Afghanistan’s history is replete with wars and violent conflicts. Interference by foreign powers has been an established feature in the long history of Afghanistan. The recent US evacuation from Afghanistan is an addition to the list of world powers whose mission had failed in Afghanistan. The 1800s was marked by Anglo-Russian rivalry also known as the Great Game. The “Great Game” in Asia was a confrontation between Britain and Russia over Afghanistan, Central and South Asia. The British wanted to create Afghanistan as a buffer state to protect their interests in South Asia. They felt threatened by the advances of Russia in Central Asia. It was the concern over Russian influence in Afghanistan that led to the three Anglo-Afghan wars from 1839 to 1919.
First Anglo Afghan War (1839-1842): In 1816, the Barakzay clan came to power in Afghanistan and in 1826, Dost Muhammad became the ruler. Dost Muhammad had to balance between the growing influence of Russia and Britain in Afghanistan. The British felt that Dost Muhammad was not taking sufficient steps to check the Russian power and hence the Governor-General of India Lord Auckland ordered an invasion to Afghanistan. The British wanted to install a puppet ruler Shah Shuja on the throne of Afghanistan and displace Dost Muhammad. In 1838, Shah Shuja received the support of Ranjit Singh and the British with the Tripartite treaty.
The British attacked Afghanistan and occupied it on 7 August, 1849 and Shah Shuja was placed on the throne. The Afghans could not tolerate a foreign power in their land and outbreaks broke out in different parts of the country. On 11 December 1841 the British signed a treaty according to which Dost Muhammad was restored to the throne and Lord Ellenborough agreed to evacuate. This entire mission proved expensive to the British with the loss of lives of 16,000 men.
Second Anglo Afghan War (1878-1880): In 1875 when Lord Lytton became the Governor General of India, he was concerned about the Russian advances in Afghanistan. He wanted to secure the frontiers of British Empire. Hence, he sent an envoy to the Afghan ruler Sher Ali. The ruler refused to accept the envoy but allowed the Russian General to enter into Afghanistan. This led to the British invasion to Afghanistan in 1878. The new ruler Yakub Khan signed the Treaty of Gandamak (1879) according to which a British resident was appointed in Kabul. He also agreed to conduct the foreign relations of Afghanistan in accordance with British wishes. However, this victory of the British was short lived. On 3 September 1879, the British envoy Sir Louis Cavagnori and his escort were murdered. British forces were dispatched and Kabul was occupied again.
Third Anglo Afghan War (1919): With the outbreak of WWI (1914-18), the Afghans supported the Ottoman Turkey against the British. The new Emir Amanullah Khan openly declared for complete independence of Afghanistan from the British. This led to the launch of Third Anglo-Afghan war in May 1919. The war was concluded with a peace treaty signed in Rawalpindi (Pakistan) on 8 August 1919. With this Afghanistan gained independence from British in foreign affairs and the Durand line was recognized as the boundary line between India and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Afghans concluded a treaty of friendship with the newly established Bolshevik regime in Russia. Afghanistan became one of the first states to recognize the Soviet government. This friendship continued until the Soviet invasion of 1979.
The first two Anglo-Afghan wars started out with easy victories for the British. These victories were temporary as the British allied Afghan governments were resented by the people for its involvement with foreign powers. It turned out to be difficult and eventually impossible to maintain British control over Afghanistan. These two wars were also noted to be major defeats to the British Empire. The rulers put on throne by the British were assassinated when the British forces withdrew.