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30 HISTORY •• Shah Shuja, Dost Mohammed & the British


Rudyard Kipling immortalised the term ‘the Great Game’ in his novel Kim. It refers to the competition between Britain and Russia over control of Central Asia, in which Afghanistan played a central role. Britain was ever paranoid about approaches to India, the jewel of its empire, while Russia feared any approaches towards the motherland itself. At the start of the 19th century much of Central Asia was unknown. Russia was rapidly expanding its borders towards the khanates of the old Silk Road cities, while Britain sought to explore and protect the routes through the Himalayas and Hindu Kush that led to the subcontinent. On both sides a motley bunch of explorers, emissaries and officers on ‘shooting leave’ risked their lives to map the region and try to win the confidence of local rulers. On the home fronts, politicians and pamphleteers kept tensions stoked up to levels of Cold War hysteria. While meddling at the Kabul court always seemed to be at the centre of things, the Great Game span off into Tibet, Chinese Turkestan and northern Pakistan, as Russian and British agents played cat-and-mouse amid the high passes. The Game reached its climax between 1880 and 1890, with war between the powers (over Afghanistan, of course) only narrowly avoided, and the settling of Afghanistan’s borders for imperial convenience a few years later. A century later, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the new Central Asian

states prompted a revival of the phrase. The ‘New Great Game’ was all about gas, oil and the rise of radical Islamism – and as if nothing had changed, Afghanistan found itself at the heart of political intrigue yet again.

For a brilliant retelling of the 19th century struggle between Britain and Russia in Central Asia, pick up Peter Hopkirk’s

The Great Game, told as

the Boy’s Own adventure it undoubtedly was for many of its protagonists.

feckless Shah Shuja, whose main achievement was to lose Peshawar to the expanding Sikh kingdom of Ranjit Singh. He was soon kicked into exile in British India by the rising star of Dost Mohammed Khan, a ruler popular for his learning, piety and sense of justice towards his people. Dost Mohammed took to the throne at a dangerous time. Both the British and Russian empires were creeping towards his borders in a ri- valry that became known as ‘the Great Game’ (see boxed text, above ). In 1836 the British sent Alexander ‘Bukhara’ Burnes to woo the amir. Dost Mohammed’s main preoccupation was regaining his beloved Peshawar, and he sought Burnes’ help in this. But Burnes had been sent empty handed, and although sympathetic to the amir’s designs, British policy favoured bolstering the Sikhs over all other considerations. While Dost Mohammed clearly saw the danger of being squeezed between imperial rivals (and at the time, Russia was aiding a Persian siege of Herat), he accepted Captain Ivan Vitkevich as an envoy from Moscow, hoping to encourage the British to engage more closely. The plan backfired in grand scale. The governor-general of India, Lord Auckland, decided that the amir must go, and a friendlier ruler put in his place. Shah Shuja was dusted down from retirement and placed at the head of a British and Indian army to restore him to power. From the outset the British saw their Army of the Indus as one great victory parade. Invading from the south, resistance at Kandahar was brushed aside, and once the great fortress of Ghazni was taken Dost Mohammed took to the hills. Shah Shuja was crowned amir again in front of a population that was at best indifferent. The British settled in, the officers sending for their wives while the enlisted men scandalised Kabul by dallying with the Afghan women.


Ahmad Shah Durrani crowned, begins creation of modern Afghan state


Peshawar lost to the expanding Sikh kingdom

HISTORY •• Sher Ali & the Iron Amir 31

With horse racing and amateur dramatics, garrison life seemed good. The whole country was ‘quiet from Dan to Beersheba,’ wrote the British envoy at the close of 1840, wilfully blind to signs that a tribal revolt under Dost Mohammed’s son Akbar Khan was brewing in the mountains. Afghan resentments spilled into bloodshed in November 1841 when a mob attacked Burnes’ house and hacked him to death. As events span out of control, the British eventually found themselves hounded from the country, in the disastrous retreat from Kabul (see boxed text, p32 ). A year later, the British sent an army of vengeance to level Kabul, but despite the costs in blood and treasure, they realised the folly of interfering in Afghanistan too closely and restored Dost Mohammed to the throne, with a fat subsidy to boot. The amir was never so popular or powerful. He began to build the first national army, and brought Afghan Turkestan back into the nation. In the 1860s Herat was restored too, where Dost Mohammed died, to be buried at the shrine of Gazar Gah.


After the usual confusion following an amir’s death, Sher Ali ascended the Kabul throne in 1869. As with Dost Mohammed, he came to power to a background of heightened imperial tensions. Russia had recently annexed Bukhara and Samarkand, steeping Britain in Great Game paranoia. When Sher Ali received an envoy from Moscow in 1878, London insisted that they be allowed to establish a permanent mission in Kabul – and having set themselves an impossibly short time for the amir to reply, sleepwalked into the Second Anglo-Afghan War. Apparently, no lessons had been learned from the 1840s disaster. No sooner was the British envoy Cavagnari installed by arms in Kabul, he was shot by Afghan soldiers rioting over pay. An army was sent from India to quell the trouble, which they did by imposing a reign of terror on Kabul with mass arrests and summary executions. Soon the whole countryside was ablaze with rebellion. Another British army was trounced, this time at Maiwand near Kandahar. Although the Afghan regular forces were eventually beaten, the British decided that they’d had enough. Amir Abdur Rahman Khan was allowed to take the throne from exile in Bukhara. Foreswearing any contacts with the Russians, he also insisted that no power interfere with internal Afghan affairs, and refused any envoys at his court. The British were only too happy to be shot of Afghanistan, signed a treaty with the amir and marched back to India. Abdur Rahman unified Afghanistan with ruthless determination, gain- ing him the moniker of the ‘Iron Amir’. He used his British subsidy to build up a strong army, which he then used to pacify the regions and break the old tribal monopolies on power. Over 10,000 Ghilzai families were relocated to the north following an uprising in the east. For the first time, Abdur Rahman claimed divine right to rule. The influence of the mullahs was restrained by bringing them under government control and establishing a unified sharia court system. When the mullahs pro- tested he won them back through campaigns against the Shiite Hazaras and, most spectacularly, capturing and converting the pagan tribes of Kafiristan in 1893 – thence renamed Nuristan, the ‘Land of Light’. An effective state administration was created for the first time and taxes were


British occupation of Afghanistan ends in disastrous retreat from Kabul


Second British invasion ends ignominiously; Abdur Rahman Khan takes the throne

The British Army invading Afghanistan in 1839 didn’t travel lightly – amid the 30,000-strong herd of pack animals were two camels dedicated to carrying regimental cigars, and a pack of hounds for fox-hunting.

For an alternative account of the disastrous British campaigns, consult George MacDonald Fraser’s essential Flashman, memoirs of the Empire’s greatest (fictional) cad, coward and hero. Page 1  |  Page 2  |  Page 3  |  Page 4  |  Page 5  |  Page 6  |  Page 7  |  Page 8  |  Page 9  |  Page 10  |  Page 11  |  Page 12  |  Page 13  |  Page 14  |  Page 15  |  Page 16  |  Page 17  |  Page 18  |  Page 19  |  Page 20  |  Page 21  |  Page 22  |  Page 23  |  Page 24  |  Page 25  |  Page 26  |  Page 27  |  Page 28  |  Page 29  |  Page 30  |  Page 31  |  Page 32  |  Page 33  |  Page 34  |  Page 35  |  Page 36  |  Page 37  |  Page 38  |  Page 39  |  Page 40  |  Page 41  |  Page 42  |  Page 43  |  Page 44  |  Page 45  |  Page 46  |  Page 47  |  Page 48  |  Page 49  |  Page 50  |  Page 51  |  Page 52  |  Page 53  |  Page 54  |  Page 55  |  Page 56  |  Page 57  |  Page 58  |  Page 59  |  Page 60  |  Page 61  |  Page 62  |  Page 63  |  Page 64  |  Page 65  |  Page 66  |  Page 67  |  Page 68  |  Page 69  |  Page 70  |  Page 71  |  Page 72  |  Page 73  |  Page 74  |  Page 75  |  Page 76  |  Page 77  |  Page 78  |  Page 79  |  Page 80  |  Page 81  |  Page 82  |  Page 83  |  Page 84  |  Page 85  |  Page 86  |  Page 87  |  Page 88  |  Page 89  |  Page 90  |  Page 91  |  Page 92  |  Page 93  |  Page 94  |  Page 95  |  Page 96  |  Page 97  |  Page 98  |  Page 99  |  Page 100  |  Page 101  |  Page 102  |  Page 103  |  Page 104  |  Page 105  |  Page 106  |  Page 107  |  Page 108  |  Page 109  |  Page 110  |  Page 111  |  Page 112  |  Page 113  |  Page 114  |  Page 115  |  Page 116  |  Page 117  |  Page 118  |  Page 119  |  Page 120  |  Page 121  |  Page 122  |  Page 123
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