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Sphere Of Influence: The Anglo-Afghan War

Empire VS Empire

The first half the nineteenth century saw Russia’s steady advance southward, annexing territories in Central Asia, enlarging her reach and hold until coming to a stop at Afghanistan, where another great Empire’s sphere of influence had also been disrupted.
By 1829 (1) the British Crown had well established herself in Asia, due in part to the English East India Company and by her relentless need to fuel her industrialization. Russian imperialism saw the Tsar’s troops subdue the Central Asian Khanates and absorb the Caucuses leading the British Crown to fear Afghanistan might become a staging post for a Russian invasion of India, the jewel in the English Crown. 

These English fears came on the heels of the Afghanistan Civil War, which had recently fragmented the nation leaving vacuums in areas bordering India, like the Khyber pass, which had beed successfully employed many times in history as an invasion route to India. If Afghanistan was lost to the Russians, the English Crown was certain India would be next. Successive British governments saw Afghanistan as a buffer state between themselves in India, and the Russian Empire. The resulting strategic rivalry between the Russian and British Empires for influence in Afghanistan, and ultimate supremacy in Central Asia, became known as the Great Game. Toward the middle of this period, which lasted 94 years from 1813 to 1907, Queen Victoria took amongst her titles that of Empress of India, (2) putting her at the same level as that of the Russian Emperor. 

Afghanistan’s ruling family at the time was riddled with contentious family rivalry (3). Sensing a gap, the British Crown threw its support and military behind the brother of the Afghani Emir  and proclaimed war against afghanistan in the interest of protecting and supporting the 'legitimate' Emir's small army in retaking what was once his thrown; 'protecting Afghanistan from outside forces.' This was really an attempt at installing a puppet regime. The strategy backfired and the mainly Indian British army was slaughtered. 

Russia's heavy influence on Persia stirred British resentment; might Afghanistan be next?
Highlander 72nd regiment, out of Scotland.

Height of the Anglo-Afghan War

The second Anglo-Afghan war happened nearly 40 years later, ignited by Russia’s incredible advance southward; by 1878 the Russian Empire bordered Afghanistan. This time around the Brits attacked Kabul successfully and installed the Treaty Of Gandamak, which ensured British control of the main passes into Afghanistan, established a permanent British envoy at Kabul and saw the Kingdom take control of Afghanistan’s foreign affairs. The Russians accepted that the politics of Afghanistan were solely under British control as long as the British guaranteed not to change the regime. Russia agreed to conduct all political relations with Afghanistan through the British. The British agreed that they would maintain the current borders and actively discourage any attempt by Afghanistan to encroach on Russian territory. And so it remained until 1919, when the Third Anglo-Afghan war broke out. 

Afghanistan remained neutral during World War I and expected a return from the English on its neutrality. At this point the British were already paying two million rupees annually to the Emir in exchange for handling Afghanistan’s foreign policy, successfully allowing them to keep Russia at bay. When the British refused to pay, coupled with Afghanistan’s mounting frustration with the lack of full independence, Afghanistan declared war the English Crown. The war was brief, lasting a few months, and while it was a tactical success for the English, confirming the borders between India and Afghanistan, the Brits lost control of the state and 'granted' the Afghani’s full independence. 

Specialized Terms: 




Treaty Of Gandamak:

Empress of India:
A political Entity ruled by a Khan.

A Geopolitical region separating or bordering Europe and Asia, home to the Caucuses Mountain Range.

Arabic for Commander, General or Prince.

A treaty signed between Afghanistan and the British Empire in 1879 securing British control of Afghanistan's borders and mountain passes, but most importantly secured English control of Afghani foreign affairs. 

Title claimed by Queen Victoria during British Raj. 


(1) First Afghan War, J.A Norris, 1967, ch.2).
(2) Royal Titles Act 1876.
(3)Afghanistan: A Companion And Guide, B. Omrani, M. Leeming, and E. Chatwin. 

Image sources: Encyclopedia Iranica, Afghan and Toy Soldier Forum.