First Anglo-Afghan War, 1839-1842. The British got involved in Afghanistan because the Russian Empire was expanding south and east and the British Empire was extending its domination of India to the north and west. Russia had already made some arrangements with Persia; Persia had claims on Afghan territory. The British saw Afghanistan as a highly desirable buffer state blocking Russian incursions from the north. This episode can be seen as one of the confrontations between expansive imperial states attempting to control Central Asian territories. The Afghans managed to defeat the British and expelled the British-imposed Shuja Shah Durrani. Britain withdrew most of the 21,000 troops it had used in the invasion but occupied Afghanistan for a spell with a remnant of 4,500 men, but internal rebellion eventually forced it to withdraw these as well. All members of the military remnant were killed during the retreat from Kabul—but one, a Dr. William Broydon. The British also had what were called 12,000 camp followers—a category we now, I think, call contractors.
here, drawn in the time of the conflict, summarizes it nicely: there is Emir Sher Ali squeezed between the rivals—and the caption tells it all. Nothing’s changed except the shape of the hat.
Here is a difficult mountainous terrain blocking, if linked to Iran’s northern mountain ranges, the North’s access to the sea and to the fertile Indian subcontinent, and (these days) the access from the South to the oil deposits in the North. Worth noting is that once upon a time the Silk Road passed through Afghanistan, running East to West, making the same region a point of conflict for another reason.
A quote from an earlier survivor of the first Anglo-Afghan War, the Reverend G.R. Gleig, suggests the same-old, same-old quality of that earlier conflict and the current. Gleig wrote that this was “a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, has Britain acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.” The quote is from this article by William Dalrymple (a favorite around here).
So, remind me again—this subject is as difficult as picturing a four-dimensional crucifix—what is our motivation for being there?