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Afghanistan as flashpoint

Afghanistan becomes a new factor on the imperial scene when it is united under Dost Mohammed, who in 1837 takes the formal title of amir. Since the time of Peter the Great, in the early 18th century, Russia has been interested in developing a direct trading link with India. This means the need for a friendly or puppet regime in Afghanistan. But the idea of Russian influence in this region (the only neighbouring territory with easy access to Britain's Indian empire) inevitably rings alarm bells in London.

Dost Mohammed finds himself courted by both sides. A British mission is in Kabul in 1837. While discussions are under way, a Russian envoy also arrives and is received by the amir.


The British immediately break off negotiations and are ordered to leave Kabul. The response of the governor-general of India, Lord Auckland, is forceful but in the event extremely unwise. He uses the rebuff as a pretext for an invasion of Afghanistan, in 1838, with the intention of restoring a ruler from the Durrani dynasty (Shah Shuja, on the throne from 1803 to 1809) who has shown himself to be more malleable.

This is the first of three occasions on which the British attempt to impose their political will on Afghanistan. All three attempts prove disastrous.


Two Anglo-Afghan Wars: 1838-1842 and 1878-81

In December 1838 a British army is assembled in India for an Afghan campaign. By April 1839, after a difficult advance under constant harassment from tribal guerrillas, the city of Kandahar is captured. Here Britain's chosen puppet ruler, Shah Shuja, is crowned in a mosque. Four months later Kabul is taken and Shah Shuja is crowned again.

By the end of 1840 the rightful amir, Dost Mohammed, is a prisoner of the British. He and his family are sent into exile into India. But the British garrisons in Afghan towns find it increasingly difficult to control proud tribesmen, up in arms at this foreign intrusion in their affairs.


In January 1842 the British garrison of some 4500 troops withdraws from Kabul, leaving Shah Shuja to his fate (he is soon assassinated). Most of the retreating British and Indian soldiers are also killed during their attempt to regain the safety of India.

A British army recaptures Kabul during the summer of 1842, more as a gesture of defiance than as a matter of practical policy - for the decision is subsequently taken to restore Dost Mohammed to his throne. He returns from India in 1843 and rules peacefully, without further British interference, for another twenty years. He extends his territory, by the end of his reign, as far west as Herat.


Dost Mohammed is succeeded by his third son Sher Ali, after some years of bitter family feuding. It is Sher Ali's perceived leaning towards Russia which again provokes British hostility. Evoking memories of his father's offence in 1837, he welcomes a Russian mission to Kabul in 1878 and on this occasion even rejects a British one.

In November 1878 three British armies push through the mountain passes into Afghanistan. They take Jalalabad and Kandahar by the end of the year, and soon seem to have achieved everything they might wish for. A very advantageous treaty is agreed in May 1879 with Yakub Khan (the son of Sher Ali, who has died in February).


Under the treaty Yakub Khan accepts a permanent British embassy in Kabul. Moreover Afghanistan's foreign affairs are from now on to be conducted by the British. But events soon prove that such a privilege can be dangerous in Afghanistan. In September the British envoy to Kabul and his entire staff and escort are massacred.

This disaster brings an immediate escalation of British military activity in Afghanistan, but to little political advantage. Yakub Khan is exiled to India. In his place the British have to accept Abdurrahman Khan, a rival grandson of Dost Mohammed and the popular choice of the Afghan tribes as their amir.


Abdurrahman has spent ten years in exile during the reign of his uncle Sher Ali, having been on the losing side in the bitter family war of succession. But his chosen place of exile does not chime well with British interests. He has been in the Russian empire, in Samarkand, acquainting himself with Russian methods of administration.

In 1880 Britain accepts Abdurrahman as amir of Kabul, agreeing at the same time not to demand residence for a British envoy anywhere in Afghanistan. When British troops finally withdraw in 1881 (having meanwhile helped Abdurrahman against some rebellious cousins), the political achievement of two costly wars against Russian interference seems on the debit side. But at least Abdurrahman proves an excellent amir.


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