The first two wars took place in the context of the Great Game that pitted the empires of Britain and Russia against each other for the control of Central Asia and Persia (now Iran). The backdrop for the third war was an increasingly assertive Asian nationalism and a turbulent civil war in Russia following the revolution.
Interpreting a Persian attack on the city of Herat in 1837 as inspired by Russia, British officials decided to intervene in Afghanistan and restore a former ruler, Shah Shuja Durrani (ruled 1803–1809; 1839–1842). In November 1838, they assembled an army of 21,100 soldiers and 38,000 camp followers. The army entered Afghanistan on 14 April 1839. Kandahar fell without a struggle on 20 April. Shuja was proclaimed king on 8 May and marched toward Kabul on 27 June. The major confrontation took place in Ghazni on 23 July, when British forces swiftly overpowered the Afghan garrison. Abandoned by his followers, Dost Mohammad Barakzai (1826–1839; 1842–1863) the ruler of Kabul, fled to the northern region. Shuja entered Kabul on 8 August.
British and Afghan perceptions of the events differed considerably. The British officials attributed the initial absence of resistance to their military might. Afghans attributed Shuja's success to his legitimate claims and his skills at forging alliances. The British role was viewed as one of assistance rather than domination of Shuja; but it soon became evident that Shuja was no more than a tool for British power and that the British were keen to gain direct control of the affairs of the country. Armed resistance followed, reaching its peak in 1841. On 2 November 1841 Afghan forces attacked the British garrison in Kabul. On 6 January 1842 a British force of 16,500 evacuated the city but was attacked on the road to Jalalabad. Only one officer made it safely to tell the story of the army's destruction. Having spent 8 million pounds sterling on the conquest of Afghanistan, Britain judged the cost of conquest too high and decided to abandon its plans. To restore prestige, however, Britain sent a punitive expedition in 1842 that looted the city of Kabul, then returned to India at the end of December 1842. Dost Mohammad regained power.
By 1876, the Russian Empire had established itself as the paramount power in Central Asia. Alarmed at this expansion, Britain renewed plans to gain control of Afghanistan. Following a diplomatic squabble, British forces crossed into eastern Afghanistan on 21 November 1878, and in a treaty signed on 25 May 1878, gained their key objectives—one of which was the posting of British officials in Kabul. Afghan resentment grew at the increasing power of the British envoy, who was killed when his
embassy was burned down on 3 September 1879. British forces retaliated by taking over the city of Kabul on 5 October 1879, and unleashed a reign of terror in Kabul, Kandahar, and their surroundings. In December, the Afghan ulama (Islamic leaders) called for a jihad (holy war) against the British. By 14 December, the 10,281-strong British army in Kabul had been forced to withdraw to its cantonment. Afghan resistance in other locations was equally intense.
Shaken by the intensity of the opposition, British officials decided to withdraw from Afghanistan, but not before attempting to dismember the country into a number of principalities. Extensive campaigns against Afghans were undertaken. But the Afghan victory at the battle of Maiwand of 27 July 1880 shook the foundation of this policy. British forces were withdrawn from Kabul and its surroundings on 7 September 1880, and from Kandahar and its surroundings on 27 April 1881.
To prepare for the evacuation of Afghanistan, British officials carried on intensive negotiations with Afghan leaders. On 22 July 1880 they recognized Abd al-Rahman Khan, a grandson of Dost Mohammad, as the ruler of Afghanistan. He agreed in return to cede control of his country's foreign relations to the British. Some districts were also annexed to British India.
Domestic and international conditions were quite different at the onset of the third Anglo–Afghan war. Internally, Abd al-Rahman had bequeathed his son and successor Habibollah Khan a centralized state in 1901. During his rule (to 1919) a group of Afghan nationalists had also forged a conception of Afghan nationalism, emphasizing the need for full sovereignty. Britain appeared exhausted by its travails in World War I, and nationalists were actively challenging Britain's domination of India. The Russian Empire had collapsed in revolution and was in the throes of civil war. And in Central Asia, independent Muslim governments were emerging.
Habibollah was assassinated on 19 February 1919. His son, Amanollah Khan (1919–1929), succeeded him, after thwarting an uncle's claim to the throne. On 13 April 1919 Amanollah officially declared his country independent. Britain, however, refused to accept the unilateral declaration of independence. On 4 May 1919 the undeclared third Anglo–Afghan War began when two Afghan columns crossed into the North-West Frontier province of British India. Afghan troops were initially victorious, but the British responded by using their air force to bomb Kabul and Jalalabad. The duration of the clashes was brief, as both parties agreed on 24 May to end the hostilities. The willingness of the Pakhtun tribes in the North-West Frontier province of India to join their Afghan kinsmen against the British troops was a major factor in driving British officials to the negotiating table.
Diplomatic negotiations started in earnest after the end of hostilities, but it took three conferences before an agreement could be reached. By 8 December 1921, Britain had agreed to recognize the full independence of Afghanistan. The brief war had cost the British Empire some 16.5 million pounds. Persia, Turkey, and the Soviet Union were the first countries to recognize the fully independent Afghan state in 1920.
see also abd al-rahman khan; afghanistan; amanollah khan; britain and the middle east up to 1914; britain and the middle east from 1914 to the present; dost mohammad barakzai; great game, the; habibollah khan; herat; iran; nationalism; pushtun; russia and the middle east.
Adamec, Ludwig W. Afghanistan, 1900–1923: A Diplomatic History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.
Norris, J. A. The First Afghan War, 1838–1842. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1967.
Anglo–Afghan Treaty (1855)
ANGLO–AFGHAN TREATY (1855)
Peace treaty favoring the British.
Signed in 1855 in Peshawar for the British by Sir John Lawrence, chief commissioner of the Punjab, and for the Afghans by Ghulam Haider, the eldest son and heir apparent to Dost Mohammad, king of Afghanistan, the Anglo–Afghan peace treaty emphasized three points: mutual peace and friendship, respect for each other's territorial integrity, and a recognition that the enemies and friends of one country would be regarded as the enemies and friends of the other.
Most historians now believe that the treaty favored the British, who wanted to maintain the status quo in their relationship with the Afghans. Since the British defeat by the Afghans in the war of 1838–1842, the British had rapidly expanded their control over the Indian subcontinent and by 1855 their controlled area extended to the Afghan border. They wished, therefore, to reach an accommodation with the Afghans on potentially problematic border issues so that they would be left free to pursue military campaigns elsewhere.
Fletcher, Arnold. Afghanistan: Highway of Conquest. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1965.