Anglo-Afghan Wars: War One (1838–1842)

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Anglo-Afghan Wars: War One (1838–1842)

Throughout the nineteenth century, the British government watched with concern as the Russian empire expanded across Central Asia. The British hoped to enlist the Persian government in what soon came to be known as the "Great Game," the Anglo-Russian rivalry for control of the strategic approaches to India. However, when Britain had declined to aid Persia during its own conflict with Russia in 1826, Persia chose to entertain Russian diplomats in Tehran in 1838, launching what Britain assumed to be a Russian-inspired attempt to seize Herat, the gateway to southern Afghanistan and thence to India via the Bolan Pass.

Related events in the Afghan capital, Kabul, the northern gateway to India via the Khyber Pass, gave further cause for alarm. By 1835, the Afghan amir, Dost Mohammad Barakzai, had finally thwarted the efforts of his predecessor, Shah Shuja Sadozai, to reclaim the country Dost Mohammad had seized from him almost a decade earlier. Only Herat was still in Sodozai hands, but Ranjit Singh, Shah Shuja's Sikh ally, had taken Peshawar for himself. In 1837and 1838, Dost Mohammad assured a visiting British East India Company envoy, Alexander Burnes, that he would welcome an alliance with the British if the company returned Peshawar to him. Because Ranjit Singh was then a close ally of the company, Burnes could hold out little hope for such a concession, leaving a disappointed Dost Mohammad open to a "treaty" with the Persians and Russians.

A Russian diplomatic mission arrived in Kabul just as Burnes was departing. On his return to India, Burnes used news of the Russian mission to encourage the governor-general, Lord Auckland, to do whatever was necessary to secure an alliance with Dost Mohammad. However, the Russophobic Auckland and his political secretary, William Macnaghten, were convinced that this Russian presence in Kabul constituted a threat to India. In the spring of 1838, Auckland dispatched an Indian force to take the Persian island of Karrak, and that July, he laid plans to forcibly replace Dost Mohammad. This was to be accomplished by a tripartite alliance between the East India Company, Ranjit Singh, and Shah Shuja. The latter, a now pliant and penniless exile in India, pledged to supply Auckland's government with troops to help reinstall him as amir in Kabul, where he promised he would be warmly welcomed. Auckland regarded the idea of installing a willing client like Shah Shuja in Kabul as too good an opportunity to miss, and on 10 December 1838, he ordered his British and Afghan "Army of the Indus" into Afghanistan. Ranjit Singh refused to let that army pass through his state, so it entered Afghanistan by crossing Sind and entering the country through the Bolan Pass.

By August 1839, the Army of the Indus had fought its way to Kabul, installed a less-than-welcome Shah Shuja as amir, and accepted the surrender of Dost Mohammad, who was sent into exile in India. Auckland, lauded as a hero in Britain, was given an earldom. Macnaghten, then serving as the British political agent in Kabul, was rewarded with the governorship of Bombay; however, before he could leave to assume his new post, conditions in Afghanistan deteriorated.

In the fall of 1841, an insurgent war led by Dost Mohammad's son, Akbar Khan, made Macnaghten desperately call for reenforcements. Auckland, pressed for money elsewhere, not only denied this request, but also cut the British subsidies to the Afghan leaders Macnaghten was employing to keep Akbar Khan at bay. These decisions triggered an uprising in Kabul that led to the murder of Macnaghten and Alexander Burnes, then serving as his assistant. It also paralyzed the Army of the Indus. In January 1842, its Kabul garrison was forced to withdraw to its similarly hard-pressed garrison in Jalalabad. The retreating British-Indian units, some 16,000 soldiers and camp followers, were ambushed by Afghans in the Khurd-Kabul Pass; only one wounded doctor survived to reach Jalalabad. One hundred other hostages had been taken by Akbar Khan.

Auckland had by then been replaced by Lord Ellenborough, who dispatched a British column to retake Kandahar and another to retake Kabul. They completed their missions and linked up in the Afghan capital. There they secured the release of the survivors of the Army of the Indus, blew up the commercial and administrative heart of the city, called the Bala Hisar, and then returned to India. Shah Shuja, who had remained in Kabul, was assassinated in April 1842. Dost Mohammad Khan returned to Afghanistan the following year. He ruled as amir until his death twenty years later.

Marc Jason Gilbert

See alsoAfghanistan ; Auckland, Lord


Iqbal, Afzal. Circumstances Leading to the First Afghan War. Lahore: Research Society of Pakistan, 1975.

Kaye, John W. History of the War in Afghanistan. 3 vols. London: W. H. Allen, 1851.

McCrory, Patrick. The Retreat from Kabul. Guilford, Conn.: Lyons Press, 2002.

Norris, John Alfred. The First Afghan War. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1967.

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Anglo-Afghan Wars: War One (1838–1842)

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