The first Anglo-Afghan war (Part-1) : The invasion

the why

From left to right – Sun Tzu, General Carl Von Clausewitz, Nicolò Machiavelli. If you were thinking of going to war, trust me, you would be happy to have one of these gents on your side.


Sun Tzu (544-496BC), a military general and strategist of the powerful Chinese state of Wu, fought many successful campaigns, at a time of incessant warfare among seven Chinese nations – Zhao, Qi, Qin, Chu, HanWei, and Yan, who were constantly fighting to control the fertile lands in Eastern China. It was an era when every dispute was settled on the battlefield. Even petty grouses led to all-out war.

Very early in his military career, Sun Tzu came to the conclusion that war was something that was necessary, rational and inevitable. He thought, ‘if I have to fight frequently, I might as well get myself and my troops organized so they know why they are fighting, what they are fighting and how they have to fight to win. His military treatise, The Art of War was born, a bible on the art of conducting a successful campaign, one of the most respected and quoted pieces of work ever.

Let’s fast forward to the 19th century. Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), a Prussian general and military theorist, took this one step further by saying that war is a mere continuation of foreign policy by aggressive means. Whenever there is a political objective, Clausewitz believed that war is necessary to achieve it and that wars are rational steps that statesmen take, with causes and methods that they rationalize as necessary.

Another guy who constantly harped on the positive side of making war was Nicolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), a Florentine diplomat and political philosopher who became famous for writing on the most devious facets of human nature in politics and war. His writings, especially Prince, were widely believed to have been inspired by the devil himself and anything deceitful and dishonest came to be known as Machiavellian.

Machiavelli once famously said, ‘It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot have both’. He believed that nothing great can be achieved without armed conflict. ‘Men rise from one ambition to another,’ he said, ‘First, they seek to secure themselves against attack, and then they attack others. This is in our nature. It is unavoidable.’

In modern times, the Sun Tzu/Clausewitz/Machiavelli philosophies, that war is something that is necessary, are the most accepted. That’s right, we haven’t changed much in 2600 years. We like to demonize the Americans, but almost all modern leaders today believe that war is required, to achieve certain goals and that the war will end when these objectives are accomplished. Everyone agrees with the Mao Tse Tung quote that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.

One example of the belief that war is rational is Operation Iraqi Freedom, the 2003 invasion of Iraq. America went to war in Iraq because Saddam Hussein had to be removed in order to protect American interests. Whether these interests were ideological (ie: delivering the Iraqi people from Saddam’s tyranny) or practical (ie: preventing Iraq’s WMDs from falling into the hands of the wrong folk) or economic (ie: maintaining a secure environment in the middle-east to ensure uninterrupted supplies of oil), which of these the real reason was, is irrelevant. America invaded because it was the best way to reach American objectives. The American establishment, at some point, came to the conclusion that neither diplomatic pressure nor economic sanctions were enough and that a military intervention was necessary.

And so did George Eden, The First Baron of Auckland and Governor General of India, 164 years before the American invasion of Iraq and this is where the main narrative begins……..



War can only be eradicated through war. In order to get rid of the gun it is necessary to take up the gun – Mao Zedong


After the fall of Napoleonic France in the early 1800s, Russia emerged as Britain’s main rival and over the next hundred years, the two imperial powers fought incessantly for influence in Central and South Asia. This rivalry translated into war, espionage, intrigue and skulduggery of every kind. Both sides saw it as a game and that is what it actually came to be called – The Great Game.

Indian was the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, with a docile, subservient, easily satisfied, wimpy native populace with ahimsa and non-violence running through their veins. It also had immense riches in gold, precious stones, spices, silks. As regards security, India was strategically placed, with vast oceans on two sides and Britain’s mighty navy to secure its coasts and the impregnable Himalayas in the north-east.

The only point of access was in the far north-west, through the Khyber Pass which cut through the Spin Ghar Mountains and connected India (now Pakistan) to Afghanistan and beyond.

While it was a valuable trade route, the Khyber Pass also was the gateway through which history’s who’s-who of invaders had barged in and plundered India. Beginning with Alexander the Great and the mighty Persian King Darius-I in the BCs, we had Genghiz Khan, Mahmud of Ghaznavi, Mohammad Ghori and other assorted Turkic-Mongols riding in as if they owned the joint.



The Khyber Pass was the most famous of Afghanistan’s passes. It linked Kabul to Jalalabad and then on to the rest of India. Numerous tribes claimed ownership of the heights and all who travelled along the pass were expected to pay for the privilege, like a toll. This was regardless of who was in power in Kabul. 


India was the prize. But India was also a pushover. That is, until the great Sikh ruler of the northern state of Punjab, Ranjit Singh, captured the Khyber Pass in 1798. Invasions into India came to a grinding halt. Another fifty odd years and we had the British making deals with Ranjit Singh so that Punjab would remain a friendly buffer between British India and the big bad world beyond.

The Russians meanwhile had not stopped salivating every time they thought of India. The British Governor General of India, Lord Auckland, watched while the Russians went around signing treaties of friendship and trade deals like there was no tomorrow. Iran got roped in and the ruler of Afghanistan, the other nation bordering India, Emir Dost Mohammad Khan, was being courted lustily with an offer of a military alliance. If all the deal-making went through, then the British in India would find themselves potentially cut off by land to the west and vulnerable to more incursions by the Russians.

The Emir Dost Mohammad Khan was interested in forming an alliance with anyone who could help him drive Ranjit Singh’s forces away and bring the Khyber Pass back under his control. The best-case scenario would be to do a friendship deal with the British, having a proviso that they would get Ranjit Singh to back off from the Khyber Pass and other territories directly south that the Sikhs had annexed. To this end, the Emir sent Auckland an emissary with a letter and in return, received a British rep, Sir William Burnes.

Here is where the whole thing began unraveling. Instead of going for the deal with the Emir, Auckland decided to side with Ranjit Singh and chose what he thought was a surer solution – invade Afghanistan, drive out Dost Mohammad Khan and install a puppet, one that just happened to be waiting in the wings – Shah Shuja Durrani, a former Afghan leader whom the Emir had forced out of power twenty-five years earlier. Shah Shuja would remain indebted to the British, Auckland surmised.

The man chosen to head the British administration in Kabul after the invasion, was Sir William Hay Macnaghten, the forty-five-year-old chief secretary of the Calcutta Government. Macnaghten was bubbling with the kind of enthusiasm that a child has, over the prospect of playing with a new toy. He thought the invasion a brilliant idea. He had the game plan all worked out. A friendly Afghanistan would secure British interests in the area and even help to spread British influence.

And the invasion could hardly fail, given Britain’s military might. The British army would have no trouble sweeping away the primitive Afghan tribesmen who could barely read and write. The British would present themselves as liberators, freeing the Afghans from Russian meddling and bringing to the country the support and civilizing influence of England. As soon as Shah Shuja was in power, the British army would leave, so that British influence over the grateful Shah, although powerful, would be invisible to the Afghan public.

The invasion began in December 1838 when a 39000-strong British army braved the harsh winter and the forbiddingly rugged terrain to enter Afghanistan. The British had equipped themselves well. Among the gear loaded onto the 300 camels that accompanied the invasion force were kit bags with long-handled mallets and wooden balls for spending breezy Sunday afternoons in Kabul, playing polo. Someone had even thought of loading up a carriage full of hounds for fox hunting on similar balmy weekends.

Meeting little resistance along the way, in August 1839 the British army reached Kabul. Dost Mohammad Khan fled to the mountains, and Shah Shuja Durrani reentered the city. To the local inhabitants, the Shah was an alien sight. They could barely recognize him, he looked so old and fawningly submissive alongside Machaghten, who rode into Kabul wearing a bright-colored uniform topped by a cocked hat imperiously fringed with ostrich feathers. What are all these white-skins doing here, the Afghans began wondering.

Not for the last time were invaders of Afghanistan beguiled by an initial easy triumph. In fact, the scene was now set for catastrophe – a defeat that would shatter the myth of British imperial prestige for quite a few generations, until Britain would once again ride in, swashbuckling knights clinging on to the coat tails of the US troops, in 2001.

(to be continued……)






George Eden, First Baron of Auckland, appointed Governor General of India in 1836, the man who over-reacted in deciding that Dost Mohammed Khan could no longer be trusted after his invitation of the Russian envoy, Yan Vitkevich, to Kabul in 1837. It was not the last case of ‘either-you-are-with-us-or-against-us’ thought process. Lord Auckland was never censured for his misadventure. He went on to be the First Lord of the Admiralty and held this office until his death in 1849.




Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780 – 1839) was the founder of the Sikh Empire, based in the Punjab region, existed from 1799 to 1849. The one-eyed monarch was just 20 when he was invested, in 1801, as the Maharaja of Punjab. He spent years fighting rulers of the Durrani dynasty of Afghanistan, driving them out of Punjab and then invading the ethnic Pashtun territories all the way upto the Khyber Pass. Not for nothing that he was hailed as the Lion of Punjab (Sher-e-Punjab). 

His honeymoon with the British however, ended in 1846 when the Sikhs were defeated and a British rep of the East India Company(EIC) appointed to administer the territory was finally annexed by the Brits in 1849. Ranjit Singh was also the owner of the Koh-i-noor, an 800-carat diamond (the largest ever) that had been presented to him by the Afghan ruler Shah Shuja Durrani. After his defeat in the Anglo-Sikh Wars, the Koh-i-Noor was confiscated as the spoils of war, by the EIC rep, Lord Dalhousie. It now resides in London with the British Crown Jewels. (The Koh-i-Noor belongs to India but I suppose, Queen Betsy and her brood can take it and shove it up the other end of her alimentary canal).

Ranjit Singh was a strong ruler, who is greatly admired even today for his sense of justice and fair play. He died in 1839 at Lahore, present-day Pakistan.


Dost Mohammad Khan


Dost Mohammad Khan (1793 – 1863) was the founder of the Barakzai of Afghanistan and one of it’s prominent rulers. He became Emir of Afghanistan from 1826 to 1839, when the British invaded and ousted him in the First Anglo-Afghan War. He made a come-back in 1842, driving the British back south into India and remained in power till 1849. Dost Mohammad died of sudden cardiac arrest in the midst of a campaign that he was on the verge of winning against the Persians, in 1863.




Sir William Hay MacNaghten (1793-1841) was convinced that Dost Mohammed should be replaced by the pro-British Shah Shujah Durrani. He died a brutal death at the hands of Akbar Khan, the son of the ousted Emir Dost Mohammed, his body hacked to pieces by fanatical Ghaznavis.


(All images courtesy: Wikimedia)



2 thoughts on “The first Anglo-Afghan war (Part-1) : The invasion”

  1. Gary Robinson said:

    This is fascinating, Achyut. I can’t wait to read parts 2 and 3. I wish we had history teachers like you when I was a kid.


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