Program InformationSeries: A Moment in Time
Year Produced: 2010
The history of British imperial interference in 19th Century Afghanistan is replete with useless wars, miscues, mismanagement, ineptitude and disastrous choices. Afghanistan’s attitude toward the outside world is in many ways shaped by this record of incompetence.
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Lead: The history of British imperial interference in 19th Century Afghanistan is replete with useless wars, miscues, mismanagement, ineptitude and disastrous choices. Afghanistan’s attitude toward the outside world is in many ways shaped by this record of incompetence.
Intro.: A Moment in Time with Dan Roberts.
Content: The Brits viewed Afghanistan only from the perspective of the jewel in the crown, the Indian sub-continent. The region northwest of present-day Pakistan was not an essential player in central Asia save as it was perceived as a buffer state deflecting threats--mostly Russian--to the imperial enterprise in India. Britain treated Afghanistan as a trip wire and its policy there reflected its relative unimportance.
When Captain Alexander Burnes was sent to Kabul to spy out the circumstances concerning the rule of the Durrani heir, Amir Dost Muhammad Khan, he quickly recognized that Khan was a strong and relatively effective ruler. Burnes realized that the plan being considered by his superior--British Governor General of India, Lord Auckland--of replacing Khan with weaker, more pliant and cooperative Shah Shuja was folly. This was complicated by the threatening presence in Afghanistan of Paul Vitkovich, the representative of the Russian Czar. Khan wanted British help to deflect Russian power and influence.
This was ignored back in India, unfortunately, because Auckland was surrounded by Shuja partisans who dismissed Burnes’ warnings and proceeded to organize an invasion which ignited the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842). The presence of the tens of thousands of British and their Sikh Indian allies sandpapered Afghan pride and sensibilities, created enormous ill will, and alienated traditional parts of Afghan society--military, religious, Islamic scholars and lawyers--not to mention tribal leaders. This war ended in disaster with assassinations (including Alexander Burnes, who had become a genuine admirer of the Afghani people) and a direct insurgent campaign. The infamous British winter withdrawal of over 12,000 from Kabul to Jalalabad became a running massacre with most of the European military wiped out.
A second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880) was only marginally more successful for the British who learned once again the difficulty of trying to secure influence and control over a region and a people determined to resist outside interference. Still a Third Anglo-Afghan War (1919) brought the British efforts to an end with the Treaty of Rawalpindi signed on August 8, 1919, a day now celebrated as Afghanistan’s Independence Day.
Next time: The Mujahedeen war.
At the University of Richmond, this is Dan Roberts.