On my extended visits to Afghanistan to research Return of a King, I was keen to see as many of the places and landscapes associated with the First Anglo-Afghan War as was possible. I particularly wanted to retrace the route of the British forces’ catastrophic retreat and get to Gandamak, the site of the British last stand.
The route of the retreat backs on to the mountain range that leads to Tora Bora and the Pakistan border, the Ghilzai heartlands that have always been – along with Quetta – the Taliban’s main recruiting ground. I had been advised not to attempt to visit the area without local protection, so eventually set off in the company of a regional tribal leader who was also a minister in Karzai’s government: a mountain of a man named Anwar Khan Jagdalak, a former village wrestling champion and later captain of the Afghan Olympic wrestling team, who had made his name as a Jami’at-Islami Mujehedin commander in the jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s.
It was Jagdalak’s Ghilzai ancestors who inflicted some of the worst casualties on the British army of 1842, something he proudly repeated several times as we drove through the same passes. “They forced us to pick up guns to defend our honour,” he said. “So we killed every last one of those bastards.” None of this, incidentally, has stopped Jagdalak from sending his family away from Kabul to the greater safety of Northolt in north London.