If history is to have any value the lessons it can teach have to be learned. The latest disaster in Afghanistan from military intervention, where the failure of American (and NATO) troops have followed failure by British and Soviet forces, make this clear. The start of the process in the Victorian period has been a very well-known story. The first Afghan war 1838 to 1842 should have been a warning to policy makers not to invade Afghanistan expecting success. British policy makers then made the same mistake forty years later with an intervention which had to be rescued by an expensive mission led by the military genius who was General (later Lord) Roberts. The mistakes of sending armies of occupation into the country continued into the twentieth century. When is the penny going to drop?
The Afghan wars were part of what Rudyard Kipling called “The Great Game”, though Kipling was too shrewd not to realize the politics of the badlands beyond the North West Frontier of India were deadly serious, as he showed in the classic story THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1888). However, he wrote much later after the first two Afghan wars. The first was sparked by British fear that the Persians and Russians would invade Afghanistan and pose a threat to the North West Frontier, so a joint Sikh- British invasion was organized. The British occupied the capital Kabul but with insufficient forces. They were unable to resist an uprising which was sparked in part by the arrogance of the occupation force. Trying to retreat in mid-winter from 6th January 1842 they were massacred in the passes.
The Oxford History of England (VOL 13 Llewellyn Woodward) says (p420) “the troops made their last stand in the pass of Jagdallakh. One survivor, Dr Brydon, reached Jalalabad”. In fact there were other survivors including two officers, Lieut Vincent Eyre, and Captain James Souter, and Lady Fiorentia Sale, wife of the Commanding Officer General Robert Sale, but the idea of a single survivor was more dramatic and highlighted the obvious truth that the occupation of Kabul was disastrous.
A relief force was sent to rescue prisoners and the population of forts on the border, and this reached Kabul and relieved the prisoners. However, they then retreated as the British had lost their main local Afghan politician and the ruler of Kabul they had opposed remained in charge. The British did not attempt to occupy Kabul and for the next four decades Afghanistan remained untouched, a no go area for Western imperialism.
By the 1870s fear of a Russian take-over of Afghanistan returned and when the Russians sent a diplomatic mission Britain demanded one too. When this was turned down the British invaded and successfully occupied Kabul They installed Sir Louis Cavagnari as representative, expecting that this would be enough. The British then withdrew their army. On 3rd September 1879 an uprising led to Cavagnari being killed along with his guards and staff. The British still underestimated the Afghans and the relief army according to the Oxford History of England (Vol 14, Ensor, p70) was only 2,500 strong. This was defeated at the battle of Maiwand. Of 2,476 British soldiers, 934 were killed and 175 went missing. The British now realized the Afghans could not be defeated without significant armed force and long term control would mean permanent occupation with considerable supply problems.
General – later Lord – Roberts marched a force of 10,000 soldiers and 8,000 camp followers to rescue the prisoners. This was achieved and the British pulled out of Kabul, agreeing with the Amir that while they would control foreign policy they would not send a representative. They had learned a sharp lesson: any British diplomat in the badlands of Afghanistan was a hostage to fortune – without an army on the spot, which was expensive and vulnerable there was no way intervention in Afghan affairs could be sustained.
In 1919 a Third Afghan war broke out when an Afghan army invaded India, thinking that the British Indian Army was severely weakened after the Great War. Many Indian troops fought on the Western Front and were still in France in 1918. Afghanistan had naturally resented the British dictating their foreign policy since 1879 and controversially expressed considerable support for the Ottoman Empire despite Britain fighting the Turks. The Amir Habibullah managed to keep Afghanistan out of the War but he was assassinated in February 1919 and anti British militants took advantage of the political instability.
In May that year a relatively small number of Afghan soldiers invaded the Khyber Pass on the North Western Frontier. This was followed by the mobilization of the Afghan army and tribal uprisings in Waziristan, hopeful of assisting the unrest in the Punjab arising from the April massacre at Amritsar, where a British force under General Dyer moved into the Jallanwala Bagh during an independence meeting, blocked the only exit, and opened fire on an unarmed crowd, killing around a 1000 demonstrators.
The Afghans failed to gain any significant support from the Punjab so Dyer launched an counter attack in June and the Afghans retreated back over the border. A peace conference in July granted Afghanistan the right to determine its own foreign policy. Despite Dyers’s success after the Third Afghan war Dyer was relieved on command over the killings at Amritsar
Putting all the previous imperial rhetoric to one side, what benefit was gained by the interventions in Afghanistan between 1838 and 1919? Little by way of military success, enormous costs in terms of blood, money and with meager fulfillment for the Afghan people, repeated again during the NATOoccupation of that country for twenty years until 2021, following by the abandonment of Afghanistan and a humanitarian crisis for its people.
Sir John Kaye, an imperial military historian, in 1858 described the first invasion as a calamity and warned of later and worse disasters if Britain pursued policies of unjust and unrighteous usurpation. Politicians, Generals and sections of the liberal establishment it seems learn no lessons from history