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The Second Afghan War-Rumblings and Stirrings

Between 1840 and 1855, British-controlled territory in northern India expanded almost to the borders with Afghanistan. First, the  Baluchis living in the region known as the Sindh were overcome by General Charles Napier and his army. This short conflict was the source of the famous one-word dispatch by Napier back to Calcutta announcing his "annexation" of the area - "Peccavi",  Latin for "I have sinned". The military pun entered the history books as one of the most glaring examples of outright British imperialism.  The lower reaches of the Indus all the way to Karachi were now under British control.

In the late 1840's, two wars were fought against the Sikhs native to the Punjab territory. Ranjit Singh's death left a power vacuum, and the Sikhs fought among themselves for control of the empire.  However, both wars were costly to the British. Sikh warriors fought bravely, the Khalsa army being almost a match man-for-man to the better equpped and trained British, who often outnumbered their foes by 3 to 1. Many British war historians nominate the Sikh as the most 'respected' foreign enemy the British ever fought against. Finally, after two wars, the Sikh kingdom was overpowered by the unrelenting British, and the Punjab became a part of British India. One of the spoils of the conflict was the Koh-i-noor diamond which, after nearly being lost by an officer charged with its safekeeping, was sent to London and became part of the British Crown Jewels. Perhaps the story of the two Sikh Wars will become part of this website eventually, but for now I will move to the Second Anglo-Afhan War, as promised.


During the latter half of the 19th century, Russian expansion southward in to the Central Asia states bordering her had nearly completed. By 1873, they had overrun Tashkent, Samarkand, and finally, the Khanate of Khiva This expansion of course greatly alarmed British India, despite the assurances from St Petersburg that they were not interested in the lands beyond the Oxus.  Several thousand Russian slaves had been liberated from their Asiatic prisons, so it was not difficult to give them a slight benefit of the doubt.

In the years since the first British foray in to Afghanistan, alliances had been formed and broken between the Ottoman Empire, Persia, England, France,  Russia, and most of the various combinations thereof.  Rarely were the subjects of the lands they claimed suzerainty over consulted before they found themselves, however temporarily, under new masters.

In Afghanistan, old Dost Mohammed, restored to the throne after the first British disaster, had died in 1863. Oddly enough, he ended up being 'friendly" to British India almost more than any other potentate of the time. During the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 in India, he remained firmly neutral, and offered no support to the natives short-lived uprising. This was a god-send to the British, since armed Afghan support of the rebels could have been disastrous to the Raj. Although the revolt did not have widespread support throughout India, there was enough violence and bloodshed in the northern areas around Delhi to have made Calcutta shiver at the thought of Afghan mujahadeen swarming across the Khyber.

After the revolt was put down, with ferocity and bloodthirst being shown by both sides, London decided that India was too important to trust to the East India Company, and the Crown took a much more active and far-reaching hand in Indian affairs. One has to remember that even at its peak, British population in India was rarely over a million, while 100 times that many natives occupied the land. The British government now controlled India, and had a much more day-to-day influence on what went on.

In Kabul, after Dost Mohammed's death, of surprisingly natural causes, his  sons fought over the throne. Sher Ali, then  Mohammed Afzal Khan, then Mohammed Azam Khan, and finally Sher Ali again, who managed to hold onto it for  a while.  Sher Ali.  One of the things for which Amir Sher Ali became known was his attempt to build a formal Afghan army. Looking with envy at the well-trained, well-equipped Russian and British military, he attempted a program of forced conscription among the tribes scattered around his area of influence.

Sher Ali (center) surrounded by court officials, tribal leaders, and sons, 1869

Despite their individual war-like nature and seeming love of conflict, this did not go over well with many, especially the fiercely independent Pathan tribes of the Khyber. Many of the draftees were instead supplied by northern tribes such as the Hazara, Ghilzai, Uzbek and Tadjik.  Even these tribes did not send their best men, of course, but Ali persisted, and within a few years nearly 50,000 men were armed and had some training, albeit rudimentary. A large cantonment and armory was constructed at Sherpur outside of Kabul for the rifles and few artillery pieces he collected. Like most canny Afghan leaders, he cleverly rationed the ammunition available to his army in a Barney Fife-like manner.