- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 13, 2002

By Phillip Hensher
Knopf, $26, 481 pages

Great powers spawn great debacles, even at the height of their power. It is the price of doing business. The Romans lost three legions, the equivalent of one-tenth of their standing army, to the Germans in the battle of the Teutoberg Forest in 9 A.D. Nonetheless, the Roman Empire stood for nearly 500 years following that event, although the emperor Augustus never forgave the luckless and dead general Varus for his failure.
Few great empires have suffered as many catastrophic losses as the British and remained great. Isandhlwana, Khartoum, and Saratoga are notable examples. However, for sheer military and diplomatic incompetence, the ill-fated British withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1842 remains a masterpiece of ineptitude. It makes the Little Big Horn appear to be the equivalent of the amateur hour military defeats.
In three days, the British lost an army of nearly 5,000 soldiers and 10,000 camp followers to a rag tag army of Afghan militia who fought an ad-hoc, but brilliant campaign. In "The Mulberry Empire," Philip Hensher gives a fictional, but historically grounded account of the massacre and the events leading up to it.
To summarize the plot, the British Empire early in the reign of Queen Victoria had become the "world's sole surviving superpower." Having secured India, the British gazed west to mysterious Afghanistan. Goaded by the accounts of the adventurer-writer Alexander Burns, the British governor-general of India hastily formed the Army of the Indus to oust the supposedly unstable Emir Of Afghanistan, Dost Mohammad, intending to replace him with a more British-friendly rival. The ill-trained and largely mercenary British-led force was initially successful, but eventually got forced out of Kabul by the emir's wily son Akbar Khan and his Afghan followers in a brilliant piece of insurgency.
Akbar used a combination of ruse, psychological warfare, and guerilla operations to bottle up the British forces in the Khyber Pass in the mountains of the Hindu Kush (Death to Hindus in the local language) and destroyed them almost to the last man. The defeat was abetted by the death by ruse of the two leaders of the expedition Gens. Mcnaghten and Burnes, whereupon command passed to the lethargic and incompetent Gen. Elpinstone.
The mulberries of the title refer to branches left at the quarters of the British leaders before the revolt in an unread signal of intention by the Afghans. Mr. Hensher is a British author and journalist, who evidently studied the history of the region and has several previous books to his credit. His novel is uneven at times, but always highly readable. It occasionally jumps into "Catch-22"-like surrealism and then returns just as suddenly back to the fairly straightforward historical novel format.
In one case, an aristocratic British spinster's pet pug is summarily shot by an Indian Sepoy soldier after it has killed a rat in a nasty camp brawl. In another incident a jet contrail appears in the sky of mid-18th century Afghanistan. The reader is left wondering where the author is going with these and other incidents. The answer apparently is that one is left to draw his or her own conclusions. Characters also drift into and out of the plot with no apparent reason. These curious interludes aside, the book moves well.
Mr. Hensher provides the casual reader with an entertaining and historically accurate version of how the "great game" over south and central Asia between the British and the Russians got started. The British come off as arrogant, civilized and lacking focus. The Afghans come off as arrogant, uncivilized by British standards, and very focused indeed. The Russians, in this account are merely inept, but smart enough to know it.There are few sympathetic characters in the book, but most are interesting. I read it on airplanes during a long business trip, and while I generally tend to skip between several books on such occasions, this one kept me fairly riveted.
The tale is one of strategic overreach and cultural misunderstanding. The British never quite grasp the intricacies of Afghan culture and custom. It also is a tale of lost opportunity. Had the British been more sensitive to the realities of Afghan culture, they might have forged a useful alliance with Dost Mohammed and his family. Instead, they blundered into an embarrassing fiasco.
As we approach the one year anniversary of the September11 attacks and the subsequent liberation of Afghanistan from Taliban rule, Mr. Hensher's novel may be a very good way for Americans who know they probably need to know more about Central and South Asia to get their feet wet without jumping into the pool of dusty history and policy tomes. I had to do some cross-reading to write this review. It was worth the effort. So is the book.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps officer who is with the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.

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