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Afghanistan’s history of invasion and resistance

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Imperialist invasions have scarred Afghanistan’s history over the last three centuries, writes Simon Basketter, but the great powers’ plans have been thwarted by resistance
Issue 2109
Afghan fighters during the Second Afghan War
Afghan fighters during the Second Afghan War

In March 1836 Lord Auckland, the British governor of India, wrote to the Afghan ruler Amir Dost Mohammed with no apparent sense of irony, “You are aware that it is not the practice of the British government to interfere with the affairs of other independent states.”

Afghanistan would be a far better place today it he had being telling the truth. Afghanistan’s entire history is one of attempts by imperial powers to dominate it.

A kingdom of Afghanistan was founded in 1747. Under the auspices of the East India Company, Britain made repeated attempts to force Afghanistan under its domination throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

France and Russia planned a combined invasion of India in 1807. This threat induced the British to come to an agreement with the Afghan rulers.

In a predictable fit of incompetence, Britain signed a treaty with the ruler Shah Shuja on 7 June 1809. But before the ink was dry Shah Shuja had lost power to Dost Mohammed, who looked to Russia for support.

Thirty years of peace ensued as the British plotted their next move. By 1838 they were ready.

On 2 November that year British forces assembled at Firozpur in India began marching towards the city of Kandahar.

The government covered up the East India Company’s influence over the outbreak of the war, even producing false documents to justify the war.

As the revolutionary Karl Marx noted, “Palmerston [the British prime minister] had undertaken war without the knowledge of the parliament. The Afghan war was mitigated and justified by forged documents.”

British troops captured Kandahar on 25 April 1839 after intense fighting and they installed Shuja as the king.

The British handed out bags of gold to all the important Afghan lords to buy off opposition.

But the East India Company soon realised that in order to hold Afghanistan it would have to pay out more in subsidies than it collected in revenue.

So it cut back payments to the border lords, who then turned against the British.

The British had also brought a large army to Kabul and Kandahar, which ate up the country’s sparse surplus of grain.


The price of bread climbed to more than double the usual. This drove the urban poor to desperation and increased hatred of the British. Urban riots erupted and a despised British agent was the first to be killed.

Attacked on all sides, the British retreated on 1 January 1842. The departing contingent numbered around 14-16,000, the majority of them Indian.

As they struggled through the snowbound passes lying along the Kabul River between Kabul and Gandamak, they were attacked.

Harassed down the 30 miles of gorges and passes lying along the river they were massacred at the Gandamak pass before the survivors reached the besieged garrison at Jalalabad.

The force had been reduced to fewer than 40 during the retreat that had become, towards the end, a running battle in two feet of snow.

Only a dozen of the men had working guns.

The only Briton known to have escaped was Dr William Brydon, though a few others were captured.

Brydon was declared the only survivor, and a bizarre myth of British fortitude in defeat was born. The rest of the survivors, not being white, were forgotten about.

The British returned briefly to loot, rape and burn, so “teaching the Afghans a lesson”. But they couldn’t hold the country and they withdrew in a humiliating defeat for the British Empire.

The British described what developed, arrogantly and preposterously, as “the great game”.

It was a rivalry over who controlled India. And Afghanistan was the route to India.

Russia and Britain were in competition over who dominated the region. The arrival of a Russian diplomatic mission to Kabul in 1868 saw the British return.

They sent an ambassador with an escort of 300 soldiers. The Afghan army had not been paid for months. The rumour spread that the British would pay the army.

Some of the troops marched all the way from Herat at the other end of the country and presented themselves at the gates of the British embassy for their pay.

Wiped out

They were refused and then wiped out the 300 soldiers, and so began the Second Afghan War.

The British invaded with force and considerable brutality.

They were met with a general uprising in Kabul. At the decisive battle of Maiwand near Kandahar, they were defeated.

They negotiated their withdrawal in 1881, recognising Abdur Rahman as the new king. The British gave him a generous subsidy for the next 20 years until his death.

Henry Mortimer Durand, a secretary of foreign affairs of the British

government in India, arrived in November 1893.

A huge British force assembled on Afghanistan’s eastern and southern borders.

Abdur Rahman agreed to a new frontier of Afghanistan. The new border was what is called the Durand line and it deprived Afghanistan of about one third of its population.

The British redrew Afghanistan’s borders so that they excluded any fertile land.

They created a poor state, and by giving their clients cash and guns enabled them to shape that state.

Afghanistan remained a British protectorate until the Third Afghan War of 1919.

After the workers’ revolution in Russia in 1917 the Bolshevik government made clear that it had no imperial designs on Afghanistan.

In 1919 King Amanullah took the throne and led the country into war with British India.

The British were exhausted by the First World War and losing their grip on India.

As Afghan fighters shot at British planes from the mountain tops, the British capitulated within days and Afghanistan won a level of “independence” in foreign affairs.

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