Anglo-Afghan War – Modern History – UPSC

Under British rule, India developed relations with its neighbour countries on a new basis, which was essential for both defence and internal cohesion. The desire of the British imperialists to promote their economic interests and consolidate their administrative & political power in the region led them to conflict with the neighbouring countries of India.

In the early nineteenth century, Russian was an expanding power in Central Asia. The Russian influence in Persia (Iran) replaced the British influence. The British feared that Russia could attack India through Afghanistan and the North-western frontier of India. So, they wanted to keep Russia at a safe distance from the Indian frontier.

From the British point of view, Afghanistan was situated at a crucial geographical position, which could serve as an advanced post outside India’s frontiers for checking Russian military threats and promoting British commercial interests in Central Asia. So, the British wanted to weaken and end Russian influence in Afghanistan. They wanted to keep Afghanistan a weak and divided country, which they could easily control. However, the British Indian government fought two wars with Afghanistan before its relations stabilized with the Afghanistan government.

Forward Policy of Auckland

In 1836, Lord Auckland became the Governor-General of India. He advocated a forward policy, which implied that the British Government in India had to take initiatives to protect the boundary of India from probable Russian attack. This objective was to be achieved either through signing treaties with the neighbouring countries or by annexing them completely.

From the earlier years of the 19th Century, Afghan politics had been unstable. The Amir of Afghanistan, Dost Mohammed, was constantly threatened by external and internal enemies like:

  • In the north, Dost Mohammed was faced the potential Russian danger and internal revolts.
  • In the east, Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh had captured the Peshawar.
  • In the south, his brother challenged his power at Kandahar,
  • In the west, he faced Persian threats and enemies at Herat.

Because of these threats, Dost Mohammed was in dire need of a powerful friend. So, he wanted an alliance with the British government in India. Lord Auckland offered Dost Mohammed an alliance based on the subsidiary system. But, Dost Mohammed made conditional on the British to help him in recovering Peshawar from the Sikhs. However, the British government in India rejected the condition. Dost Mohammed now turned to Russian and Persia for help. This prompted the British government in India to go ahead with the forward policy.

Tripartite Treaty, 1838

The British decided to replace the independent ruler of Afghanistan, Dost Mohammed, with a subordinate ruler. Their gaze fell on the former Amir of Afghanistan, Shah Shuja, who had been deposed from the throne of Afghan in 1809, and since then, he had been living as a British pensioner in Ludhiana. The British decided to put back Shah Shaju on the Afghan throne.

In June 1838, the Tripartite treaty was signed between Governor-General Lord Auckland (British), Maharaja Ranjit Singh (Sikhs), and Shah Shuja. The treaty provided that:

  • Shah Shuja will be reinstalled on the Afghan throne with the armed help of Sikhs and the British remaining in the background.
  • Shah Shuja will determine foreign affairs with the advice of the British and Sikhs.
  • Shah Shuja will recognize the Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s claim over the Afghan territories on the right bank of the Indus river.
  • Shah Shaju gave up his claim on Sindh.

First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842)

Soon after the Tripartite treaty of 1838, there was a drastic change in the political situation, as Russia recalled its envoy from Kabul, and Persia lifted its siege of Herat. However, the British decided to go ahead with their forward policy and interfere in the internal affairs of Afghanistan, which resulted in the First Anglo-Afghan War. The British intention was to establish a permanent barrier against the schemes of aggression from the northwest.

In February 1839, the British launch an attack on Afghanistan. On 7 August 1839, the British army entered Kabul after the successful attack. Most of the Afghan tribes had already won over with bribes. Dost Mohammed surrendered to the British, and Shah Shuja was immediately placed on the Afghan throne. But, Shah Shuja was unaccepted by the Afghanistan people. The Afghanis could not take Shah Shuja as their ruler and took him as a betrayer. Many Afghan tribes rose in rebellion.

On 2 November 1841, a rebellion broke out at Kabul, and Afghans fell upon the British forces. On 11 December 1841, the British were forced to sign a treaty with the Afghan chiefs, under which the British agreed to evacuate Afghanistan and restore Dost Mohammed as Amir of Afghanistan. But, when the British forces withdrew from Kabul, they were attacked all along the way. Out of 16,000 men of British forces, only one man reached the frontier alive, while few survived as prisoners. Shah Shuja was also killed after the British forces left Kabul. This was a total failure for the Britishers.

Lord Auckland was criticized for his Afghan forward Policy. He was recalled back and replaced by Lord Ellenborough as Governor-General in 1842. To avenge defeat and humiliation, British forces under Lord Ellenborough reoccupied Kabul in September 1842. But, this time, the British arrived at a settlement with Dosh Mohammad, by which the British evacuated Kabul and recognized Dost Mohammad as independent ruler of Afghanistan.

Policy of Non-Interference

After the First Anglo-Afghan War, the British followed the policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. In 1855, Dost Mohammed and British Government in India signed a treaty of friendship in Peshawar. Both the governments promised to maintain peaceful & friendly relations and respect each other’s territories without interfering in each other’s internal affairs.

Policy of Masterly Inactivity

In 1864, Lord John Lawrence became the Governor-General of India during the period 1864 -1869. After the death of Dost Mohammed in 1863, there were wars of succession in Afghanistan between the sixteen sons of Dost Mohammed. But, John Lawrence started the policy of Masterly Inactivity. He believed that the British should not interfere in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. Pursuing the policy of Masterly Inactivity, he restrained himself from interfering in the war of succession.

John Lawrence’s policy of Masterly Inactivity rested in the fulfillment of two conditions:

  • The peace at the Indian frontier was not disturbed.
  • No candidate in civil war sough foreign help.

In 1868, Sher Ali, the third son of Dost Mohammad, established himself on the Afghan Throne. Lord Lawrence tried to cultivate friendly relations with him.

Policy of Proud Reserve

In 1876, Lord Lytton came to India as a Governor-General. He initiated a new foreign policy of proud reserve, which aimed at having the scientific frontiers and safeguarding sphere of influence. According to him, the relation with Afghanistan could no longer be left ambiguous.

Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880)

From the 1870s onward, imperialism was resurgent all over the world. The Anglo-Russian rivalry also got intensified. In 1873, after series of incidents, Russia established the fixed boundaries between its territories and Afghanistan. The British once again thought to bring Afghanistan under their direct political control; so that it could serve as a base for British expansion.

Lord Lytton offered a favorable treaty to Amir of Afghanistan Sher Ali. But, Amir wanted to have friendship with both of his powerful neighbours, Russia and British India, while keeping both at arm’s length.

In July 1878, Russian sent an envoy to Afghanistan, which greatly alarmed the British. In August 1878, the British too demanded the Sher Ali’s government accept a British diplomatic mission. However, Sher Ali refused to keep a British envoy in Kabul while granting earlier similar concessions to Russians.

In September 1878, Governor-General Lord Lytton ordered a diplomatic mission for Kabul, but the Afghan troops at the border turned back the mission, which triggered the Second Anglo-Afghan war. Lord Lytton was displeased, and when the Russians withdrew their envoy from Kabul, he decided to invade Afghanistan.

In November 1878, the British launched an attack on Afghanistan to force British terms. Sher Ali fled his country facing British Invasion and died in February 1879.

Treaty of Gandamak, 1879

British forces occupied Kabul and most of Afghanistan after their invasion. Peace came in May 1879, when the Yakub Khan (the eldest son of Sher Ali) signed the Treaty of Gandamak with the British, by which the British secured all they desired. The treaty provided that:

  • The Amir of Afghanistan will conduct his foreign policy with the advice of the British Government in India.
  • To keep a permanent British Resident at Kabul.
  • The British Government in India give Amir all support against foreign aggression and an annual subsidy.

After the Treaty of Gandamak, the British forces withdrew. However, the British success was short-lived. On 3 September, the British Resident, Sir Louis Cavagnari, and his military escort were attacked and killed by rebellious Afghan troops. Again war-like situation prevailed between British and Afghan Ruler. The British had to recapture Kabul and Kandahar. Yakub Khan surrendered before the British and was sent to jail.

In 1880, Lord Lytton was replaced by Lord Ripon as the Governor-General of India. Lord Ripon reversed the aggressive policy of Lytton and went back to the policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan.

Abdur Rehman (the grandson of Dost Mohammad and nephew of Sher Ali) was recognized as the new ruler of Afghanistan by Lord Ripon. Abdur Rehman pledged not to maintain political relations with any power except the British. Therefore, the Amir of Afghanistan lost control over his foreign policy. At the same time, he had complete control over his country’s internal affairs.

Third Anglo-Afghan War, 1919

In 1901, Abdur Rehman was succeeded by Habibullab Khan as a new Amir of Afghanistan. The First World War and the Russian Revolution of 1917 created a new situation between Anglo-Afghan Relations. On 20 February 1919, Habibullah was assassinated, and his son Amanullah Khan took possession of the Afghan throne. In May 1919, Amanullah declared open war on British India. War ended in August 1919 with a truce established between the British and the Afghan Ruler. Peace came in 1921 when Afghanistan recovered its independence in foreign affairs by a treaty. Durand Line was accepted as the official boundary between British India and Afghanistan.

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