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The Man Who Would Be King
The First American in Afghanistan
By Ben Macintyre
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
HC, 351 pg. US$25/C$37.50
ISBN: 0-3742-0178-1

The American king

By Steven Martinovich
web posted May 10, 2004

The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in AfghanistanIt is considered, rightfully so, a brilliant victory. In order to topple the Taliban, the U.S. Department of Defense decided to make extensive use of Afghan tribes to battle the theocratic regime. Aided by the Americans, Afghan soldiers swept across the countryside doing battle in the same manner their ancestors had centuries before. Through diplomacy and bribery, a fighting force was built that was ideal for the harsh lands of Afghanistan and overthrew the existing political order. It was the first time that it was ever done.

Except, of course, that it wasn't. Over 160 years ago an American rode into Afghanistan at the head of a native army with dreams of being crowned king. His story was largely lost to history until Ben Macintyre's rousing The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan, the chronicle of Josiah Harlan, a man who dreamed of empire in the same lands that Alexander the Great's army once conquered.

Harlan was born in 1799 to a large and prosperous Pennsylvanian Quaker family. Although the West had yet to be opened up, thanks to his love of classical literature Harlan looked to the East for adventure. That led him to join a merchant ship bound for Asia and while there he learned that his fiancée had spurned him for another man. With little left to draw him back to the United States, Harlan decided to seek fame and fortune in lands that still had yet to be fully explored. He joined the British army as a surgeon, despite an utter lack of medical qualifications, and ended up in Burma.

His real adventure, however, didn't begin until he mustered out and traveled to northern India. There he met the deposed king of Afghanistan Shah Shujah al-Moolk and inspired by the stories of Alexander, he promised the monarch that he would travel to Kabul and spark an uprising against Dost Mohammed Khan, usurper of the throne. Harlan's price was that he be made Shujah's vizier, something that the exiled king readily agreed to. After recruiting a small army in 1827, Harlan set off for Kabul.

Once there Harlan almost forgot his mission as he became utterly captivated by Kabul's beauty. "The city is a jewel encircled by emerald, with flowers and blossoms whose odours perfume the air with fragrances elsewhere unknown," he wrote. After spending some time in the court of Dost Mohammed, a man he grew to respect more than his ostensible employer Shujah, Harlan made his way to Lahore where he joined the court of Ranjit Singh. Here he found a one-eyed, alcoholic ruler with an insatiable sexual appetite. Harlan eventually found himself the governor of a prosperous province.

This would be adventure enough any one man but the remarkable Harlan was far from finished. After Singh's short war with Dost Mohammed over Peshawar, Harlan was expelled from the Sikh's service for allegedly counterfeiting money. Following a brief stay in India, he once again made his way to Kabul and Dost Mohammed's service. There to help train the king's soldiers, Harlan was eventually made king of the fierce Hazaras.

At about the same time Afghanistan became the focus of attention for both the British and the Russians. In an effort to prevent growing Russian influence, the British sent a 15 000 strong army to restore their ally Shujah to the throne. They were initially successful but as history records, the army that marched into Afghanistan was destroyed a few short years later by none other than Dost Mohammed's son. By that time Harlan, disgusted by British abuses, was back in the United States for good.

As Macintyre relates, the rest of Harlan's life was no less colorful. He later raised a regiment to fight on behalf of the Union during the Civil War, though he nearly lost command due to a mutiny and never actually saw combat because of illness. He also hatched a scheme to import camels from Asia for use as transportation in the United States. He died in 1871, however, largely forgotten -- thanks to a British smear campaign -- in San Francisco. His only possessions were a golden sword and a piece of paper written in Persian, a contract making him king of the Hazaras.

Macintyre's The Man Who Would Be King is a tour de force effort, illuminating a man who would later inspire Rudyard Kipling's short story of the same name. Superbly researched, it serves as not only a marvelous example of Afghani/American history brought to life, but it also performs an act of justice. Josiah Harlan was an exceptional man whose story was undeservedly forgotten. Macintyre's exciting narrative remedies that sin with skill and passion and Harlan couldn't have hoped for a better writer to tell his story.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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