Book Reviews: William Dalrymple’s Return of a King and Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America

by Alec Metz on 3/3/2013

RoaKThis is a review of two books, one early (Return of a King doesn’t come out in the U.S. until April) and one woefully late (Little America was released in June of 2012). I’ve put them together given their prognostications, stated or otherwise, for the NATO/ISAF campaign in Afghanistan, because both authors are not traditional historians, and because they complement each other well. Return of a King focuses almost entirely on the history of the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842) while Little America focuses much more heavily on the current NATO/ISAF campaign in Afghanistan, referencing at times the faltering American effort to irrigate the Helmand River Valley in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Both come to the same conclusion: the U.S. is repeating mistakes made previously in Afghanistan, and the current campaign does not look like it will end well.

Neither book could be called a serious academic study of their respective periods of Afghan history. Dalrymple is a historian, but this book, like his previous work, is written for the lay audience (hence the awkward reference to Rambo III at one point). It works well for his coverage of the First Anglo-Afghan War, where the views presented from the British perspective may not differ much from those put forward by Peter Hopkirk but some of the Afghan perspectives are almost entirely unknown outside South Asia. The book can even boast of finding a senior British official who used the phrase “They are either with us or against us” more than a century and a half before the War on Terror. On a macro-level, as has been said by a number of writers, there are similarities between the British (or, to be accurate, East India Company) incursion into Afghanistan in 1839 and the NATO campaign of 2001. Both aimed to replace a disagreeable regime with what was perceived as a more legitimate one. Both campaigns have committed serious blunders during their occupation of the country, not only bringing opprobrium  upon themselves, but also upon the Afghan government they were supposedly there to support. Both wars strained the militaries and finances of their respective governments, and both the EIC and NATO have at times been criticized for either leaving in too few troops, or foisting too many on their Afghan hosts.

Dalrymple, as always, is a compelling writer (I still read In Xanadu every few years, and the last history before Return of a KingThe Last Moghulwas a wonderful read about the last Moghul Emperor, Bahadur Shah II and the larger struggle of the Indian Uprising of 1857). And as previously stated, the Afghan sources are new to Western audiences, and bring a much needed holistic view to the events of 1839-1842 (although one does wonder how much accuracy there can be in what can sometimes be very floral phrases). Dalrymple even brought to light new, primary-source correspondence of Alexander Burnes and others in his research, which helps further round out the story and Burnes’s own character. Some of the characters seemed simplified for the sake of the story; Generals Nott and Sale (and Mrs. Sale) were presented in a very positive light as competent  brave, and frustrated, whereas Elphinstone came across as a useless bag of ailments mental and physical, MacNaughten as an unjustified egomaniac, and Auckland as naive at best. Importantly, though, the Afghan cast of Shah Shujah, Dost Mohammad, and Akbar Khan are multi-faceted in this account While I wish there had been more said of the aftermath of the war in the region (such as how the disastrous campaign in Afghanistan influenced the decisions to annex the Punjab and Sindh) and in the institutions which served in it (Indian sepoys in the Company’s service in Afghanistan suffered what by any standard would be described at catastrophic casualty rates, on top of which they were in many cases abandoned by their British officers to death or slavery), Dalrymple can’t be accused of writing a thin volume, so maybe next time.

As a history, Return of a King is a very worthwhile read. As a commentary on the current conflict in Afghanistan, though, which thankfully is a very small percentage of the book, it lacks. To compare Richard Holbrooke to MacNaughten, whose last-ditch attempts at negotiations and intrigue in Afghanistan ended with his head on a pike is a stretch (during the time Dalrymple was researching and writing the book, Holbrooke would have been in Afghanistan, so perhaps that is Dalrymple’s image of a new Chief Political Agent). The former British ambassador to Afghanistan, Sherard Cowper-Coles, with whom Dalrymple has spent time, holds similar views to the author, which he much more ably enunciated in Cables from Kabul (and, to follow along with Dalrymple’s analogy, if Holbrooke was MacNaughten, wouldn’t Cowper-Coles be Burnes?). The only quantifiable statistic proffered for the failures of NATO/ISAF was that 70% of Key Terrain Districts were, at the time of writing, deemed under Taliban control. To say that this conflict has ‘substantive parallels’  with, and echoes from, the First Anglo-Afghan War ignores a lot, like the elections of Karzai, the millions educated who would not have otherwise been since 2001, and the lack of a serious legitimate leader of the insurgency. It also seems doubtful that NATO will be forced out, slaughtered, or abandon their enlisted. This isn’t to say Western-style democracy will eventually triumph, but that Afghanistan is not hidebound to a repetition of history without end.

Dalrymple’s book was very enjoyable, but I wish he’d left the deductions and analysis to the reader; good historians, I’ve always thought, let the story speak for itself.

*                                                                        *                                                                        *

Subtitled “The War within the War for Afghanistan,” Chandrasekaran’s recollections and research on the war in Afghanistan came out earlier last year to great fanfare. A year ago, on this blog, Foust covered an excerpt about the Morrison-Knudsen works on the lower Helmand during the 1950′s (which gave rise to the compound in Lashkar Gah known as “Little America“). The book itself opens with that era, detailing the failure of the project to irrigate the Helmand Valley as expected before jumping to the recent past and the command of Marine Brigadier General Lawrence Nicholson, whom Chandrasekaran clearly admires. The book chronicles a number of missteps, contradictory orders from higher headquarters, and the ultimate failure to bring normalcy to the Helmand Valley as evidence of the wider failure of ISAF to accomplish its goals in Afghanistan.

Chandrasekaran, a Washington Post reporter and bureau chief for more than a quarter century, is perhaps best known for his book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, a description of the Green Zone in Baghdad and the disillusioned idealists, unprepared career staffers, and mercenaries who lived there. Published in 2006, the book provided a clear understanding that with the completely inadequate policy foundation laid out by the Americans in Baghdad, things were only going to get worse. And they did.

In many ways, Little America is similar to Imperial Life; it is a chronicle of the failures of American efforts, largely through inexperience, overconfidence, and conflicting goals, to bring about security and development in the Helmand Valley. The Morris-Knudsen/USAID efforts to irrigate the Helmand Valley a half-century before are more geographically relevant than historically analogous to the current campaign in Afghanistan, but the history of those efforts is interesting and important to understanding how the unique milieu of tribes came to exist in the valley. Thankfully, Chandrasekaran focuses on more recent history, having covered the efforts in Helmand well for the Washington Post from 2009 to 2011 (although his bias in favor of BG Nicholson was sometimes questioned, including on Registan). That bias comes through in Little America as well; Nicholson was the point man on the ground for a consensus decision that saw the penultimate NATO/ISAF effort to push over ten thousand Marines, plus enablers, into an area where less than 1% of Afghans live, in order to secure what was termed “the gateway to Kandahar,” which was in turn called the “gateway to Kabul.” Chandrasekaran clearly found the logic tortuous, as did General McChrystal  regardless, however, the plan went forward and Central Helmand became for all intents and purposes Marineistan, with their own rules of engagement, air support, and approach to the war.

The battles for Marjah and Garamsir were of critical importance for the NATO/ISAF mission in Afghanistan for two primary reasons: first, that they showed the absolutely massive amount of personnel and materiel that would be required to pacify the least secure districts of Afghanistan, and second, the efforts there showed that without a complementary effort by the Afghan government to place and support a functional government framework in the target area, perceived as legitimate by locals, NATO/ISAF efforts would be for naught.

Before the Marines arrived, Chandrasekaran paints the situation in the area as a stalemate between British forces and the Taliban; coupled with historical animosities, the limited number of British personnel (9,000 in Helmand by their time of Nicholson’s arrival) available for patrolling meant that a “gentlemen’s agreement” had come into play, and that each side would stay in their own area (for the British that seems to have meant a bubble of a few hundred meters around their patrol bases). Chandrasekaran even goes so far as to say the British “…torpedoed the relationship through unseemly deals and a nineteenth century attitude towards the Afghans…” That changed when the Marines came; suffering some of the worst casualties of the war, the Marines pushed the boundaries of cleared territory and pursued the insurgents mercilessly. The operation was dubbed Moshtarak (“joint”) but the effort was not; the follow through of Afghan governance and American aid fell flat. USAID dithered on numerous agricultural ‘bright ideas’ (pomegranates,almonds, flowers, and wheat combined still have not yet outperformed the poppy in Helmand) put forward by officials without a proper understanding of agricultural development that failed to effectively influence many of the farmers in the Helmand Valley. The Afghan government in Kabul, meanwhile, sent to the newly-formed district of Marjah a district governor locals did not know or trust, and who, as was later found out, had done time in Germany for stabbin’ and was subsequently replaced a few months later for a lack of performance (McClatchy). Most of the rest of the “government in a box” didn’t even bother to show up. The district began to slide back to insecurity and became what McCrystal called a “bleeding ulcer.”

Chandrasekaran paints McChrystal as privately critical of the efforts in Helmand, indicating he viewed the surge in neighboring Kandahar as much more important. I remember others at the time who commented that it was off-putting to see the four-star general spending so much time fretting about a half-district (Marjah had been created from part of Nad Ali district in 2010) on the road to nowhere in a country of 398 districts. Chandrasekaran seems to support that point.

Later in the book the story of Marine successes in Helmand is juxtaposed with the 5/2 Stryker brigade under Colonel Harry Tunnell in Kandahar, whose motto was the direct “Search and Destroy” and had little time for COIN efforts. Both the soldiers of the 5/2 and the reputation of the American military suffered as soldiers from the unit committed murder of Afghan civilians and made little effort to engage in the less-lethal side of counter-insurgency.  When so much of the talk and efforts in Afghanistan were focused on counter-insurgency, 5/2 rolled out of Kandahar like an anachronistic behemoth. It was all the more bizarre then that the biggest thrust, military and civilian, at the time was being conducted next door in Helmand precisely because it was “the gateway to Kandahar,” when the effort in Kandahar itself was using  Vietnam-era tactics.

Chandrasekaran regularly highlights the failures of the ISAF/NATO civilian effort in Kabul and the field; their inability to coalesce into a team, the inability to get the right people for the mission or even to effectively get and keep people in the areas they are responsible for, and the sometime unwillingness to undertake dangerous missions. The bureaucrats he disdains, while promoting the cases of salt-of-the-earth agricultural advisors and technicians. He highlights the issues of the international development jet-set of Kabul; the drinking, lack of expertise in Afghanistan or Afghan development issues, and the lack of urgency as compared to the military’s pace.

Chandrasekaran concludes with assertion that what is dooming U.S. efforts in Afghanistan is the lack of adaptability by senior military and civilian officials to conditions on the ground. While not as directly condemnatory as Dalrymple, it is clear that Chandrasekaran is pessimistic about Afghanistan’s future. Unlike Dalrymple, however, his pessimism does not seem to rest on historical inevitability or imperial hubris so much as on bureaucratic dysfunction. Taken together, the books are two well-written histories that explain in part how this has come to be the longest war in U.S. history, and are well worth the read. Just don’t expect to feel better afterwards.

Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

This post was written by...

– author of 18 posts on

Alec Metz is an independent policy analyst focusing on security and development in South and Central Asia.

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use

Previous post:

Next post: