The Dark Defile
, whose title comes from the lines of a Rudyard Kipling poem, is an impressivebook, and Preston relies on primary sources to tell an intriguing story from the British perspective.It is not as comprehensive as the classics by such historians as John William Kaye, whose
History of the War in Afghanistan
remains a paradigmatic account of the British experience, but itis well sourced and well written.Given the current war in Afghanistan, it is natural to inquire about the applicability to today ofBritain’s nineteenth-century experience. But its relevance is limited. Not every empire thatventured into those lands experienced the same dire fate as the British did in the nineteenthcentury. Still, two lessons bear close attention. The first is a virtual tenet among most Afghananthropologists: a strategy that focuses only on creating a strong central government is unlikely tosucceed in a country where power remains local. The second is perhaps more sobering: contraryto modern counterinsurgency theories, victory—and defeat—may ultimately be more a function ofwinning the hearts and minds of domestic constituents than of local Afghans. Both lessonsbecome vividly apparent in
The Dark Defile
.PRESTON TELLS the British tragedy in colorful prose. In the early nineteenth century, Britainwas a global superpower that boasted impressive political, military and economic might. It was, tobe sure, the era of
. The country’s gross national product was $8.2 billion, and itboasted a 53 percent relative share of European wealth, had the largest iron and steel productionin the world, and enjoyed a 10 percent share of world-manufacturing output. The only countriesthat came close were Russia and France, which had large populations and similar levels of grossnational product, world-manufacturing output and industrial potential.In South Asia, the British Empire was firmly entrenched in India, where the East India Companyhad flexed its economic and military muscles to annex or subdue much of the subcontinent.Britain’s chief rival in the region was Russia, and the two engaged in a growing balance-of-powerstruggle. The “Great Game” was alive and well. As Preston writes, “the British perceived theRussians as the greatest threat to India,” either directly or by inciting others to act against Britishinterests. Reacting to reports from British spies and diplomats across the region, including theindefatigable Alexander Burnes, the British had become increasingly edgy about Russianexpansionism. Burnes’s reports emphasized that Afghanistan could be a profitable trade routeand help balance Russian power.In May 1838, senior British government officials debated several options. Lord Auckland, thegovernor-general of India, wrote to Sir John Hobhouse, president of the Board of Control inLondon, that one option was to “leave Afghanistan to its fate” and focus on shoring up BritishIndia. A second was to “attempt to save Afghanistan” by supporting the current ruler in Kabul,Dost Mohammed Khan, and other local power brokers. The third option—and the one Britaineventually adopted—was to invade the country and impose the elderly Shah Shuja as king, whothe British assessed was more malleable than Dost Mohammed Khan. For British officials, ShahShuja’s weakness was an asset.