Reviewed: Tamim Ansary and William Dalrymple's books on Afghanistan

Repetitive strain.

Photograph: Moises Saman/Magnum Photos (Main). Getty Images

Games Without Rules: the Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan
Tamim Ansary
Public Affairs, 416pp, £17.99

Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan
William Dalrymple
Bloomsbury, 608pp, £25

In The March of Folly, her analysis of unforced error in statecraft through the ages, the American historian Barbara Tuchman tried to answer the question that lies at the heart of both these books: why, when faced with a clear choice between the self-evidently catastrophic and the merely unpalatable, do we so often opt for the former?

In style and substance, these latest additions to the already huge library of books inspired by the first Afghan-American war could hardly be more different. William Dalrymple is a scholar. Tamim Ansary is a storyteller. Dalrymple’s focus is narrow, covering in careful detail the sad sequence of the events of 1839-42, later known as the first Afghan war. Ansary paints a wide-angle, soft-focus picture of Afghan history from the middle of the 18th century to the early 21st.

Dalrymple’s book is a major contribution to the historiography of south-west Asia and of the British empire. No Afghan field trip, no excursion along the highways and byways of the archives of Britain, Russia, India and Afghanistan, has been too much for Dalrymple. Mixing primary and secondary sources and taking the trouble to acquaint himself with the terrain on which the tragedy was played out, Dalrymple has resurrected an oft-told tale and brought it convincingly back to life. Even in describing events as they might have been, his style is factual rather than flowery. Return of a King will come to be seen as the definitive account of the first and most disastrous western attempt to invade Afghanistan, occupy it and then, in short order, remake it on lines mapped out by foreigners.

Ansary’s slimmer volume is more appetiser than main course. Although it purports to be written from the inside out, as an Afghan perspective on the wars outsiders have inflicted on Afghanistan over the past three centuries, it is in reality a personal view of those events from a member of the California- based Afghan diaspora more gifted as a raconteur than as a researcher. The organising principle of the book is that foreign irruptions in the flow of Afghan history have done little more than divert and delay Afghanistan’s search for its new self. In this, Ansary is surely right. What was going on in Afghanistan when the Americans and the British arrived there in autumn 2001 (and the Russians before us) and will be going on when we leave is a multi-dimensional, multi-decade conflict: a struggle between modernism and tradition, secularism and religion, capitalism and communism, town and country, Pashtun and Tajik, Sunni and Shia, Sufi and Salafi, north and south. Unwittingly, the west has taken sides in that struggle, aligning itself with the urban against the rural and, usually, with the modern against the ancient.

Such efforts to drag Afghanistan into a new future have always been bound to fail. As successive Afghan leaders have found to their cost, only the brave or foolhardy try to accelerate change in one of the world’s most conservative societies. Those who want to make a lasting difference must do so by patiently and painstakingly taking the people with them.

What makes Ansary’s book attractive is that it offers what might be described as a western idiot’s guide to modern Afghan history. His is an authentically Afghan voice, offering not an authoritative account of the ebb and flow of foreign entanglement in Afghanistan but a personal account of how an intelligent Afghan observer sees the course of events from the outside.

Both Ansary and Dalrymple make the point that the history of foreign intervention in Afghanistan has a habit of repeating itself. Naturally, in each cycle, the details are different but, as Dalrymple suggests in an afterword that should be put on college syllabuses on both sides of the Atlantic, the similarities between the British intervention of 1839 and its western successor 160 years later are striking. Then, as now, the root of the problem lay in what Dalrymple describes as “delusionally optimistic despatches . . . about the ‘perfect tranquillity’ of Afghanistan in the face of the anxious reports . . . officials were sending in from across the country”. Then, as now, ambitious advisers, eager to please their masters, failed to lay out the scale of the almost impossible challenges confronting the western interlopers. Then, as now, defective leadership focused on tactics, not strategy.

What neither book does, however, is explain why leaders faced with the prospect of catastrophe obvious to any objective observer chose that rather than the lesser evil of accommodating ambition to Afghan reality. It was not as if nobody warned the British in 1839 or the Russians in 1979 or the Americans in 2001 of the perils of trying to govern Afghanistan. Yet, as both Dalrymple and Ansary make clear, time and again hope has triumphed over experience. As a Soviet diplomat once assured a sceptical Foreign Office official, “This time it will be different.”

This conundrum – why, when we know history, we still choose to repeat it – was what Tuchman’s study of folly was really about. Her answer was “cognitive dissonance”, which was, I suppose, a modern way of settling the question Thucydides posed at the start of his history of the war between Athens and Sparta. He was, he said, recording the mistakes that men made in the hope that, having read his account, those who came later would learn the right lessons. But then, rather disarmingly, Thucydides confessed that, human nature being what it was, men would probably make the same mistakes all over again. And so it has been, in Afghanistan at least.

Yet who could say that no good has come out of these Afghan adventures? As Dalrymple points out, the first Afghan war gave birth to the country we now know as Afghanistan. Only the most determined pessimist would say that, as the tide of the present intervention recedes, there will be nothing of long-term value to the country left among the jetsam.

Moreover, as Prince Harry has reminded us, for tens of thousands of western soldiers and security men, diplomats and development workers, writers and journalists, this Afghan adventure has been the experience of a lifetime. In myriad ways, they have had the privilege of being part of the modern history of one of the most fascinating countries on earth. What is so sad is that, if those who have directed this vast project had applied the lessons that leap from the pages of both these books, the Afghan people might have harvested a more enduring dividend from the spilled blood and squandered billions of the last, lost decade.

Sherard Cowper-Coles’s account of a life in diplomacy, “Ever the Diplomat”, is published by HarperPress (£20)