The Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s was the first time that many Britons alive today became much aware of the country. A lot of our early involvement with Afghanistan has to do with the country’s strategic (and from the point of view of being invaded, let’s face it, unfortunate) location between areas of Russian control and influence to the north, and areas of British control to the south. This is the so-called �?Great Game’, the battle for domination of Central Asia that was such a preoccupation with the Victorians. They called it a game, but it was the kind of game where people ended up dead in large numbers rather than just, for instance, being given a stern word by the referee or getting sent off.
Our first venture into the Great Game as far as Afghanistan is concerned could not, however, be described as a great success. Early signs of spreading Russian influence, plus a failure to conclude a British alliance with the emir of Afghanistan, Dost Muhammad, led to a British attempt at regime change. In 1838, a British army of 21,000 men set out from the Punjab to replace Dost Muhammad with a previous pro-British ruler of Afghanistan, Shah Shuja. The army successfully took Kandahar and advanced north. Eventually, Shah Shuja was installed as the new ruler in Kabul and over half the army left Afghanistan. Dost Muhammad was captured and sent to India. But the final whistle hadn’t blown. This wasn’t the end of this particular episode of the Great Game. It was only half time, and in the second half things went downhill spectacularly from a British point of view.
Shah Shuja was unfortunately fairly heavily reliant on British arms and British payments to tribal warlords to stay in power, and as it became apparent that the British were settling in for a long occupation, the Afghans weren’t too keen on the whole idea. A senior British officer and his aides ended up getting killed in a riot and when the local British agent, William Hay Macnaghten, tried to restore the situation by negotiating with Dost Muhammad’s son, Macnaghten was also killed and his body dragged through Kabul before being displayed in the Grand Bazaar. Not at all the sort of thing you want to see when you go shopping.
As the situation deteriorated almost as fast as the weather, the British commander in Kabul decided, in January 1842, that his situation was untenable and tried to negotiate safe passage out of the country for his force and the British civilians there. Instead of this, the retreating column was forced to try to make its way through snowbound gorges and passes in the face of heavy attacks. In the end, only a single Briton, a surgeon, Dr William Brydon, made it as far as the comparative safety of Jalalabad.
After this disaster there were plans to reoccupy Kabul, but a new government came to power in London determined to end the war and, instead, we made do with destroying Kabul’s Grand Bazaar as a reprisal, and withdrew back to India. Dost Muhammad was subsequently released and returned to power in Kabul.
After such a disastrous start, you would almost have thought that we might have left Afghanistan alone, but the Great Game continued so another round was almost inevitable. This time around, it all went a lot more smoothly for Britain. Well it would have been pretty unfortunate if we’d ended up with a disaster as bad as the first one on two occasions.
By 1878 Dost Muhammad’s son, Sher Ali Khan, was, after a spot of family feuding with his brother, now emir of Afghanistan. When a Russian diplomatic mission arrived in Kabul, Britain insisted that, as a balance, a British diplomatic mission should also be allowed there. The British mission was duly dispatched and was duly not allowed beyond the Khyber Pass. So we reckoned it was time we sent in the troops again. This time an army of roughly 40,000 men, divided into three columns, invaded Afghanistan. Initial Afghan resistance soon crumbled, with the collapse aided by the death of Sher Ali Khan at Mazar e Sharif in 1879. After this, to prevent Britain occupying Afghanistan, Sher Ali’s son, Mohammad Yaqub Khan, signed the Treaty of Gandamak, handing over control of the country’s foreign affairs to Britain. Then, it will probably come as no surprise to you that the situation began to get complicated again.
In September 1879, mutinous Afghan troops killed the British representative in Kabul, Sir Pierre Cavagnari. And in the aftermath of this, General Sir Frederick Roberts led an army into central Afghanistan, defeated the Afghan army at Char Asiab and occupied Kabul yet again. That was then followed by yet another uprising against the British presence in Kabul, which was eventually put down, but by this time Britain had had enough of Yaqub Khan and decided that more regime change was needed. Splitting the country up was discussed, as were other options, before we finally made Yaqub’s cousin, Abdur Rahman Khan, emir instead. Then there was yet another insurgency, this time in Herat, which led to a British victory at the Battle of Maiwand, and finally, with Abdur Rahman Khan still in power and the Treaty of Gandamak still in force, the British Army managed to make a timely exit from Afghanistan. Glad to be out, no doubt.
Subsequently, Abdur Rahman Khan ruled Afghanistan with a heavy hand, but at least managed, on the whole, to prevent competition between Russia and Britain causing him too many problems. In 1919, though, his son and successor, Habibullah Khan, was assassinated and a power struggle ensued between his brother and his son, Amanullah. Eventually, Amanullah had his uncle arrested and decided that what was needed, in order to quell domestic trouble, was a nice little foreign war. So he invaded India.
At first sight this seems like a total mismatch, with Afghanistan up against the entire might of the British Empire, but in fact the situation was nothing like that simple. In 1919, Britain was exhausted after the First World War. What is more, just as today, cross-border loyalties there made it a difficult area for outsiders to operate in. However, like today, and unlike previous occasions, Britain now at least had an air force to assist it. On 3 May 1919, the Afghan army crossed the border and captured Bagh. The Afghans hoped that an insurgency against Britain in Peshawar would help them, but we reacted quickly and managed to contain any possibility of rebellion. Eventually, on 11 May, British forces, including the use of planes, managed to push the Afghans out of Bagh and back across the border. Then Britain invaded Afghan territory again, and occupied the town of Dakka. But fighting was fierce and the situation was deteriorating behind the British advance. The Khyber Rifles became mutinous and began to desert. British Handley-Page bombers attacked Kabul, but the intended British advance to Jalalabad ground to a halt and things worsened when the South Waziristan Militia mutinied as well. Eventually, forces under Brigadier General Dyer pushed back Afghan army units and Amanullah offered an armistice which the British accepted. The war was in many ways inconclusive, but it did effectively mean we gave up on trying to control Afghan foreign policy. Instead it left us concentrating on the equally insoluble problem of trying to control the long-running and bitter insurgency in the North-West Frontier area that dragged on pretty much for as long as the Raj. As Great Games go, our venture into Afghanistan hadn’t proved to be such a great one from our point of view. Mind you the Russians haven’t exactly had a lot of fun in Afghanistan either. And, of course, it’s all brought a lot of misery to the Afghans. So not a Great Game from anybody’s point of view.
Now we are back in Afghanistan. Names like Kabul, Kandahar and Mazar e Sharif have once again become regular features of the news. After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, we joined the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom to topple the Taleban regime and remove Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan. At the time of writing, we are still intending to be there at least a little bit longer, attempting to crush the Taleban insurgency and help establish a stable and democratic Afghanistan. Let’s hope it ends better than some of our previous efforts in the country.