Once I started reading Diana Preston's The Dark Defile: Britain's Catastrophic Invasion of Afghanistan, 1839-1842 (Walker & Company, 2012) over the weekend, I had a terrible time putting it down again. I quickly discovered that I was utterly and completely in the dark about the details of the First Anglo-Afghan War, and Preston offers a vivid narrative history of the conflict's origins, events, and aftermath.
Drawing on published and unpublished documents (government reports and dispatches, letters and diaries, &c.), as well as on Afghan oral traditions and other sources, Preston has done a masterful job. It is, at times, not an easy book to read: the whole tale reads like something of a slow-motion train wreck, frankly, as misstep piles on misunderstanding, political and military blunders come fast and furious, and duplicitous acts on both sides lead to disastrous consequences and long-term regional instability.
Preston mostly refrains from making overt comparisons with the First Anglo-Afghan War to more current events, but the implications are clear. There were and are lessons to be learned from this conflict, and as she points out in the epilogue, some Afghan memories of this long-ago war are still surprisingly fresh (I don't want to spoil the book by recounting one particular anecdote, but it struck me quite strongly as I read).