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Afghanistan History


The Rise of Dost Mohammad and the Beginning of the Great Game
(1826 -1839; 1843 - 1863)

It was not until 1826 that the energetic Dost Mohammad was able to exert sufficient control over his own brothers to take over the throne in Kabul, where he proclaimed himself amir, not shah. Although the British had begun to show interest in Afghanistan as early as 1809 with their agreement with Shuja, it was not until the reign of Dost Mohammad, the first of the Muhammadzai rulers, that the opening gambits were played in what came to be known as the Great Game. 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. The remainder of the nineteenth century was a time of European involvement in Afghanistan and the adjacent areas and of conflicting ambitions among the various local rulers.

Dost Mohammad achieved predominance among his ambitious brothers through clever use of the support of his mother’s Qizilbash tribesmen and his own youthful apprenticeship under his brother, Fateh Khan. He was, by all accounts, a shrewd and charming leader. Many problems demanded his attention: consolidating his power in the areas under his command, controlling his half-brothers who ruled the southern areas of Afghanistan, defeating Mahmud in Herat, and repulsing the encroachment of the Sikhs on the Pashtun areas east of the Khyber Pass. After working assiduously to establish control and stability in his domains around Kabul, the amir next chose to confront the Sikhs.

In 1834 Dost Mohammad defeated an invasion by ex-shah Shuja, but his absence from Kabul gave the Sikhs the opportunity to expand westward. The forces of Ranjit Singh occupied Peshawar and moved from there into territory ruled directly by Kabul. In 1836 Dost Mohammad’s forces, under the command of his son, defeated the Sikhs at Jamrud, a post some 15 kilometers west of Peshawar. The Afghan leader, however, did not follow up this triumph by retaking Peshawar. Instead, Dost Mohammad decided to contact the British directly for help in dealing with the Sikhs. In the spring of 1836 he wrote the new governor general of India, Lord Auckland, a letter of congratulations and asked his advice on dealing with the Sikhs. Just as Dost Mohammad’s letter formally set the stage for British intervention in Afghanistan, so also did Lord Auckland’s reply foreshadow the duplicitous policy of the British in dealing with the Afghans. Auckland responded that he would send a commercial mission to Kabul and stated that “it is not the practice of the British Government to interfere with the affairs of other independent states.” In fact, at the heart of the Great Game lay the willingness of Britain and Russia to subdue, subvert, or subjugate the small independent states that lay between them.

The British-through the East India Company-had first become involved in the subcontinent of India in 1612 during
the heyday of the Mughal Empire. British influence spread until, by the end of the eighteenth century, their interests in northern India impinged on Central Asia. Although by that time the empire of Ahmad Shah Durrani was already disintegrating, the British were well aware of his exploits in northern India only four decades before, and they feared what they thought was a formidable Afghan force. By the end of the eighteenth century the British had approached the Iranians, asking that they keep the Afghans in check. By the last years of the eighteenth century, a new worry motivated the British in the region-fear of French involvement. Napoleon was, in the British view, capable of overrunning areas of Central Asia and northern India, just as he had defeated much of Europe. In 1801 the British signed an agreement with Iran not only to halt any possible Afghan moves into India by attacking their western flank but also to prevent the French from doing the same thing. In 1807 Napoleon signed with the tsar of Russia the Treaty of Tilsit, which envisaged a joint invasion of India
though Iran. The British hastened to cement their relationship with the Iranians and signed an agreement with Shuja in 1809, only a few weeks before he was deposed.

The debacle of the Afghan civil war left a vacuum in the Hindu Kush area that concerned the British, who were well
aware of the many times this area had been the invasion route to India. In the first decades of the nineteenth century it became clear to the British that the major threat to their interests in India would not come from the fragmented Afghan empire, the vitiated Persians, or from the French, but from the Russians, who had begun a steady advance southward from the Caucasus.

As in earlier times, two great empires confronted each other, with Central Asia lying between them. The Russians
feared permanent British encroachment into Central Asia as the British moved northward, taking control of the Punjab,
Sind, and Kashmir. Equally suspicious, the British viewed Russian absorption of the Caucasus and Georgia, Kirghiz and Turkmen lands, and Khiva and Bukhara as a threat to British interest in the Indian subcontinent.