Under scrutiny, the connection proves facile. Yes, many of the players in Afghanistan, Western and Eastern, are the same as they were 200 years ago. Yes, Afghanistan’s bickering tribes and brutal geography make the nation unsuited to foreign domination. But George W. Bush was readying the United States to invade Afghanistan little more than a week after al-Qaeda’s Sept. 11 attacks. Would he have behaved differently had his administration focused on how dismally Britain failed to return Shuja ul-Mulk, an exiled shah, to power in the 1840s in response to a nonexistent Russian invasion of Kabul? For that matter, did colonial lessons give the Soviet Union pause before it invaded Afghanistan in 1979?
Dalrymple may be misguided in his attempt to use "Return of a King" to teach overreaching empires a lesson, but that doesn’t mean his scholarship is wanting. Like a 21st-century Indiana Jones, the author braved sniper shots and IEDs to uncover original Afghan sources on a forgotten conflict. "Return of a King" should establish him as the foremost historian of “the Great Game” – “that grand contest of imperial competition, espionage and conquest that engaged Britain and Russia until the collapse of their respective Asian empires”, all played out as ordinary Afghans suffered.