British First Adventurism in Afghanistan: (1838-1842) - an Unjustified Aggression, a Fiasco, a Disaster, an Episode of Blunders and Errors

By Bangash, Salman | Pakistan Historical Society. Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society, October 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

British First Adventurism in Afghanistan: (1838-1842) - an Unjustified Aggression, a Fiasco, a Disaster, an Episode of Blunders and Errors


Bangash, Salman, Pakistan Historical Society. Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society


Introduction

For the British, Afghanistan during the nineteenth century was like a cordon sanitaire, a bulwark and a First line of defence against the foreign encroachments (mainly by Tsarist Russia) towards the NorthWest Frontier of the British India. Throughout the Great Game, Russia and Great Britain with their diplomatic wrangling's tried to influence or control Afghanistan. The British Government devised various policies to keep the balance of power in its favour. Therefore, the British policy towards Afghanistan was based on persuasion, pressure and armed intervention. In order to fulfil its objectives Afghanistan was twice invaded during the 19th century, its borders were redefined, it was made a puppet state and a Buffer state to protect India. The first British adventure in Afghanistan was an unwanted aggression, but resulted in humiliation, catastrophe and disaster in military and political annals of the British history. The aim of this research paper is to critically evaluate the first Anglo-Afghan War, its fallout and repercussions.

Background

In October 1747, Ahmad Shäh Abdâlï or Durrani was elected by tribal elders at Qandahâr as their ruler, establishing the Saddoza'i dynasty (1747-1842) in Afghanistan.* Credit goes to Ahmad Shäh, that the region slowly but steadily banded together and developed into modern Afghanistan.1 When Ahmad Shäh Abdâlï died in 1773 he left his family firmly established in the kingdom.2

Unfortunately the first signs of a tragic denouement were apparent immediately after his death. His incapable heirs led to the collapse of the Durrânï Empire by the early 19th century. Two factors dominated Afghanistan throughout the nineteenth century: internal chaos and external invasions and bullying.3 In the early 1800s the Afghan misfortune made the crucial bastion of India's North-Western defences, Qandahâr Herat, and the Hindukush, virtually vulnerable, without any powerful authority on either side of the border to take care of the approaches to India.4 This particular period also marked the commencement of the British Colonial encounter with the Afghans which would afterward determine and decide the geo-politics of the region. When the first British mission under the leadership of Mountstuart Elphinstone visited Ahmad Shah's grandson Shäh Shujä' in 1808-1809, letter's territory was shrinking and the country was under the grip of a civil war.

While anarchy reigned in Afghanistan, the Sikhs flashed across the pages of history and fused together a kingdom under the leadership of Ranjlt Singh (1780-1839).5 Ranjït Singh by a judicious mixture of diplomacy and force extended his sway over Punjab, south and east of the Indus down to the Sutlej.6**

For the British the Afghans7 and Sikhs8 were both potential allies as well as enemies of great importance in the power struggles of the region as their respective areas separated the two imperial powers (Britain and Russia) from each other.9

The First British Adventurism in Afghanistan: The Road to Disaster

In 1838 intelligence reports were coming of an impending expedition by Russia in Central Asia against Khiva and Bukhara. On the other hand the siege of Herat10 was going on since November 1837 by the Persians, the ruler of Qandahar was ready for an agreement with the Persians. At Kabul Dost Muhammad Khan, the Amir of Afghanistan himself, was negotiating with the Russian agent, and the prospect loomed of a formidable alliance just when the Russians were poised to strike at Constantinople. The British also faced the threat of a possible war with the Burmese and the Gurkhas of Nepal. From London and Calcutta it looked as if events could go spiraling out of control if decisive action was not taken.11

Looking at the grim situation Neville McNeill, British Ambassader to Persia, wrote a letter on 11th April, 1838 to Lord Palmerston, the British Prime Minister, in which he explained Russian influence and the danger which the British could face in case of Persian success. …

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