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Page 1

Antoinette Burton, editor
With a Foreword by Andrew J. Bacevich

the first
anglo-afghan

wars
  

A Reader

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The First Anglo- Afghan Wars

Page 12

World War I. Taken together, these sources allow
us to put twenty- fi rst- century struggles over Af-
ghan i stan in historical perspective and remind us
of how fragile and precarious imperial power has
been on the ground for would- be conquerors in
Af ghan i stan during modern times. As Robert Kap-
lan wrote presciently in 1989, “Af ghan i stan may
evoke the military past, but its importance is as a
preview of the battleground of the future.”1

The Geopolitics of the Great Game

One of the most arresting British images of the
First Anglo- Afghan War is Lady Elizabeth Butler’s
painting Remnants of an Army (1874). It shows
William Brydon, an assistant surgeon in the East
India Company, astride a bedraggled horse, limp-
ing across an otherwise deserted plain. Brydon was
one of the sole survivors of a force of 4,500 strong
that was routed from Kabul in 1842 aft er the city’s
three- year occupation by the British. Though the
British eventually returned to retake the city and
burn the bazaar, that rout was an inglorious end
point in a war that would entangle the British Raj
in the region for the next eight de cades. Having
been promised safe passage out of the city by the
tribal leaders of an antioccupation insurrection—
rebel leaders to whom guns and trea sure had been
handed over— British military personnel and some
twelve thousand camp followers were ambushed

Most university- age students know that the United
States, the United Kingdom, and their allies have
fought a war in Af ghan i stan with huge stakes for
national sovereignty and global security in the
post- 9 / 11 era. These students have less understand-
ing, perhaps, of how U.S. and Eu ro pe an involve-
ment in Af ghan i stan is an indirect consequence
of two centuries of modern warfare in the region.
Simply put, the series of Afghan wars fought
between the British and the native leaders of the
Afghan region in the nineteenth and early twenti-
eth centuries was the result of both imperial am-
bition and a desire to forestall Rus sian expansion
into the North- West Frontier, which was consid-
ered the gateway to India, the notorious jewel in
the crown of the early Victorian British Empire.
Though neither the British nor the Rus sian state
would have used the American phrase Manifest
Destiny, each one believed that it had a, if not the,
providential right to central Asia. Yet while the
British oversaw the installation of successive emirs,
from Shah Shujah in 1839 to Abdur Rahman Khan
in 1880 to Habibullah Khan in 1901, typically going
to war to do so, the hold on the region by the Brit-
ish was always tenuous: Af ghan i stan was never
settled, either literally or fi guratively The docu-
ments in this collection train our eye on how and
why a determination to hold central Asia posed
signifi cant challenges to Eu ro pe an powers from
the early Victorian period until the aft ermath of

Introduction
The Anglo- Afghan
Wars in Historical Perspective

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2 / Introduction

contest between Britain and Rus sia over which as-
piring imperial hegemon would dominate central
Asia in the nineteenth century. In fact, British and
Rus sian designs in the late 1830s were part of a
multisited struggle between would- be global pow-
ers on the one hand and local forces on the other—
including the once formidable Sikh Empire and a
complex of regional tribesmen seeking dominion,
if not sovereignty, in this “graveyard of empires.”

The British feared Rus sia’s ambition along the
North- West Frontier, which was viewed by both
parties as the access point to the British Raj and,
thereby, to the center of British imperial power,
profi t, and security. But the British were also
wary of the Persians, who in 1834 had their eye on
Herat— one of a number of strongholds they had
lost in the wake of the collapse of the Safavid dy-
nasty in the second half of the eigh teenth century
and had been striving to recover ever since.4 In that
sense, the Great Game involved more than two
players. In fact, it had many dimensions, only some
of which depended on the mutual suspicions of the
Eu ro pe an powers. Though later historians have
famously viewed the war as a “tournament of shad-
ows” between the major Western states with locals
as proxies, Victorians exhibited more respect, al-
beit oft en grudging, for the power, impact, and
historical signifi cance of indigenous dynastic re-
gimes, even as Victorians oft en relished seeing these
regimes caught in the crosshairs of a wider global-
imperial struggle for hegemony.5

The key to British stability on this fraught fron-
tier was thought to be the emir of Af ghan i stan,
Dost Mohammad Khan, scion of the Barakzai
tribe and a man at the intersection of several
imperial gambles.6 Though he was courted by the
British and sought alliance with the Rus sians, he
was preoccupied with the empire of the Sikhs and
more particularly its seasoned leader, Ranjit Singh,
who was his longstanding nemesis. Singh, the fi rst
Sikh maharaja, was at the end of his life when these
tensions fl ared, but he was a formidable warrior
almost until the end (a series of strokes beset him

and massacred on their way to Jalalabad in Janu-
ary of 1842.2 Another major defeat for the British
Army took place at Gandamak a week later, when
offi cers and soldiers of the 44th Regiment of Foot
were eff ectively decimated by Afghan tribesmen
who, using the advantages of local knowledge
about the terrain as they had throughout the war,
roundly defeated what remained of that portion
of the Army of the Indus (as the British Indian
army was called) charged with the defense of
Kabul. Though the First (1839– 42) and Second
(1878– 80) Anglo- Afghan Wars ended in diplo-
matic settlements that secured some balance of
power in the region, they were eff ectively defen-
sive campaigns. This was true not only because
tribal leaders and their allies played the Rus sians
and the British off each other but because the
tribal leaders had a home- court advantage: they
knew the lay of the land. Afghan leaders and their
allies used the environment accordingly, outma-
neuvering the British in the infamous passes, keep-
ing them perennially at bay, and— in the case of
the rout of 1842— subjecting the Army of the Indus
to a humiliating defeat.

The legend that Butler’s painting helped to pro-
mote notwithstanding, Brydon was not the sole
British survivor of the Kabul rout. Several dozen
others were captured, among them Lady Florentia
Sale, wife of Major General Sir Robert Sale, who
commanded the garrison at Jalalabad. Florentia
Sale survived her nine months of captivity and
wrote an account of her experiences, A Journal of
the Disasters in Af ghan i stan, 1841– 42, and was
widely admired for her acts of bravery during her
imprisonment.3 But despite individual acts of re-
silience, the British retreat from Kabul and the
subsequent massacre came to be symbols not just
of a single military disaster but also of a precari-
ous imperial strategy that formalized the interre-
gional confl ict and far- reaching geopo liti cal crisis
known as the Great Game. Attributed to Arthur
Conolly (an East India Company captain and
intelligence offi cer), the Great Game refers to the

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12 / Introduction

military suppression. See Kakar, A Po liti cal and Diplomatic
History of Af ghan i stan, chapters 4 and 5.

24. Forbes, The Afghan Wars, 324.
25. Zarena Aslami, The Dream Life of Citizens: Late Victo-

rian Novels and the Fantasy of the State (New York: Fordham
University Press, 2012), 71.

26. Forbes, The Afghan Wars, 32; Afzal Iqbal, Circumstances
Leading to the First Afghan War (Lahore: Research Society of
Pakistan, 1975).

27. Gupta, Panjab, Central Asia and the First Afghan War,
245– 46. This edition has an introduction by Jawaharlal Nehru,
who calls Lal a “fascinating person” who “in a free India . . .
would have risen to the topmost rungs of the po liti cal ladder”
(iv and iii).

28. Henry Havelock, Narrative of the War in Aff ghanistan in
1838– 39, vol. 1 (London: Henry Colburn Publishers, 1840), 202;
James Atkinson, The Expedition into Aff ghanistan: Notes and
Sketches Descriptive of the Country, Contained in a Personal
Narrative during the Campaign of 1839 and 1840 (London: Wil-
liam Allen, 1842), 184.

29. See Montstuart Elphinstone, An Account of the Kingdom
of Cabul and Its Dependencies in Persia, Tartary and India
(London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1815);
Kaushik Roy, “Introduction: Armies, Warfare and Society in
Colonial India,” in War and Society in Colonial India, edited by
Kaushik Roy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 6.

30. Winston Churchill, The Story of the Malakand Field
Force (London: Leo Cooper, 1989).

31. Atkinson, The Expedition into Aff ghanistan. For the wa-
tercolor, see the Eu ro pe ana website, http:// www.eu ro pe ana.eu/
portal/record/92037/D1CD9875D70D9C904A2079F2D43
FAFF6FD828BB3.html (accessed June 2013).

32. Ayesha Jalal, Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 84– 105.

33. A. H. Mahon and A. D. G. Ramsay, Report on the Tribes
of Dir, Swat and Bajour (Peshawar, Pakistan: Saeed Book Bank,
1981), 28.

34. David B. Edwards, Heroes of the Age: Moral Fault Lines
on the Afghan Frontier (Berkeley: University of California Press,
1996), 172– 201. For offi cial details on Saidullah’s origins and
movements, see Military Operations on the North- West Fron-
tiers of India: Papers Regarding the British Relations with the
Neighboring Tribes of the North- West Frontier of India (London:
India Offi ce Publications, 1898), 85– 86; and Mahon and Ram-
say, Report on the Tribes of Dir, Swat and Bajour, 27.

35. Mahon and Ramsay, Report on the Tribes of Dir, Swat and
Bajour, 199. “Hadda Sahib . . . was one of the few, perhaps the
only, religious leader who consistently stymied the Amir, stay-
ing just beyond his grasp and out of his control. Consequently,
it was important for the Amir to preserve what advantages he
had, and one of those advantages was certainly the doctrine
that only an Islamic ruler could declare a jihad.” See also
Thomas Barfi eld, Af ghan i stan: A Cultural and Po liti cal History
(Prince ton, NJ: Prince ton University Press, 2010), 147– 49.

36. Keith Surridge, “The Ambiguous Amir: Britain, Af-
ghan i stan and the 1897 North- West Frontier Uprising,” Jour-

and the emir of Kabul, Dost Mahomet Khan; the fi rst might be
an opportunity or a danger, the second British India’s best de-
fence.” See Edward Ingram, The Beginning of the Great Game
in Asia, 1828– 1834 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 120.

7. Victoria Schofi eld, Afghan Frontier: Feuding and Fighting
in Central Asia (London: I.B. Tauris, 2003), 65.

8. Arley Loewen and Josette McMichael, eds., Images of Af-
ghan i stan: Exploring Afghan Culture through Art and Literature
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 19.

9. Fakir Azizuddin reassured Eden when he was about to
meet Ranjit Singh in 1838: “The lustre of one sun [Ranjit] has
long shone with splendor over our horizon; but when two suns
come together, the refulgence will be overpowering.” See
Khuswant Singh, Ranjit Singh: Maharajah of the Punjab, 1780–
1839 (London: George Allen Unwin, 1962), 209.

10. Florentia Sale, Journal of the Disasters in Aff ghanistan,
1841– 42 (London: John Murray, Ablemarle Street, 1843), 29.

11. Schofi eld, Afghan Frontier, 71.
12. See Hari Ram Gupta, Panjab, Central Asia and the First

Afghan War (Chandigarh, India: Panjab University, 1940),
160– 62.

13. Schofi eld, Afghan Frontier, 72.
14. Norris, The First Afghan War, 379.
15. Archibald Forbes, The Afghan Wars, 1839– 1882 and 1878–

80 (London: Seeley and Co., 1896), 135; Frank A. Clements,
Confl ict in Af ghan i stan: A Historical Encyclopedia (Santa Bar-
bara, CA: abc- clio, 2003), 204.

16. Christine Noelle, State and Tribe in Early Af ghan i stan:
The Reign of Amir Dost Muhammad Khan (1826– 1863) (Surrey,
UK: Curzon, 1997), 36; Nabi Misdaq, Af ghan i stan: Po liti cal
Frailty and Foreign Interference (London: Routledge, 2006),
48– 49; M. Hassan Kakar, A Po liti cal and Diplomatic History of
Af ghan i stan, 1863– 1901 (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2006), 1.

17. Benjamin D. Hopkins and Magnus Marsden, Fragments
of the Afghan Frontier (New York: Columbia University Press,
2011).

18. For one example of this, see “Nikolai Ignatiev: Rus sia’s
Agenda in Central Asia,” in Islamic Central Asia: An Anthology
of Historical Sources, edited by Scott C. Levi and Ron Sela
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 295– 99.

19. Quoted in Asta Oleson, Islam and Politics in Af ghan i stan
(Surrey, UK: Curzon Press, 1995), 25.

20. Quoted in Gregory Fremont- Barnes, The Anglo- Afghan
Wars, 1839– 1919 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2009), 58.

21. R. D. Osborn, “India and Af ghan i stan,” Contemporary
Review 36 (1879): 206.

22. Alex Marshall, The Rus sian General Staff and Asia, 1800–
1917 (New York: Routledge, 2006), 139. Even before British
troops withdrew from Kandahar in 1881, Abdur Rahman was
looking to establish his authority beyond the territorial limits
(Pishin) that London envisioned for him. See D. P. Singhal,
India and Af ghan i stan: A Study in Diplomatic Relations (Bris-
bane: University of Queensland Press, 1963), 87.

23. Forbes, The Afghan Wars, 327. In fact, between 1880 and
1896, the new emir faced no fewer than forty uprisings, which
he quelled by a combination of “peaceful penetration” and

Page 24

The Anglo- Afghan Wars / 13

pation and fundamentalism, see the homepage of Revolutionary
Association of the Women of Af ghan i stan, http:// www.rawa
.org/index.php (accessed June 2013).

46. For a few key examples of conventional histories, see
G.  B. Malleson, A History of Af ghan i stan, from the Earliest
Period to the Outbreak of the War of 1878 (Peshawar, Pakistan:
Saeed Book Bank, 1984 [1878]); and Victoria Schofi eld, Every
Rock, Every Hill: The Plain Tale of the North- West Frontier
and Af ghan i stan (London: Buchan and Enright, 1984). For an
Afghan- centric account, see Noelle, State and Tribe in Early
Af ghan i stan.

47. Michael Barthorp, The North- West Frontier: British India
and Af ghan i stan; A Pictorial History, 1839– 1947 (Dorset, UK:
Blandford Press, 1982), 128.

48. Jennifer Siegel, Endgame: Britain, Rus sia, and the Final
Struggle (London: I.B. Tauris, 2002), 172, 173.

49. A. C. Bose, Indian Revolutionaries Abroad, 1905– 1922: In
the Background of International Developments (Patna, India:
Bharati Bhawan, 1971), 106; and Maia Ramnath, Haj to Utopia:
How the Ghadar Movement Charted Global Radicalism and At-
tempted to Overthrow the British Empire (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 2011), 124.

50. G. N. Molesworth, Af ghan i stan 1919: An Account of Op-
erations in the Third Afghan War (Bombay: Asia Publishing
House, 1962), 87.

51. Ewans, Confl ict in Af ghan i stan, 89.
52. Toby Dodge is keen to make such connections in his In-

venting Iraq: The Failure of Nation Building and History Denied
(New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), xxi– xxxvi. For an
example of a short view of Af ghan i stan in historical context, see
Tim Bird and Alex Marshall, Af ghan i stan: How the West Lost Its
Way (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011).

53. See Richard Bean et al., The Great Game: Af ghan i stan
(London: Oberon Books, 2010).

nal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 36, no. 3 (2008):
417– 34. This would seem to be true not only in the context of
settling wars but drawing boundary lines, as in the case of the
1893 treaty that Abdur Rahman signed with Sir Mortimer Du-
rand to set what was to become known as the Durand Line.
See Bijan Omrani, “The Durand Line: History and Problems
of the Afghan- Pakistan Border,” Asian Aff airs 40, no. 2 (2009):
177– 95.

37. Aslami, The Dream Life of Citizens, 69.
38. Henry Marion Durand, The First Afghan War and Its

Causes (London: Longman’s Green, 1879).
39. G. A. Henty, To Herat and Cabul: A Story of the First Af-

ghan War (London: Blackie and Sons, 1902), v.
40. George Macdonald Fraser, Flashman: From the Flash-

man Papers 1839– 1842 (New York: World Publishers, 1969).
41. Patrick Hennessey, The Ju nior Offi cers’ Reading Club:

Killing Time and Fighting Wars (London: Penguin, 2009).
42. J. C. Stocqueler, Memorials of Af ghan i stan (Calcutta: Os-

tell and Lepage, 1843), 279.
43. Stocqueler, Memorials of Af ghan i stan, 11.
44. There is some evidence that her name has left an inspira-

tional trace in the titles of girls’ schools; see Valentine Mogha-
dam, Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the
Middle East (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003),
235– 36, 240. Moghadam also tracks how and why, as was the
case in Egypt and Turkey in the early twentieth century, women
were key to the modernization schemes that Abdur Rahman’s
successors carried out in the legislative realm, chiefl y under
the rubric himayat- i niswan (the protection of women) (237).

45. See Charles Finch Mackenzie’s extensive poem, Zeila, the
Fare Maid of Cabul: A Tale of the Afghan Insurrection and the
Massacre of the British Troops in the Khoord- Cabul Passes
(London: Palmer and Clayton, 1850). For a sense of how Af-
ghan women today represent themselves in response to occu-

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