The three Anglo-Afghan Wars (1839-1919) saw Great Britain, operating out of its base in India, wanting to control the neighboring Afghanistan to oppose Russian influence there. The first war was of great significance historically for Afghanistan and the British. Read here to learn more.
The Anglo-Afghan wars were a direct result of the Great game between Great Britain and Russia which began in 1830.
The British were concerned about Russian advances in Central Asia. England used Afghanistan as a buffer state to protect all approaches to British India from a Russian invasion.
British concern about the Russian influence on Afghanistan led to the First Anglo-Afghan War (from 1838 to 1842) and the Second Anglo-Afghan War (from 1878 to 1880). The Third Anglo-Afghan War began in May 1919 and lasted for a month.
Great Britain no longer had control of Afghanistan’s foreign affairs after an armistice was signed on August 8, 1919.
A brief history of Afghanistan
Afghanistan was an important crossroads, dominated by other civilizations throughout its history.
The Gandhara kingdom (1500-530 BCE) was centered around the Peshawar valley and Swat River valley, and westwards towards Kabul.
By 522 BCE Darius, the Great extended the boundaries of the Persian Empire into most of the region that is now Afghanistan.
By 330 BCE Alexander, the Great conquered Persia and Afghanistan. Seleucus, a Macedonian officer during Alexander’s campaign, declared himself ruler of his own Seleucid Empire, which also included present-day Afghanistan.
The region became was attacked by the Mauryan empire during Chandragupta Maurya’s reign. Seleucus and Chandragupta signed a peace treaty thus stopping the Mauryans at the Hindukush.
The Ghaznavid and Ghurid dynasties ruled the region from 997 to the Mongol invasions in 1221. Later Timur incorporated the areas into the Timurid empire with the city of Herat as the capital.
Babur also used Kabul as military headquarters from 1504, from where he launched into the Indian subcontinent.
After centuries of invasions the nation finally began to take shape during the 18th century under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Durrani.
By 1736 Persian ruler Nader Shah gained control of most of the region that is present-day Afghanistan. He was assassinated in 1747.
After his death, Ahmad Shah Durrani was chosen to be the ruler of Afghanistan. Durrani extended Afghanistan’s borders into India during the 1760s.
First Anglo-Afghan War (1838-43)
The British and Russian empires competed diplomatically for areas of influence in South Asia throughout the 19th century.
The Afghans were in constant conflict with the Sikh kingdom which had conquered Peshawar. The unstable condition in the Afghan and Sindh regions along with the increasing power of the Sikh kingdom made the British fear attacks from the northwest frontier.
Meanwhile, Dost Muhammad, the amir of Durrani empire was in talks with Russians to contain the Sikhs.
The British East India Company sent envoys to Kabul for an alliance against Russia. Kabul demanded the restoration of Peshawar captured by the Sikh kingdom. The British were unsure of their power to deal with the Sikhs and hence refused Kabul’s demand.
1838: Great Britain, concerned about growing Persian and Russian influences, invaded Afghanistan. The invasion was ordered by Lord Auckland who was governor general at that time. He was in support of restoring the exiled Afghan ruler Shah Shoja to the throne of Kabul.
1839: The British in a surprise attack captured the fortress of Ghazni. The British effortlessly marched into Kabul and restored Shah Shoja to the throne of Kabul.
The Afghans could not tolerate a foreign occupation or a king imposed on them by a foreign power, hence uprisings broke out.
After fleeing to Balkh and then Bukhara, where he was captured, Dost Mohammad managed to escape from jail and returned to Afghanistan to join his partisans in fighting the British.
1840: Dost Muhammad had the upper hand in a fight at Parwan in 1840, but the next day he submitted to the British in Kabul. He and the majority of his family were sent back to India.
1842: The uprisings continued and the British found to hard to contain the Afghans, hence they decided to retreat. The whole English camp marched out of Kabul but was swarmed by bands of Afghans, and the retreat ended in a bloodbath. Shoja was also killed in Kabul as he was unpopular among the Afghans.
1843: The new governor-general of India, Lord Ellenborough, decided on the evacuation of Afghanistan, and in 1843 Dost Moḥammad returned to Kabul and was restored to the throne.
The British were earlier aiming to attack Punjab as well but were countered by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. But his death in 1839 caused the Sikh kingdom to fall apart. Thus, the end of the First Anglo-Afghan war gave way to a series of Anglo-Sikh wars (1845-49).
1855: A treaty of friendship (Treaty of Peshawar) was signed between British India and Dost Mohammed of Kabul. The treaty was a ‘policy of non-interference’.
Dost Mohammed stayed loyal to the treaty and refused to help the rebels during the ‘Revolt of 1857’.
1856: After the Crimean War, Russia turned its attention towards Central Asia yet again.
After 1864, the British started strengthening Afghanistan as a powerful buffer state. They helped the Amir of Kabul is disciplining the internal rivals. The non-interference and occasional help stopped Afghanistan from aligning with Russia.
- This policy of the British in Afghanistan is called the “policy of masterly inactivity”.
Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80)
The policy of non-interference did not last long. The 1870s saw a resurgence of imperialism and the Anglo-Russian rivalry intensified. Their commercial and financial interest in Central Asia clashed openly in the Balkans and West Asia.
Lord Lytton was named governor-general of India by British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in 1875. Lytton was given orders to either combat the rising Russian influence in Afghanistan at the time of his appointment or use force to establish a secure border.
Sometime after Lytton’s arrival in India, he informed Sher Ali Khan, Dost Mohammad’s third son and the heir apparent that he was dispatching a “mission” to Kabul. Lytton’s request to enter Afghanistan was denied by the emir.
Lytton did not begin attacking the kingdom until 1878, when Afghan forces turned back Lytton’s envoy, Sir Neville Chamberlain, at the frontier while General Stolyetov of Russia was allowed entry into Kabul.
1878: The British attacked Afghanistan. Sher Ali fled his capital and country and died in exile early in 1879. The British occupied Kabul.
Sher Ali’s son, Yakub Khan signed the ‘Treaty of Gandamak’ for peace in 1879 and he was recognized as the amir.
- He subsequently agreed to receive a permanent British embassy in Kabul.
- In addition, he agreed to conduct his foreign relations with other states in accordance with the advice of the British government.
1879: The Afghan rebels rose against foreign interference and the British envoy, Sir Louis Cavagnari, and his escort were murdered in Kabul.
British again occupied Kabul in retaliation while Yakub Khan abdicated the throne.
1880: Lor Ripon replaces Lytton as the governor-general and went back to the policy of non-interference.
Meanwhile, Abdur Rahman, nephew of Sher Ali and cousin of Yakub Khan was recognized as the new Amir. He agreed to maintain relations only with the British and no other foreign powers.
British got full control of Afghanistan’s foreign affairs and the Amir became a dependent ruler.
1893: The Durand line was drawn as the boundaries of modern Afghanistan by the British and the Russians. The line is named after the British civil servant Sir Henry Mortimer Durand who marked the line.
- Durand Line cut through Pashtun villages and has been the cause of continuing conflict between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Battle of Saragarhi (1897)
The Battle of Saragarhi was fought on 12 September 1897, in the then North-West Frontier Province of British India, (now in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan).
- The conflict was concentrated on the Saragarhi garrison which was a communication post between Fort Lockhart and Fort Gulistan.
- The post was defended by 21 Sikh soldiers of the 36th Sikhs regiment of the British Indian Army against soldiers of Pashtun, and Orakzai tribes, more than 8 to 10 thousand in numbers.
The Battle of Saragarhi is considered one of the finest last stands in the military history of the world.
Third Anglo-Afghan War (1919)
The removal of Russian influence and anti-British sentiments made the new ruler of Afghanistan Amanullah Khan declared total independence from Britain.
This declaration launched the inconclusive Third Anglo-Afghan War in May 1919.
Fighting was confined to a series of skirmishes between an ineffective Afghan army and a British Indian army exhausted from the heavy demands of World War I.
A peace treaty, ‘The Treaty of Rawalpindi’ was signed in recognition of the independence of Afghanistan.
- British saw a strategic victory as the Durand line was reaffirmed as border between Afghanistan and British Raj.
- Afghanistan saw a diplomatic victory with full independence and sovereignty in foreign affairs.
The final amended treaty was signed in 1921 before which the Afghans concluded a treaty of friendship with the new Bolshevik regime in the Soviet Union.
- Afghanistan thereby became one of the first states to recognize the Soviet government, and a “special relationship” evolved between the two governments that lasted until December 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan during the Afghan War.
Impact of Anglo-Afghan Wars
The Anglo-Afghan wars resulted in a botched boundary between Afghanistan and present-day Pakistan which is causing major trouble in the region even today.
In Afghanistan, to this very day, no foreigners are viewed with as much suspicion as the British, but the shadows of the wars still remain.
-Article written by Swathi Satish