Dost Mohammed Khan is remembered as a powerful and charismatic ruler who reigned over Afghanistan from 1826 until his death in 1863 and made significant attempts to unite the troubled country.
The times in which he ruled were turbulent in Afghanistan because rival clans struggled for power against one another, even as various members of those clans fought among themselves as they attempted to gain ascendancy by unseating those who were already in power.
Dost Mohammed’s reign also coincided with the period in which Great Britain and Russia were vying for control of Asian lands that they had identified as essential to their expansionist goals.
From the beginning, Dost, which means “friend,” was faced with repeated attempts to unseat him that arose from the jealousy of his numerous brothers and nephews. His most serious rival was Shah Shujah al-Moolk, the Afghan king and cousin whom he had deposed.
Their rivalry was part of the continuing battle for power in Afghanistan that existed between two branches of the Durrani clan. Shah Shujah represented the Saddozai, while Dost was a member of the rival Barakzai clan. When Shujah left Afghanistan, he took his entire harem and royal jewels, including the famous Koh-i-noor diamond.
Once in power, Dost Mohammed declared himself the Amir-al-momineen of Afghanistan, the “Commander of the Faithful,” which allowed him to exercise almost totalitarian power. In order to protect himself from his numerous enemies, the Dost set up his power base in Kabul and surrounded himself with a limited bureaucracy composed of his sons and matrimonial allies.
This move also eradicated a good deal of the crime and corruption that had flourished under previous monarchs. He also banned the sale of alcohol and intoxicating drugs and curtailed gambling and prostitution.
In 1834 his rival Shah Shujah began a revolt against Dost, who was victorious, but was unable to regain control of Peshawar, which had been taken by the Sikhs. To gain support, Dost Mohammed encouraged his subjects to view his campaign against the Sikhs as a jihad (holy war).
On April 30, 1837, an Afghan force of some 30,000 men and 50 cannons faced the Sikhs in the Battle of Jamrud. When the battle was over, the Afghans had lost 1,000 men, but the cost to the Sikhs had been twice that. Despite the Afghan victory, Sikh leader Ranjit Singh retained his hold on Peshawar.
However, Dost Mohammed had succeeded in establishing a regular Afghan army for the first time. This army was made more powerful by the use of the long-barreled muskets made by Kabul gunsmiths that were better than the guns used by the British army in India.
With Dost in firm control of Afghanistan, both the British and Russians began to court his favor. Generally, Dost favored British efforts to block Russian and Persian advances. However, he was also willing to turn to the Russians if the British failed to meet his demands.
The British government then dispatched Sir Alexander Burnes to Afghanistan to meet with Dost and agreed to return Peshawar to Afghanistan to promote stability on the frontier.
In 1857 Dost concluded a comprehensive alliance with the British by which he received an annual subsidy from Britain, although he remained neutral when the Indian Mutiny occurred in 1857. Britain became convinced that he presented a threat to British control of India.
Subsequently, Britain attacked Afghanistan and convinced various chiefs to support them against Dost Mohammed. With diminishing forces, Dost was soon reduced to fighting with only a couple of hundred men. Eventually, he tired of living the life of a fugitive and surrendered in 1840.
The British treated him with full respect and installed him and his family in a mansion. However, his ambitious son Akbar refused to join them, attacked Kabul, and slaughtered 16,000 British soldiers and the English there. Finally, Britain decided to restore Dost to power, but to implement a hands-off policy in Afghan affairs.
In May 1863 Dost conquered the City of Herat, unifying the remaining areas of Afghanistan under one rule, but he never recovered Peshawar, which is now part of northwestern Pakistan. Dost was succeeded by his fifth son, Sher Ali Khan, but he was challenged by his brothers and Afghanistan continued to be wracked by civil wars.