Chapter 2

The Anglo-Afghan Wars

by Jules Stewart

This chapter may spend what seems a disproportionate amount of time on the First Afghan War, but this is arguably time well spent, as that sorry episode could serve as a master class in how not to wage war in Afghanistan. It also speaks volumes of how the miscalculations and ignorance of some overly ambitious politicians can so easily lead to disaster.

The start of modern conflict in Afghanistan has to be seen in the context of the Great Game, the strategic rivalry between the British and Russian empires for supremacy in Central Asia. It is tricky to define precisely when this confrontation began because throughout the entire period, not a shot was fired between the two rival empires. I believe it can be measured from the settlement of the Russian–Persian war in 1813, which brought Russia uncomfortably close to British territory. 

The end of the Great Game is generally given as the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, which carved up Persia into Russian and British zones, with a neutral buffer zone in the middle, though in reality Soviet Russia remained a perceived menace right up to the British withdrawal from India in 1947.

However, we can take the late 1830s as the start of the active Great Game period. This was when Persia, supported by the Russians, was laying siege to Herat, an event that led directly to Britain’s first invasion of Afghanistan. If Russia had serious designs on British India, the obvious route was across Afghanistan to the North-West Frontier passes, for this has always been the soft underbelly of British India, which was virtually impregnable from any other entry point. Neither Russia nor any other power was in a position to launch a sea invasion, and pushing an army across the Himalaya or Hindu Kush would have been suicidal. The only feasible route was across Afghanistan, through the vulnerable Khyber Pass or the more southerly route via the Bolan Pass of Baluchistan.

In 1836, with the Persian Army and their Russian supporters camped outside the gates of Herat, Britain’s focus was on the poorly defended borders of Afghanistan, a land that was as politically fragmented in the 19th century as it is today. For the army, the spectre of Cossack cavalry patrols along the banks of the Oxus was the stuff of nightmares. The Governor General, Lord Auckland, dispatched the Scottish traveller and explorer Alexander Burnes to Kabul to secure the allegiance of the Emir, Dost Mohammad, in the face of this perceived Russian menace.

The final straw came in late 1837, when a young Cossack officer named Yan Vitkevich pitched up in Kabul to negotiate a treaty with Russia. When news of Vitkevich’s mission reached the government, Auckland panicked and raised the Army of the Indus to oust Dost Mohammad and put his own protégé, Shah Shuja on the throne – this, in spite of the fact that Dost Mohammad continued every step of the way to proclaim himself a friend of British India.

Meanwhile Lord Palmerston, who was serving as Foreign Secretary, as was his wont had dispatched the gunboats to the Persian Gulf. When the Shah of Persia found himself threatened with British military intervention, he raised the siege, got on his horse and went back to Tehran. This was in August 1838, and the date is important for in October of that year Auckland issued the infamous Simla Manifesto, an early “dodgy dossier” that was used to justify the invasion of Afghanistan. Even contemporary historians such as John Kaye censured the Simla Manifesto as a document dripping with lies and hypocrisy.

Compare Lord Auckland’s letter to Dost Mohammad in 1837: “My friend, you are aware that it is not the practice of the British government to interfere in the affairs of other independent states”, to the Manifesto issued exactly one year later: “The Governor-General has been led to these measures (the invasion) by the duty which is imposed upon him of providing for the security of the British Crown. But he rejoices that . . . he will be enabled to assist in restoring the union and the prosperity of the Afghan people.”

At the same time, the Russian mission to Kabul was such an outstanding failure that Vitkevich returned home and put a revolver to his head. Simla lies less than 900 miles from Herat and there is little doubt that Auckland had been made aware of these events, yet the wheels had been set into motion and nothing was done to halt the expedition. The campaign was launched without a shred of evidence to support the fears of a Russian invasion. The nearest Russian military outpost was a thousand miles from India and the idea of stretching an army’s supply lines that distance and across potentially hostile territory would have deterred even the most zealous of Russian military leaders.

It was a war waged on the basis of misinformation and against the advice of no lesser a military authority than the Duke of Wellington, who warned, “The consequences of crossing the Indus once to settle a government in Afghanistan, will be a perennial march into that country.” To that we can add the words of Britain’s most knowledgeable Afghan pundit, the statesman and historian Mountstuart Elphinstone: “I have no doubt you will take Kandahar and Kabul and set up Shuja, but for maintaining him . . . among a turbulent people like the Afghans, I own it seems to me to be hopeless.” So here we have the Russians cast as weapons of mass destruction.

The Army of the Indus was the largest force that British India had ever put into the field: 21,000 troops, 38,000 Indian servants and 30,000 camels, not to omit the 16th Lancer’s pack of foxhounds. The campaign was a walkover and it was dubbed “the military promenade”. The troops quickly took Kandahar, Ghazni with a bit more difficulty, and then carried on to Kabul. So regime change was achieved, Shah Shuja was placed on the throne and the army settled into its indefensible cantonments, which were sited on swampy low ground two miles from the almost impregnable Bala Hissar fortress. Ironically, if you stand on this spot today you’ll find yourself squarely in the middle of the British Embassy compound.

There is no question but that troops should have been garrisoned in the Bala Hissar. The problem was that the army had been gazumped by Shah Shuja who requisitioned the fortress for himself and his 800 wives and retainers. The decision was taken to leave half a dozen regiments in Kabul to defend Shah Shuja, and no regrets were heard in the ranks at the prospect of leaving Afghanistan. General John Keane, as he was preparing to depart Kabul, said to one of his officers: “I cannot but congratulate you on quitting the country, for mark my words, it will not be long before some signal catastrophe takes place.”

By the autumn of 1841, the party was over and Dost Mohammad’s son, Akbar Khan, was leading an insurrection against the British garrison. The commander in Kabul, General William Elphinstone was an incompetent and gravely ill man who had last seen active service at Waterloo. In April, the 59-year-old Elphinstone, gout-stricken and with one arm in a sling, had made most of the journey from Calcutta to Kabul in a palanquin. So what on Earth was Elphinstone doing in Afghanistan? Who had sent him there? And why? The person who was instrumental in dispatching Elphinstone to Kabul was Fitzroy Somerset, the future Lord Raglan. Raglan was military secretary at the Horse Guards, and he exercised considerable influence over army appointments. It will be recalled that Raglan also bore responsibility for the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava.

There were basically two causes for the uprising and subsequent military disaster and both are relevant to our interaction with the Pashtuns of Afghanistan today. The government’s envoy and Auckland’s right-hand man, Sir William Macnaghten, had authorised the officers to send for their families. This caused great alarm amongst the tribal chiefs, who took it as a signal that the army was digging in for long-term occupation. Secondly, Macnaghten then summoned the chiefs to his residence and told them that, much to his regret, the government had embarked on a cost-cutting exercise. Hence the subsidies paid to the tribes for safeguarding the roads and passes to India would therefore be halved. On hearing the news, the chiefs rose and left Macnaghten’s residence in silence.

The insurrection followed almost immediately. The first high-profile victim was Alexander Burnes, who was murdered by a rampaging mob outside his house. In spite of this catastrophe, Macnaghten was still in denial. He wrote a note to Elphinstone explaining that the situation was not one of “immediate apprehension”. Elphinstone was equally out of touch with reality. On hearing of Burnes’s murder, he told Macnaghten: “We must see what the morning brings, and then think what can be done.”

The four senior officers in Kabul appealed to Macnaghten to open a dialogue for the army’s immediate withdrawal to India. This, at a time when the road between the cantonments and the safety of the Bala Hissar remained open and unchallenged. Moreover, the army still had more than 4,000 men fit for service as well as a year’s worth of ammunition of all kinds. Nevertheless, Elphinstone agreed on a retreat, having been given undertakings by Akbar Khan of a safe escort back to India.

Macnaghten set off to negotiate the terms of the garrison’s withdrawal with Akbar Khan, who promptly shot him dead with the pistol he had been given by Macnaghten the day before. Macnaghten’s head was impaled on a stake in a public square, and that night some thoughtful soul came out to replace his glasses. Major Eldred Pottinger, the second most senior civilian in Kabul and the man who had organised the successful defence of Herat, was designated Macnaghten’s successor, and to him fell the unhappy task of negotiating the army’s withdrawal from Kabul. Pottinger made no pretence of being honoured by his appointment. “I was obliged to negotiate for the safety of a parcel of fools who were doing all they could to ensure their destruction, but they would not hear my advice.”

Major General Robert Sale, who was commanding the garrison at Jalalabad, had left behind in Kabul his wife, Florentia Sale, to look after their pregnant daughter Alexandrina and her wounded son-in-law, the garrison engineer Lieutenant John Sturt. Lady Sale was not only the lionhearted memsahib of the Afghan war, but also a truly outstanding heroine of the Victorian age. It is through the journal left by Lady Sale, who was 51 years old, that we are left a superb blow-by-blow, eyewitness account of the Afghan campaign, from General Sale’s march to Jalalabad, through the awful hardships of the retreat of the Army of the Indus, to the captivity and final deliverance of the British hostages who were being held by Akbar Khan.

Lady Sale’s diary for 18 December foretells in one frightening phrase of the disaster lying in wait for the British Army: “When we rose this morning the ground was covered with snow, which continued falling all day.” By evening prayer, the snow lay many inches thick on the ground. Like a death knell, the words “snow all day” rang with grim regularity in her diary entries from that day forward.

On a bitterly cold January morning in 1842, with six inches of fresh snow on the ground, the British and Indian troops, wives, children and camp followers marched out the gates of Kabul, never to be seen again. Within a week, with the exception of a handful of hostages, the entire force lay dead or dying in the frozen passes. Dr William Brydon, a young Scottish surgeon with the Army of the Indus, was the only European to reach the safety of Jalalabad. Brydon was losing blood from wounds to the knee and to his left hand, and he had also received a near-fatal blow to the head from an Afghan knife. He was saved only by a copy of Blackwood’s Magazine rolled up under his forage cap. The result of this misadventure was the worst single military disaster the Raj ever suffered – a column of nearly 16,000 people, troops, their families and camp followers, massacred on the retreat from Kabul.

The new Governor General, Lord Ellenborough, was determined to rescue British honour at any price. This was an inherent feature of Ellenborough’s character, a man who a few years previously had fought a duel with a German nobleman to avenge his wife’s adultery.

Ellenborough sent an expeditionary force, the Army of Retribution (an earlier name for “Operation Enduring Freedom”), into Afghanistan. Retaliation was swift and deadly. General George Pollock forced the Khyber Pass with 14,000 men and delivered Akbar Khan a resounding defeat in two hard-fought battles. The army then marched on to Kabul and reached the city gates in September, where gallows were erected and any Afghan found bearing arms was invited to mount the scaffold. For good measure, the Great Bazaar was burnt to the ground and in October, Kabul was evacuated and the army fought its way back to India.

Once satisfied that British integrity had been restored, Ellenborough took to celebrating in grand style. A great ceremonial arch was set up at the Sutlej river, behind which stood two mile-long rows of 250 painted elephants. Ellenborough himself took a personal hand in decorating the beasts. His original idea was to arrange his army in the form of a star, with the artillery at the point of each ray, and a throne for himself in the centre. When the Duke of Wellington was told of this he remarked: “Yes, and he ought to sit upon it in a straight waistcoat.” By Christmas, the entire Army of Retribution was back on British soil and the year 1842 came to a close with a grand military display in the presence of Ellenborough, the Commander-in-Chief, scores of British and Sikh dignitaries, and a supporting cast of 40,000 men and a hundred guns. General Sir Charles Napier, who was also present, later said that Brigadier Shelton, the second-in-command who was constantly bickering with Elphinstone and refused to go on the offensive, ought to have been shot.

According to one contemporary observer: “Not since Waterloo had British arms cause to celebrate so signal a triumph.” There was only one incident to mar all this grandeur and magnificence. The elephants, perhaps in their wisdom sensing the absurdity of the occasion, refused to trumpet on command.

As an aside, it later emerged that Alexander Burnes’s reports detailing his negotiations with Dost Mohammad had been doctored by government officials to make it appear that the Emir had turned his back on Britain in favour of a Russian alliance. This was a complete distortion of the truth, but when a protest erupted in Parliament, Disraeli, Palmerston and the rest of the establishment closed ranks and refused to hold an inquiry. They enjoyed the support of The Times, which in 1842 by the way had been severely critical of the war, which it summed up thusly: “This nation spent £15 million on a worse than profitable effort after self-aggrandisement in Afghanistan, and spends £30,000 a year on a system of education satisfactory to nobody.”

Twenty years later the paper took a different view: “Not half the undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge were born when the 44th was perishing in the Khyber Pass [wrong – the last stand of the 44th was at Gandamak, not in the Khyber Pass], yet now, when the Continent is upheaving with the hidden force of old nationalities, it will be reported far and wide that the British Legislature has been amusing itself with a debate about a matter twenty years old.”

Dost Mohammad, who was ousted at the cost of so much bloodshed, was now restored to the throne. He ruled until his death in 1863, after which Afghanistan disintegrated into chaos. Another of Dost Mohammad’s sons, Sher Ali, eventually seized power, at a time when Russia’s attention was turned to Central Asia in earnest. In 1878 the Russians sent an uninvited and unwanted diplomatic mission to Kabul. Sher Ali tried, but failed, to keep them out. The British of course demanded that the Emir also accept a mission of their own, but this was flatly refused. The last thing the Emir wanted was an Anglo-Russian confrontation in the streets of Kabul. The next step was to launch a second invasion of Afghanistan on the grounds of Russo-phobia, though this time arguably with a bit more justification, given the speed at which Russia was gobbling up the khanates, or kingdoms of Central Asia. Tashkent, Samarkand, Bokhara and Kokand were taken within the space of roughly 10 years. A British force of 40,000 men marched into Afghanistan and Sher Ali appealed to Russia for assistance.

But the Russians, as usual, had no stomach for war with Britain and a few months later, exhausted and disheartened, the Emir died in Mazar-e Sharif. By that time British forces had occupied much of the country, and Sher Ali’s son and successor, Mohammad Ayub Khan, signed the Treaty of Gandamak in an attempt to avoid a total takeover of his country. Under this agreement he allowed a permanent British Resident in Kabul and he relinquished control of Afghan foreign affairs to Britain, in return for an annual subsidy and undertakings of assistance in case of aggression by Russia or Persia. Britain at last had their agent in Kabul, Sir Pierre Cavagnari, but not for long – within weeks he and his entire staff were slaughtered by a mob, a provocation that brought on the next stage of the Second Afghan War.

This time the army went in properly equipped and supplied to meet the Afghans in battle. They carried with them 140,000 pounds of biscuits, 23,000 pounds of cocoa, 383,000 pounds of tea and a supply of weapons of mass destruction of their own, though it is open to question whether this was for the destruction of the enemy or the army itself. It consisted of 264,000 gallons of rum and “smaller, unspecified quantities of beer, gin, pale ale and sherry”. They were clearly prepared for a scrap. 

Major General Sir Frederick Roberts led his force into central Afghanistan, where he inflicted a resounding defeat on the Afghans and then moved his army on to Kabul. Ayub Khan, who was suspected of complicity in the massacre of Cavagnari and his staff, was forced to abdicate and Britain installed Abdur Rahman, Dost Mohammad’s grandson, as Emir. Ayub Khan was unhappy at being sidelined so he incited the tribes to revolt, forcing the British to fight a desperate battle at Maiwand, where they were defeated and beat a hasty retreat back to Kandahar. That was when Roberts led the famous 320-mile march from Kabul to Kandahar in 20 days and in 100°F heat, where he dealt the Afghans a decisive blow, after which the army withdrew from Afghanistan, and this time they took the precaution of not leaving a British Resident in Kabul.

So what had this war achieved? Well, according to Lord Harrington, who was Secretary of State for India, with “the deployment of an enormous force, and of the expenditure of large sums of money, all that had been accomplished has been the disintegration of the state which it was desired to see strong, friendly and independent, and a condition of anarchy throughout the country”. All this, with up to 40,000 dead and wounded on both sides, because the Viceroy Lord Lytton had a panic attack and decided to wage war against an Afghan ruler who was himself deeply anxious about the Russian presence on his doorstep and had pleaded in vain for assistance from the British government – a dreadful replay of what had transpired 40 years previously between Dost Mohammad and Lord Auckland.

Along with Ahmad Shah and Dost Mohammad, Abdur Rahman is a household name in Afghanistan and it is useful to know who he was and what he achieved. During the 20 years he was on the throne of Kabul, Abdur Rahman took Afghanistan towards, if not quite into, the 20th  century. He reined in the power of the mullahs, a people he considered ignorant despots. He also made an attempt to break the tribal system and bring the maliks under his control.

One example of this was a decree in favour of women’s rights, and this in 19th-century Afghanistan. Under tribal custom, if a woman lost her husband, his next-of-kin had the right to marry her, even against her wishes. Abdur Rahman took the bold step of issuing a decree that freed widows to marry whomever they wanted. Yet make no mistake, he ruled with an iron fist that fully justified his title of the Iron Emir – women may have been given some rights, but adultery was definitely not one of them. His favourite punishment for this crime was to have the woman boiled down to a broth and force the offending man to drink it, after which he was murdered.

It was under Abdur Rahman’s rule that in 1893 the eastern border of Afghanistan was demarcated by the Durand Line. He was a diabolically clever and ruthless man – to deal with the rebellious Ghilzai Pashtuns he transplanted thousands of families north of the Hindu Kush in a forced migration, which had the dual effect of diluting their power in the south whilst enhancing Pashtun influence amongst the Uzbeks and Tajiks of the north. The Afghan Army, which in the past was simply a mass of fighting men, was brought up to professional standards and he instituted officer training and exams.

His reign was often marked by brutality, but he likewise achieved significant social and political reforms, such as organising his government into departments along Western lines, and it can safely be said that he was the first ruler to attempt to bring the country under a centralised administration.

When Abdur Rahman died in 1901, his son Habibullah inherited the throne in a remarkably seamless transition and began to develop the country, with factories, hydroelectric plants and road-building schemes. It was very much an uphill struggle as all along he had to contend with reactionary forces. He was accused of betraying Islam when he refused to call a Jihad against British India and in 1919 he was assassinated.

The throne remained in the family, however, and his son Amanullah took over. He came out as a staunch supporter of the Islamists, as he had no wish to follow in his father’s footsteps. Shortly after becoming Emir, Amanullah launched an attack on India through the Khyber Pass with the objective of achieving formal independence from Britain. This led to the Third Afghan War.

On his accession to the throne, Amanullah wrote to the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, proclaiming his friendship and eagerness to enter into treaties from which both countries might derive commercial benefits. In doing so, Amanullah ironically set the scene for armed confrontation with Britain. Amanullah was left desperately seeking a means to gain support from his people and his generals. He found it in the traditional expedient of making war on an unpopular neighbour, and in doing so he showed considerable astuteness. The British government was in no position to devote much time or resources to analysing and countering warning signals from across the border. So they had no awareness that plans were being drawn up to attack British territory. In fact, Major George Roos-Keppel, serving as Chief Commissioner of the North-West Frontier Province, wrote to the Viceroy in one of his weekly dispatches in April that he was looking forward to a “quiet summer”. This was a few weeks before Afghanistan invaded.

Amanullah believed he had ample justification for launching an invasion. The Amritsar massacre, coupled with Britain’s perceived military and economic weakness less than six months after the end of hostilities in Europe, Afghanistan’s perennial indignation over feringhees (foreigners) lording it over Pashtun tribesmen on the Indian Frontier, the clamour for the reinstatement of Afghan control of the country’s foreign policy, the alleged injustice of the Durand Line having been “forcibly” imposed on Abdur Rahman – all these factors converged, making it impossible for Amanullah to resist the call for Jihad.

This was the moment for Amanullah to establish his Islamist credentials with a highly suspicious military and clerical hierarchy. Amanullah had made intensive preparations for the conflict, though it is questionable whether he ever intended it to go beyond an exercise in border harassment. On 3 May, Afghan army units slipped across the border and swiftly stormed and occupied the village of Bagh at the western end of the Khyber Pass.

The military position in the Third Afghan War placed British India at a disadvantage in terms of the number of trained units available for immediate service on the North-West Frontier. The Afghan Army was not an especially formidable force, but it had been fashioned into a far more disciplined and better-equipped adversary than the ragbag lashkars (private armies) of the past. When war was declared, the British forces in India were well below their authorised strength. Large numbers of troops had been demobilised and sent home after the First World War and these were not replaced.

The forces that were raised to meet the Afghan incursion were divided into two battle groups. The North-West Frontier Force was under the command of General Sir Arthur Barrett, a man of great Frontier experience. Lieutenant General Richard Wapshare, a former Master of the Bengal Foxhunt and a big game hunter with more than fifty tigers to his credit, was logically placed in charge of the Baluchistan Force. It was Wapshare who decided that Spin Baldak fort, about 40 miles south of Kandahar, had to be taken.

The late George MacDonald Fraser, the creator of Flashman, once remarked that war was tragic and devastating, but that “it could also be funny”. This was clearly demonstrated in the storming of Spin Baldak. A 1st Gurkhas subaltern named Francis Hughes recalls that prior to the attack senior officers: “Acting doubtless on the excellent principle that if you can’t surprise the enemy it is better to surprise your own side than no one at all,” was with the regiment that was ordered to take the fort’s 15-foot-high outer walls. This was to be the last time the British Army used scaling ladders. “The plan,” he said, “was to first place the scaling ladders in the ditch, so that the regiment could climb down one side and then up the other. Then the men were meant to climb the wall, haul up the ladders, climb down, go through the ditch, and then climb the next wall. The Gurkhas were greatly diverted by this simple plan and declared that nothing like it had been seen since the siege of Jerusalem.”

Everything was to be carried out in deathly silence. “Indeed,” he explains, “the only sounds were the crashing of ammunition boxes and entrenching tools as the mules threw their loads, and the thudding of hooves as they bolted into the night. Every few seconds the air was split by the yells of some officer urging the men to greater silence. A sound as of corrugated iron being dropped from a great height denoted that the scaling ladders were being loaded onto the carts. With these two exceptions, no one would have had an inkling that several thousand armed men were pressing forward to the fray.” As things turned out, the scaling ladders were too short even for descending into the ditches, but the fort was eventually overrun and occupied for one month. The British went about strengthening its defences, they improved the water supply and after the war, they handed it back to the Afghans.

On 24 May, Captain Robert Halley, who was reputed to be the smallest pilot in the RAF, took his gigantic Handley-Page V/1500, at the time the world’s largest bomber, on a three-hour flight from Peshawar to Kabul, where he proceeded to lob some twenty bombs on the city. Amanullah emerged from the smouldering wreckage of his palace to survey the effects of this raid by a single RAF bomber. He contemplated the ruins of his father’s tomb, he conferred with his ministers and field commanders, and four days later he sued for peace.

In a remarkable letter to the Viceroy Lord Chelmsford, he attempted to downplay the war by stating: “It was not my wish to break our longstanding friendship or see enmity grow from bloodshed, and in proof of our good intentions we enclose copies of orders sent to our commanders to cease from hostilities”. The Emir also claimed that: “It was never the intention of my government that our friendship should be severed.” A curious gesture of friendship this, which caused the mobilisation of 340,000 troops and nearly 2,000 British and Indian casualties. 

The Peace Treaty was signed at Rawalpindi on 9 August 1919. The terms of the treaty got Amanullah nicely off the hook with his disgruntled military: “Afghanistan is left officially free and independent in its affairs, both internal and external.” With this Britain had relinquished control of Afghan foreign policy.

Who had won this war? There was no doubt that British arms had been victorious, as was the case in the two previous conflicts. But Amanullah chose to ignore this development. He distributed medals to his defeated generals and he erected in Kabul a great column with a chained lion at the base. This represented Britain. The Emir’s popularity lasted only another ten years, however. A tour of Europe opened his eyes to the benefits of Western civilisation, which he then tried to impose on his own country. The fundamentalist elements in the army and the clergy were not having it. In 1929 Amanullah was forced to abdicate. He fled up the Khyber Pass in a Rolls Royce, clutching his beloved caged canary.

There can be little doubt that British arms prevailed in the three wars fought in or against Afghanistan. The Afghans, then as now, are no match for British troops in open combat. Another matter is what these conflicts had achieved. The 1838 to 1842 campaign was waged in response to the threat of Russia turning Afghanistan into a vassal state, which it could then use as a launch pad for an attack on British India. Yet there is scarcely a shred of historical evidence to support the claim that Russia ever intended to engage in hostilities with Britain. This misadventure resulted in the loss of more than 16,000 lives on the British side alone.

The second invasion was launched largely for the same reasons – to abort a Russian attempt to exert influence on Afghanistan – something that had never manifested itself as a genuine threat. Casualties in this war amounted to nearly 10,000 British and Indian dead and wounded, as well as an unknown number of Afghan casualties, not to mention the near depletion of the colonial government’s treasury. Britain achieved some territorial gains, notably the strategically important Kurram Valley and the Khyber Pass, but the demarcation of the Durand Line some 15 years later incited the border tribes to almost constant revolt against the British. It can be argued that Britain’s most significant political victory was having wrested control of Afghanistan’s foreign policy, which effectively prevented Kabul from striking any deals with Russia or Persia.

Less than 40 years later, with the conclusion of the Third Afghan War, Afghanistan was once more in possession of its own foreign affairs. In all this time, with three wars fought in 80 years, almost nothing was done to improve the lot of the border tribes or the people on the other side of the Durand Line. Hence Britain was always viewed as the enemy. It is to be hoped that the lessons of past mistakes will be taken into account in the current conflict in Afghanistan.


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