Few regions in the Muslim world have seen as much warfare in modern times as Afghanistan. Foreign interventions and invasions have been an almost constant threat to the nation since the early 1800s. The Soviet Union in the 1980s and the United States in the 2000s experienced what it means to fight in Afghanistan’s unforgiving environment, but the first Western power to foray into the region was Britain. Back in the 1800s, when Britain was just solidifying its control over India, it looked to the northwest, to Afghanistan, to serve as a buffer to the growing Russian Empire. The result was the First Anglo-Afghan War, which lasted from 1839 to 1842.
Throughout history, Afghanistan and the surrounding region has been marked by ethnic and tribal divisions. Pashtuns dominate the East and South of the country, the center is mostly Hazara, and the Turkmen, Uzbeks, and Tajiks can be found throughout the North. Each group has historically had their own identity, culture, language, and loyalties, and thus any kind of national unity among the numerous ethnic groups has been hard to come by. Furthermore, since the rise of the gunpowder empires in the sixteenth century, Afghanistan has served as a point of contention between Safavid Persia to the west and Mughal India to the east.
Despite the ethnic divisions and the almost constant state of imperial war, the first Afghan state began to take shape in the late 1700s under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Durrani (r. 1747-1772), who established a kingdom based in Kandahar that managed to survive between the Mughal and Safavid realms. He relied mostly on the Pashtuns for support, but he also included the other ethnic groups of the region in his administration, thus preventing his kingdom from falling into ethnic civil war.
But the Afghan state founded by Ahmad Shah soon had to deal with the rise of the British and Russian Empires in the 1800s. The British East India Company had managed to use a combination of patronage, bribery, and outright warfare to bring large tracts of India under its control in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Meanwhile, the Russian Empire slowly annexed large portions of Central Asia’s Turkic khanates that bordered Afghanistan to the north.
To the British, the growth of Russia was a threat. They worried that if the Russians continued to expand southward, they could use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack British India. With the Himalaya Mountains providing a secure northern border to India, the only way for an overland invasion was through mountain passes high in the Afghan-controlled Hindu Kush Mountains. Indeed, this had been the main entry point for numerous invasions into India throughout history.
The British thus tried to use Afghanistan as a buffer against Russian expansion in the 1830s. The emir (equivalent to king) of Afghanistan at the time was Dost Mohammad Khan, who ruled from the city of Kabul in the east of Afghanistan, close to the passes that lead to India. If Dost Mohammad could keep the Russians from invading Afghanistan, the British would feel more secure in India, thus they hoped for peaceful relations between the Afghans and the Russians and no warfare.
Dost Mohammad’s diplomatic skills were lacking, however, and in the late 1830s, the Russians allied with the Persians against the Afghans under the pretext of regaining the city of Herat for Persia. At this point, the British decided that any hopes of diplomacy holding the Russians back were fading. Instead, they favored a new approach which involved a full scale invasion of Afghanistan, the overthrow of Dost Mohammad Khan, and the establishment of a new emir, Shah Shujah Durrani, who would be staunchly pro-British.
In late 1838, the British mobilized over 20,000 soldiers for the invasion of Afghanistan, most of them being Indians who served as sepoys in the British East India Company’s private army. The British army was a modern, disciplined, and well-trained force. The Afghans, however, did not have the latest technology on the battlefield, and did not conform to European modes of warfare. Instead of the neat and steady lines of infantry and musket volleys that European generals preferred, Afghan warriors operated as an irregular fighting force. And although Dost Mohammad had almost 40,000 cavalry at his disposal and could call up tens of thousands of Ghilzai warriors from the regions around Kabul, discipline and loyalty were rare among his soldiers. Furthermore, rivalries and competing interests between different tribes that made up the armed forces prevented the entire army from operating as a single unit. Despite this, the Ghilzais in particular had the potential to be a very effective fighting force based on their tenacity and ability to ambush. They were not full time soldiers and were thus very difficult to track and pursue in battle, since they could abandon the battle and blend in with the local population. Their ability in battle would later prove to be decisive after the initial invasion.
When the British invaded early in 1839, they came through the Bolan Pass, south of Afghanistan, instead of the expected invasion route that ran through the Khyber Pass. By the time Dost Mohammad realized it, it was too late for him to defend Kandahar, his southernmost city, which fell to the British in April of 1839. Dost Mohammad hoped that his entrenched forces at Ghazni, a fortress on the road to Kabul, would hold up the British long enough for him to mobilize his forces, especially the Ghilzais.
But Ghazni proved to be no obstacle for the British. Modern artillery coupled with their disciplined forces managed to rout the fortress. Between 500 and 1200 Afghans were killed while the British only lost 17 men in the siege. Dost Mohammad knew that the British would arrive in Kabul soon and attempted to make a final stand on the outskirts of his capital. But news of the British ability in war spread quick, and the emir had trouble rallying soldiers to defend the city. Only 3000 men offered their services. Most of his army disbanded and diffused into local villages and rural areas.
Dost Mohammad was thus forced to escape to Central Asia where he hoped to recruit an army in exile that would push the British out. The British, meanwhile, entered Kabul in August, where they helped Shah Shujah Durrani claim the throne as emir of Afghanistan. Shah Shujah was not a popular figure in the capital, and was widely seen as nothing more than an agent of the invaders. His administration was weak and had trouble managing Afghanistan, but the British achieved their goal of securing the northern approaches to India from a possible Russian invasion. It was mission accomplished.
The eventual expulsion of British troops did not come from the exiled emir. Dost Mohammad’s attempt to invade Afghanistan in 1840 ended in failure as he surrendered and was exiled to Calcutta, India. Instead, popular opposition to the British came from the people living under the foreign occupation.
The British occupation, centered on Kabul, brought huge changes to the lives of ordinary Afghans. Based on their experiences in India, the British believed that in order to make their occupation of Afghanistan worthwhile, they had to reform the government and military of the country to resemble those of European nations. Thus, the traditional payments doled out by Kabul to tribal chiefs for their loyalty were cut, in some cases by 50%. This weakened the already low level of loyalty to Shah Shujah outside of Kabul, and hampered the ability of rural tribes to live in Afghanistan’s harsh environment due to lack of food and supplies.
Furthermore, inflation caused by the British occupation made life very difficult in the cities, particularly Kabul and Kandahar. As the British and their supporters settled in the cities, they brought huge amounts of currency with them, which reduced the value of money overall. The urban populations thus suffered as they saw their relative incomes and purchasing power go down, just as inflation and high demand drove the price of food up. The religious scholars, the ulema, in particular suffered, as they relied on fixed stipends which were now almost worthless. Furthermore, many of the charitable institutions they managed were seized by Shah Shujah’s government to provide more tax revenue, a move they saw as contrary to Islamic law.
It was in this environment of disaffection and frustration that the first big protest against the British occupation occurred in November of 1841. Angry demonstrators, led by tribal elders and the ulema, spread out throughout the city to protest signs of British influence in the capital. In the mayhem, a British official was killed. And when the British did nothing to avenge the death in the days after the protest, the Afghans took the opportunity to continue to build momentum.
Tribal elders and ulema fanned out into the surrounding countryside, rallying men to come to Kabul and expel the British. Around 15,000 responded and assembled in Kabul. It’s important to note that the irregular nature of Afghanistan’s warriors proved to be an advantage, as civilians could pick up weapons and fight when needed and then go back to the villages and disperse into civilian life when threatened. This fact prevented the British from being able to stop the growth of the resistance, which quickly spread throughout the country.
Since the British were based in numerous cities and fortresses throughout Afghanistan, groups of British soldiers could easily be surrounded and pinned down by Afghan warriors. Even in Kabul, the center of British control, the foreign troops were unable to do much outside of their own bases as Afghan warriors captured British supply stores. The commander of the British forces in Kabul, General William Elphinstone, recognized that his forces were outnumbered and outmatched, especially when Mohammad Akbar, the son of Dost Mohammad arrived in Kabul to command the resistance forces. Elphinstone thus managed to secure an agreement allowing for a British retreat to Jalalabad, about 150 kilometers to the east.
Elphinstone’s army of 4,500 along with around 12,000 camp followers thus left Kabul in January 1842 and began the march out of Afghanistan. As is bound to happen in a tribal society like Afghanistan, treaties and agreements made by the central government meant nothing to the Ghilzai tribes that lined the road to Jalalabad. Throughout the march, Elphinstone’s army was harassed by waves of Ghilzai warriors who would regularly rush out of the hills to ambush the British in narrow mountain passes. Adding to their problems, the winter climate of mountainous Afghanistan made the march even slower and more dangerous and hundreds of British and Indian troops died just from the environment.
After four days of marching, only about 150 soldiers and 4,000 camp followers were still alive and marching to Jalalabad. Within two more days, after continued Ghilzai attacks and harsh weather, about 20 were left. By the time Jalalabad was reached, there was just one lone survivor, Dr. William Brydon, an assistant surgeon. From a force of almost 20,000, only one man managed to avoid being killed or captured during the retreat from Afghanistan’s capital. Just as quickly as the British had invaded and captured Kabul, they had been defeated and forced out of Afghanistan’s heartland.
The complete destruction of Elphinstone’s army was a major victory for the Afghans. Despite tribal and ethnic disunity, they had managed to unite long enough to decisively defeat the world’s greatest superpower. The British puppet government in Kabul quickly collapsed and Shah Shujah was assassinated in April of 1842. Dost Mohammad Khan was released from captivity by the British and returned to Afghanistan to retake the position of emir later that year.
The defeat of the British helped foster a sense of national unity in Afghanistan, although tribal affiliations still generally meant more to the average Afghan. Throughout the country, an acute sense of xenophobia developed in response to the punishing British occupation. This would continue as Afghanistan was invaded by Britain again in the 1870s and 1910s and by the Soviets and Americans over 100 years later. From the British perspective, the defeat meant the absolute end of any possible friendly relations between the two nations. The Afghans were caricatured as barbaric, uncouth, and treacherous, and any attempt to engage Afghanistan afterwards was colored by this mindset. More importantly, however, the defeat meant the loss of respect among Indians living under British rule in the subcontinent, which would play a role in the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 in India.
The First Anglo-Afghan War helped Afghanistan gain a reputation as the “graveyard of empires”. A mystique developed around the country that it was unconquerable and persists until today. And while these characterizations of Afghanistan may not be entirely true, they continue to play a major role in the national consciousness of Afghanistan, and the way it is viewed by outsiders.
Ewans, Martin. Afghanistan: A Short History of Its People and Politics. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.
Johnson, Robert. The Afghan Way of War: Culture and Pragmatism: A Critical History. London: Hurst &, 2011.