Book Review: The Dark Defile

The Dark Defile
By Diana Preston
Reviewed by Adil James, TMO

dark_defileThe Dark Defile is a book about the history of the “Britain’s catastrophic invasion of Afghanistan, 1838 – 1842.”  But from a Muslim point of view what is most striking about the book is reading between the lines for the symmetries and underlying story, and the relevance to current events. 

The quality of the writing is certainly good and engaging, but generally fails to fully engage with the characters on a level that shows Preston’s own involvement with them, other than an enjoyment of the dry wit and courage of one of the main personages in the book, Lady Sale, whose adventures Preston recounts with some enjoyment.

Otherwise the book sometimes is a rain of names and dates; a reader who is not a genius can only hope to grasp the main names and main events and broad themes of what Preston describes, when many fringe characters are mentioned in passing.  If you don’t try to memorize the hundreds of names and events you will still have gained a detailed and shocking understanding of the catastrophic invasion and of the astounding mistakes that were made by the British there.  Preston made an exhaustive inquiry into the invasion, reading primary sources such as letters from the primary (and secondary) characters involved.

One thing you will notice is that while Preston exhaustively documents the duplicity and treachery and atrocities of the Afghans, she glosses over British atrocities.  She gives a fair look at the strategic duplicity, from the initial incursion by means of a spy, evaluating the way for later British armies, to the British deliberate overlooking of a good Afghan king in order to support a man who would later prove his incapacity for leadership.  Certainly Preston describes the British choices of incapable leaders briefly, and she also documents exhaustively the fact that the chosen British leadership in Afghanistan chose very very badly, although she does not describe the promotions with enough detail so that the reader truly understands how such people could have occupied such high positions.  What is more glaring however is Preston’s description of the punitive military campaign that Britain launched after the Afghans massacred an entire army.  Her description of the punitive campaign explicitly glosses over British atrocities, which stands in stark contrast to her very explicit descriptions of Afghan atrocities.

But what is really fascinating about the book is that it documents a portion of history that most of us don’t know.  When we think of historical British incursions into Afghanistan we might think of the Lee-Enfield rifles that they brought in later decades, not of smoothbore muskets designed before the American civil war.  We don’t think of Afghans fighting with homemade “jezails” capable of shooting 300 yards accurately.  We don’t think of the Afghans as “some of the best marksmen in the world,” as one British soldier complained.  This incursion and the prominent personalities in it are unknown to Americans, though they are known to Afghans until today and likely many to informed British people.

One of the fascinating facts is that Dost Mohammed, the leader of that time, the good king whom the British should have supported, was granted a cloak that used to belong to Prophet (s).  It was granted to Dost Mohammed by permission, and the only other leader who was granted permission to use that cloak is Mullah Omar.

Reading between the lines, Dost Mohammed raised other questions.  Out of the blue, Dost Mohammed surrendered himself to the British envoy before most of the destruction of the British army took place, his son directed the fighting against the British.    What manner of guidance led him to make this decision? Held hostage by the British after his dashing solitary voluntary surrender at night on horseback, Dost Mohammed was released to again rule his people after the British army was defeated.


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