The Curse of Afghanistan

gilmour_1-112113.jpg
Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
Maharaja Ranjit Singh in a Bazaar (detail), circa 1840–1845. Singh was the founder of the Sikh Empire in the Punjab in the early nineteenth century and the enemy of Dost Mohammad, whom the British hoped to replace as ruler of Afghanistan with their ally Shah Shuja.

After a journey through Central Asia in 1888, the young George Curzon concluded that British policy on Afghanistan was a farrago of inexplicable waywardness. For fifty years, wrote the future viceroy of India,

there has not been an Afghan Amir whom we have not alternately fought against and caressed, now repudiating and now recognising his sovereignty, now appealing to his subjects as their saviours, now slaughtering them as our foes….Small wonder that we have never been trusted by Afghan rulers, or liked by the Afghan people!1

The British position, he added, was “impregnable” in Asia except in Afghanistan, where it was “uniformly vulnerable.” How had this contrast occurred? Curzon hinted at the answer when he archly dedicated the book of his travels “to the great army of Russophobes who mislead others, and Russophiles whom others mislead.” The problem was Russia, or rather, British perceptions of the ambitions of Russia.

At the end of the eighteenth century there had been no problem because thousands of miles still separated the British and tsarist empires. But Napoleon Bonaparte had planned to attack the British in India, first via Egypt in alliance with Tipu Sultan, who ruled the South Indian kingdom of Mysore from 1782 to 1799, and later overland via Persia in concert with the Russians. Although the first plan was foiled by Nelson’s navy at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 and the second was dropped in favor of Napoleon’s march on Moscow, there remained—at least in British minds—a potential Russian threat to India. During the nineteenth century Russia expanded its borders to the south and east at a pace so rapid that it induced paranoia among British officials.2 They reacted by sending agents into the lands between the empires with instructions to counter Russian moves and bolster buffer states. An Anglo-Russian rivalry was created, and the Great Game was begun.

One of the measures taken by the British as a reaction to Napoleon’s second project was the dispatch of a delegation to Shah Shuja, the Afghan ruler, early in 1809. Alas, just as the two parties were agreeing on a treaty of alliance, Shuja was overthrown by rivals and his army defeated. After several years as an unhappy refugee, during which he was robbed and imprisoned by the Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh, he and his harem found asylum at the British garrison town of Ludhiana, in the Punjab. Over the following years Shuja dreamed and plotted his return to Kabul and made three unsuccessful attempts to regain his throne.

Yet despite his reputation as an unlucky loser, in 1839 the British government in India decided to help this now elderly …

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  1. 1

    George Curzon, Russia in Central Asia in 1889 (Frank Cass, 1967), p. 356. 

  2. 2

    In 1914 the great arctic explorer Fridjtof Nansen calculated that the Russian Empire had been expanding over four centuries at an average daily rate of fifty-five square miles, or more than 20,000 square miles a year. During the nineteenth century the growth of the British Empire was even faster, increasing at an average annual rate of some 100,000 square miles.

    Most of this expansion took place in Canada, Africa, and Australia, but in the 1840s British India extended its frontiers to the northwest by the absorption of Sind and the Punjab. By the end of the century the two empires had outposts barely a dozen miles apart on the northwestern frontier.