THE FIRST ANGLO-AFGHAN WAR: 1838–1842

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A British-Indian force attacks Ghazni fort during the First Afghan War, c.1839.

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Afghan forces attacking retreating British-Indian troops.

The competition for territory in Central Asia began in the early 18th century with the British and the Russians each racing for mastery in these lands. How- ever, in the early 19th century, events would catapult the clash into the British invasion of Afghanistan. As implemented under the reign of Zaman Shah, the main objective of the British imperialists was to control Afghanistan by keeping the country weak and therefore dependent on the British government. As was the situation in 1836, Dost Mohammad had removed Shuja Shah from power, thus removing the British figurehead and puppet monarch as established by the treaty in 1809. The British tired to secure a new friendship with Dost Mohammad in an effort to retain the Afghan’s amicable favoritism to the British occupation of Afghanistan. However, Dost Mohammad was resolute in his stance of Afghan independence from foreign occupation and refused to allow the British to roam at will throughout his state. He no longer agreed with the British treaty as signed by Shuja Shah to not allow other countries (namely, Russia) to pass through Afghanistan. Gradually, the British began to hear of Dost Mohammad’s interaction with the Russians, and the Persians, as part of the ruler’s endeavor to signify the British treaty, would no longer be part of Afghan policy.

However, in 1837 Dost Mohammad attempted to form an alliance with Britain in the hopes of capturing Peshawar, and in turn the British Captain Alexander Burnes was invited to Kabul. The British were willing to discuss and outline the strategic alliance against Ranjit Singh, but before doing so Dost Mohammad would have to retract any agreements with other European powers. At the time, Mohammad Shah of Persia was trying to capture Herat, which the British knew was the strategic foothold to gain entrance to India. Burnes arrived as a representative of Lord Auckland, the British governor- general of India, and also to represent the British interventionist diplomat Sir William Macnaghten. As such, the British swore to protect Dost Mohammad from Ranjit Singh if he ceased his attempts to recover Peshawar. Burnes would not offer the assurances Dost Mohammad needed, and instead Burnes insisted that the Afghan amir should place Afghan policy and control under British guidance. Recognizing the conundrum of his situation, Dost Mohammad rejected the British and quickly sought to form an alliance with Russia. On the cusp of Burnes’s failure to subdue Afghanistan, the situation was further intensified on witnessing the Russian emissary Lieutenant Vitkievitch in Kabul. The British retreated to India, and in 1838 Lord Auckland declared war on Afghanistan.

The First Anglo-Afghan War had officially begun, and in February 1839 the British forces advanced through the Bolan Pass of the Toba Kakar range in Pakistan, approximately 120 miles from the Afghani border. By late April, the army arrived in Kandahar to find that the Afghan princes had abandoned the area. Lord Auckland achieved his preliminary goal and restored the now quite elderly Shuja Shah to the throne as amir of Afghanistan. Dost Mohammad had previously fled the capital city and was forced to retreat into the Hindu Kush Mountains. Among the harsh terrain and extreme weather, Dost Mohammad and his supporters sought evasion in the caves of the mountains for nearly a year as the British intently pursued him. Finally weary of the advancing forces, Dost Mohammad surrendered to the British on the evening of November 4, 1840, by allegedly riding on horseback up to General Macnaghten and offering his amicable surrender. As prisoner, he was held in captivity during the British occupation of Afghanistan, and Dost Mohammed would be released after the recapture of Kabul in the fall of 1842.

By the end of 1841 and after having to endure watching their ruler be ousted and imprisoned by the British forces, the Afghan tribes rallied to support Dost Mohammad’s son Mohammad Akbar Khan. Over the following months, the British forces faced numerous revolts and bloody executions, including the murder of Sir Alexander Burnes and his aides by an angry horde in Kabul. After the attack, General Macnaghten tried to negotiate with Mohammad Akbar Khan to allow the British to remain in the country, but in a severe act of defiance against the British, Mohammad Akbar ordered Macnaghten thrown in prison. Macnaghten never made it to his confinement, for on his march to the prison he was attacked and dismembered by a livid Afghan crowd. As a gesture of their intolerance of any more British occupation in their country, the mob triumphantly paraded his dead and nearly limbless corpse around the streets of Kabul. The British recognized the severity of their situation in Afghanistan, and in January 1842 they reached an agreement to provide the immediate retreat of the British forces out of Afghanistan. As the exodus began, the British troops struggled through the snowbound passes and were ambushed by Ghilzai tribesmen. Along the treacherous pass between Kabul and Gandamak, almost 16,000 British soldiers and supporters were attacked and ruthlessly slaughtered. Only one survivor arrived at the British outpost in Jalalabad to describe the tale, and by that point Dr. William Brydon was barely breathing and slumped over his horse with only a faint trace of life left in his body. The horrifying massacre was enough to rejuvenate the British to return later in the year to relieve the British garrison at Jalalabad and rescue any remaining British occupants and prisoners in the country. The loss of life and property in Afghanistan, including the destruction of the bazaar (marketplace) in Kabul, resulted in a severe hatred of foreign occupation that is ingrained in the culture of Afghanistan to this day.

Often referred to by the British as “Auckland’s Folly” because of Lord Auckland’s erroneous judgments and decisions against the Afghan people, the First Anglo-Afghan Civil War from 1839 to 1842 resulted in the destruction of the British army, including the loss of nearly 20,000 soldiers and 50,000 camels and costs upward of £20 million. Further, the defeat and refusal of British hegemony attests to the Afghans’ fierce resistance to foreign invaders attempting to occupy their lands. By the end of the first British invasion and Afghan war, Shah Shuja was presumably assassinated in 1842. After several months of chaos in Kabul, Mohammad Khan was able to secure control of the city until his father Dost Mohammad was set free at the decision of the British government to abandon the control of internal politics in Afghanistan. On his return from Hindustan, Dost Mohammad was welcomed back to the seat of power in Kabul, and in April 1843 Dost Mohammad resumed his title as king. Over the next decade, Dost Mohammad would work at resuming control of the regions of Mazar-e-Sharif, Konduz, Badakshan, and Kandahar.

On his return to power, Dost Mohammad set forth with plans to implement his authority and control against the British. In support of his regime, he once again sought to defeat the Sikhs, who were engaged in combat with the British. In 1848, Dost Mohammad seized the opportunity to take control of Peshawar. However, in February 1849 his army was defeated at Gujarat, and he abandoned his previous intentions to control Peshawar. After he led troops back into Afghanistan, Dost Mohammad realized that he would not be successful in his actions to capture Peshawar, and he abandoned any further efforts to do so. By concentrating on other regions, Dost Mohammad conquered Balkh a year later and furthermore, in 1854, captured Kandahar and successfully assumed control over the southern Afghan tribes.

In retaliation for the humiliation endured in the First Anglo-Afghan War, the British attacked Afghanistan again, but this time the onslaught included a large Indian force. After several battles, new British forces relieved the previous Jalalabad garrison and then advanced into Kabul, destroying the central bazaar and the large citadel. By 1854, the British were ready to recommence associations with Afghanistan. In the following year, the British opened up diplomatic relations with Afghanistan in the Treaty of Peshawar. The treaty recognized the authority of each country and additionally acknowledged each county’s territorial boundaries. In doing so, the treaty declared henceforth a British–Afghan relationship of amenity in political interaction and unity in defeating enemies. On March 30, 1855, the Afghan leader agreed to the alliance with the British government, and as a specification of the treaty the province of Herat was placed in control of the Barakzai sovereignty. The coalition of the Afghans with the British resulted in both forces declaring war on Persia in 1857. During the period of Indian Mutiny in Afghanistan, Dost Mohammad abstained from supporting the uprising rebels despite the call for jihad in which the Sikhs were supporters of India’s movement against British occupation. Two years later in 1857, the treaty was amended so that while the British were fighting with the Iranians, Afghanistan’s parliament would allow the British military to maintain a presence at Kandahar. The Iranians had previously attacked Herat in 1856, and as such Dost Mohammad was eager to accept the terms in the addendum.

While America was fighting its own civil war, Dost Mohammad’s final years were troubled with revolts out of Herat and Bokhara. In 1863, he personally led the Afghan army with the British troops at his flank, driving the Persian army from Kandahar. As a result of the treaty’s allowance for the British presence, Dost Mohammad was able to seize back Herat from the Iranians only a few months before his death. On May 26, 1863, Dost Mohammad and his Afghan army captured Herat for good, but surprisingly Dost Mohammad died suddenly in the midst of his triumph. During his life, he played a pivotal role in shaping Central Asia and Afghanistan, and on his death his son Sher Ali Khan had been appointed heir to the kingdom.

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