THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING

The First American in Afghanistan

By Ben Macintyre. Farrar Straus Giroux. 333 pp. $25

A lost chapter from the annals of romantic travel to the East, Josiah Harlan's exploits in 19th-century Afghanistan and modern-day Pakistan are the stuff of a rollicking boy's adventure tale. At a time when few Westerners had ever ventured into that still-troubled region of the globe, this strange Pennsylvania Quaker plotted intrigue in the court of the Afghan king in the 1830s, did a stint as governor under the Sikh Maharaja of the Punjab and found himself mixed up in the politics of the Great Game, the rivalry between czarist Russia and imperial Britain for control of Central Asia.

Harlan fancied himself a latter-day conqueror in the mold of Alexander the Great. Never a modest man, he was prone to extravagant -- if not quixotic -- gestures. In 1838, for example, high atop a mountain in the frozen vastness of the Hindu Kush, Harlan bombastically reinvented himself as an Afghan tribal chief, taking the title "Prince of Ghor, Lord of the Hazarahs." If Harlan's life sounds like something out a Kipling tale, that's partly because it is. As English writer Ben Macintyre tells us in his excellent new biography, Harlan's escapades gave Kipling the theme for one of his famous short stories (also called "The Man Who Would Be King"), a cautionary tale about two adventurers who play at being gods but suffer gruesome consequences for their hubris. Harlan's fate has been obscurity; but for Macintyre, his "unwritten half-life seemed uncannily contemporary," a prophetic counterpoint to the American campaign in Afghanistan. Macintyre's judicious portrait of this American eccentric is partly an act of redress, partly an act of recovery. A dearth of material concerning his subject hobbled his approach, although he did discover a large cache of Harlan's unpublished (and comically purple) writings. Few contemporary sources refer to Harlan; what little there are come from British documents, which, as Macintyre explains, are "conspicuously hostile." Macintyre is even-handed in his treatment of Harlan, critical of his flaws but also sympathetic and generous.

Harlan's odyssey began in romantic rejection: On an 1822 commercial mission to India on behalf of his merchant father, he got news that his fiancee had run off with another man. Devastated, Harlan vowed never to return to his home country. He passed himself off as a surgeon (he had no formal training) and worked as a doctor for the British East India Company.

But Harlan quickly grew bored with life in the British imperial service; he had wilder, more ambitious schemes for advancement. Fascinated with Alexander the Great's ancient journeys across Central Asia and reports describing Afghanistan as a mythical proving ground where one could be a prince, he set off for the western reaches of British India in 1826. Fetching up in the dusty border town of Ludiana, he found a potential means to glory in the recently deposed Afghan monarch, Shah Shujah al-Moolk. The two made a pact: Harlan would make his way to Kabul and rally the Shah's supporters against his usurper, the Dost Mohammed Khan, and make way for the Shah's triumphant return. Harlan expected a royal title for his troubles.Things, however, did not quite work out that way. Harlan spent the next several years trekking across the North West Frontier (now Pakistan) and eastern Afghanistan. Along the way, he wrote lavish descriptions of the sublime Afghan landscapes, learned fluent Persian and mastered the frightfully complex relationships between Afghan tribes. Once in Kabul, he found the Dost firmly installed, a worthy adversary who commanded respect. Harlan thought better of fomenting a revolt, and made his way back to Punjab, wherehe entered into the service of the Sikh ruler of the Punjab, Ranjit Singh, with whom he would clash.

Harlan was transformed in the course of his journeys; what began as an orientalist fantasy became something more than that. Macintyre explains: "The colonist would eventually be colonized, not merely comprehending Afghan culture more profoundly than any foreigner before him, but adopting it." At first Harlan may have been a believer in "civilized expansionism" who spoke the language of "cultural emancipation," but he eventually grew ambivalent about the price of conquest.

Ultimately, Harlan's maverick freelancing put him on a collision course with the British. After violently breaking with Ranjit Singh in 1836, Harlan became the Dost's military adviser, helping him to prepare for war against the Sikh kingdom in Punjab. Meanwhile, Britain was furiously trying to prevent the Dost from making a treaty with the Russians. But Khan's dithering only infuriated the British, who then mounted an invasion that proved disastrous both for the invader and Afghanistan.

Forced to leave his beloved Kabul in 1839, appalled by the savage tactics of the campaign, Harlan unleashed a polemical volley against Great Britain in his 1842 memoir. Far from being civilized invaders, the English brought "military despotism" and little else to the Afghans, he fumed. The book's controversial reception in Britain -- which was driven out of Afghanistan in a merciless rout that same year -- scuttled Harlan's literary career. Still, reading his potent criticisms of the heavyhanded methods of invading armies, one cannot help but think about other great powers and their entanglements in faraway places. *

Matthew Price is a journalist and critic living in Brooklyn, N.Y.