Afghan Wars

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Afghan Wars

When the British Indian army invaded Afghanistan during the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838–1842), the country was a mere shadow of the mighty and feared Kingdom of Afghanistan of the eighteenth century. The demise of the Afghan state resulted partly from internal reasons, but it was mainly due to the loss of its traditional source of income—namely, raiding the wealthy neighboring lands of India and Iran. Both the Sikhs of the Panjab in the east and the Qajars of Persia in the west had managed to repel the Afghan assaults. As a result, the Afghan king, whose position among the Afghan tribes had never been strong, lacked the means to pay and bribe his subjects, and central authority virtually disappeared. The weak Afghan state was consequently perceived as vulnerable to outside influence.


The First Anglo-Afghan War resulted from British fear of growing Russian influence in Central Asia and the subsequent threat to Great Britain's Indian possessions. Since the eighteenth century, Russia had pushed its domain southward into the Caucasus and South Central Asia. This marked the start of the so-called Great Game, the struggle between the British and the Russians for control of the Indo-Afghan mountains.

The strife between Britain and Russia came to a head in November 1837 when the Russians supported their ally, the Iranian king, in his attempt to take the city of Herat from a local Afghan leader. The British regarded the Russian presence in the area as a serious threat and tried to force the Iranians and their Russian advisors to withdraw. The British succeeded in doing so in September 1838 following their naval attack on the island of Kharq in the Persian Gulf.

Before the Iranian withdrawal the British tried to convince the Afghan leader in Kabul, Amir Dust Muhammad Khan (1793–1863), not to side with the Iranians and Russians. Instead, they wanted him to conclude a treaty with their allies, the Sikhs. The Afghans could never accept such a demand, since they were still sensitive about the Sikh occupation of parts of the former Kingdom of Afghanistan, including Peshawar (1818) and Kashmir (1819). Although Dust Muhammad Khan had no intention of siding with the Russians, the British authorities decided he was a liability and needed to be replaced by another Afghan leader more amenable to British interests.

In the summer of 1838 the British asked the Sikhs and the former Afghan king, Shah Shuja (ca.1792–1842), to confirm their earlier agreements concerning the return of Shah Shuja to Kabul. On October 1, 1838, Lord Auckland (George Eden, 1784–1849) issued the Simla Manifesto, which called for the removal of Dust Muhammad Khan and the reinstatement of Shah Shuja. British troops, supported by Sikh units, occupied much of Afghanistan, including Kabul, during the spring and summer of 1839 and put Shah Shuja on the Afghan throne. The British were initially successful, but later were confronted by local resistance throughout the country. Eventually the British were forced to evacuate their cantonment in Kabul and start their famous "retreat from Kabul" in January 1842.

Most of the sixteen thousand troops were either killed or taken prisoner. Shah Shuja was killed by his own subjects in Kabul. The British quickly reoccupied Kabul in the summer of 1842, but it was clear that they could never hold Afghanistan without heavy costs. The British now wanted a relatively strong Afghanistan that was friendly to them and that would resist the Russians. The decision was made to withdraw permanently and to allow Dust Muhammad Khan, whom the British now regarded as the only Afghan leader with enough influence to build up central control and pacify the country, to return from exile and regain the Afghan throne.

In the ensuing years the British maintained a policy of "masterly inactivity," without any interference in the affairs of the Afghans. However, during this time British dominion spread to the foot of the Afghan mountain passes, including the town of Peshawar. Simultaneously, Russian influence in South Central Asia also spread. Tashkent was occupied in 1865, Samarqand in 1868, and the emirate of Bukhara was made into a Russian protectorate in 1869, while Khiva fell in 1873 and Kokand in 1876. The weakened state of Afghanistan seemed destined to fall, either to the British or the Russians.


In 1874 a new government in London, led by Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881), adopted a more aggressive stance in India and appointed a strong-minded governor general. In an atmosphere of growing tension, a Russian delegation, apparently uninvited, visited Kabul in July 1878. The British issued an ultimatum asking for equal rights of access to Kabul. When this ultimatum was rejected, the British crossed the border and thereby started the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878–1879).

The Afghans were quickly defeated, and the war was concluded with the Treaty of Gandamak (May 29, 1879). The treaty included the stipulation that Afghanistan would remain an independent nation, but would conduct its foreign policy via the British rulers in India in lieu of regular subsidies and a British guarantee regarding the security of the country.

In the summer of 1879 a British embassy under Major Pierre Louis Cavagnari (1841–1879) was sent to Kabul, but shortly afterwards (September 1879), it was wiped out by an angry Afghan mob. The British felt compelled to occupy Kabul, but again realized that a permanent occupation of the country was too costly. British troops eventually withdrew from Afghanistan in 1881, leaving behind a young and ruthless ruler, Abdur Rakhman Khan (ca. 1844–1901). Under the protection of the British and under the stipulations of the Treaty of Gandamak, Abdur Rakhman Khan quickly modernized the country and built up central authority.

The relationship between the Afghans, British, and Russians was initially precarious. In 1885 the Russians defeated an Afghan garrison in Panjdeh, in the northwest of the country. This led to considerable tension. Eventually the British refused to help the Afghans, although they were obligated to do so. The relations with the Russians slowly improved after a treaty was signed that demarcated the northwestern borders of the country. In later years the complete borderline of Afghanistan was chartered by British officers; often in full cooperation with the Russians. Afghanistan was made into a buffer state separating British India from Russia.


The Great Game came to an end in 1907 when the Russians and British signed the Anglo-Russian Convention, thereby dividing their respective political and commercial spheres of interest in Iran and Afghanistan. Complete independence only came to Afghanistan in 1919 with the Third Anglo-Afghan War.

Following the collapse of Russia and World War I, the Afghans wanted their full independence, which the British were reluctant to grant. Although the Afghans proved no match to the British, the latter did not want to fight another war. After about one month and the bombing of the emir's palace in Kabul, the British agreed to the Peace Treaty of Rawalpindi (August 8, 1919), which was followed by the Anglo-Afghan Treaty of November 22, 1921. This treaty stipulated the complete independence of Afghanistan.

see also Anglo-Russian Rivalry in the Middle East; British India and the Middle East.


Adamec, Ludwig W. Historical Dictionary of Afghanistan, 3rd ed. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2003.

Hopkirk, Peter. The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia. London: Murray, 1990.

Vogelsang, Willem. The Afghans. Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002.