Home / 19th Century / British Strategy in the First Anglo-Afghan Wars, 1838–1842
British Strategy in the First Anglo-Afghan Wars, 1838–1842
By Robert F. Williams

“When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.”

-Rudyard Kipling, 1895 [1]

Throughout the nineteenth century, Great Britain, the world’s preeminent naval empire, and Russia, one of the preeminent land empires, vied for control throughout Central Asia in the “Great Game.” Twice in forty years, Britain invaded Afghanistan to expand its security bubble in South Asia and prevent Russia from threatening the “crown jewel” of the British Empire—India. However, the British failure to align ways and means with a sensible political end was a critical component of this “Great Game” between the two imperial powers and led to unnecessary bloodshed. The initial invasion in 1838 was prompted by faulty assumptions about the geostrategic situation and the Anglo-Indians’ ability to pacify a politically fractured country by appointing an unpopular former leader as its head. British strategy for occupation focused on creating a strong central government in a country where power was, traditionally, local. Britain had the means to invade the country yet failed to apply its material strength to realistic political ends. Ultimately, though the British suffered a humiliating military defeat in Afghanistan, they maintained an amicable relationship with Afghan leaders following their withdrawal. While the initial strategic ends were not met, shifting assumptions based on a better understanding of the situation allowed Britain to achieve a broader strategic goal of a friendly Afghanistan to provide defense in depth against Russian and Persian influence in its most-prized colony.

The Geostrategic Situation

Nineteenth-century Britain was the preeminent global superpower. By the 1830s, it held 53 percent of Europe's wealth, boasted the most extensive global iron and steel manufacturing capability, and controlled 10 percent of its manufacturing capabilities. Its gross national product (GNP) was $8.2 billion. Only Russia and France came close owing to similar populations, GNP, and industrial potential.[2] British India was critical to the Crown; increasingly, British agents in the East India Company saw Russian encroachment in Asia as the greatest threat to their colonial holdings on the subcontinent.

The East India Company (EIC) was itself a unique entity. Granted a royal charter in 1600 to conduct commerce on the subcontinent, it became India’s governing body, trained its own officers, and raised its own native infantry and cavalry troops called sepoys and sowars, respectively.[3] These capabilities gave the EIC control of the legitimate use of lethal force in the area as a charter of British power. The Company's activities merged with overall British policies, and a Royal "Board of Control" was created by the British Government to provide oversight and marshal resources as required. In fact, by the early nineteenth century, the EIC rose to control half of the world's trade—especially in cotton, silk, indigo, sugar, salt, saltpeter, tea, and even opium.[4] The British Governor-General of India, Lord Auckland, had to earn government approval for his decisions, but the Crown would often provide Royal troops to augment Company forces.[5]

A unique geographic set of circumstances made Afghanistan a tempting prize for both the British and Russian empires. The term Afghanistan did not refer to the modern nation-state of today until after the 1879 Treaty of Gandamak solidified its borders. Previously, the term referred to a loose conglomeration of peoples in roughly the same area as modern Afghanistan and included portions of Western Pakistan. The term denotes the people and place we now know as Afghanistan for this paper. For centuries, it served as a trade crossroads, inviting prosperity and conflict that shaped the people's culture. The terrain alone made it a formidable military objective and produced a disconnected tribal society. The Hindu Kush Mountains—some rising higher than 20,000 feet—that dominate the eastern part of the country presented physical defensive barriers and served as a natural obstacle to centralized state government. The terrain limited invasion routes to high mountain passes in the east with Peshawar in northwest Pakistan, the Khojak and Bolan passes in the southeast, and the Salang Pass north of Kabul, linking the capital with its northern provinces. What is not mountainous is desert, and agrarian communities existed in only a few fertile river valleys. Today, the Pashtun people of Eastern Afghanistan and Northwest Pakistan are the world's largest remaining tribal-based societies where local culture and customs (such as the Pashtunwali code) supersede national and even provincial laws. This tribal-based society was complex enough for Afghan rulers to control, much less an invading power with little desire to understand complex tribal politics.

Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars and France’s decline as a significant colonial power, the perceived French threat to India receded. This allowed the Crown to reduce military spending on the subcontinent as the threat of any Afghan incursion was minimal due to the fractured nature of Afghan politics and consistent conflict between tribal factions. Britain's primary geostrategic adversary remained Russia, who, under Tsar Nicholas in 1826, launched a war with Persia that resulted in Russian dominance of that country. A treaty following the Russo-Turkish War, signed in 1829, indicated the Ottomans’ acquiescence as a client state to Russia. These successes, alongside Russian expansion towards Turkistan (roughly Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan), the Khanate of Khiva (in modern Uzbekistan), and the southern Khanate of Bokhara (equating Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan on the northern Afghan border), posed a threat to British India.[6] Following its treaty, in the 1830s, Russia cultivated a military partnership with Persia, including lending advice and support to the Persian siege of Herat in 1837.[7] That siege was broken, in part, thanks to British efforts to dissuade Persians by landing a Royal Marine contingent at Kharg Island in the Persian Gulf in June 1838 and persuading the Persians to retreat.[8] The Russian ambassador to Tehran and the Kabuli envoy were quickly recalled to St. Petersburg. These Russian concessions did little to deter the British and especially Lord Auckland from proceeding with their plan to oust the Afghan Amir, Dost Mohammed, and increase East India Company's influence further into Central Asia.[9]


Great Britain sought to expand its sphere of influence to provide greater defense-in-depth and capitalize on natural defenses to buffer its most prized possession from Russian incursions.[10] British public opinion supported the invasion as “Russophobia” gripped the country. The British people were convinced that the East India Company’s Army of the Indus was dispatched to counter an imminent Russian invasion. Parliament mostly supported the invasion, and the Opposition party chose not to challenge the Government.[11] Few in London dissented, but the most famous dissent came from Sir Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. In a letter to one of the East India Company’s directors, he predicted that political victory was all but impossible and that difficulties would only begin after military success. “The consequence of crossing the Indus once to settle a government in Afghanistan,” he wrote, “will be a perennial march into that country.”[12] Wellington understood full well that consolidating gains in Afghanistan would be difficult.

Nevertheless, as perceived tensions in Central Asia increased and British statesmen feared Russo-Persian incursions into Kabul, Lord Auckland decided to incorporate Afghanistan into the security orbit of British India. Three plans were discussed for what to do with Afghanistan in May 1838. The first option was to leave the country alone and focus on military defense in British India. The second was to support the current Afghan ruler, Dost Mohammed Khan, alongside other local leaders. Finally, the third option was to replace Dost Mohammed with Shah Shuja—the option ultimately chosen.[13] Thus, Britain sought regime change and chose a complicated political end state by putting an unpopular leader back in power.

Initially, Auckland dispatched Alexander Burnes, a Scottish officer in the Royal Army, to Kabul to meet the Afghan leader, Dost Mohammed. In his report from Kabul, Burnes emphasized the rugged terrain, noting that a Russian advance through the Hindu Kush was unlikely. The Afghan Amir, Dost Mohammed, was open to the British alliance if they would honor his request that Peshawar be restored to his kingdom. Peshawar, east of the Khyber Pass and currently in Pakistan, was then in the hands of a Sikh contingent led by Ranjit Singh, who had captured the area four years earlier. Peshawar was the historical winter capital for the Afghan people. While Burnes did not have the authority to decide, he realized that Lord Auckland in India would disapprove as they did not want to interfere with the Sikhs. The Sikhs were British India's most powerful allies on the North-West Frontier.[14]

As Burnes was in Kabul, a Russian agent arrived and prepared to offer Dost Mohammed what the British had denied. The British then saw the removal of Dost Mohammed and the installation of a ruler friendly to British interests as key to restoring the balance of power in Britain's favor, removing a thorn in Ranjit Singh's side, and keeping Russia or Russian-backed Persia out of Afghanistan. On October 1, 1838, Lord Auckland, the governor-general of India, declared war on Afghanistan in the so-called “Simla Manifesto.”[15] Auckland declared that British India ought to have an ally on their frontier “who is interested in resisting aggression, and establishing tranquility, in the place of chiefs ranging themselves in subservience to a hostile power and seeking to promote schemes of conquest and aggrandizement.”. He planned to march the East India Company's Army of the Indus to Kabul via Kandahar to oust Dost Mohammed and install the exiled Shah Shuja as leader of Afghanistan, propped up by British military power.[16]


Following Lord Auckland’s Simla declaration, Crown and Company marshaled resources, and on December 10, 1838, the forces departed for Afghanistan. They each took separate routes, meeting in Quetta to cross the Bolan Pass. The combined “Army of the Indus” totaled over 10,000 British and Indian troops organized into two divisions. The Bengal Division marched on foot from Ferozepore, while the Bombay Division moved to the Indus River via boat. These forces were augmented with 6,000 irregulars recruited by Shah Shuja.[17] The Bengal division had 9,500 troops and 38,000 camp followers as many officers had several—often dozens—of servants. The force also had 30,000 camels.[18] One brigadier required thirty camels to carry his personal belongings; another regiment had two to carry their cigars.[19] In planning the invasion, the British had no idea both the hardships required to move into and live in Afghanistan or the reality that the people would not welcome a long-term occupation of foreigners.

Nevertheless, the Bombay division, commanded by Lieutenant General Sir John Keane, moved by water from Bombay to Sind to link up with Major-General Sir Willoughby Cotton’s Bengal division, which was to march south along the Indus River. Keane took charge of the overall force, leaving Major-General Sir William Nott in charge of the Bombay division. The combined force then proceeded northwest through the deserts of Baluchistan and the Bolan Pass into Quetta before continuing together at Kandahar—a 1200-mile journey. On April 2, 1839, the army took Kandahar without a fight, announced Shah Shuja was the country's new ruler, and quickly decided to move toward Kabul.[20] Thanks to a lack of draft horses and supplies, the British decided to leave their heaviest artillery in Kandahar to hasten their march on the 300-mile route to Kabul.

They encountered a large Afghan force occupying the castle at Ghazni on July 23, 1839. The Afghans were well fortified behind the 70-feet walls and flooded moat of the impressive medieval citadel. After leaving heavy artillery and other siege equipment in Kandahar and initial reconnaissance, the British decided that a full-frontal assault was the only viable method for reducing the Afghan defenses. Shah Shuja’s forces provided an outer cordon and defeated a relieving force of Ghilzi fighters. To take the fort, Indian sappers moved to the front gate under covering fire from artillery guns, emplaced gunpowder on the gate itself, and opened the fortress for British exploitation. Four British regiments of foot then stormed through the gate and took the castle after bitter hand-to-hand fighting. The British suffered 200 casualties despite the bold assault, while the Afghan defenders loyal to Dost Mohammed suffered 500 casualties and 1,600 captured. Following the sacking of Ghazni, Sale’s forces continued their march to Kabul.[21]

After next entering Kabul with no resistance and setting up Shah Shuja’s government, the British removed most of their forces back to India. The initial lack of resistance emboldened British leaders and Shah Shuja, and East India Company considered their mission accomplished.[22] Shuja was an unpopular leader with the Afghans, he sought to murder those who crossed him, and many Afghans believed he was propped up by Farangi (a local word meaning foreigner with a negative connotation) contributed to tensions around Afghanistan. This was evident from his lukewarm reception in Kabul on August 7, 1839. While the British saw Shah Shuja’s weakness as an asset—it represented malleability to British demands—this weakness was a liability in his rule. He would never enjoy the legitimacy and popularity of the previous ruler and could not win the support required to allow British forces to leave. Sir William Hay Macnaghten served as Britain's chief representative in Kabul and thus the de facto political leader of the country. The Afghan people were aware that Macnaghten was more in control than their leader, which severed any hope of winning over the "hearts and minds" of the Afghan people.[23]

British occupation forces committed several blunders that fueled resentment among the Afghan people. First, politically, the dual administration of Shah Shuja and Macnaghten was readily apparent to the Afghan people and exacerbated anti-British sentiments. Second, Macnaghten attempted to create a nontribal professional military force rather than rely on the centuries-old system of diffused tribal power. These forces were paid from the royal treasury and commanded by British officers, placing more financial hardship on British India. Third, British meddling in Afghan markets for grain, cattle, and other supplies caused rampant inflation, as commodity prices rose by 500 percent by June 1841.[24] Fourth, the social effects of the occupation were a key reason for the uprising. British officers seduced Afghan women and encouraged prostitution while holding “music parties” and drinking. The lax social mores of the British collided with conservative Islamic Afghan society while British missionaries were attempting to proselytize, causing widespread distrust and animosity.[25]


By 1841 unrest spreading throughout Afghanistan reached Kabul. The exiled Dost Mohammed returned, leading an uprising of about 6,000 Uzbek horsemen from the north and winning a brilliant victory in Parwan. However, he realized that a complete victory against the power of the British government was hopeless and, amid fears of betrayal from local chieftains, turned himself in to the British, where he was exiled in relative comfort in India. However, the exile was short-lived as he reassumed the throne two years later. Despite this, British military forces were winning tactical encounters, but small battlefield victories failed to break the will of resistance forces.[26] Nevertheless, victories over disparate Afghan forces begat a deceptive peace in the country throughout 1841 that proved to be the calm before the storm rather than stable governance and pacification.

Also, in late 1841 the British—thanks to a new government taking over in London—decided to save money by reducing payments to the Ghilzai tribesmen they paid to hold open necessary passes through Afghanistan, including the famous Khyber Pass supply route from Jalalabad into Peshawar in modern-day Pakistan. The British sent a force east from its Kabul garrison to reopen the pass. This presented a weakened force in the capital city, which the Afghan tribes decided to attack. Furthermore, British forces had withdrawn from the Bala-Hissar fortress compound to help legitimize the Shuja government. Their new garrison cantonment sat in the valley, weakly fortified and surrounded by old forts that had neither been occupied nor destroyed. It measured only 1,000 by 600 yards and sat outside the city walls.[27]

On November 2, 1841, the simmering insurgency erupted in Kabul as Alexander Burnes was murdered alongside his brother and another Englishman in his home by an angry mob. This spurred multiple attacks against the British garrison in Kabul over the winter, particularly from the high ground nearby. The British garrison was under siege and facing starvation, having left its ration stores outside of the main garrison compound. Macnaghten and British military commander Major General William Elphinstone (a veteran of Waterloo) sent for reinforcements from Nott’s brigade at Kandahar, but those forces turned around en route due to harsh wintry conditions. Likewise, they called for Sale’s brigade to return from their march to Jalalabad, but Sale decided to proceed onward, viewing it as the only prudent option based on the terrain and Afghan fighters in the passes, leaving the Kabul garrison to fend for themselves.[28] Macnaghten tried to salvage the situation but was captured and killed by Afghan resistance leader Mohammad Akbar Khan’s forces. After the deaths of Burnes and Macnaghten, the British decided that they had no other alternative but to retreat. British commanding general in Kabul, Elphinstone, negotiated safe passage with Khan (son of the Dost Mohammed) and the 4,500 soldiers with their 12,000 camp followers began the now-famous 80-mile-long journey to Jalalabad through narrow mountain passes.[29]

The death of the British explorer Alexander Burnes in KabuBritish explorer Alexander Burnes in Kabul, Afghanistan, 1841. Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Owing to the fractious nature of Afghan tribal politics, safe passage was not to be had on their journey home. Attacked by more than 30,000 Afghans over the course of a week, the entire column was destroyed in the mountains save one wounded officer—Scottish surgeon Dr. William Brydon—who stumbled into the British fortress garrison at Jalalabad atop a mortally wounded steed. One hundred British and approximately 2,000 Sepoys and camp followers were taken hostage, the rest killed in a series of brutal ambushes.[30] Akbar Khan followed this victory up with a siege of Sale's forces at Jalalabad in February 1842. Approximately 6,000 Uzbeks encircled the British garrison of about 1,500 Royal troops. The siege lasted until an April 7 British counterattack resulted in the recovery of four guns and confiscation of 500 sheep to feed Sale's men.[31] Also, in April, Shah Shuja emerged from his fortified residence at Bala Hissar and was promptly assassinated by men loyal to Akbar Khan. This kicked off a struggle between the son of Shuja, Fath Jang, and Akbar Khan and their supporters. Akbar seized Bala Hissar in June and assumed control of the country.[32]

Sir William Brydon, and titled "The remnants of an Army, Jellalabad, January 13, 1842," Elizabeth Thompson, 1879

Meanwhile, Auckland's successor as Governor-General of India, Lord Ellenborough, launched an 8,000-man force named the “Army of Retribution” back to Afghanistan. Led by Major General George Pollock, the force attacked through the Khyber Pass, reinforced Jalalabad and reached Kabul in September while Nott’s forces in Kandahar marched north. Akbar Khan's forces fled, while Nott and Pollock's forces linked up in Kabul on September 17 and reoccupied the Bala Hissar. They recovered the prisoners kept by Akbar’s forces, destroyed the Char Chowk bazaar (one of the largest in Central Asia at the time) in reprisal for Macnaghten’s murder, and destroyed much of the city.[33] The British then proceeded further north to lay waste to the cities of Charikar and Istalif, where many Kabulis had taken refuge. The combined army left Kabul on October 12 and closed on the Indian city of Ferozepore—where the Army of the Indus stepped off from four years priors—on December 23, 1842.[34] The expedition was to exact justice and restore British pride after such a harrowing disaster the previous winter. In January 1843, Akbar’s father, Dost Mohammed, returned from his exile in India to assume the throne as Amir of Afghanistan. According to many historians, his twenty-year-long reign more than justified Burnes' description of him as a competent and trustworthy ruler worthy of British support.[35]


Britain had ample means regarding soldiers and equipment but lacked the cultural savvy to understand the fractured nature of Afghan politics. Lord Auckland's plan to dominate Afghanistan to prevent Russian forces from influencing the country failed. Uninterested in incorporating Afghanistan into the British Empire, the British rebuffed attempts to secure the alliance of Afghan ruler Dost Mohammed Khan and attempted to install a puppet government to create a friendly "buffer" zone between British India and Russia. Russian soldiers never set foot in Afghanistan and never threatened British India, and they did not intend to, a reality that British fear of Russian expansion masked. The British invaded to install Shaj Shujah as ruler in Kabul of what became an unpopular and corrupt government. Shuja was an abject failure as a leader. Britain also lacked the political will to continue to fund the operation. The British commitment became essentially an “economy of force” mission that was quickly ousted in a humiliating defeat. British failure stemmed from faulty assumptions and an inability to understand the environment in which they operated.

The political reality of war was evident in the ill-fated decision to invade the country. British misunderstanding of Afghanistan’s tribal structure was an essential factor in sowing discord against their government. This also had an incredible impact on what historian Diana Preston argues was their biggest miscalculation—the decision to reduce payments to the Afghan Ghilzai mercenaries protecting land routes into and out of the country.[36] The Afghan insurgency increased rapidly following that decision. Money determined Afghan loyalty, according to historian Robert Johnson, and those decisions were made easier by British disrespect toward the Islamic faith.[37] Furthermore, discord at home, growing government expenditures, and skepticism about the importance of an occupation in a country far from London directly contributed to the failure. Ultimately Britain failed to pacify Afghanistan, not due to military ineptitude entirely—though that was rampant—but rather due to political discord and an inability to coordinate military operations that fit the broader strategic and political framework. As Allan Millett and Williamson Murray so succinctly described more than twenty years ago, “Mistakes in operations and tactics can be corrected, but political and strategic mistakes live forever.”[38] The British political mistakes were too much for tactical victories to overcome.

However, the British did end up with a pliant Afghanistan that rebuked Russian influence in the region, an outcome that might have been had without an invasion. Following his reinstallation as Amir, Dost Mohammed succeeded in uniting much of the country, including bringing previously independent Herat under Afghan control in 1863 and earning the title amir-e-Kabir (Great Amir).[39] Furthermore, Dost refrained from meddling in other regional affairs—notably the eighteen-month Sepoy mutiny of 1857–58—and thus provided a useful buffer on the northwest border of British India.[40] However, this outcome came at an immense cost in men, materiel, and money. Furthermore, British intervention in Afghanistan left lingering feelings of mistrust and enmity toward Britain. Historian Gregory Fremont-Barnes argues that the most significant damage done by the ill-fated invasion was to British pride and worldwide prestige—something he says was not rectified by the Army of Retribution. This blow to prestige, according to Fremont-Barnes, had a direct effect on the Sepoy Mutiny fifteen years later, as the Indian Sepoys fully realized the incompetence of their leaders, harkening back to the retreat from Kabul.[41]

Ultimately, the British did not learn from the initial experience and failure in Afghanistan and repeated many of the same mistakes forty years later when they invaded in 1878. An overblown and imagined Russian threat led British leaders to invade a country that was neutral, if not outright friendly, again creating a hostile and resentful Afghan people. Afghanistan remained a buffer state through the First World War, its borders drawn by outsiders, especially the famous Durand Line of 1893 that split the Pashtun tribes in two to prevent their becoming a significant political entity. This line was drawn without the foresight of an independent India and its partition to form Pakistan, yet it has had lasting implications on the manner of conflict and strategy in Afghanistan since. If nothing else, the Anglo-Afghan War reinforced the inherent advantages of guerrilla warfare and attritional strategies—especially in a mountainous environment—to defeat and expel larger conventional forces.[42] Much like the British in 1838, the Soviet Union in 1979, and the United States in 2001, a failure to understand the complex dynamics of Afghan tribal politics and the limits of governmental ability to control disparate pockets of people proved disastrous.

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Show Notes

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© 2024 Robert F. Williams

Written by Robert F. Williams

About the author:
Robert F. Williams is pursuing a doctorate in history at The Ohio State University researching the existence, emergence, and development of subcultures during World War II and its influence on the US Army during the Cold War. His dissertation, “The Airborne Mafia: Organizational Culture and Institutional Change in the U.S. Army, 1940–1965” examines the role of airborne officers in precipitating change during the early Cold War. In a former life, he served as an infantryman and paratrooper with three deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, he is married with two children, and resides in Columbus, Ohio. He can be found on his website at https://www.rfmwilliams.com or on Twitter @rfmwilliams

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MilitaryHistoryOnline.com.

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