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The Curse of Afghanistan

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 exile to make a fourth effort. The decision was made chiefly by Lord Auckland, the governor general (as the viceroy was known before 1858), a man who knew little about India, and his chief adviser, Sir William Macnaghten, who knew almost nothing about Afghanistan. Confident that Shuja, whatever his defects, would be a pro-British and anti-Russian ruler, they were determined to eject the current Afghan leader, Dost Mohammad, and replace him with their protégé, if necessary using British troops. Their attempt to do so is the subject of William Dalrymple’s splendid and absorbing new book.3

More experienced and perceptive officials were incredulous when they heard what Auckland and Macnaghten proposed. Alexander Burnes, who had explored Afghanistan and Central Asia, urged them to back Dost Mohammad, an effective ruler keen for an alliance with the British. If he were overthrown, Burnes argued, he and his supporters would become allies of Russia and Persia. Others warned of the practical difficulties of an expedition to bring down Dost Mohammad. It might be easy to install Shuja in Kabul, said Mountstuart Elphinstone, the East India Company official who had led the original delegation, but “maintaining him in a poor, cold, strong and remote country, among a turbulent people like the Afghans,” seemed to him a “hopeless” task. The natives, who would be neutral to start with, would quickly become disaffected and pro-Russian.

Auckland, swayed by Macnaghten, disregarded all such advice and ordered the invasion of Afghanistan at a time when Russia, despite playing “the game” by deploying the odd agent in Central Asia, presented no conceivable threat: its expansion had as yet got no further than the northern shores of the Caspian Sea. Auckland’s army, consisting of 1,000 European troops and 14,000 Indian sepoys, was formidable, and it traveled in style: it included a pack of foxhounds and three hundred camels to carry its wine cellar. The route, via Kandahar, presented such difficulties as salt marshes, where there was no water to drink, and narrow passes, from the tops of which tribesmen could fire or roll boulders down upon the invaders and their enormous array of camp followers.

Another impediment was the great Afghan fortress of Ghazni, an embarrassing problem because the state of the roads had persuaded the army to leave its siege guns two hundred miles to the rear. Enterprising sappers, however, were able to blow up a gate and make a breach, and the road to Kabul was soon open. Dost Mohammad fled, leaving the British and their friend Shuja to enter the capital unopposed. On New Year’s Eve Alexander Burnes (who despite his opposition to the invasion was now deputy to its political leader, Macnaghten) threw a party at which he appeared in his native dress of kilt and sporran.

Elphinstone had warned that it would be easy to get Shah Shuja to Kabul but difficult to keep him there, and the predictions of this wise and most civilized of officials were soon fulfilled. Yet the chief authors of the expedition’s woes were the British themselves, not the Afghans. Their army was substantial enough to take Kabul but insufficient to consolidate the new regime, especially when Auckland diverted some of its resources to another dubious military adventure, the Opium War against China. Nor were there enough funds to make the occupying army secure. Instead of building itself a defensible fort on a hill, it constructed a badly designed cantonment, or military camp, on a plain overlooked by the fortifications of various Afghan nobles. Auckland’s blunders did not end there. From the security of India he could see the costs but not the dangers of the occupation. He therefore ordered Macnaghten to reduce both the number of his troops and the subsidies needed to persuade tribal chiefs to keep open the passes that controlled his lines of communication.

On top of this, he made a ludicrous choice as the new commander-in-chief in Kabul. As Dalrymple points out, the British had one good general in Afghanistan, William Nott, who understood the country and was able to keep Kandahar, the area under his control, quiet throughout the occupation. Auckland obviously should have promoted him to overall command but because, according to Dalrymple, he found Nott “chippy and difficult and far from a gentleman,” he chose instead William Elphinstone (a cousin of Mountstuart), a sick and gouty major-general who had no experience of India and who had last seen action a quarter of a century earlier as commander of a regiment on the field of Waterloo.

Unlike Macnaghten, who remained complacent and imperceptive throughout, Nott was soon aware of the unpopularity of the invaders and realized they would be massacred unless reinforcements were sent. There had been isolated hostility from the beginning—British officers on fishing expeditions would suddenly be surrounded and murdered—but it was more than a year after the invasion that the Afghan “resistance” (Dalrymple’s term) launched its “jihad.” One of its main causes seems to have been the behavior of “licentious infidels,” British soldiers consorting with Afghan women. Particularly offensive was the amorous life of Burnes, who, according to hostile sources, was not content with his harem of Kashmiri ladies but coerced Afghan women as well. Whatever the truth of this, in November 1841 Burnes suddenly found himself attacked by a mob in his house in Kabul and, despite plucky resistance, he and his brother Charles were murdered.

The sequel to this incident is the strangest of all the strange things that happened (or did not happen) during these events. Although they had five thousand armed soldiers under their command on the plain, Macnaghten and Elphinstone did not try to rescue Burnes under siege in his house inside the city. (Shuja in his fortress at the Bala Hisar in Kabul was the only person who made any attempt to help him.) Even after his death they sent no troops to quell the riot, restore order, and bring back his body; they were simply too frightened. Instead of counterattacking, Macnaghten withdrew his forces into the camp, abandoning his treasury in the city, his food supplies, and the outlying forts.

Such pusillanimous behavior astonished Indians and Afghans alike. It was not how the British had acquitted themselves at Arcot under Robert Clive or at Assaye under the future Duke of Wellington—or indeed how they had performed the previous year at Ghazni. (Nor did it resemble their conduct of the future, in the Anglo-Sikh Wars or at Lucknow and Delhi in the Mutiny of 1857.) Their fearful inactivity, interrupted by one disastrous sortie, stimulated the resistance and assisted its recruitment.

In the long catalog of British blunders during the invasion, the most fatal was the decision to negotiate a withdrawal from Kabul in the middle of winter. Instead of moving their army into the fortifications of the Bala Hisar, which they could have made impregnable, the British leaders chose to withdraw through passes now manned by resentful and hostile tribesmen. Macnaghten duly rode out of the camp to negotiate the retreat and was promptly murdered by the chief Afghan commander, Akbar Khan (a son of Dost Mohammad), who had evidence that his adversary was plotting his assassination. Once again the British did not react, failing even to go out and retrieve Macnaghten’s corpse.

Despite friendly warnings by well-placed Afghans and Indians, General Elphinstone did not allow this incident to deflect him from negotiating a withdrawal. Consequently, in the January snows he marched his army out of the camp to its predictable annihilation. On the first afternoon it was forced to abandon its baggage by the Kabul River, and on subsequent days it stumbled from one ambush to another; marching in daylight along the most difficult route, the Kabul Gorge, made its soldiers easy targets for the tribesmen.

The column, which soon lost all cohesion, was followed closely by Akbar Khan, who repeatedly gave false assurances of safe conduct. So sophisticated was his duplicity that he ordered his men to “spare” the British in Dari (a language that many of his opponents knew) but to “slay them all” in Pashtu (an idiom that few of them understood). Eventually he agreed to “save” a small group of children, ladies, and wounded officers, whom he kept as hostages. The rest of the force struggled on, massacred in every defile, until Dr. William Brydon was left to stagger by himself into Jalalabad, a town near the Khyber Pass that was still held by a British garrison.

  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. 

  3. 3

    The book is also an attempted rehabilitation of Shuja. Although “a deeply flawed man [who] made many errors of judgement,” Dalrymple praises him as a “sophisticated and highly intelligent” figure, “resolute, brave and unbreakable.” 

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