Silk Road Books & Photos

Afghanistan in the age of Empires - the Great Game for South and Central Asia

Farrukh Husain




This book has a primary focus on the struggle for power of Shah Shuja Ul Mulk paving the way for the first Afghan war. The book charts the rise and fall of Durrani rule in Afghanistan and what is now Pakistan. The Durrani empire had been the second largest Eighteenth Century Muslim empire after the Ottomans. The immediate beneficiary of Durrani decline were the Sikhs who grabbed most of the Punjab, the Peshawar valley and Kashmir. Over the course of the latter half of the nineteenth century Afghanistan had shrunk to its present modern boundaries. What is missing in many narratives is the Afghan perspective on events and so I cite the statements of Afghan participants as detailed by contemporary witnesses.

Uniquely I highlight the contribution of Afghan women to the armed struggle against those that sought to invade Afghan lands. I evaluate the mistreatment of Afghan women by foreign invaders, which has led to armed Afghan uprisings throughout Afghan history. The role Afghan Women played in combat as well as in poetry to inspire their men to fight is illustrated. For example, though the battle of Maiwand during the Second Anglo-Afghan war is well known for the charge by Malalai on horseback, no contemporary author has written about the first such charge by a burka clad woman against the British, during May 1842, to avenge her husband's death at the head of thousands of Afghans, which took place not far from Maiwand in Zemindawar, Helmand. Afghan women have been recorded as fighting in battles from the fall of Saddozai ruled city of Multan, Punjab fighting the Sikhs (Chapter 1) and at the fall of Ghazni in 1839 (Chapter 5). 

The character of Sir William Hay Macnaghten is crucial to an understanding of the war. Macnaghten was a judge and I examine Macnaghten's behaviour in the light of his former judicial role. A Judge should be someone who can be held to his word. This was not the case with Macnaghten. After the victorious entry into Kandahar, Macnaghten obtained a new treaty with Shuja allowing for a British resident at Kabul and 50 British officers to train a new army. Additionally at Ghazni in 1839, Nawab Jubbar Khan had offered a viable power sharing compromise with Dost Mahomed Khan as Shuja's Wazir, but Macnaghten rejected this. Macnaghten should have known about the merits of an amicable solution rather than pursuing the thorny path of adversarial conflict with unknown outcomes. Furthermore Macnagthen failed to adhere to the tripartite agreement terms that precluded contact between the British-Indian forces and Afghan civilians without Shuja's consent. When Shuja objected to fraternisation between Afghan women and the British soldiers, Shuja was foolishly ignored. Thereafter when the Kabul uprising occurred Macnagthen failed to adhere to his promises made to the Afghan resistance leaders and instead tried to make a more beneficial deal with Mohammed Akbar Khan. It was these decisions taken by Macnaghten that paved the way for war and disaster for British forces.

Chapter 1 covers the rise of the Sikhs under Ranjit Singh who gobbled up the former Durrani domains in the Punjab and details the plight of Shah Shuja as he escapes from Ranjit Singh. My ancestor was the custodian of the Koh-i-noor for Shah Shuja and the circumstances of the loss of this diamond to Runjeet Singh are detailed.

Chapter 2 further lifts the veil on the sexual exploitation of Afghan women belonging to Shuja's household by British officers in Ludhiana, which was a trend that continued with the later British occupation of Kabul. The Punjab Archives at Lahore include documents discussing the elopment of a Durrani princess with a British officer. Mullah Shakoor provides a detailed statement about this incident recording that “Our reputation and honor are in your keeping. If you take suitable notice of the present affair it will of course be an intimidation to others. If not our residence here will be extremely difficult. I hope that as we are residing with you as guests that you will apply yourself to the consideration of the subject in a proper manner." For the first time in English, Shuja's voice speaks to us through his poetry, which he wrote in exile and published as the Divan-i-Shah Shuja Durrani. The poems are moving accounts of longing for a lost homeland.

In the Peshawar valley war was waged by Sayyid Ahmed Shahid because of abuses by the Sikhs who kidnapped Afghan women (Chapter 2).  A full account of the battle of Jamrud, at the very mouth of the Khyber Pass, where Afghan forces defeated Sikh forces and killed the Sikh leader Hari Singh is at Chapter 3. Britain meanwhile refused to pressure Ranjit Singh to return Peshawar to Afghanistan. Instead Britain decided to invade Afghanistan to occupy the Hindu Kush as a security barrier for India on the pretext of perceived Russian advances in Central Asia towards India. The real British aim was to prevent the Afghans overruning Runjeet Singh’s Sikh state or vice versa. The British attack on Afghanistan can be seen as a preemptive strike against Afghan Amir Dost Mahomed Khan’s anti-Sikh alliance with Persia. A Perso-Afghan army advancing on Runjeet Singh’s Lahore would foment unrest in British India. Therefore Dost Mahomed Khan had to go. To stave off war with Britain, Dost Mahomed Khan was prepared to allow Afghanistan to become a British protectorate, but his efforts at peace making were ignored (Chapter 3).

Chapter 4 concerns the beginning of the First Anglo Afghan war with the invasion of Afghanistan and the fall of Kandahar. The significant financial benefits of loot obtained from the sacking of Ghazni and Kelat are examined in Chapter 5. Previously unpublished sources relating to the fall of Ghazni are cited at Chapter 5. About twenty percent, or at least 195, of all Afghan casualties during the fall of Ghazni were prisoners of war who were killed shortly after capture. Shortcomings in the Afghan defence of Ghazni are evaluated.

The attempt to create an Afghan national army commenced with Zaman Shah in the late eighteenth century and eventually led to his downfall (Chapter 1). This was because tribal chieftains previously provided levies for military service and did not want their power undermined. Britain faced the same problems during the first Afghan war (Chapter 6).

The early arrival of Lady Macnaghten at Jalalabad in the winter of 1839 was caused by alarm over the information she received that Lord Macnaghten had acquired four slave girls. Other British women accompanied her to safeguard their men. Interestingly the occupation of Kabul during the first Afghan war also gave rise to the marriage between Captain Robert Warburton and the Afghan Durrani Princess Shah Jehan Begum. However, this was a forced marriage engineered by Warburton.  Though Kabul had fallen without a fight, British sexual exploitation of Afghan women would end in the death of Alexander Burnes and the destruction of the British army under the command of General Elphinstone. Moreover, the testimony of how Burnes was dramatically killed in November 1842 is provided in an eye witness statement by Burnes' servant (Chapter 7). Previously unpublished Afghan newsletters provide accounts of the attack on Burnes and describe Macnaghten's death. The rarely cited  account of Captain Airey who was in the house of Nawab Zeman Khan, when the Nawab's son assassinated the British puppet King Shah Shuja is a particularly useful source for detailing conditions in the city (Chapter 8).

The battle of Jalalabad is covered by a rare account from a soldier named Edward Teer.  Oral history from my family in relation to the assassination of Shuja is also presented (Chapter 8).  In Chapter 8 the destruction of Afghan villages and cities as well as massacres of Afghan civilians by the armies of General Nott and General Pollock during 1842 are painstakingly documented by quotes from participants’ books and diaries.

Immediately after the First Anglo-Afghan war Sirdar Mahomed Akbar Khan was writing to the Nawab of Bahawalpoor seeking to entice him into an anti-British alliance. The full text of the previously unpublished letter from Mahomed Akbar Khan is quoted in Chapter 9. The last British casualty from the first Anglo-Afghan war was a British officer executed in 1845, near Kandahar. (Chapter 9). The search for missing camp followers and British people drew success in 1845 when 39 people were brought back to India.

The first chapter of this book is entitled 'light at the end of the tunnel'. Sadly the Afghan people continue to look for the proverbial light at the end of tunnel. Afghanistan's strategic location has meant it was at the heart of the ancient silkroad. It is due to the strategic importance of Afghan territory that this nation has experienced so many invasions. The Iranians, British, Soviets and Americans have all come to Afghanistan and been forced to retreat. 

The Afghan voice in this book is provided by a range of participants from archival sources supplemented by quotes from Ghobar, Reshtia, Fayz Muhammed, and Shah Shuja and more recent Afghan authors. A unique perspective is provided through the use of both private and public archive sources including from The Times archive and the Illustrated London News.


Farrukh Husain                                                                                   21 March 2015