Anglo-Afghan Wars: War Two (1878–1880)

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Anglo-Afghan Wars: War Two (1878–1880)

The Afghan amir, Shir Ali, had barely survived a prolonged war of succession that followed the death of his father, Dost Mohammad, in 1863. In the 1870s, he sought to avoid repetition of that struggle by allying himself with the British East India Company which, in return for his following its guidance in foreign affairs, would guarantee his country's independence, providing British arms and money in the event of a Russian invasion, and recognizing his lineage's claim to the throne of Kabul. These terms, however, were twice rejected by Britain's Liberal governments in London as an unwarranted and costly expansion of imperial commitments. Thus rebuffed, Shir Ali sought similar terms from Russia, sparking another Anglo-Afghan confrontation.

Benjamin Disraeli's British Conservative Party ousted William Gladstone's Liberals in the elections of 1877, just prior to the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 to 1879. The new Conservative government was committed to a more active imperial policy and was in no mood to permit Afghanistan to slip under Russian influence. It directed the Indian viceroy, Lord Lytton, to send a mission to Kabul that would offer Shir Ali the alliance he had long desired, though it would also provide for a British Resident in Herat. Lytton's demand that Shir Ali receive a British mission and Resident was matched by a Russian demand that he receive a mission led by General Count Stolietoff.

Caught between two such powerful suitors, Shir Ali sought to keep both at bay, declining to receive either mission. He turned back the British mission at the Khyber Pass, but was not able to prevent an unbidden Russian delegation from forcing its way into Kabul. Rightly fearing that its arrival would alienate the British, Shir Ali sought from the visiting Russians a pledge to defend his country from British attack. Soon after, Stolietoff withdrew from Kabul, but too late for Shir Ali to meet an ultimatum from Lytton that he receive a British mission by 20 November 1878. Shir Ali's reply was dated 19 November, but reached Lytton only at the month's end.

On 21 November, Lytton launched a multipronged invasion of Afghanistan, quickly occupying the country; facing exile, Shir Ali died in Mazar-i-Sharif in February 1879. By the Treaty of Gandamak in May of that year, Shir Ali's sole surviving son, Yaqub Khan, was placed on his throne under the watchful eye of Lytton's agent, Louis Cavanagri, who was expected to dominate Afghan affairs after the fashion of a Resident in an Indian state. Four months later, Cavanagri was killed in an Afghan insurgency that for a second time made a shambles of what initially seemed a great British military and political success in that country. On this occasion, however, the British military response was rapid and decisive. General Frederick Roberts brutally suppressed the Afghan resistance around Kabul. With logistical help from Shir Ali's nephew, Abdor Rahman, Roberts rushed to Kandahar, where, on 29 July 1880, Ayub Khan, the brother of the now discredited Yaqub Khan, had crushed a British force at Maiwand, just outside that city. Roberts defeated Ayub's forces there in September, after which Abdor Rahman drove Ayub out of Herat and into exile in India. But in April 1881, under orders of the newly returned Liberal government, Roberts handed Kandahar, and effectively the rest of the country, over to Abdor Rahman, who was then confirmed as amir. The new amir pledged to have no relations with Russia, and received an annual subsidy, which he used to start transforming his tribal state into a nation.

Marc Jason Gilbert

See alsoAfghanistan


Hanna, Henry B. The Second Afghan War: Its Causes, Its Conduct and Its Consequences. Westminster, U.K.: Constable, 1899.

O'Balance, Edgar. Afghan Wars: 1839 to the Present Day. London: Brassey's, 2002.

Roberts, Lord Frederick. Forty-one Years in India. 2 vols. London: Bentley, 1897.

Robson, Brian. Road to Kabul: The Second Afghan War, 1878–1881. Staplehurst, U.K.: Spellmount Publishers, 2003.

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Anglo-Afghan Wars: War Two (1878–1880)

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