The Daily Mail has published the first review of Sikunder Burnes, and I am happy to say it is extremely good. An extract:
By Peter Oborne
His latest book is a rollicking life of Alexander Burnes, the British adventurer, diplomat, warrior and spy, whose life was straight out of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels.
A great-nephew of Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns, Alexander was only 16 when he signed up for the private army of the East India Company.
A brilliant linguist, he was soon dispatched on a series of secret missions through Persia, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, as well as the Punjab and Sindh in modern Pakistan. He often travelled in disguise, taking incredible risks.
Murray identifies with his subject, perhaps not least for the way that Burnes inveigled himself into the harems of the rulers he visited along the way.
However, there was a deadly serious purpose to his travels. The British were convinced the Russians planned to send an army across the Khyber Pass to conquer India. The aim of Burnes’s exploration was to survey the terrain and assess tribal alliances in order to combat the Russian menace.
Burnes argued that Britain should ally with Afghan ruler Dost Mohammad Khan, in order to create a barrier against Russia.
However, his bosses overruled him. They believed the only way of stopping a Russian invasion was by getting rid of Khan altogether and replacing him with a puppet ruler supposedly loyal to Britain.
In 1839, with many misgivings, Burnes agreed to play a leading role in a military expedition to overthrow Khan, a man he liked and admired.
At first, the British Army met with success. Kabul fell, and by the summer of 1840, British forces were in occupation of the Afghan capital and the puppet ruler was duly installed.
However, deposed Khan proved an astute enemy and his Afghan tribes combined to rise up against the invader.
The story of Burnes ends with him being hacked to death by a tribal mob in his home in Kabul — the prelude to a grisly period which saw the expulsion of all British soldiers from Afghanistan. He was only 36.
The parallel with Britain’s 21st-century overseas misfortunes are astonishing.
Murray shows how Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston, architect of the Afghan invasion, deliberately misrepresented Burnes’s advice to persuade MPs of the case for invasion.
The comparison with Tony Blair and Sir John Scarlett’s dodgy dossier ahead of the 2003 Iraq invasion is even more mind-boggling.
Like Blair and Scarlett, Palmerston paid no price for his deception, rising to become one of Britain’s most celebrated prime ministers.
It is also remarkable that nearly 170 years after Burnes’s death, British forces were once again dragged into Afghanistan.
Tony Blair’s calamitous decision to send British troops to Helmand Province in the south of the country led to a similar uprising to that by the very Afghan tribes which did for Burnes in 1841.
And today, just as in 1841, the British military and political establishments are convulsed by Russophobia.
Apart from its scholarly merits, Murray’s book is a terrific read. He has done full justice to the life of a remarkable British hero, without ignoring his faults.
M urray shows, for instance, how in Burnes’s final months he grew arrogant, aloof and brutal as his personality was warped by the fatal decision to invade Afghanistan.
Yet Murray challenges the established view, accepted by all modern historians, that Burnes inflamed Afghan opposition by taking liberties with the native women.
He certainly does not challenge the notion that Burnes was a womaniser, but he shows that, alive to the danger of alienating Afghan pride, Burnes brought with him to Kabul a harem of beautiful Kashmiri women to cater for his needs.
For all his failings, Burnes remains one of the great heroes of the British imperial adventure, and Murray has done him proud.
Apart from anything else, this splendid book contains all the ingredients for a truly magnificent movie.