The First Anglo - Afghan War ::

Mir Naseer originally shared: The First Anglo - Afghan War ::

(From the book — Lost Islamic History)


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-


The Invasion

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 Insurgency

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


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 engaged

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 Angl0-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. View full size (600x906)