The rise-fall-rise of Dost Mohammad was one of the most central facets of the Great Game as it was played in Afghanistan. His son, Mohammad Akbar Khan, had already proven that the Afghanis could send Britain packing from their mountainous nation when his campaign to restore his father to the Emirship succeeded in the early 1840s. Mohammad Akbar Khan, however, died in 1845, removing one of the most anti-British figures of the past few years from the playing field.
It took more than a decade after the end of the First Anglo-Afghan War before the British made overtures to renew relations with Dost Mohammad. In 1854, they made the opening moves at Kabul, and in 1855 the Afghans and the British signed the Treaty of Peshawar. The two nations agreed to respect each other’s territorial boundaries and to make friends with each other’s friends and enemies of each other’s enemies.
In October 1856, the Persians attacked the city of Herat for the second time that decade (1852 was the first). The British came to Afghanistan’s aid, in keeping with their policy of maintaining that nation’s territorial integrity. After only three months of fighting, the Persians were expelled from Herat. Soon after the end of that conflict, in 1857, the British and Afghans signed an addendum to the Treaty of Peshawar that allowed the British to station a military mission at Kandahar.
During the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, certain officials in British India suggested restoring Peshawar to Afghanistan in return for Dost Mohammad’s assistance during the mutiny. However, the idea was rejected because several officials on the northwest frontier thought Dost Mohammad would see such a gift as weakness on the part of the British government in India.
In 1863, the British finally allowed Dost Mohammad to retake Herat and add it back into the Afghani national territory. By this time, a series of Liberal governments in London regarded Afghanistan as a Buffer State against Russian interests in Central Asia. The southern border of the Russian Empire was on the opposite side of the Aral Sea from Afghanistan, and even stopped at the Syr Darya, which runs through modern Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, throughout much of the 1860s.
On the map above, you can see Toshkent, also called Tashkent, slightly inside the border of Uzbekistan. It’s the black dot beneath the H in Chirchiq, if you’re having problems seeing it. By 1865, the Russian Empire had formally annexed Tashkent. This expanded the border of the territory Tsar Alexander II controlled across the entire length of the Syr Darya. Within a few years, Russian forces would move through Uzbekistan and the mountainous Central Asian khanates subduing one after another with ease. The Emir of Bukhara signed a treaty with Russia in 1868 that placed his nation under Russian protection, after a brief war that the Russians handily won. Russia took control of Samarkand, an important city in Bukharan territory, and five years later would make Bukhara a protectorate of the Russian Empire.
This subjugation of Uzbek territory served to move the Russians closer and closer to the northern border of Afghanistan. With the conquest of Bukhara, Russian-controlled territory extended to the northern bank of the Amu Darya — the river that forms part of the northern border of Afghanistan.
All was not fine and dandy in Afghanistan during the years Russia was conquering the Afghans’ northern neighbors. Dost Mohammad died in 1863, and the Emirate of Afghanistan passed to his son, Sher Ali Khan. However, Sher Ali didn’t control Kabul at the time of his accession. The capital of Afghanistan was in fact under the lordship of Sher Ali’s older brother, Mohammad Azfal. It took five years for Sher Ali to remove his brother from Kabul and officially take the emirship. After the defeat at the hands of his uncle Sher Ali, Abdur Rahman Khan, son of Mohammad Azfal and commander of his armies, retreated across the Amu Darya and bided his time to march back into Afghanistan.
When Sher Ali finally consolidated his power in 1868, he was faced with a British regime that was content to support his emirate with funds and weapons but not the intervention of British troops. In 1873, with the Russians on his doorstep, Sher Ali sought advice and support from the British government in India. He’d come too late though, as the Russians and British had signed an agreement in 1872 that the Russians would respect the northern border of Afghanistan. And the British refused to give any assurances to Sher Ali that they’d enforce the deal with armed intervention.
So Sher Ali bided his time until 1878, when an uninvited diplomatic mission from Russia helped spark the Second Anglo-Afghan War. The Great Eastern Crisis of 1875, yet another nail in the coffin of the Ottoman Empire, had recently ended with the 1878 Congress of Berlin. This resulted in the creation of the new states of Serbia, Montenegro, and Romania as well as the partitioning of Greater Bulgaria into Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia. Because of this treaty, Russia had turned its attention back to Central Asia and Afghanistan.
On 22 July 1878, the Russian diplomatic team arrived in Kabul. Less than a month later, on 14 August, Britain demanded that Sher Ali allow British diplomats to take residence in the Afghan capital. Sher Ali was less than pleased with this demand, and not only refused to allow the British mission, but also said he would stop the diplomats from arriving. Despite this warning, Edward Robert Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Earl of Lytton, the British viceroy in India, sent a diplomatic mission anyway.
True to his word, Sher Ali stopped the British diplomats as they approached the eastern entrance of the Khyber Pass. In response, Lord Lytton ordered 40,000 British troops into military columns that then penetrated Afghanistan at three different points along the southern frontier on 21 November 1878. Sher Ali, in mourning for his son and heir at the time, turned to the Russians for aid against the British incursion. The Russians, however, turned the Afghani ruler away. Sher Ali retreated to Mazare Sharif, where he died in February 1879.
A few months later, British troops controlled much of southern Afghanistan around Kandahar. Mohammad Yaqub Khan, Sher Ali’s successor, signed the Treaty of Gandamak in May 1879 to prevent the British from invading the rest of the country. As a result of this treaty, the British-controlled territory extended to the Khyber and Michni passes, and included several frontier areas as well as the city of Quetta. British dignitaries were installed in Kabul, and the British Army withdrew from its forward positions. An additional portion of this treaty was that Mohammad Yaqub Khan ceded all foreign relations duties to the British.
From the British perspective, this was precisely what they wanted. However, the British government didn’t realize that they were dealing with a weak ruler who had agreed to conditions his countrymen were certain to rebel against.
And rebel they did.
Major Pierre Louis Napoleon Cavagnari, the British soldier who’d negotiated the Treaty of Gandamak, was assassinated on 3 September 1879 when his residence in Kabul was attacked. Nearly all the British cavalry assigned to protect him were also slaughtered in the attack, which resulted in phase two of the Second Anglo-Afghan War.
Major General Sir Frederick Roberts lead the Kabul Field Force over the Shutargardan Pass to Char Asiab in October 1879. The British victory at Char Asiab resulted in the occupation of Kabul, and the suppression of the riots occurring in the Afghan capital city. Ghazi Mohammad Jan Khan Wardak staged an uprising, which culminated in the Siege of the Sherpur Cantonment in December 1879 — the siege was a decisive British victory that ended with the collapse of the rebellion and the forced abdication of Yaqub Khan from the emirship.
In the flush of post-Sherpur victory, the British considered multiple solutions to ending the strife in Afghanistan. These included partitioning the country up among several rulers, and placing Ayub Khan on the throne, but at last they decided to install Yaqub’s cousin Abdur Rahman Khan (who had fought Sher Ali) as the Afghani Emir on 22 July 1880.
Installing Abdur Rahman Khan as the Emir of Afghanistan proved to be a smart move on the part of the British occupiers. Here they had someone who appeared to be everything the British wanted — a forceful, intelligent man who could weld his people into a state; and one perfectly complicit in accepting British control of his nation’s foreign affairs and the British “buffer state” policy toward Afghanistan.
Although Abdur Rahman was named Emir by the British, his cousin Ayub refused to accept the accession. Ayub Khan, who served at the time as Governor of Herat, led an army from Herat toward Kandahar, which resulted in the Battle of Maiwand.
The Battle of Maiwand was a resounding Afghan victory against the British Army, and ended with the British effectively shut up in Kandahar. “The disastrous battle led Ayub Khan to abandon his march on Ghuznee and lay siege to Kandahar instead. In spite of the losses at Maiwand the British and Indian garrison was sufficient to resist until the arrival of General Roberts with a force from Kabul and the final battle of the war.” (BritishBattles.com)
Though Ayub Khan was victorious at Maiwand, which demoralized British forces, he lost out because of the sheer number of Afghans — roughly 3,000 — who died during the battle that ended up gaining very little ground indeed for Ayub Khan’s forces.
In any case, the final battle of the Second Anglo-Afghan War was the Battle of Kandahar. Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Roberts led a relief army totaling 10,000 men on a 314-mile march south from Kabul. They set out on 8 August 1880 and arrived in Kandahar on 31 August, a march of more than 300 miles in three weeks. On this long march, soldiers fell ill at a rate of 500 per day, and during the time it took to move from Kabul to Kandahar, Ayub Khan had withdrawn to the west of the city.
The British began the assault on Ayub Khan’s forces with a 1 September morning bombardment of the Afghan encampment at Baba Wali. The 92nd Highlanders captured the village of Gundimullah Sahibdad to the south, while the infantry regiments advanced on Ayub Khan’s last stronghold at Pir Paimal around midday.
Roberts’s plans worked out perfectly. With the threat on Pir Paimal ever-increasing, the Afghan lines melted away. By the time the British stormed the last fortifications around the Afghan camp, they found unmanned guns and not a single Afghani soldier in sight. Even the British cavalry ordered to cut off the Afghani retreat already found most of the rebellious soldiers vanished on the way back toward Herat.
The final battle of the Second Anglo-Afghan War had ended. Abdur Rahman Khan was now free to consolidate his rule over the entire country. And what a consolidation it was.
Abdur Rahman Khan — The Iron Emir
The British Army departed Afghanistan in 1881, after Abdur Rahman Khan confirmed the Treaty of Gandamak which allowed them to retain the territories ceded by Yaqub Khan and keep command over Afghanistan’s foreign affairs. Abdur Rahman spent the next few years ruthlessly putting down several internal rebellions and drawing together his fractious nation that had heretofore been focused mostly on tribal boundaries.
He resettled the Pashtun tribes that were most against him, including in 1888 sending the Ghilzai from southern and southeastern Afghanistan to the mostly non-Pashtun areas of the Northern frontier. Abdur Rahman also created the first modern provinces within Afghanistan, and placed provincial governors in command instead of tribesmen. Abdur Rahman put the Afghani army at the disposal of these governors, to enforce tax collection and suppress dissent among other things. The emir didn’t allow his governors complete autonomy though, and created a strong intelligence network to keep tabs on them.
Abdur Rahman was an effective leader that retained much of Afghanistan’s independence and its territorial integrity without foreign interference. A prime example are the events of 1885, when during a meeting with British viceroy Lord Dufferin word reached the Emir that Russian and Afghan troops had skirmished at Panjdeh over a disputed point on the northwestern frontier of his country.
Rather than call upon the British to intervene, even though they’d guaranteed his territorial integrity, Abdur Rahman negotiated a peaceful solution with the Russians. Had he called upon the British to defend him, an invasion by the Russian Empire would be assured. This would then mean that the British would enter Afghanistan from the south, something that Abdur Rahman didn’t want in the slightest.
“His interest lay in keeping powerful neighbors, whether friends or foes, outside his kingdom. He knew this to be the only policy that would be supported by the Afghan nation; and although for some time a rupture with Russia seemed imminent, while the Indian government made ready for that contingency, the amir’s reserved and circumspect tone in the consultations with him helped to turn the balance between peace and war, and substantially conduced towards a pacific solution. Abdul Rahman left on those who met him in India the impression of a clear-headed man of action, with great self-reliance and hardihood, not without indications of the implacable severity that too often marked his administration. His investment with the insignia of the highest grade of the Order of the Star of India appeared to give him much pleasure.” (Afghanland.com)
From the end of 1888, Abdur Rahman spent 18 months pacifying the warring tribes in the northern provinces of Afghanistan, which also included heavy-handed punishment of everyone known to or suspected of involvement in the rebellions that wracked the country. In 1892, the emir successfully subjugated the Hazara tribe in their mountain stronghold, a group of tribesmen who had previously rejected the central authority.
The year 1893 saw Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, a British diplomat, installed at Kabul for the purposes of demarcating the borders of Afghanistan in regards to the territory of India and the Russian possessions to the north. Abdur Rahman fought strongly for his people’s views, and the ending agreement demarcated the modern borders of Afghanistan.
It could be argued that Abdur Rahman was one of the most European rulers of Afghanistan during this period. He introduced European-style factories to Afghanistan for the making of soap and leather goods, and struggled to modernize the roads that ran through his country. Almost predictably, the Afghani tribesmen resisted and the workmen on the roads had to be protected by the army.
It’s interesting to note that, following the skirmish at Pandjeh in 1885, a Joint Anglo-Russian Boundary Commission demarcated the northern border of Afghanistan at the Amu Darya, without any consultation of the Afghani government. It took eight years before Britain bothered to consult with the Afghans, and that was only to figure out the southern border between British India and the territory controlled by Abdur Rahman Khan (the aforementioned Durand Line Agreement of 1893).
Some debate exists as to how much attention Abdur Rahman truly paid to the Durand Line. He didn’t explicitly cede territories the British already controlled through the earlier Treaty of Gandamak, and there are inklings that he regarded the Durand Line not as an international border, but rather as a line that determined who had political responsibility where. In point of fact, the Durand Line did little more than spark disagreement between Afghanistan and British India (later with Pakistan) over the area known as Pashtunistan, which the Durand Line happened to run straight through.
The Siege of Malakand in 1897 was a direct result of the Durand Line’s creation. A force of 10,000 Pashtun tribesmen whose lands had been bisected by the Durand Line marched on the British garrisons at Malakand South and the fort of Chakdara. In spite of overwhelming odds, the much smaller British forces held out against the Pashtun tribesmen until their relief column arrived. Second Lieutenant Winston Churchill (yes, that Winston Churchill) wrote a series of columns for The Daily Telegraph about the siege, which were collected and published in 1898 as The Story of the Malakand Field Force: An Episode of Frontier War. With the aid of this relief column, the British broke the siege on Malakand South and Chakdara and chased the Pashtun tribesmen until 14 August.
Abdur Rahman Khan remained the ruler of Afghanistan until 1901. We see then the real strength of his reign because, unlike previous transitions of the emirship in the 19th century, precisely zero conflicts broke out when Habibullah Khan, Abdur Rahman’s eldest son took over as Emir upon his father’s death.
By 1901, when Habibullah Khan took the title of Emir, the Russians and British had demarcated the borders of Afghanistan with Russian territories to the north, British India to the south and southeast, and even the northwestern frontier with China. To all observers of history, it would seem that The Great Game was winding down. Except that now the process moved eastward, into China.
The True Ending of the Great Game
In 1904, the British invaded Lhasa in a pre-emptive strike against Russian intrigues and secret meetings between the envoys of Tsar Nicholas II and the 13th Dalai Lama, who fled into China and Mongolia in response to the British incursion. The British were terrified of a Russian attack on India, but what they didn’t know was that Russia still reeled from their defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. The Russians couldn’t possibly mount an invasion of well-defended India, but they could certainly go toe-to-toe with Britain in China.
Thus in 1906, Tsar Nicholas II sent Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, then a colonel in the Russian Army, into China to collect intelligence for a potential invasion. Mannerheim spent two years collecting information for an invasion that never materialized, for in 1907 the British and Russians signed the Anglo-Russian Convention (also known as the Convention of Saint Petersburg), which brought the Great Game of the past 100 years to a close.
The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 accomplished three things — defined three spheres of influence in Persia (Russia in the north, Britain in the south, and a neutral zone in the middle), ensured the independence of Tibet, and declared that Afghanistan was a British protectorate. This treaty brought into being the Triple Entente of Britain, Russia, and France that was in opposition to the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy.
In fact, the genesis for the Anglo-Russian Convention can be drawn from the treaty signed between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy on 28 March 1882. The growing power of Germany in the Middle East, as evidenced by the Baghdad Railway that was begun in 1903 with the stated intention of connecting Berlin with Baghdad (then a city in the Ottoman Empire), alarmed the British and the Russians to no end.
A further concern was the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1905, which forced the shah to accept a constitution and put in place a parliamentary assembly. Neither Britain nor Russia wanted Persia to be a strong country — they preferred a puppet government that agreed with their respective aims. In this way the people of modern Iran learned that their British and Russian neighbors were dangerous separate, but were even more fearsome when they put aside their differences.
Either way, the Great Game had ended after roughly a century of back-and-forth between the British and Russian empires. Only 20 miles now separated the territories of the two empires, but the relative peace that the Anglo-Russian Convention brought wouldn’t even last for a decade. The “War to End All Wars” was set to break out in the Balkans, that boiling pot of unrest that had so unsettled the Ottoman Empire more than 70 years prior. The Great Game may have ended, but the Great War was only four years away.
Matthew Delman is the creator of Free the Princess, a “practical literary guide” to Steampunk, as well as the Founder/Editor of Doctor Fantastique’s Show of Wonders, an online Steampunk magazine. He writes on Steampunk (and Social Media topics) from his home in Eastern Massachusetts.