Third Afghan War, 1919

Third Afghan War, 1919

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Third Afghan War, 1919

War launched by Amir Amanullah, who had been placed on the Afghan throne in February 1919 by the army and the Young Afghan radical party, after the murder of his father. He proclaimed a Jihad against Britain, and on 3 May 1919 Afghan troops crossed the Indian border, and occupied Bagh. British Indian troops recaptured Bagh on 11 May, and pushed on into Afghanistan, while British bombers attacked Jalalabad and Kabul. Amanullah sued for peace on 31 May, and peace was restored by the treaty of Rawalpindi (8 August). The treaty reaffirmed Afghan independence, and made it clear that Afghanistan controlled it's own foreign policy. One of the first foreign policy decisions made by Amanullah was to recognise the new Soviet Union. The treaty also ended the large British subsidies to the Afghan government which had helped maintain Afghan neutrality during the First World War.

The Third Afghan War of 1919

Although starting with an Afghan invasion of British India on 3 May 1919 and ending just a month later, with official hostilities lasting only a matter of weeks, the war still featured sharp fighting on three main fronts spread over a 500-mile frontier.

On the British side, new weapons such as light machine guns and hand-grenades made their first appearance on the North West Frontier. Armoured cars saw combat alongside horsed cavalry. Motor lorries and camels were equally essential in carrying supplies. And aeroplanes raided the Afghan capital, Kabul, in an early demonstration of strategic bombing.

But the war also saw the mass desertion of the tribal militias intended by Britain to police the frontier, and even a sit-down strike by disgruntled territorial soldiers, eager to return home to the United Kingdom after spending the duration of the First World War in India.

For the Afghans, although defeated in all the major engagements, the war delivered results. The British renounced their claim to control Afghanistan’s foreign policy, enabling the country to achieve full independence.

Amir of Afghanistan is assassinated

Habibullah Khan, the leader of Afghanistan who struggled to keep his country neutral in World War I in the face of strong internal support for Turkey and the Central Powers, is shot and killed while on a hunting trip on February 20, 1919.

Habibullah had succeeded his father, Abd-ar-Rahman, as amir in 1901 and immediately began to bring much-needed reforms and modernization to his country, including electricity, automobiles and medicine. Located between British-held India and Russia, Afghanistan had in the past clashed repeatedly with its neighbors, including two Afghan Wars against Anglo-Indian forces in 1838� and 1878-79. Many within Afghanistan saw these conflicts as part of the fundamental and necessary defense of Muslims against the encroachments of Christians. Though the British and Russian governments signed a convention in 1907 pledging respect for the territorial integrity of Afghanistan, many Afghans—including Habibullah�lt insecure between such powerful neighbors and resented the lack of Afghan representation at the creation of the convention and the effective control Britain still exercised over the country’s foreign affairs due to its active involvement in the region.

Convinced, however, that the continued improvement and modernization of Afghanistan depended on economic assistance from powerful Western countries like Britain, Habibullah maintained his country’s neutrality after the outbreak of World War I, despite pressure from Turkish and other Islamic leaders urging Afghanistan to enter the war against the Allies. By maintaining his country’s neutrality and Afghanistan’s anti-war policy, Habibullah enraged many of his young anti-British countrymen who viewed World War I as a holy war. Many Afghans felt particularly strongly that Habibullah failed to capitalize on the weakness of Russia, which was overtaken by the Bolsheviks in November 1917, by uniting the Muslim peoples of Central Asia and liberating them from non-Muslim rule.

British response

Unnerved by Amanullah’s alliance with the new Bolshevik regime in Russia - Britain's traditional rival in the region - and angered by his support for nationalist agitators, the British mobilised their forces.

Sporadic fighting occurred in the tribal districts of Chitral in the far north, but this was successfully contained. Instead, the fighting on the ground focused on the main mountain passes between British India and Afghanistan.

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The British ropeway supply system, Landi Kotal in the Khyber, 1919

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British soldiers escort Afghan prisoners, 1919

Afghans around the country celebrated the 97th anniversary of Independence on Thursday – a day marked each year on August 18.

Although Afghanistan was never part of the British Empire, it gained its independence from Britain after the signing of the Anglo-Afghan Treaty in 1919 – a treaty that granted complete neutral relations between Afghanistan and Britain.

Despite Afghanistan never having been part of the British Empire, Britain fought three wars in the country.

The first Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842) led to the defeat of the entire British-led Indian invaders by Afghan forces under Abdur Akbar Khan. The second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880) first saw the British defeated in the Battle of Kandahar only for them to emerge victors – which led to Abdur Rahman Khan becoming the new emir.

This ushered in a new era of friendly British-Afghan relations. Following this war, the British were given control of Afghanistan's foreign affairs in exchange for protection against the Russians and Persians.

In 1901 Abdur Rahman Khan's son, Habibullah, succeeded him.

Habibullah was a relatively reform-minded ruler who attempted to modernize his country. During his reign he worked to bring modern medicine and other technology to Afghanistan and worked to put in place progressive reforms in his country.

He was assassinated while on a hunting trip in Laghman Province on February 20, 1919. His brother Nasrullah Khan briefly succeeded him as emir and held power for a week before being ousted and imprisoned by Amanullah Khan, Habibullah's third son.

However, the third Anglo-Afghan War started the same year and resulted in the British giving up control of Afghanistan's foreign affairs in 1921.

Within a few months, the new emir had gained the allegiance of most tribal leaders and established control over the cities.

Amanullah's ten years of reign initiated a period of dramatic change in Afghanistan in both foreign and domestic politics. Starting in May 1919 when he won complete independence in the month-long Third Anglo-Afghan War with Britain, Amanullah altered foreign policy in his new relations with external powers and transformed domestic politics with his social, political, and economic reforms.

"The reforms put in place in Afghanistan by him (King Amanullah Khan) are still visible in the country," said Mahbooba Seraj, cousin of Amanullah Khan.

"As founder of the innovation for creating the government and the governance and development, there is no doubt the signs of these efforts are still visible," said Hamidullah Nasir Zia, grandson of King Amanullah Khan's brother.

"He (King Amanullah Khan) created the tripartite bodies in Afghanistan and Loya Jirga," said former minister of economy Mohammad Amin Farhang.

Although his reign ended abruptly, he achieved some notable successes.

Before final negotiations were concluded in 1921 on the foreign policy issue, however, Afghanistan had already begun to establish its own foreign policy, including diplomatic relations with the new government in the Soviet Union in 1919.

During the 1920s, Afghanistan established diplomatic relations with most major countries, and Amanullah officially became king in 1923.

On 14 January 1929, Amanullah abdicated and fled to neighboring British India while Afghanistan fell into a civil war. From British India he went to Europe where he died in Zürich, Switzerland, in 1960.

Amir Amanullah Khan

(1892-1960) Amir Amanullah Khan was born on June 1, 1892 and he was the third son of Amir Habibullah Khan. Shah Amanullah Khan rose to power after his father's assissanations on February 20th 1919 and he ruled the Emirate of Afghanistan from 1919 to 1929.

Ghazi Amanullah Khan was the governor of Kabul as well as in control of the army and the treasury during the kingdom of his father. After the Third Anglo-Afghan War, Shah Amanullah Khan achieved the independence of Afghanistan over it's foreign affairs from the United Kingdom, although Afghanistan was never officially a part of the British Empire. The British fought three times in Afghanistan. The Firs-Anglo-Afghan-War in 1839–1842 followed with the Second-Anglo-Afghan-War in 1878–1880, and the Third-Anglo-Afghan-War in 1919 which led to the independence of Afghanistan. King Amanullah Khan announced Afghanistan's independence from foreign interventions at Eidgah Mosque in Kabul on August 19 1919. The King's services and reforms have been recorded in the history of Afghanistan which includes building of schools, power or electricity stations and much more. He had also developed a close diplomatic relationship with Europe and the rest of the world. In early 1929, Amanullah Khan abdicated and went into temporary exile in British India and his brother Inayatullah Khan became the king of Afghanistan for a few days until Habibullah Kalakani took over. However, Kalakani's rule didn't last long and replaced nine months later by king Nadir Khan. Amir Amanullah Khan then traveld from British India to Europe then to Italy and later to Zurich, Switzarland where he died on April 25th 1960.

During the kingdom of Amanullah khan, there were two different Afghan flags. The first one was a white emblem with the black background before the independence of 1919. Then when the independence of Afghanistan achieved in 1919, the Afghan flag has changed to three color stripes. The new flag had an emblem of two wheat branches on two sides and a rising sun from behind the mountains in the center of the emblem (meaning of a bright future) in Afghanistan.

Third Anglo-Afghan War - 1919

Distorted reports of the disturbed state of the Punjab found their way to Afghanistan and led the new Amir, Amanulla, to conclude that an invasion of India might prove a solution of his domestic differences. On February 20, 1919, the Amir Habibullah was assassinated on a hunting trip. He had not declared a succession, but left his third son, Amanullah, in charge in Kabul. Because Amanullah controlled both the national treasury and the army, he was well situated to seize power. Army support allowed Amanullah to suppress other claims and imprison those relatives who would not swear loyalty to him. Within a few months, the new amir had gained the allegiance of most tribal leaders and established control over the cities. But his succession was disliked by powerful factions. An invasion of India might increase his popularity with the army and the anti-British party and would appeal to the religious fanaticism of his Mahommedan subjects, deeply stirred as it was by the humiliation and defeat of Turkey and by the British conquest of Mesopotamia.

Starting in May 1919 when he won complete independence in the month-long Third Anglo-Afghan War with Britain, Amanullah altered foreign policy in his new relations with external powers and transformed domestic politics with his social, political, and economic reforms. Although his reign ended abruptly, he achieved some notable successes, and his efforts failed as much due to the centripetal forces of tribal Afghanistan and the machinations of Russia and Britain as to any political folly on his part.

Amanullah came to power just as the entente between Russia and Britain broke down following the Russian Revolution of 1917. Once again Afghanistan provided a stage on which the great powers played out their schemes against one another. Amanullah attacked the British in May 1919 in two thrusts, taking them by surprise. Afghan forces achieved success in the early days of the war as Pashtun tribesmen on both sides of the border joined forces with them.

His plan was to start with an anti-British propaganda in India, to incite the independent tribes to rise and to follow up their raiding parties with his Afghan regular forces. His designs miscarried. The frontier tribes were slow to move. Aggressive movements of his troops in the Khyber were countered by the rapid mobilization of the army in India early in May, the occupation of the Afghan advanced base at Dacca and the bombing by aeroplanes of Kabul and Jalalabad. By the middle of May 1919 the Afghans asked for a cessation of hostilities and threw out feelers for peace. Dilatory negotiations followed before the Amir could bring himself to ask for terms.

In June 1919 he reluctantly accepted the conditions of armistice offered to him. In July his representatives attended a conference at Rawalpindi and on 08 August 1919 a treaty of peace was signed. The terms proposed were lenient as the object was to reestablish friendly relations with Afghanistan. The Amir lost his subsidy and the privilege of importing arms through India. Another article expressed the willingness of the British Government to resume friendly relations with Afghanistan, if in the next six months the Afghans proved by their conduct that they were sincerely anxious to regain its friendship.

A concession to which the Afghan delegates attached much importance was conveyed in a separate letter, which officially recognized the freedom of Afghanistan from foreign control. Doubts were expressed as to the wisdom of this concession. But British control over the foreign policy of Afghanistan had always been nominal rather than real, and the withdrawal of the subsidy in itself implied the rescission of the reciprocal obligation. The policy embodied in the treaty was slow of fruition. After many delays the Amir sent delegates to India in 1920 to discuss the basis of a permanent friendly agreement, and as a sequel to these discussions a British envoy proceeded to Kabul to confer with the Afghan Government. The progress of Bolshevism in the countries to the north of Afghanistan and the overthrow of the state of Bokhara may have disposed the Amir to seek a renewal of friendship with the British power, but in 1921 nothing was settled.

The Rawalpindi treaty did not end the troubles on the frontier. The independent tribes of Wazirs and Mahsuds, who occupied a large block of country south of the Khyber line between Afghanistan and the British districts to the east, had risen in May 1919 at the instigation of the Afghans, raided the adjoining British districts and achieved some temporary successes over the tribal militia and levies by whom the border is policed. As their raids showed no abatement, the Indian Government determined to undertake the permanent pacification of the country. It was a serious undertaking, as the tribes could place some 30,000 well-armed men in the field, of whom a number had served in the Indian army.

A strong force was assembled on the frontier in October 1919 and an ultimatum given to the tribes. They were required to make reparation for damages, to surrender arms in specified amounts, and were informed that the Government intended to make military roads through their country and occupy certain positions, The Wazirs in the Tochi Valley were soon subdued, but the Mahsuds held out and fought with dogged obstinacy and great skill. There were two considerable encounters (on Dec. 21 1919 and Jan. 14 1920) in which the British casualties were heavy.

In the end the Mahsuds accepted the terms imposed upon them and operations closed on May 7 1920. This frontier campaign is officially described as one of "unparalleled hard fighting and severity. The enemy fought with a determination and courage which have rarely, if ever, been met with by our troops in similar operations." They were well armed, and many retired regular soldiers and deserters from the Indian army and tribal militia were present in their ranks. It was later found necessary to occupy the central portion of the Mahsud country while road-making, one of the most pacifying influences, was in progress.

Before final negotiations were concluded in 1921, however, Afghanistan had already begun to establish its own foreign policy, including diplomatic relations with the new government in the Soviet Union in 1919. During the 1920s, Afghanistan established diplomatic relations with most major countries, and Amanullah became king in 1923.

The second round of Anglo-Afghan negotiations for final peace were inconclusive. Both sides were prepared to agree on Afghan independence in foreign affairs, as provided for in the previous agreement. The two nations disagreed, however, on the issue that had plagued Anglo-Afghan relations for decades and would continue to cause friction for many more--authority over Pashtun tribes on both sides of the Durand Line. The British refused to concede Afghan control over the tribes on the British side of the line while the Afghans insisted on it. The Afghans regarded the 1921 agreement as only an informal one.

The rivalry of the great powers in the region might have remained subdued had it not been for the dramatic change in government in Moscow brought about by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. In their efforts to placate Muslims within their borders, the new Soviet leaders were eager to establish cordial relations with neighboring Muslim states. In the case of Afghanistan, the Soviets could achieve a dual purpose: by strengthening relations with the leadership in Kabul, they could also threaten Britain, which was one of the Western states supporting counterrevolution in the Soviet Union. In his attempts to unclench British control of Afghan foreign policy, Amanullah sent an emissary to Moscow in 1919 Lenin received the envoy warmly and responded by sending a Soviet representative to Kabul to offer aid to Amanullah's government.

Throughout Amanullah's reign, Soviet-Afghan relations fluctuated according Afghanistan's value to the Soviet leadership at a given time Afghanistan was either viewed as a tool for dealing with Soviet Muslim minorities or for threatening the British. Whereas the Soviets sought Amanullah's assistance in suppressing anti-Bolshevik elements in Central Asia in return for help against the British, the Afghans were more interested in regaining lands across the Amu Darya lost to Russia in the nineteenth century. Afghan attempts to regain the oases of Merv and Panjdeh were easily subdued by the Soviet Red Army.

In May 1921, the Afghans and the Soviets signed a Treaty of Friendship, Afghanistan's first international agreement since gaining full independence in 1919. The Soviets provided Amanullah with aid in the form of cash, technology, and military equipment. Despite this, Amanullah grew increasingly disillusioned with the Soviets, especially as he witnessed the widening oppression of his fellow Muslims across the border.

Anglo-Afghan relations soured over British fear of an Afghan-Soviet friendship, especially with the introduction of a few Soviet planes into Afghanistan. British unease increased when Amanullah maintained contacts with Indian nationalists and gave them asylum in Kabul, and also when he sought to stir up unrest among the Pashtun tribes across the border. The British responded by refusing to address Amanullah as "Your Majesty," and imposing restrictions on the transit of goods through India.

Third Afghan War, 1919 - History

This presentation consists of a brief history of Afghanistan, from the Persian Empire to the early 20th Century, as well as images of related maps from the collections of the Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Persian Empire to Mughul Dynasty

Afghanistan was an important crossroads, dominated by other civilizations throughout its history. By 522 BC. Darius the Great extended the boundaries of the Persian Empire into most of the region. By 330 BC. Alexander the Great conquered Persia and Afghanistan. Buddhism was introduced in 50 AD, when Afghanistan became part of the Kushanid Empire. Hephtatlites (White Huns) invaded in the 5th century and destroyed the Buddhist culture. From 225 to 600 AD, Sassanians (Persians) established control. The first Muslim-Arab conquests occurred from 652 to 654. A succession of dynasties, the Ghaznavid, Ghorid and Timurid ruled the area from 997 to 1506 AD. Babur, the founder of India’s Mughul Dynasty governed Kabul in 1504 and in time much of the territory that is present day Afghanistan.[1]

“Persarum Imperium” published in 1721 by Pierre Moulard Sanson.

The provinces (satrapies) of Bactriana and Ariana are shown on the map. Present day Mazar-e-Sharif is located in the former province of Bactriana. Herat is located in the former province of Ariana.

17th Century to the Early 19th Century

Khushhal Khan Khattak, a famous Afghan warrior poet, led a rebellion against the Mughul Dynasty in the 1600s. Mir Wais Khan Hotaki revolted against Safavid rule and took over Kandahar in 1708. By 1736 Afsharid ruler, Nadir Shaw, gained control of the region. In 1747 Nadir was assassinated. Later that year Ahmad Durrani was elected king by a council of tribal leaders. During the 1760s, Ahmad Shah Durrani extended Afghanistan’s borders into part of India. The nation of Afghanistan finally began to take shape under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Durrani after centuries of invasions.[2]

“A New & Accurate Map of Persia” by Emanuel Bowen reflects the boundaries of Persia in 1747.

Kandahar is shown within Persia. Kabul is shown outside of Persia’s boundaries within the “Kingdom of Balk.”

Timur, Ahmad Shah Durrani’s son, succeeded to the throne in 1773. He ruled Afghanistan until his death in 1793, leaving over 20 sons. Timur’s descendants were later engaged in a struggle for power. His son Zaman Shah became king in 1793. Zaman Shah’s brother Mahmud captured the throne in 1800. In 1803, another brother Shah Shuja reigned after replacing Mahmud. Mahmud forced Shuja to flee in 1809 and remained king until he was driven from the throne in 1817. From 1818 until 1826, Afghanistan disintegrated into a group of small units each ruled by a different Durrani leader.[3] During this time the “Great Game” between Great Britain and Russia was beginning to be played out. “The Great Game” involved not only the confrontation of two great empires whose spheres of influence moved steadily closer to one another until they met in Afghanistan, but also the repeated attempts by a foreign power to impose a puppet government in Kabul.[4]

First Anglo-Afghan War

The next leader, Dost Muhammad, ascended to the throne in 1826. Concerned about growing Persian and Russian influences, the British, along with former King Shuja, invaded Afghanistan in late 1838 while Dost Muhammad was still in power. Shuja was killed a few years later and the British were defeated. Dost Muhammad returned to the throne in 1843.[5]

Lithograph titled “Surrender of Dost Mahommed Khan to Sir William Hay Macnaghten Bart, at the entrance into Caubul [sic] from Killa-Kazee.”

Illus. in DS352.A8 Case Y [P&P]

The lithograph is from “Sketches in Afghaunistan” [sic] by James Atkinson, published in 1842 by H. Graves & Company.

Treaty of Peshawar

During the years after the First Anglo-Afghan War the Russians, interested in the territories of Central Asia, advanced southward. The British, hoping to stop Russian advances, resumed relations with Dost Muhammad in 1854. In 1855 the Treaty of Peshawar proclaimed respect for Afghanistan’s and Britain’s territorial integrity and declared each to be friends of each other’s friends and enemies of each other’s enemies. In 1856 the Anglo-Persian War broke out and the Qajar Dynasty took Herat back into its control.[6]

Second Anglo-Afghan War

During the 1860s the Russians intensified their southeastern advances. “The Russian foreign minister claimed the Russian movements in Central Asia were taken simply to unite Russia, not to oppose any other government.”[7] In 1872, Russia signed an agreement with Great Britain consenting to respect the northern boundaries of Afghanistan.[8] King Sher Ali permitted an uninvited Russian delegate to enter Kabul in July 1878. Hoping to retain the British influence, British Viceroy Lord Lytton ordered a diplomatic mission to travel to Kabul on August 14th. When no reply was received the British sent a military force to cross the Khyber Pass. Afghan authorities refused the British permission to cross. This incident triggered the Second Anglo-Afghan War. On November 21, 1878 approximately 40,000 British soldiers entered Afghanistan. The British withdrew two years later after facing strong resistance from the Afghan forces.[9]

“Seat of War in Asia, Map of Afghanistan.”

The map is dated 1878 and was taken from surveys made by British and Russian Officers.

Treaty of Gandomak

At the end of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, the Treaty of Gandomak was completed between the British government and Amir Yaqub Khan. The treaty was to establish peace and friendship between both countries. It provided amnesty for Afghan collaborators with the British occupational forces and committed the amir to conduct his foreign relations with advice from the British Government. Great Britain, in exchange, promised to support the amir against any foreign aggression.[10]

Russian Advances 1885

Abdur Rahman Khan ruled Afghanistan from 1880-1901. He modernized the country, formed a strong army, brought in foreign professionals and imported machinery. “Caught between the Russians and the British, Abdur Rahman turned his formidable energies to what turned out to be virtually the creation of the modern state of Afghanistan, while the British and the Russians, with the Afghans as bystanders, determined the borders of the Afghan State.”[11]

Russian forces seized the Merve Oasis inhabited by the Turkoman people in 1884. In 1885 they took possession of the Panjdeh Oasis. Afghan attempts to retake the territory failed. In 1886 the Anglo-Russian Boundary Commission agreed on a border along the Amu Darya River. The Russian-British agreement resulted in a permanent northern frontier, however, much territory was lost in the Panjdeh region. [12]

“Map illustrative of the march of the Indian Section of the Boundary Commission from Quetta to Olerat and Badkis of the frontier as proposed and actually demarcated, and of the author’s return journey from Herat to the Caspian.”

The map, published in 1885, shows the western half of Afghanistan, “Russian Dominions,” “Persia” and “Belochistan.” The colored lines indicate “Boundary as actually demarcated,” “Boundary as required by the Russians,” and “Boundary as required by the Afghans.”

The Durand Line

On November 12, 1893, Abdur Rahman Khan, and the Foreign Secretary of the Colonial Government of India, Sir Mortimer Durand, agreed to mark the boundary between Afghanistan and British India. The Durand Line cut through Pashtun tribal areas and villages. It was a cause of dispute between the governments of Afghanistan and British India and later between Afghanistan and Pakistan.[13]

“Afghanistan, Beloochistan, etc.”

A map of Afghanistan, published in 1893, the year Abdur Rahman Khan and Sir Mortimer Durand agreed to mark the boundary between Afghanistan and British India.

Early 20th Century

Abdur Rahman’s son, Habibullah, reigned from 1901-1919. In 1904 a boundary commission determined the border between Iran and Afghanistan. The boundary was accepted by both countries. The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 divided Afghanistan into areas of Russian and British influence. Habibullah wanted full Afghan independence and Great Britain’s assistance in an attempt to regain lands taken by the Russians. “Britain far more interested in the European power struggle and the defense of India through an Afghan buffer state was uninterested in such a scheme.”[14] Habibullah was assassinated in 1919. His son Amanullah succeeded him. During his reign the month long Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919 resulted in complete Afghan independence. Amanullah established diplomatic relationships with Russia in 1919, Iran in 1921 and Great Britain in 1922.[15]

Images of other historical maps of Afghanistan and Southwest Asia are available on Map Collections 1500-2004, Additional maps will be added periodically.


1 Adamec, Ludwig W. Historical Dictionary of Afghanistan. 2nd ed. London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1997. 122, 125, 198, 331-332.
2 Nystrop, Richard F. And Donald M. Seekins, eds. Afghanistan a Country Study. Washington: Library of Congress, 1986. 13-14.
3 Nystrop, 22.
4 Nystrop, 23.
5 Nystrop, 28-30.
6 Nystrop, 30-31.
7 Reshtia, Sayed Qassem. Between Two Giants: Political History of Afghanistan in the Nineteenth Century. Peshawar: Afghan Jehad Works Translation Centre, 1990. 285.
8 Nystrop, 32.
9 Nystrop, 33.
10 Adamec, 114.
11 Nystrop, 34-35.
12 Nystrop, 36.
13 Nystrop, 38.
14 Nystrop, 39-40.
15 Nystrop, 41-42.

Why It’s So Difficult to Win a War in Afghanistan

The United States has been stuck in an unwinnable quagmire in Afghanistan for years, but it isn’t the first global power to wage an unsuccessful war there. Both the British Empire and the Soviet Union were ultimately unable to create a lasting presence in Afghanistan because they weren’t just fighting against the people who lived there—they were fighting against competing imperial interests in the strategically-located region.

Afghanistan has been the center of competing foreign powers for a long time. Between 1839 and 1919, the British fought threewars in Afghanistan, each lasting no more than a few months or years (although the last war was more like a skirmish). During the first two wars, the British Empire wanted to secure the country against Russia’s influence, says Shah Mahmoud Hanifi, a professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian history at James Madison University. During the third, it wanted to secure Afghanistan against the Ottoman Empire.

A photograph of Major Sir Pierre Louis Napoleon Cavagnari [1841-1879] sitting amongst a group of Afghan chieftains and army officers, taken in January 1879. Defeats at Ali Masjid and Peiwar Kotal had forced Afghanistan’s new ruler, Amir Yaqub Khan [ d 1914], to accept a humiliating peace with the British which included accepting Cavagnari as envoy in Kabul. Widespread resentment in the country at the British presence led to an attack on the British residency in Kabul on 3 September 1879. Despite fighting bravely, Cavagnari and his small escort were killed. This, in turn, led the British to resume the war to avenge their deaths. (Credit: SSPL/Getty Images)

Similarly, the Soviet Union’s occupation ofthe region between 1979 and 1988 was bound up in its competition with American during the Cold War. The CIA covertly armed Afghanistan’s mujahideen (or “strugglers”) during that war, meaning that the Soviets were fighting a country that was being greatly helped by another empire.

Afghanistan’s strategic location—it connects Central Asia and the Middle East to South and East Asia—makes it a “kind of a policy way station towards a political agenda,” explains Hanifi. So when large empires go to war in Afghanistan, they come up against other country’s attempts to expert their own influence in the region.

The same is true today. Just as the U.S. secretly armed the mujahideen, NATO has accused Iran of arming the Taliban in Afghanistan. And recently, President Donald Trump asked India—which has a huge economic investment in Afghanistan—to “help us more” in the U.S. war there, according to The New York Times. (Though Trump didn’t name specifics, he was likely talking about economic aid.)

As part of their war against the Soviet forces invading Afghanistan, the Mujahidin, anti-Communist troops trained and supplied by the U.S.A., Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other countries, have launched an offensive in the Jalalabad area. Pictured here is a truck full of armed Mujahidin soldiers arriving at the Samarkhel Mujahidin camp near the Jalalabad airport to back up the forces already present . (Credit: Patrick Durand/Sygma via Getty Images)

Of course, there are many other factors that make Afghanistan a tough place to wage war in. Logistically, the terrain makes it difficult to move people and equipment. In addition, “the geographic factors of terrain inform cultural values,” says Hanifi, meaning that outside forces don’t always understand the unique relationship between the country’s 14 recognized ethnic groups and its various tribes.

For example, in the current war, Hanifi says the U.S. has emphasized working with Pashtuns in creating a government in Afghanistan. But although they’re the ethnic majority, Pashtuns are spread across multiethnic and multilingual tribes, and the United States’ focus on them as a monolithic group has not been successful.

Looking to Pakistan

On August 21, 2017, President Donald Trump gave a speech about his plan for the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Without offering specifics, Trump said that the U.S. will continue to fight until there is a clear victory. Which means, according to experts, that there is no end in sight.

But Trump’s speech wasn’t just about Afghanistan. He also announced that the U.S. would take a more aggressive policy toward Pakistan, which he accused of harboring terrorists.

Afghan men walk amongst the remains of Russian military vehicles on the outskirts of Kabul on February 14, 2009 on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan on February 15, 1989, after ten years of fighting against Mujahiddin millitamen. (Credit: Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images)

Unlike the U.S., Pakistan doesn’t have an overarching set of laws governing all of its citizens. Tribes govern using local laws, and Trump’s new plan “is a direct attempt to deny what has historically been that safe haven of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, in Pakistan,” Hanifi says.

An attempt to crack down on individual tribes harboring terrorists “really does call indirectly for a radical reconfiguration of how Pakistan functions as a state,” he adds.


This war was fought between a British Indian army in alliance with the still-independent Sikhs under Ranjit Singh, and the Bārakzay rulers of Kabul and Qandahār. Its object was to depose Dōst Moḥammad Khan, the Bārakzay amir of Kabul and to restore the former Sadōzay ruler, Shah &Scaronoǰāʿ Dōst Moḥammad had been dealing with Persia and Russia, while it was thought that Shah &Scaronoǰāʿ could be trusted to have nothing to do with them. Long before 1838 the British in India had been alarmed by the Russian advance into Central Asia and by the interest of the czar&rsquos agents in Persia and Afghanistan. At stake was the market for Russian or British products in Central Asia. British imperialists dreamed of sending goods in steam boats up the Indus and overland into Central Asia. Russian imperialists aspired to gain possession of Ḵīva in the belief that it would become the center of all the commerce of Asia and would undermine the commercial superiority of those who dominated the sea ([N.] N. Mouraviev, Voyage en Turcomanie et à Ḵīva, fait en1819 et 1820, tr. M. G. Lecointe de Laveau, Paris, 1823, p. 345).

From 1829 onward the British considered it a matter of urgent national importance to extend their influence into Central Asia before the Russians arrived (J. A. Norris, The First Afghan War 1838-1842, Cambridge, 1967. ch. 2). They also feared that their hold on India would be jeopardized if Russia were dominant in Central Asia and militarily present in or near Afghanistan. To protect their interests, they sent an envoy, Alexander Burnes, by way of Sind to Lahore in 1830 and by way of Kabul to Bokhara in 1831-32 (for which he became famous as an explorer and political agent and earned the nickname &ldquoBokhara Burnes&rdquo see A. Burnes, Travels into Bokhara, Containing the Narrativeof a Voyage on the Indus, London, 1834). At this time the strong Russian influence in Persia was being used to encourage a Persian campaign against the strategically important fortress of Herat, which was ruled by a Sadōzay (see Afghanistan x). The British sought to save Herat from Persia and thus to hold the Russians at bay in the west.

Meanwhile the only Indian state of any significant independence and military power was the Panjab under Ranjit Singh. The British could not hope to establish a

strong influence beyond the Indus unless they first either conciliated or conquered the Sikhs. The spectacle of the well-trained and equipped armies of Lahore persuaded the British to make friendship with the Sikhs a high priority. It was impossible for the British to befriend Ranjit Singh and Dōst Moḥammad Khan at the same time, for there was a fierce quarrel between them over the Sikh occupation of Peshawar and the shelter and encouragement given to Shah &Scaronoǰāʿ. Even Burnes, on a mission to Kabul, was unable to reconcile Dōst Moḥammad with Ranjit Singh. Burnes&rsquo masters could not offer Dōst Moḥammad anything that he really wanted in return for giving up correspondence with Persia and Russia.

In 1838 the governor general, Lord Auckland, signed the Simla Manifesto, which was in effect a declaration of war upon the Bārakzay rulers of Kabul and Qandahār and of intent to restore Shah &Scaronoǰāʿ while saving Herat from Persian designs. The Sikhs played a minimal part in subsequent military operations. The Army of the Indus, as the British called it, entered Afghanistan in the spring of 1839 and made its way through Qandahār and Ḡaznī to Kabul. Shah &Scaronoǰāʿ was restored but not warmly welcomed, and the Bārakzī and their followers fought on. The invading army became one of occupation, but complacency after apparent victory, coupled with the need for economy, weakened the occupying force. In November, 1841, there was an uprising in Kabul Burnes was killed, along with many others. Though Dōst Moḥammad was a prisoner in India, his son Akbar had no intention of allowing the British under Macnaghten to negotiate their way out of trouble or to stay in Kabul. Macnaghten was killed, and only a handful of the Kabul garrison survived the ordeal of a negotiated &ldquoevacuation march&rdquo to Jalālābād those who were not slaughtered by the Afghans froze in the snow en route. Shah &Scaronoǰāʿ remained for a while in the Bālā Ḥeṣār in Kabul then he too was assassinated.

A change of governor general in India, coinciding with a change of government in London, resulted in the dispatch of an &ldquoarmy of retribution&rdquo to Afghanistan in 1842. The humiliation of the British in India was in large measure avenged (though never forgotten by their sepoys), but once the army&rsquos mission was accomplished, it returned to India with Akbar&rsquos hostages, &ldquoleaving the Afghans themselves to create a government amidst the anarchy which is the consequence of their crimes,&rdquo according to Governor General Ellenborough&rsquos proclamation at Simla on 1 October 1842 (Norris, First Afghan War, p. 451). In reality there was no more anarchy than before, except in the limited sense that Shah &Scaronoǰāʿ&rsquos death deprived Kabul of a nominal ruler, however weak. Dōst Moḥammad returned to the capital in 1843.

Unpublished sources: British Museum Add. mss.: Papers of Lords Aberdeen (43043 et seq.), Auckland (37689-713), Broughton (36467-74 et seq.), and Palmerston (48535-36) and of Sir Robert Peel (40490 et seq.).

Public Record Office: Ellenborough Papers, PRO 30.12, passim.

India Record Office Correspondence between Board of Control and Governor General (IOR/BD and IOR/Sl, passim).

Official Records: Correspondence relating to the Affairs of Persia and Afghanistan, printed solely for the use of the Cabinet, Palmerston&rsquos personal copy (PRO FO 539.1 and 2).

Published sources: J. C. Hobhouse, Baron Broughton, Recollections of a Long Life, London, 6 vols., 1909-11.

A. Burnes, Cabool, being a Personal Narrative, London, 1842.

E. Law, Lord Ellenborough, A Political Diary, 1828-1830, London, 2 vols., 1881.

V. Eyre, The Military Operations at Cabul, London, 1843.

J. MacNeill, The Progress and Present Positionof Russia in the East, London, 1836.

W. Lamb, Lord Melbourne, Lord Melbourne&rsquos Papers, ed.

F. Sale, A Journal of theDisasters in Afghanistan, 1841-2, London, 1843.

See also: J. A. Norris, The First AfghanWar, bibliography, pp. 453-56.

T. A. Heathcote, TheAfghan Wars 1839-1919 (many illustrations), London, 1980, pp. 19-83.

For the diplomatic context of the war, see M. E. Yapp, Strategies of British India: Britain, Iran and Afghanistan, 1798-1850, Oxford, 1980 (supplements the previous publication by Norris).

N. H. Dupree, &ldquoThe question of Jalalabad during the first Anglo-Afghan war,&rdquo Asian Affairs 62, N. S., 6/1-2, 1975, pp. 44-60, 177-89.

L. Dupree, &ldquoThe first Anglo-Afghan war and the British retreat of 1842: The functions of history and folklore,&rdquo East and West 26/3-4,1976, pp. 503-29.

Published Afghan sources are catalogued in J.-H. Grevemeyer, &ldquoBericht über die publizierte afghanische Historiographie,&rdquo in C. Rathjens, ed., Neue Forschungen in Afghanistan, Opladen, 1981, p. 37, n. 30.

ii. Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80)

The British objective was to impose advice and a military presence on Afghanistan in order to keep the Russians far from India. After six years of succession quarrels among Dōst Moḥammad&rsquos sons, &Scaronēr ʿAlī became amir in 1869 (see Afghanistan, x). Four years later, he was on good terms with the British in India, having being assured that he could count on their friendship and support the viceroy (Lord Mayo) had given him two batteries of artillery and some thousands of sets of weapons for his soldiers. In September, 1873, &Scaronēr ʿAlī asked Mayo&rsquos successor, Northbrook, what Britain would do if Russia, his new neighbor on the north, attacked Afghanistan on instructions from London, Northbrook declined to give a straight answer. &Scaronēr ʿAlī was disappointed, since he wanted assurances of help without interference in his internal affairs. But the resurgence of a &ldquoforward&rdquo policy in India and London meant that he was unlikely to get the guarantee he wanted without the interference he wished to avoid. The views of the British noninterventionists were submerged in the excitement generated by news of the latest Russian successes among the khanates and by the outbreak of war between Russia and Turkey in 1877.

From October, 1876, to March, 1877, there were talks in Peshawar, but they foundered on the British desire to station soldiers on Afghanistan&rsquos northern frontier. When Disraeli&rsquos government sent troops to Malta as a warning to the Russians then at war with Turkey, the War Office in St. Petersburg sent a military mission to Kabul and three columns of troops toward the Afghan frontier the Russian Foreign Office later denied knowledge of the moves. Knowing that the Treaty of Berlin had already been signed, the Russian military mission arrived in Afghanistan and was received in Kabul. Before long the British had a similar mission on the way. &Scaronēr ʿAlī committed himself to the Russians just enough to destroy his credit with the British he refused to receive the British mission and was sent an ultimatum, to which he never replied. On 21 November 1878 General Roberts (son of the British commander of Shah &Scaronoǰāʿ&rsquos contingent forty years before) set in motion three columns of troops, thus beginning the Second Anglo-Afghan War.

Within a few months &Scaronēr ʿAlī was dead, and his son Yaʿqūb had succeeded him. The Russians, in whom he had placed his trust, had made no attempt to help him. Inthe Treaty of Gandamak of May, 1879, Yaʿqūb Khan accepted British control of his foreign relations, agreed to receive a permanent British envoy in Kabul, allowed British forces to control the main passes into Afghanistan from the south, and accepted an annual subsidy of 60,000 rupees. Yaʿqūb received his envoy, Sir Louis Cavagnari, but did nothing to stop the massacre of that envoy and his staff in September, 1879. Roberts reactivated his three columns, and within six weeks of the massacre Kabul was occupied and Yaʿqūb deposed.

For ten years ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān, a grandson of Dōst Moḥammad, had been living in exile in Samarqand, latterly as a pensioner of the Russians. Now they encouraged him to return to Afghanistan and fill the gap left by the abdication of Yaʿqūb. He did so in January, 1880, and was immediately welcomed by the British. In April Gladstone took over from Disraeli as prime minister with a firm policy of withdrawal, and in July the British formally recognized ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān as Afghanistan&rsquos ruler. Meanwhile Roberts and his troops were engaged with Afghan forces to the west. Ayyūb Khan, son of &Scaronēr ʿAlī and a cousin of ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān, commanded the Afghan troops, who inflicted a heavy defeat on one British column at Maywand in July. After his famous forced march from Kabul to Qandahār, Roberts defeated Ayyūb Khan. Not until the spring of 1881 were the last British Indian troops withdrawn. ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān conceded British supervision of his foreign relations and a military presence in the passes. In return, Britain promised him a subsidy and help in resisting any unprovoked aggression. Being a strong and respected ruler, implacable in his dealings with internal enemies, he was able to keep his Afghan critics in check. A weaker amir would not have been able to subdue resentment of the severe British restraint on the Afghan&rsquos most prized possession&mdashhis independence.

Among the best and most complete contemporary accounts of the war are, The Second Afghan War, 1878-80. Abridged Official Account, London, 1908 H. B. Hanna, The SecondAfghan War, 1878-1879-1880. Its Causes, its Conduct,and its Consequences, 3 vols., Westminster and London, 1899-1910 H. Hensman, The Afghan War of1879-80, London, 1881 Lord F. S. Roberts, Forty-One Years in India, London, 1897 (and numerous later editions).

Thediplomatic environment of the war is dealt with in the following contemporary accounts: D. C. Boulger, England and Russia inCentral Asia, 2 vols., London, 1879 H. C. Rawlinson, England and Russia in the East, London, 1875.

They have been used, along with extensive unpublished English material, in D. P. Singhal, India and Afghanistan. A Study in Diplomatic Relations,1876-1907, St. Lucia, Queensland, 1963.

The modern Afghan interpretation of the events has beenexpressed in a book published onthe occasion of the centennial of the war: M. S. Farhang, S. Q. Re&scarontīā and L. Jalālī, Da afḡān aw inglīs dwahəm ǰang (1879-1880). Da Kābol mellī qīām,Kabul, 1358 &Scaron./1979 (partial English translation from the original Darī or Paṧtō in Afghanistan Quarterly 32/2,3, and 4, 1358&Scaron./1979).

See also P. M. Sykes, A History of Afghanistan,2 vols., London, 1940, repr. New Delhi, 1981.

W. K. Fraser-Tytler, Afghanistan: A Study of Political Developments in Central Asia, London, I950, 1967 (3rd. ed.).

V. Gregorian, The Emergence of ModernAfghanistan, Stanford, 1969, chaps. 4 and 5.

L. Maxwell, My God&mdashMaywand! Operations of the South Afghanistan Field Force 1878-80, London, 1979.

M. S. Furhung, &ldquoThe Causes of and Prelude to the Second Anglo-Afghan War,&rdquo Afghanistan Quarterly 32/3, 1979, pp. 10-32.

T. A. Heathcote, The Afghan Wars, 1839-1919, London, 1980, pp. 84-165 (profusely illustrated).

iii. Third Anglo-Afghan War (1919)

This was an undeclared war that lasted from 4 May to 3 June and resulted in Afghanistan&rsquos winning complete independence. Amir Amānallāh (1919-29) ascended the Afghan throne on 25 February after the assassination of Amir Ḥabīballāh (r. 1319-37/1901-19) and the five-day rule of Naṣrallāh Khan. An ardent nationalist who resented Britain&rsquos hegemony over Afghanistan, Amir Amānallāh immediately proclaimed his independence and demanded a new agreement with Britain to end Afghanistan&rsquos status as a virtual protectorate. In order to emphasize his demands, Amānallāh sent three of his generals to the frontier: Ṣāleḥ Moḥammad, the commander-in-chief, arrived at Dakka on 3 May ʿAbd-al-Qoddūs Khan, the ṣadr-e aʿẓam, moved to the area of Ḵalāt-e Ḡilzay on 5 May, and aday later Moḥammad Nāder, the ex commander-in-chief (and subsequent king of Afghanistan), arrived in Ḵōst with regular Afghan troops as well as several thousand tribesmen.

Hostilities began on 4 May 1919, when Afghan troops cut the water supply to Landī Kōtal on the Indian side of the border, and Britain retaliated by closing the Khyber Pass. It appears that the Afghans planned a concerted attack, but the forces of Ṣāleḥ Moḥammad were prematurely engaged. British forces had some successes, but these were neutralized when Nāder Khan established a new front in the southeast and attacked the British base at Thal. On 24 May Amānallāh responded to British feelers, and a ceasefire was called on 3 June 1919. Peace between Afghanistan and Britain was finally restored after a series of negotiations at Rawalpindi (8 August 1919), Mussoorie (1 8 July 1920), and Kabul (2 December 1921).

Until recently, historians have generally accepted the British interpretation of the causes of the war, which held that Amānallāh&rsquos control over Afghanistan was weakened because of the power struggle after the assassination of Amir Ḥabīballāh. Amānallāh imprisoned his uncle and rival to the throne, Naṣrallāh Khan, and freed members of the Moṣāḥebān family from arrest for suspected participation in the assassination plot. In this view, when Amānallāh saw his position endangered, he sought war with his neighbor as a device for unifying the people. However, recent research has shown that Amānallāh resorted to war to safeguard Afghanistan&rsquos independence, which had been unofficially secured at the end of World War I. He feared that British duplicity would deprive him of the reward he expected for Afghanistan&rsquos neutrality and bring about the return of pre-war British hegemony. A look at the historical background of Anglo-Afghan relations should adequately support this conclusion. In the late 19th century, and increasingly during the early 20th century, the Afghan people and their rulers grew resentful of Afghanistan&rsquos status vis-à-vis Britain. Under an agreement concluded with Amir ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān (r. 1297-1319/1880-1901), Britain paid a subsidy of 1,200,000 rupees (increased to a total of 2,050,000 by 1915) and guaranteed to protect the country from unprovoked aggression by a foreign power, provided that Afghanistan delegated the conduct of its foreign relations to Britain. While this arrangement gave a measure of protection from czarist Russia, it left Afghanistan at the mercy of Britain&rsquos expansionist search for a &ldquoscientific frontier&rdquo in the northwest of India.

ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān and his successor therefore adopted a policy of isolationism and militant nationalism in order to keep Britain at arm&rsquos length yet there was no guarantee that Britain and Russia would not collaborate in solving the &ldquoAfghanistan question&rdquo once and for all. This was obviously the intention of the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, which divided Iran into spheres of influence and proposed the same for Afghanistan. In spite of Amir Ḥabīballāh&rsquos strong sympathies for the Ottoman Empire, he did not join the &ldquoholy war&rdquo against Britain but made it clear that Afghanistan was to be properly rewarded for its neutrality. He demanded British recognition of Afghanistan&rsquos independence, but all he obtained was a promise of 10 million rupees. There are indications that Ḥabīballāh intended to force Britain to comply with his demands, but he was assassinated soon after the war, and there is no doubt that the failure of his foreign policy was one factor contributing to his assassination.

When Amānallāh eventually succeeded to the throne, he unilaterally declared Afghanistan independent. But there were other factors that convinced the Afghan ruler to resort to war: Lord Chelmsford, the viceroy of India, refused to conclude a new treaty with Amānallāh, in spite of Britain&rsquos insistence after the death of Amir ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān that the agreements were between the British government and the person of the amir, and therefore subject to renegotiation with each successor. In correspondence between the two states, Britain merely acknowledged Amānallāh&rsquos election as amir &ldquoby the populace of Kabul and its surroundings,&rdquo further implying that he was not in complete control of his country. Amir Amānallāh&rsquos new envoy to India was snubbed at the border when he was asked &ldquowhat amir&rdquo he represented. Finally, the subsidy was halted. Britain could not both insist that no new agreements were needed and refuse to acknowledge Amānallāh as the new ruler of Afghanistan. The Afghan ruler feared that Afghanistan would loose both its independence and the reward for its neutrality during the war. World War I ended Afghanistan&rsquos isolation representatives of the Central Powers were in Kabul and would continue to stay. The Soviet Revolution brought Russians to Kabul Iran and Turkey sent emissaries, and the Afghan ruler felt it was in the best interest of his country to conduct his own diplomatic relations with the world. India was weak, with riots and uprisings threatened in many parts the Afghans in the northwest of India seemed ready to revolt, and Peshawar appeared ripe for reconquest by the Afghans. It was therefore not surprising that Amānallāh seized the unique opportunity to win by force what Britain was unwilling to give its ally: Afghanistan&rsquos internal and external independence.

C. U. Aitchison, A Collection of Treaties, Engagements and Sanads XIII: Persia and Afghanistan, Calcutta, 1933 (see also: Anglo-Afghan Treaty of 1921). British White Paper: Papers Regarding Hostilities with Afghanistan, 1919 (sixty-seven documents, largely communications between the Indian and home governments, and only such as could safely be published at the time this was long the most important source on the war). The Third AfghanWar, 1919. Official Account, Calcutta, 1926.

G. N. Molesworth, Afghanistan 1919. An Account of Operations in the Third Afghan War, Bombay, 1962 (for detailed account of the military operations).

Marshall Sardar Shah Wali, My Memoirs,Kabul, 1970, pp. 7-34.

W. Adamec, Afghanistan 1900-1923: ADiplomatic History,Berkeley, 1967, pp. 108-23.

Idem, Afghanistan&rsquos Foreign Affairs to the Mid-Twentieth Century: Relations with the USSR, Germany and Britain, Tucson, 1974, pp. 48-52, 78-79, and passim.

V. Gregorian, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan, Stanford, 1969, pp. 228-30.

L. Poullada, Reform and Rebellion in Afghanistan, 1919-1929, Ithaca, 1973, pp. 237-41, and passim.

Watch the video: The Anglo - Afghan Wars: Every Fortnight (September 2022).


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