'The Dark Defile'

THE DARK DEFILE: Britain's Catastrophic Invasion of Afghanistan, 1838-1842. By Diana Preston. Walker and Co. 307 pages. $28.

Geography hangs over this book like one of the huge rocks that form Afghanistan's many forbidding “dark defiles”: the Huft-Kotul Pass, the Jugdulluk Pass and, most famous of all, the storied Khyber Pass.

But it is not just the geological outlines of the country that have determined its history. It is also Afghanistan's location on the world map. The book shouldn't be read without one in hand.

When the British Army of the Indus invaded the country in 1838, it was to place its own candidate for king, Shah Shuja, on the throne. By this means it hoped to protect England's fabulously wealthy Indian Empire from a perceived threat from the Russians, who were also looking to expand in Central Asia.

With no real grasp of the insult it had inflicted on this proud people, the army gradually lost control of the situation in Kabul.

In 1842, it embarked on a tortuous retreat to Jalalabad, followed by Afghans bent on revenge in winter weather conditions that took a horrific toll.

This is not a book for the squeamish. Diana Preston, an Oxford educated historian, describes the progress of the army in excruciating detail, sparing the reader none of the damage that bayonets, bullets, frostbite, starvation and rage can produce.

British arrogance and fecklessness were fully matched by long built-up native fury over the country being overrun by “infidel dogs.”

The Duke of Wellington was not far off when he characterized the whole incident as, “either the grossest treachery, or the most inconceivable imbecility, and very likely a mixture of both.”

Elegantly written and fully researched, “The Dark Defile” takes on a relatively minor event and uses it to bring into perspective an entire historical period.

Indeed, its epilogue, a rich summation of the strategy, tactics and politics surrounding this first of three Anglo-Afghan wars, may be its most valuable portion.

The book concludes with a brief but sobering assessment of how we have come from that early British invasion to our present situation in Afghanistan, a connection this highly insightful author clearly intended from the start.