The Road to British Disaster in the First Afghan War

By John H. Waller

Random House. 329 pp., $24.95

Therewas a popular TV drama series in the early 1950s about the menace of communism in the United States called "I Led Three Lives." In one episode a party functionary brags that the communists are taking over the world at the rate of several square miles a day. In the mid-19th century it was the British who appeared to many people to be taking over the world at the rate of several square miles a day. During the 1840s and 1850s Great Britain wrested Hong Kong from China, forced open other Chinese ports to Western trade and began a steady expansion in Malaya and Borneo from its new port at Singapore. At the same time the East India Co. began the conquest of Burma and added some half dozen principalities to its Indian empire. "It is the old story," wrote American diplomat Townsend Harris in 1856. "Naboths Vineyard and the Wolf and the Lamb. When a British resident is forced on any Asiatic power it is only a question of time how long that government will be permitted to exist before the fiat of annexation goes forth and the government of the native sovereign is annihilated."

To this story of seemingly unstoppable British advance there was one drastic exception. In 1842, almost exactly 100 years before the fall of Singapore signaled the first end of Britain's empire in the East, the British suffered a humiliating disaster in Afghanistan. A British army of occupation, which with dependents and camp followers totaled 16,000 people, was almost completely annihilated as it attempted to retreat from Kabul through the rugged ice-covered mountains in the brutal cold of the Afghan winter.

John H. Waller's "Beyond the Khyber Pass" provides a highly readable and insightful look at how this debacle came to pass. Waller deftly leads the reader through the maze of British-Russian rivalries, dynastic politics, clan feuds, greed, personal ambition and miscalculation that led to the ill-fated attempt to place Shah Shuja, a deposed former ruler, back on the throne of Afghanistan. Shah Shuja's return and the ouster of Emir Dost Mohammed, who had long been de facto king of most of the country, was primarily due to British fears of a Russian threat to India. These fears, well explored and analyzed by Waller, were at least in part exaggerated or even imaginary. Yet they were to keep two generations of diplomats, soldiers, spies and explorers gainfully employed (and bring many to an early grave) in the "Great Game" of intrigue, political maneuver, espionage and bribery in Central Asia until a more serious and substantial threat -- that of Imperial Germany -- led the British and Russians to put aside their differences in 1907.

If the politics of the first Afghan war are complex, the cast of characters seems cut from an old Errol Flynn movie. There is Ranjit Singh, the one-eyed "lion of the Punjab," a consummate political operator who manages to have the British fight his battles in Afghanistan. There are British soldier-adventurers like Eldred Pottinger and Alexander "Bokhara" Burnes, whose careers make epics like "King of the Khyber Rifles" seem pale and understated.

The top leaders of the Afghan adventure amply justify Pottinger's characterization of them as "a passel of fools who were doing all they can to ensure their own destruction." There is Sir William Hay Macnaghten, the British minister and mastermind of the Afghan intervention, a skilled bureaucrat, confident, forceful and a fathead. His two British generals, Sir William Elphinstone and Brigadier John Shelton give a new dimension to the term "military incompetence." Those who knew better, like Pottinger and intelligence agents Mohan Lal and Charles Masson, were ignored. Others like Burnes, the senior political officer under Macnaghten, chose to go along rather than endangering their careers by arguing too loudly against the plan.

Waller, a veteran foreign service officer and former inspector general of the CIA, compares the British debacle at Kabul with the more recent Soviet failure in Afghanistan. Another analogy that must have occurred to him is Vietnam. Burnes had more than a few successors in the U.S. mission in Saigon. As was the case with the Americans in Vietnam, the British in Afghanistan found themselves supporting a regime that was both unpopular and ineffective. "Maladministration inflamed the Afghans' natural hatred for the infidel foreign ruler. It was apparent to most Afghans that despite Shah Shuja's pretense of ruling, the British were in charge, and this rankled. Yet, in an effort to bolster Shah Shuja and present him as a sovereign ruler, the British permitted his administration to abuse his power and mismanage affairs rather than step in and correct the abuses and by so doing advertise their role as the real rulers."

In the end the British more or less succeeded in putting Humpty Dumpty together again. An "army of retribution" burned the Kabul bazaar and brought back surviving British prisoners, then withdrew to hold an impressive victory parade on the safe side of the Khyber Pass. Dost Mohammed resumed his reign and became a reliable friend of the British. The Americans in 1975 and the Soviets in 1989 were not so fortunate.

The reviewer is a professor of history and international relations at George Washington University.