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Dost Mohammad and the British in Afghanistan

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The rise of Dost Mohammad[?] and the period of British Empire involvement in the history of Afghanistan, until Afghanistan retained full independence, 1826-1919. Follows on from Afghanistan from Ahmad Shah until Dost Mohammed.

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The Rise of Dost Mohammad Khan[?]

It was not until 1826 that the energetic Dost Mohammad was able to exert sufficient control over his brothers to take over the throne in Kabul, where he proclaimed himself amir.

Dost Mohammad achieved prominence among his brothers through clever use of the support of his mother's Qizilbash[?] tribesmen and his own youthful apprenticeship under his brother, Fateh Khan[?]. Among the many problems he faced was repelling Sikh encroachment on the Pashtun areas east of the Khyber Pass. After working assiduously to establish control and stability in his domains around Kabul, the amir next chose to confront the Sikhs.

In 1834 Dost Mohammad defeated an invasion by the former ruler, Shah Shuja[?], but his absence from Kabul gave the Sikhs the opportunity to expand westward. Ranjit Singh's[?] forces occupied Peshawar, moving from there into territory ruled directly by Kabul. In 1836 Dost Mohammad's forces, under the command of his son Mohammad Akbar Khan[?], defeated the Sikhs at Jamrud[?], a post fifteen kilometers west of Peshawar. The Afghan leader did not follow up this triumph by retaking Peshawar, however, but instead contacted Lord Auckland, the new British governor general in India, for help in dealing with the Sikhs. With this letter, Dost Mohammad formally set the stage for British intervention in Afghanistan. At the heart of the Great Game lay the willingness of Britain and Russia to subdue, subvert, or subjugate the small independent states that lay between them.

The Great Game

The British became the major power in the Indian sub-continent after the Treaty of Paris (1763) and had begun to show interest in Afghanistan as early as their 1809 treaty with Shah Shuja[?]. It was the threat of the expanding Russian Empire beginning to push for an advantage in the Afghanistan region that placed pressure on British India, in what became known as the "Great Game". The Great Game set in motion the confrontation of the British and Russian empires--whose spheres of influence moved steadily closer to one another until they met in Afghanistan. It also involved Britain's repeated attempts to impose a puppet government in Kabul. The remainder of the nineteenth century saw greater European involvement in Afghanistan and her surrounding territories and heightened conflict among the ambitious local rulers as Afghanistan's fate played out globally.

The debacle of the Afghan civil war left a vacuum in the Hindu Kush area that concerned the British, who were well aware of the many times in history it had been employed as the invasion route to India. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, it became clear to the British that the major threat to their interests in India would not come from the fragmented Afghan empire, the Iranians, or the French, but from the Russians, who had already begun a steady advance southward from the Caucasus.

At the same time, the Russians feared permanent British occupation in Central Asia as the British encroached northward, taking the Punjab, Sindh, and Kashmir. The British viewed Russia's absorption of the Caucasus, the Kirghiz and Turkmen lands, and the Khanates of Khiva[?] and Bukhara with equal suspicion as a threat to their interests in the Indian subcontinent.

In addition to this rivalry between Britain and Russia, there were two specific reasons for British concern over Russia's intentions. First was the Russian influence at the Iranian court, which prompted the Russians to support Iran in its attempt to take Herat, historically the western gateway to Afghanistan and northern India. In 1837 Iran advanced on Herat with the support and advice of Russian officers. The second immediate reason was the presence in Kabul in 1837 of a Russian agent, Captain P. Vitkevich[?], who was ostensibly there, as was the British agent Alexander Burnes, for commercial discussions.

The British demanded that Dost Mohammad sever all contact with the Iranians and Russians, remove Vitkevich from Kabul, surrender all claims to Peshawar, and respect Peshawar's independence as well as that of Kandahar, which was under the control of his brothers at the time. In return, the British government intimated that it would ask Ranjit Singh to reconcile with the Afghans. When Auckland refused to put the agreement in writing, Dost Mohammad turned his back on the British and began negotiations with Vitkevich.

In 1838 Auckland, Ranjit Singh, and Shuja signed an agreement stating that Shuja would regain control of Kabul and Kandahar with the help of the British and Sikhs; he would accept Sikh rule of the former Afghan provinces already controlled by Ranjit Singh[?], and that Herat would remain independent. In practice, the plan replaced Dost Mohammad with a British figurehead whose autonomy would be as limited as that of other Indian princes.

It soon became apparent to the British that Sikh participation--advancing toward Kabul through the Khyber Pass while Shuja and the British advanced through Kandahar--would not be forthcoming. Auckland's plan in the spring of 1838 was for the Sikhs--with British support--to place Shuja on the Afghan throne. By summer's end, however, the plan had changed; now the British alone would impose the pliant Shuja.

The First Anglo-Afghan War

To justify his plan, Lord Auckland issued the Simla Manifesto[?] in October 1838, setting forth the necessary reasons for British intervention in Afghanistan. The manifesto stated that in order to ensure the welfare of India, the British must have a trustworthy ally on India's western frontier. The British pretense that their troops were merely supporting Shah Shuja's[?] small army in retaking what was once his throne fooled no one. Although the Simla Manifesto stated that British troops would be withdrawn as soon as Shuja was installed in Kabul, Shuja's rule depended entirely on British arms to suppress rebellion and on British funds to buy the support of tribal chiefs. The British denied that they were invading Afghanistan, instead claiming they were merely supporting its legitimate Shuja government "against foreign interference and factious opposition."

From the British point of view, the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838-42) (often called "Auckland's Folly") was an unmitigated disaster, despite the ease with which Dost Mohammad[?] was deposed and Shuja enthroned. An army of British and Indian troops set out from the Punjab in December 1838 and reached Quetta by late March 1839. A month later, the British took Kandahar without a battle. In July, after a two-month delay in Kandahar, the British attacked the fortress of Ghazni[?], overlooking a plain leading to India, and achieved a decisive victory over Dost Mohammad's troops led by one of his sons. Dost Mohammad fled with his loyal followers across the passes to Bamian[?], and ultimately to Bukhara. In August 1839, after almost thirty years, Shuja was again enthroned in Kabul. Some British troops returned to India, but it soon became clear that Shuja's rule could only be maintained with the presence of British forces. After he unsuccessfully attacked the British and their Afghan protégé, Dost Mohammad surrendered to them and was exiled in India in late 1840.

By October 1841, however, disaffected Afghan tribes were flocking to support Dost Mohammad's son, Mohammad Akbar Khan[?], in Bamian. In November 1841 a senior British officer, Sir Alexander 'Sekundar' Burnes[?], and his aides were killed by a mob in Kabul. The substantial remaining British forces in their cantonment just outside Kabul did nothing immediately. In the following weeks the British commanders General Elphinstone[?] and McNaghten[?] tried to negotiate with Mohammad Akbar, but at a meeting McNaghten was killed. On January 1, 1842 following some unusual thinking by Elphinstone an agreement was reached that provided for the safe exodus of the British garrison and its dependents from Afghanistan. Five days later, the retreat began, and as they struggled through the snowbound passes, the British were attacked by Ghilzai[?] warriors. Although Dr. W. Brydon is frequently mentioned as the only survivor of the march to Jalalabad--out of a column of more than 16,000 (consisting of about 4,500 military personnel, both British and Indian, along with as many as 12,000 camp followers) who undertook the retreat--a few more survived as prisoners and hostages. His British protectors gone, Shuja remained in power only a few months before being assassinated in April 1842.

The complete destruction of the garrison prompted brutal retaliation by the British against the Afghans and touched off yet another power struggle for dominance of Afghanistan. In the fall of 1842, British forces from Kandahar and Peshawar entered Kabul just long enough to rescue the few British prisoners and burn the Great Bazaar. Although the foreign invasion provided the Afghan tribes with a temporary sense of unity they had previously lacked, the loss of life and property was followed by a bitter resentment of foreign influence.

The Russians advanced steadily southward toward Afghanistan in the three decades after the First Anglo-Afghan War. In 1842 the Russian border was on the other side of the Aral Sea from Afghanistan, but five years later the tsar's outposts had moved to the lower reaches of the Amu Darya. By 1865 Tashkent had been formally annexed, as was Samarkand three years later. A peace treaty in 1868 with Amir Muzaffar al-Din[?], the ruler of Bukhara, virtually stripped him of his independence. Russian control now extended as far as the northern bank of the Amu Darya.

The Second Anglo-Afghan War

After months of chaos in Kabul, Mohammad Akbar[?] secured local control and in April 1843 his father, Dost Mohammad[?], returned to the throne in Afghanistan. Mohammad Akbar died in 1845. During the Second Anglo-Sikh War (1848-49), his last effort to take Peshawar failed.

By 1854 the British wanted to resume relations with Dost Mohammad, whom they had essentially ignored in the intervening twelve years. The 1855 Treaty of Peshawar[?] reopened diplomatic relations, proclaimed respect for each side's territorial integrity, and pledged both sides as friends of each other's friends and enemies of each other's enemies.

In 1857 an addendum to the 1855 treaty permitted a British military mission to become a presence in Kandahar (but not to Kabul) during a conflict with the Iranians, who had attacked Herat in 1856. In 1863 Dost Mohammad retook Herat with British acquiescence. A few months later, Dost Mohammad died. Sher Ali[?], his third son, and proclaimed successor, failed to recapture Kabul from his older brother, Mohammad Afzal[?] (whose troops were led by his son, Abdur Rahman[?]) until 1868, after which Abdur Rahman retreated across the Amu Darya and bided his time.

In the years immediately following the First Anglo-Afghan War, and especially after the 1857 uprising against the British (known as the Sepoy Rebellion[?]) in India, Liberal Party governments in London took a political view of Afghanistan as a buffer state. By the time Sher Ali had established control in Kabul in 1868, he found the British ready to support his regime with arms and funds, but nothing more. From then on, relations between the Afghan ruler and Britain deteriorated steadily over the next ten years. The Afghan ruler was worried about the southward encroachment of Russia, which by 1873 had taken over the lands of the khan, or ruler, of Khiva[?]. Sher Ali sent an envoy seeking British advice and support. The previous year, however, the British had signed an agreement with the Russians in which the latter agreed to respect the northern boundaries of Afghanistan and to view the territories of the Afghan amir as outside their sphere of influence. The British, however, refused to give any assurances to the disappointed Sher Ali.

After tension between Russia and Britain in Europe ended with the June 1878 Congress of Berlin[?], Russia turned its attention to Central Asia. That same summer, Russia sent an uninvited diplomatic mission to Kabul. Sher Ali tried, but failed, to keep them out. Russian envoys arrived in Kabul on July 22, 1878 and on August 14, the British demanded that Sher Ali accept their mission.

The amir not only refused to receive a British mission but threatened to stop it if it were dispatched. Lord Lytton[?], the viceroy, called Sher Ali's bluff and ordered a diplomatic mission to set out for Kabul on November 21, 1878. The mission was turned back as it approached the eastern entrance of the Khyber Pass, thus triggering the Second Anglo-Afghan War. A British force of about 40,000 fighting men were distributed into military columns which penetrated Afghanistan at three different points. An alarmed Sher Ali attempted to appeal in person to the tsar for assistance, but unable to do so, he returned to Mazar-e Sharif, where he died the following February.

With British forces occupying much of the country, Sher Ali's son and successor, Yaqub Khan[?], signed the Treaty of Gandamak[?] in May 1879 to prevent a British invasion of the rest of the country. According to this agreement and in return for an annual subsidy and vague assurances of assistance in case of foreign aggression, Yaqub relinquished control of Afghan foreign affairs to the British. British representatives were installed in Kabul and other locations, British control was extended to the Khyber and Michni[?] passes, and the Afghanistan ceded various frontier areas to Britain. An Afghan uprising opposed to the Treaty of Gandamak was foiled in October 1879. A noted historian, W. Kerr Fraser-Tytler, suggests that Yaqub abdicated because he did not wish to suffer the same fate that befell Shah Shuja[?] following the first war.

In a replay of 1841 the British managed to have their Kabul garrison annihilated. By 1881 the British had had enough, despite the victorous slaughter at the Battle of Maiwand[?] in July 1880 - they left. The British gained some territory and retained a little influence but in a clever stroke they placed Abdur Rahman Khan on the throne. A man of such supple loyalties that he was acceptable to the British, the Russians and the Afghan people.

Abdur Rahman Khan, "The Iron Amir," 1880-1901

As far as British interests were concerned, Abdur Rahman answered their prayers: a forceful, intelligent leader capable of welding his divided people into a state; and he was willing to accept limitations to his power imposed by British control of his country's foreign affairs and the British buffer state policy. His twenty-one-year reign was marked by efforts to modernize and establish control of the kingdom, whose boundaries were delineated by the two empires bordering it. Abdur Rahman turned his considerable energies to what evolved into the creation of the modern state of Afghanistan.

He achieved this consolidation of Afghanistan in three ways. He suppressed various rebellions and followed up his victories with harsh punishment, execution, and deportation. He broke the stronghold of Pashtun tribes by forcibly transplanting them. He transplanted his most powerful Pashtun enemies, the Ghilzai[?], and other tribes from southern and south-central Afghanistan to areas north of the Hindu Kush with predominantly non-Pashtun populations. Finally, he created a system of provincial governorates different from old tribal boundaries. Provincial governors had a great deal of power in local matters, and an army was placed at their disposal to enforce tax collection and suppress dissent. Abdur Rahman kept a close eye on these governors, however, by creating an effective intelligence system. During his reign, tribal organization began to erode as provincial government officials allowed land to change hands outside the traditional clan and tribal limits.

In addition to forging a nation from the splintered regions comprising Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman tried to modernize his kingdom by forging a regular army and the first institutionalized bureaucracy. Despite his distinctly authoritarian personality, Abdur Rahman called for a loya jirga, an assemblage of royal princes, important notables, and religious leaders. According to his autobiography, Abdur Rahman had three goals: subjugating the tribes, extending government control through a strong, visible army, and reinforcing the power of the ruler and the royal family.

Abdur Rahman also paid attention to technological advancement. He brought foreign physicians, engineers (especially for mining), geologists, and printers to Afghanistan. He imported European machinery and encouraged the establishment of small factories to manufacture soap, candles, and leather goods. He sought European technical advice on communications, transport, and irrigation. Nonetheless, despite these sweeping internal policies, Abdur Rahman's foreign policy was completely in foreign hands.

The first important frontier dispute was the Panjdeh[?] crisis of 1885, precipitated by Russian encroachment into Central Asia. Having seized the Merv[?] (now Mary) Oasis by 1884, Russian forces were directly adjacent to Afghanistan. Claims to the Panjdeh Oasis[?] were in debate, with the Russians keen to take over all the region's Turkoman[?] domains. After battling Afghan forces in the spring of 1885, the Russians seized the oasis. Russian and British troops were quickly alerted, but the two powers reached a compromise; Russia was in possession of the oasis, and Britain believed it could keep the Russians from advancing any farther. Without an Afghan say in the matter, the Joint Anglo-Russian Boundary Commission agreed the Russians would relinquish the farthest territory captured in their advance but retain Panjdeh. This agreement on these border sections delineated for Afghanistan a permanent northern frontier at the Amu Darya but also the loss of much territory, especially around Panjdeh.

The second section of Afghan border demarcated during Abdur Rahman's reign was in the Wakhan Corridor[?]. The British insisted Abdur Rahman accept sovereignty over this remote region where unruly Kirghiz held sway, he had no choice but to accept Britain's compromise. In 1895 and 1896 another Joint Anglo-Russian Boundary Commission agreed on the frontier boundary to the far northeast of Afghanistan, which bordered Chinese territory (although the Chinese did not formally accept this as a boundary between the two countries until 1964.)

For Abdur Rahman, delineating the boundary with India (through the Pashtun area) was far more significant, and it was during his reign that the Durand Line was drawn. Under pressure, Abdur Rahman agreed in 1893 to accept a mission headed by the British Indian foreign secretary, Sir Mortimer Durand[?], to define the limits of British and Afghan control in the Pashtun territories. Boundary limits were agreed on by Durand and Abdur Rahman before the end of 1893, but there is some question about the degree to which Abdur Rahman willingly ceded certain regions. There were indications that he regarded the Durand Line as a delimitation of separate areas of political responsibility, not a permanent international frontier, and that he did not explicitly cede control over certain parts (such as Kurram[?] and Chitral[?]) that were already in British control under the Treaty of Gandamak[?].

The Durand Line cut through both tribes and villages and bore little relation to the realities of topography, demography, or even military strategy. The line laid the foundation, not for peace between the border regions, but for heated disagreement between the governments of Afghanistan and British India, and later, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The clearest manifestation that Abdur Rahman's had established control in Afghanistan was the peaceful successor of his eldest son, Habibullah Khan[?], to the throne on his father's death in October 1901. Although Abdur Rahman had fathered many children, he groomed Habibullah to succeed him, and he made it difficult for his other sons to contest the succession by keeping power from them and sequestering them in Kabul under his control.

Habibullah Khan[?], 1901-1919

Habibullah, Abdur Rahman's[?] eldest son but child of a slave mother, kept a close watch on the palace intrigues revolving around his father's more distinguished wife (a granddaughter of Dost Mohammad[?]), who sought the throne for her own son. Although made secure in his position as ruler by virtue of support from the army which was created by his father, Habibullah was not as domineering as Abdur Rahman. Consequently, the influence of religious leaders as well as that of Mahmoud Beg Tarzi[?], a cousin of the king, increased during his reign. Tarzi, a highly educated, well-traveled poet and journalist, founded an Afghan nationalist newspaper with Abdur Rahman's agreement, and until 1919 he used the newspaper as a platform for rebutting clerical criticism of Western-influenced changes in government and society, for espousing full Afghan independence, and for other reforms. Tarzi's passionate Afghan nationalism influenced a future generation of Asian reformers.

The boundary with Iran was firmly delineated in 1904, replacing the ambiguous line made by a British commission in 1872. Agreement could not be reached, however, on sharing the waters of the Helmand River.

Like all foreign policy developments of this period affecting Afghanistan, the conclusion of the "Great Game" between Russia and Britain occurred without the Afghan ruler's participation. The 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention (Entente, the Convention of St. Petersburg[?]) not only divided the region into separate areas of Russian and British influence but also established foundations for Afghan neutrality. The convention provided for Russian acquiescence that Afghanistan was now outside this sphere of influence, and for Russia to consult directly with Britain on matters relating to Russian-Afghan relations. Britain, for its part, would not occupy or annex Afghan territory, or interfere in Afghanistan's internal affairs.

During World War I, Afghanistan remained neutral despite pressure to support Turkey when its sultan proclaimed his nation's participation in what it considered a holy war. Habibullah did, however, entertain a Turco-German mission in Kabul in 1915. After much procrastination, he won an agreement from the Central Powers for a huge payment and arms provision in exchange for attacking British India. But the crafty Afghan ruler clearly viewed the war as an opportunity to play one side off against the other, for he also offered the British to resist a Central Powers from an attack on India in exchange for an end to British control of Afghan foreign policy.

Amanullah Khan[?], 1919-1929

On February 20, 1919, Habibullah Khan[?] was assassinated on a hunting trip. He had not declared a succession, but left his third son, Amanullah, in charge in Kabul. Because Amanullah controlled both the national treasury and the army, he was well situated to seize power. Army support allowed Amanullah to suppress other claims and imprison those relatives who would not swear loyalty to him. Within a few months, the new amir had gained the allegiance of most tribal leaders and established control over the cities.

Third Anglo-Afghan War and Independence

Amanullah's[?] ten years of reign initiated a period of dramatic change in Afghanistan in both foreign and domestic politics. Amanullah declared full independence and sparked the Third Anglo-Afghan War. Amanullah altered foreign policy in his new relations with external powers and transformed domestic politics with his social, political, and economic reforms. Although his reign ended abruptly, he achieved some notable successes, and his efforts failed as much due to the centripetal forces of tribal Afghanistan and the machinations of Russia and Britain as to any political folly on his part.

Amanullah came to power just as the entente between Russia and Britain broke down following the Russian Revolution of 1917. Once again Afghanistan provided a stage on which the great powers played out their schemes against one another. Amanullah attacked the British in May 1919 in two thrusts, taking them by surprise. Afghan forces achieved success in the early days of the war as Pashtun tribesmen on both sides of the border joined forces with them.

The military skirmishes soon ended in a stalemate as the British recovered from their initial surprise. Britain virtually dictated the terms of the 1919 Rawalpindi Agreement[?], a temporary armistice that provided, somewhat ambiguously, for Afghan self-determination in foreign affairs. Before final negotiations were concluded in 1921, however, Afghanistan had already begun to establish its own foreign policy, including diplomatic relations with the new government in the Soviet Union in 1919. During the 1920s, Afghanistan established diplomatic relations with most major countries.

The next period in the history of Afghanistan is the reforms of Amanullah Khan and civil war.



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