreading across Asia from the north.

DALRYMPLE: Exactly that. And they both realize, if you look at the map, that these two empires are going to converge somewhere in the middle in the Hindu Kush, in this unmapped, unknown territory in the middle of Asia.

INSKEEP: And so the British decide they need to get an army in there first.

DALRYMPLE: They do. And it's an absurd undertaking, because at this point, the British and the Russians are still about 1,000 miles apart. Nonetheless, the British do this extraordinary, epic invasion of Afghanistan. They go around the sides of the Punjab. They go up the Indus, through the Bolan and Khojak passes.

They drag this artillery up mountainsides, and they actually get to Afghanistan. They hardly fight a battle, but they lose a quarter of their force to dehydration and bad planning and starvation, and it's this hellish march. Such is the surprise when they turn up in Afghanistan. The rulers of Kandahar flee. They take Kandahar without a shot being fired.

Shah Shuja is installed in his old palace in Kabul. It looks as if it's a huge success. You have a whole winter when the British are just going shooting and ice skating and taking the foxhounds out for exercise.

INSKEEP: Renting houses in town in Kabul.

DALRYMPLE: It's a very familiar scene, and everyone seems to be happy. But then a year later, the Afghans become so alienated by the British troops' whoring and drinking and misbehaving in Kabul, the country rises up as one. The British have no intuition that this is coming. They're taken completely by surprise. And it's very, very quick. The first day, the British deputy governor, Alexander Burns, is killed in his house.

He's taken the girlfriend of one of the Afghan leading noblemen, and this nobleman attacks his house. Such is the ease with which he kills the deputy governor. They then go on to capture the arms and the ammunition of the British force, which has stupidly been left in an isolated position outside the main British cantonment. And this siege then begins.

The British governor in charge of the whole force goes out to negotiate, is shot dead by the negotiating party. So the British have lost their general, their governor. They're surrounded. They have no money. They have no arms. They have no option but to surrender.

INSKEEP: And things only get worse from there. And this is one of the things that I wonder, because it's a question that has resonance today, as we think about the recent war in Iraq or we think about the war in Afghanistan. One of the questions people have to ask is: Is this just a tactical problem? Are we fighting a good war that we're just not doing very well, or is it a fundamentally strategic problem? Is this a war where we shouldn't be there at all?

Which was it for the British?

DALRYMPLE: I think, in both cases, it's both. The British are led by an incredibly incompetent general and their civilian forces directed by an incredibly incompetent governor. So partly, it's strategic error. But it is true that the Afghans have never liked being ruled by foreigners. They never liked being ruled by non-Muslims.

It's difficult enough for an Afghan to unite all the different tribes, all the different ethnicities, all the different forms of Islam. And a combination of idiotic leadership, a lack of understanding of the country and arrogance and overconfidence means that when the British go into retreat, 18,000 men, women and children leave the British fortress on the 6th of January, 1842. Six days later, one man alone makes it through to Jalalabad.

INSKEEP: There's even a famous painting of it, of this last British soldier barely managing to stay on his horse.

DALRYMPLE: Lady Butler's famous picture, yes. But for the British, this is one of the great iconic images of the 19th century.

INSKEEP: But let's go back to the Afghan perspective. This defeat for the British was celebrated by the Afghans.

DALRYMPLE: Exactly. I mean, for the Afghans, this is nothing short of miraculous. You know, the British may regard this as the great sort of brave defeat, but for the Afghans, this is the center of their national myth, this idea that they will see out any invader, that they will kick them out sooner or later. They did it to the British. They did it to the Russians. And now, in their view, they're about to do it to the Americans.

INSKEEP: The latest book by William Dalrymple is "Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839 - '42." Mr. Dalrymple, thanks very much again.

DALRYMPLE: Thank you, Steve.

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