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Why the First Anglo-Afghan War Still Matters

In the West, the war is largely remembered from the British point of view – but Afghans have not forgotten their experience.

By Arwin Rahi for
Why the First Anglo-Afghan War Still Matters
Credit: The British Library / Public Domain

On October 1, 1838, George Eden, also known as Lord Auckland, the British governor-general of India, issued the so-called Simla Manifesto, essentially declaring war on Afghanistan. Britain’s raison d’etre for the invasion was safeguarding its Indian empire from threats emanating from Afghanistan and beyond. The British wanted to replace Dost Mohammad Khan, the ruler of Kabul province and its principalities, with a more compliant monarch: Shah Shuja Durrani — a former Afghan monarch and a grandson of the country’s founder, Ahmad Shah Durrani — who had been living in exile in Kashmir and Punjab since 1809.

Since much has been written, in great detail, on the major events and chronology of what would come to be called the First Anglo-Afghan War, this writing will focus on other, rather more ignored, aspects of the war and their far-reaching consequences, which continue to impact Afghans right up to the present time. In many ways, the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838-1842) can be considered a watershed event in Afghanistan’s long history.

In contrast to Britain’s global preeminence at the time, Afghanistan in 1838 was a fractured country, where the central government’s authority had evaporated in the preceding decades of civil war. Dost Mohammad Khan’s authority was confined to Kabul, Ghazni and Jalalabad. In the north, the territories between the Hindu Kush and the Amu Darya were governed autonomously by local rulers. In the west, Herat was ruled by Yar Mohammad Khan Alokozai. In the south, Kandahar was under the collective leadership of Dost Mohammad Khan’s half-brothers. In the east, Peshawar, the Durrani Afghan Empire’s former winter capital, had been under Sikh domination since the 1820s.

With no broad-based central authority present in Afghanistan to rally the Afghan tribes against the invaders, the British didn’t encounter much resistance when entering Afghanistan and installing Shah Shuja on the Kabul throne in August 1839. That initial lack of resistance by the Afghans contributed to British optimism — about subduing Afghanistan — which would be put to test in two years’ time, when Afghans would rise against the British. 

Despite the apparent grandeur of the invading British army, from the outset, the British were ill-prepared for their “Afghan War.” The British officials in charge of the Afghan policy in India neither had a good understanding of Afghanistan and its people, nor bothered to educate themselves about it. The British thought that, like India, they could easily conquer Afghanistan, and bring it under their influence. This would turn out to be a miscalculation of epic proportions.

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The British invasion of Afghanistan in 1838 was the first time that, after Alexander of Macedon, a Western power had invaded Afghanistan. Over the next two centuries, the invasion would be followed by three more European and Western interventions: a second British invasion in 1878, a Russian invasion in 1979 and an American invasion in 2001. All four invasions of Afghanistan have had four things in common: first, an initial quick military victory for the invader; second, that victory turning into a stalemate; third, an eventual face-saving withdrawal; and fourth, Afghanistan’s becoming an economic liability for the invader.

After two years, in 1841, the Afghans rose against the British to throw the yoke of occupation off. The British initially tried a military solution, which didn’t produce the desired result. Afterward, the British, through a series of conspiracies, tried to divide the Afghans and assassinate their leaders. The latter strategy didn’t bear fruit, either. Finding themselves encircled, vulnerable and demoralized, the British decided to withdraw from Kabul in January 1842. During the course of the British retreat from Kabul, out of an army of 16,500, only a few hundred would survive to return to India.

There’s a general consensus among historians that the British bagged a strategic defeat in the First Anglo-Afghan War, the first of its kind in Asia in the 19th century. The British, however, would make up for this strategic defeat through manipulation of the facts. Numerous accounts have been written, describing in the minutest detail how the Afghans mercilessly “massacred” the retreating British army, while making little to no mention of the harsh realities of British occupation and the crimes British soldiers committed against Afghans. Thus, the British pen has in some ways done more damage to Afghanistan than the British gun.

From the Afghan perspective, local people didn’t “massacre” members of a British peace mission. Britain had invaded their country, and the British army was at war with the Afghan people. In fact, most of the “assassinated” British soldiers had taken part in active combat in Afghanistan and killed Afghans before their commanders decided to retreat. Most Afghans believe the end that the British army met was justified in light of its own initial unethical and colonial mission.

British criticisms, such as those concerning the Afghan killing of political officers William Macnaghten and Alexander Burnes, don’t withstand objective scrutiny either. By installing Shah Shuja on the throne at the point of the bayonet and conspiring to murder Afghan leaders, Macnaghten had taken a one-way street to the afterlife. Burnes’ case, too, is unpardonable. Although Burnes traveled to Afghanistan in the early 1830s and was about to replace Macnaghten as the highest British political officer in Afghanistan, he didn’t have the slightest regard for Afghan culture and had multiple affairs with women in Kabul. 

The destruction of the British army, however, didn’t bring the war to an end. In September 1842, two British armies, one from Kandahar and the other from Jalalabad, converged on a deserted Kabul to avenge British losses during the previous winter and restore their shattered pride. From this point on, the British conduct in its entirety would be straight from the colonial playbook. After destroying much of Kabul city, including its renowned Charchatta Bazaar (one of the largest bazaars in Central Asia at the time), the British proceeded further north to lay waste to Charikar and Istalif, where a large number of Kabul’s citizens had taken refuge. 

In Istalif, the British massacred every Afghan man past the age of puberty. The British raped hundreds of Afghan women in Istalif (and thousands during the entire course of war), as Arnold Fletcher recounted in his 1965 history of Afghanistan. It wouldn’t be unfair to conclude that the British used rape as a weapon of war against the Afghans. While the destruction of the British army by Afghans is common knowledge, few people are aware of British atrocities in Kabul, Charikar and Istalif.

Ironically, little connection could be established between the Afghan tribesmen who had annihilated the British army in January and those whom the British later raped and killed. But the truth mattered little to the British. Sensing that spending another winter in Afghanistan could be as costly as the previous one, the two British armies decided to retreat to India via the Khyber Pass in October 1842. Thus the First Anglo-Afghan War came to a tragic end, mostly for the Afghans. 

Although the war ended in a major strategic defeat for Britain, it left a major scar on the Afghans. In addition to incurring casualties in the tens of thousands and leading to the destruction of their crops and bazaars, the Afghans would continue to suffer the consequences of the British war for decades. The war gave rise to stereotypes about Afghans as “savage,” “untrustworthy,” “wild” and “cruel.” Even a hundred years after the war, the Americans, influenced by British thinking, were unwilling to open an embassy in Kabul because they thought Afghans hated foreigners, especially non-Muslims.

By invading Afghanistan, the British earned the eternal hostility of the Afghans. The respect and trust that the British had earned in Afghanistan before the war was lost forever. Before the war, numerous Britons had traveled to Afghanistan. For instance, Mountstuart Elphinstone had traveled in 1809 to the court of Shah Shuja in the Durrani Empire’s winter capital Peshawar, where he was warmly received by the Durrani monarch. Charles Masson and Alexander Burnes were other notable Britons who had visited Afghanistan before the war. The practice of the British traveling to Afghanistan would almost cease after the war.

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In later decades, as the “great game” intensified between Afghanistan’s two powerful neighbors, Britain and Russia, Afghanistan prevented the entry of Russian subjects into the country as well. Many of the British and Russians, who desired to travel to Afghanistan, were suspected of being spies. As a countermeasure to safeguard their independence, Afghans barred both the British and Russians from entry into Afghanistan. It was natural that Afghans would be especially wary of the British. They had gone to war three times in a span of 80 years, between 1838 and 1919.

While the Afghans continuously distrusted the British, other Europeans such as Germans and Austrians used to live there with almost complete liberty. A century ago, the British agent in Kabul made the following observation about the Germans and Austrians in Kabul: “… they can go about quite freely in the bazaars; they are treated far better in Kabul than the British Agent or his staff, who are treated like criminals and every possible petty affront is put upon them.”

Similarly, Shah Shuja’s status as a British puppet has served as a benchmark for future foreign-imposed, puppet rulers in Afghanistan. In the 1980s, the Soviet-imposed puppet Babrak Karmal was popularly known by Afghans as “Shah Shuja the Second.” The U.S.-sponsored Hamid Karzai was similarly viewed  as “Shah Shuja the Third.” This was in fact the reason why Karzai, while constantly working in collusion with the U.S. behind closed doors, used to take anti-U.S. positions publicly. Karzai didn’t want to be judged by history as another “Shah Shuja.”

In Afghanistan, to this very day, no foreigners are viewed with as much suspicion as the British. Despite 28 years of combined Soviet and U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, the British continue to top the list as the most distrusted and disliked foreigners. Distrusting the British is not limited to a particular segment of Afghan society either. The sentiment is pervasive. And thus, the Anglo-Afghan wars continue to cast a long shadow over Afghan-British relations.

Arwin Rahi is an independent researcher and writer, and a former adviser to the Parwan governor in Afghanistan.