First and Second Afghan Wars

First Afghan Wars
First Afghan Wars

The two Afghan wars were caused by the growing rivalry for control of Central Asia between the Russian Empire and the British Empire. Because Afghanistan was the largest organized state in the Central Asian region, it became the main focus for both countries in what the British poet Rudyard Kipling would call the “Great Game.” The Great Game actually began during the Napoleonic Wars.

In 1810, while the British duke of Wellington was fighting the French in Spain, Captain Charles Christie and Lieutenant Henry Pottinger of the 5th Bombay Native Infantry Regiment left the village of Nushki in Baluchistan for their role in the game.

On April 18 Christie reached Herat, while Pottinger pursued his own mission in Persia. Finally, on June 30, 1810, the two agents were reunited in Isfahan, Persia, with both missions accomplished.


Over the next 25 years other British agents would follow Christie and Pottinger on great treks into Central Asia. Afghanistan was seen as the vital buffer state against the advance of the Russians and, while the British did not always desire to add Afghanistan to their empire, they always hoped that the ruler of the Afghans, the amir, would lend his support to them instead of the Russians.

The British concerns were realized in December 1837 when a Cossack leader arrived carrying a letter from Czar Nicholas I of the Romanov dynasty for the Afghan amir, Dost Mohammed. At the same time, Kabul was visited by a British officer named Alexander Burnes, who had served with the Bombay army.

By this time, Persia was allied to Russia. George Eden, Lord Auckland, and his chief secretary, Henry Macnaghten, suspected that Dost Mohammed had sided with the Russians. Having ascended the throne in June of 1837, Queen Victoria was now presented with the first serious crisis of her reign.

Ultimately, nothing would suit Auckland and Macnaghten other than a regime change in Kabul. In February 1839 the British Army of the Indus, under the command of Sir John Keane of the Bombay Army, began its march for Kabul. In the beginning, Auckland’s expectations that Dost Mohammed’s rule could not survive appeared to be justified.

In July 1839 the fortress of Ghazni fell before a furious British assault and Dost Mohammed’s forces melted away. Meanwhile, the Afghans faced a combined Sikh-British expedition coming up from Peshawar. In August 1839 Shah Shuja was crowned again the amir in Kabul, and Dost Mohammed sued for peace.

Macnaghten lacked the temperament to deal with the tribesmen and, in 1841, slashed the subsidies that had earned their loyalty to Shah Shuja. As young officers pursued inappropriate and culturally serious affronts to Afghan women, relations worsened further. The British commander, Major-General William Elphinstone, lacked both the ability and the courage to face the mounting crisis.

By the end of November all Macnaghten and Elphinstone could think of was retreat. On December 11 Macnaghten met with Dost Mohammed’s son Akbar Khan to make final a British withdrawal. At a second meeting on December 23, Macnaghten was taken by surprise and killed. Elphinstone continued planning for the retreat from Kabul, which began on January 6, 1842.

The British and Indian troops were harassed and sometimes attacked by the Afghans along every foot of their retreat. On January 13, the last European finally reached safety at the British post of Jalalabad. Shah Shuja himself had been assassinated.

In February 1842 Edward Law, Lord Ellenborough, replaced the unlucky Auckland as the area’s governor-general, and plans were made to avenge their fallen countrymen. A punitive force commanded by Major-General George Pollock of the Bengal army entered Afghanistan again. Despite fierce resistance from Akbar Khan’s forces, Pollock reentered Kabul in September 1842.

Having made their point, the British evacuated Kabul again in December 1842 and this time reached British territory safely. The British permitted Dost Mohammed to take back the throne, but the overall aim of the war had been achieved—Afghanistan remained in the British camp and the Russian plans were thwarted.

During the next 40 years the British and Russian Empires continued their seemingly inexorable advance toward one another through Central Asia. During the Sikh Wars, the British defeated the once independent realm of the Sikhs in the Punjab, firmly adding it to their growing Indian Empire.

Afghan Warior
Afghan Warior
Although British rule was shaken during the Indian Mutiny of 1857–58, the attention of the British was still focused on the ambitions of the Russians to the north and west. With the assumption of direct British rule in the aftermath of the mutiny, real decision-making shifted decisively from the British governors-general in India to London.

The Great Game was definitely on again, if it ever had stopped. In 1877 the Russians went to war with Turkey and although the Congress of Berlin in 1878 promised peace, the stage was set for another confrontation over Afghanistan.

Those who supported the aggressive Forward Policy against Russia, including Robert Bulwer-Lytton, the viceroy, demanded action be taken against Afghanistan. On November 3, 1878, British diplomat Neville Chamberlain appeared at the Khyber Pass to demand passage for his delegation to enter Kabul. Afghan border troops turned him back. On November 21 the British crossed the border into Afghanistan, 39 years after the first British invasion.

As before, the Afghans were in no position to withstand the determined advance. In Kabul, Sher Ali relinquished his throne to his son Yakub Khan. After a winter of guerrilla war, Yakub Khan realized that making peace with the British was the best policy.

In May 1879 Yakub Khan accepted a permanent British resident (who would actually serve as the real power in the country) in Kabul, Sir Louis Cavagnari. In July 1879 Cavagnari made his entrance into the Afghan capital.

In September mutinous Afghan troops killed Cavagnari. Although he had requested aid from Yakub Khan, the request was ignored, leaving the impression that the troops attacked the British with at least the unspoken agreement of the amir.

When news of the massacre reached India, MajorGeneral Frederick Roberts was given command of the Kabul Field Force in order to lead a quick British response to attempt to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan before the Russians might be tempted to take advantage of the British defeat.

Yakub Khan’s troops made a stand at the Shutargardan Pass, but a determined British push cleared them away. Yakub Khan, chagrined at Roberts’s determination, decided to make peace. However, the danger was far from past, and on October 5, 1879, Roberts was forced to fight another engagement with the Afghans.

The British now faced hostility from a different quarter. A Muslim holy man, Mushkh-i-Alam, preached a jihad, an Islamic holy war, against the British. This put the British force at Kandahar in peril. Once news reached them, Roberts began to gather a relief column to rescue them and his hard-pressed garrison at Kandahar.

Within two weeks Roberts set out with a force of 10,000 men. On August 31, 1880, after a march of 21 days, Roberts broke Ayub Khan’s siege of Kandahar. The next day Roberts decisively defeated him in open battle. With the relief of Kandahar the Second Afghan War came to a close.

Ayub Khan and Yakub Khan were both tainted by their treachery in British eyes, and Abdul Rahman, their cousin, became the amir in Kabul. Twice in 40 years the British had asserted their primacy in Kabul and won another round in the Great Game against the Russians.