European influence in Afghanistan
The Rise of Dost Mohammad
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.
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.
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.
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
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.