Dost Mohammad achieved prominence among his brothers through clever use of the support of his mother's Qizilbash tribesmen and his own youthful apprenticeship under his brother, Fateh Khan. Among the many problems he faced was repelling Sikh encroachment on the Pashtun areas east of the Khyber Pass. After working assiduously to establish control and stability in his domains around Kabul, the Emir next chose to confront the Sikhs.
In 1834 Dost Mohammad defeated an invasion by the former ruler, Shuja Shah Durrani, but his absence from Kabul gave the Sikhs the opportunity to expand westward. Ranjit Singh's forces occupied Peshawar, moving from there into territory ruled directly by Kabul. In 1836 Dost Mohammad's forces, under the command of his son Mohammad Akbar Khan, defeated the Sikhs at Jamrud, a post fifteen kilometres west of Peshawar. This was a pyrrhic victory and they failed to fully dislodge the Sikhs from Jamrud. The Afghan leader did not follow up this triumph by retaking Peshawar, however, but instead contacted Lord Auckland, the new British governor general in British India, for help in dealing with the Sikhs. With this letter, Dost Mohammad formally set the stage for British intervention in Afghanistan. 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 Russia and British India.
The British became the major power in the Indian sub-continent after the Treaty of Paris (1763) and began to show interest in Afghanistan as early as their 1809 treaty with Shuja Shah Durrani. It was the threat of the expanding Russian Empire beginning to push for an advantage in the Afghanistan region that placed pressure on British India, in what became known as the "Great Game". The Great Game set in motion the confrontation of the British and Russian empires — whose spheres of influence moved steadily closer to one another until they met in Afghanistan. It also involved Britain's repeated attempts to impose a puppet government in Kabul. The remainder of the nineteenth century saw greater European involvement in Afghanistan and her surrounding territories and heightened conflict among the ambitious local rulers as Afghanistan's fate played out globally.
The débâcle 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 in history it had been employed as the invasion route to India. In the early 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 Iranians, or the French, but from the Russians, who had already begun a steady advance southward from the Caucasus.
At the same time, the Russians feared permanent British occupation in Central Asia as the British encroached northward, taking the Punjab, Sindh, and Kashmir. The British viewed Russia's absorption of the Caucasus, the Kyrgyz and Turkmen lands, the Khanate of Khiva, and the Emirate of Bukhara with equal suspicion as a threat to their interests in the Indian subcontinent.
In addition to this rivalry between Britain and Russia, there were two specific reasons for British concern over Russia's intentions. First was the Russian influence at the Iranian court, which prompted the Russians to support Iran in its attempt to take Herat, historically the western gateway to Afghanistan and northern India. In 1837 Iran advanced on Herat with the support and advice of Russian officers. The second immediate reason was the presence in Kabul in 1837 of a Russian agent, Captain P. Vitkevich, who was ostensibly there, as was the British agent Alexander Burnes, for commercial discussions.
The British demanded that Dost Mohammad sever all contact with the Iranians and Russians, remove Vitkevich from Kabul, surrender all claims to Peshawar, and respect Peshawar's independence as well as that of Kandahar, which was under the control of his brothers at the time. In return, the British government intimated that it would ask Ranjit Singh to reconcile with the Afghans. When Auckland refused to put the agreement in writing, Dost Mohammad turned his back on the British and began negotiations with Vitkevich.
In 1838 Auckland, Ranjit Singh, and Shuja signed an agreement stating that Shuja would regain control of Kabul and Kandahar with the help of the British and Sikhs; he would accept Sikh rule of the former Afghan provinces already controlled by Ranjit Singh, and that Herat would remain independent. In practice, the plan replaced Dost Mohammad with a British figurehead whose autonomy would be as limited as that of other Indian princes.
It soon became apparent to the British that Sikh participation — advancing toward Kabul through the Khyber Pass while Shuja and the British advanced through Kandahar — would not be forthcoming. Auckland's plan in the spring of 1838 was for the Sikhs — with British support — to place Shuja on the Afghan throne. By summer's end, however, the plan had changed; now the British alone would impose the pliant Shuja Shah.
To justify his plan, Lord Auckland issued the Simla Manifesto in October 1838, setting forth the necessary reasons for British intervention in Afghanistan. The manifesto stated that in order to ensure the welfare of India, the British must have a trustworthy ally on India's western frontier. The British pretense that their troops were merely supporting Shah Shuja's small army in retaking what was once his throne fooled no one. Although the Simla Manifesto stated that British troops would be withdrawn as soon as Shuja was installed in Kabul, Shuja's rule depended entirely on British arms to suppress rebellion and on British funds to buy the support of tribal chiefs. The British denied that they were invading Afghanistan, instead claiming they were merely supporting its legitimate Shuja government "against foreign interference and factious opposition".
In November 1841 insurrection and massacre flared up in Kabul. The British vacillated and disagreed and were beleaguered in their inadequate cantonments. Shah Shuja, ineffectual for many months, was deposed. The British negotiated with the most influential sirdars, cut off as they were by winter and insurgent tribes from any hope of relief. Muhammad Akbar Khan arrived in Kabul and became effective leader of the sirdars. At a conference with them Sir William MacNaghten was killed, but in spite of this, the sirdars' demands were agreed to by the British and they withdrew.
Of the 16,000 people that left Kabul only one regiment, the 44th was actually British. Another 4000 were Indian troops and the remaining 10,000 their families and other camp followers. During the withdrawal they were attacked by Ghilzai tribesmen and in running battles through the snowbound passes nearly all were massacred. Of the British only one, Dr Brydon, reached Jalalabad, while a few others were captured.
By 1854 the British wanted to resume relations with Dost Mohammad, whom they had essentially ignored in the intervening twelve years. The 1855 Treaty of Peshawar reopened diplomatic relations, proclaimed respect for each side's territorial integrity, and pledged both sides as friends of each other's friends and enemies of each other's enemies.
In 1857 an addendum to the 1855 treaty permitted a British military mission to become a presence in Kandahar (but not to Kabul) during a conflict with the Persians, who had attacked Herat in 1856. In 1863 Dost Mohammad retook Herat with British acquiescence. A few months later, Dost Mohammad died. Sher Ali, his third son, and proclaimed successor, failed to recapture Kabul from his older brother, Mohammad Afzal (whose troops were led by his son, Abdur Rahman) until 1868, after which Abdur Rahman retreated across the Amu Darya and bided his time.
In the years immediately following the First Anglo-Afghan War, and especially after the 1857 uprising against the British in India, Liberal Party governments in London took a political view of Afghanistan as a buffer state. By the time Sher Ali had established control in Kabul in 1868, he found the British ready to support his regime with arms and funds, but nothing more. Over the next ten years, relations between the Afghan ruler and Britain deteriorated steadily. The Afghan ruler was worried about the southward encroachment of Russia, which by 1873 had taken over the lands of the khan, or ruler, of Khiva. Sher Ali sent an envoy seeking British advice and support. The previous year, however, the British had signed an agreement with the Russians in which the latter agreed to respect the northern boundaries of Afghanistan and to view the territories of the Afghan amir as outside their sphere of influence. The British, however, refused to give any assurances to the disappointed Sher Ali.
After tension between Russia and Britain in Europe ended with the June 1878 Congress of Berlin, Russia turned its attention to Central Asia. That same summer, Russia sent an uninvited diplomatic mission to Kabul. Sher Ali tried, but failed, to keep them out. Russian envoys arrived in Kabul on 22 July 1878 and on 14 August, the British demanded that Sher Ali accept a British mission too.
The amir not only refused to receive a British mission but threatened to stop it if it were dispatched. Lord Lytton, the viceroy, ordered a diplomatic mission to set out for Kabul in September 1878 but the mission was turned back as it approached the eastern entrance of the Khyber Pass, triggering the Second Anglo-Afghan War. A British force of about 40,000 fighting men was distributed into military columns which penetrated Afghanistan at three different points. An alarmed Sher Ali attempted to appeal in person to the tsar for assistance, but unable to do so, he returned to Mazari Sharif, where he died on 21 February 1879.
With British forces occupying much of the country, Sher Ali's son and successor, Mohammad Yaqub Khan, signed the Treaty of Gandamak in May 1879 to prevent a British invasion of the rest of the country. According to this agreement and in return for an annual subsidy and vague assurances of assistance in case of foreign aggression, Yaqub relinquished control of Afghan foreign affairs to the British. British representatives were installed in Kabul and other locations, British control was extended to the Khyber and Michni passes, and Afghanistan ceded various frontier areas and Quetta to Britain. The British army then withdrew. Soon afterwards, an uprising in Kabul led to the slaughter of Britain’s Resident in Kabul, Sir Pierre Cavagnari and his guards and staff on 3 September 1879, provoking the second phase of the Second Afghan War. Major General Sir Frederick Roberts led the Kabul Field Force over the Shutargardan Pass into central Afghanistan, defeated the Afghan Army at Char Asiab on 6 October 1879 and occupied Kabul. Ghazi Mohammad Jan Khan Wardak staged an uprising and attacked British forces near Kabul in the Siege of the Sherpur Cantonment in December 1879, but his defeat there resulted in the collapse of this rebellion.
Yaqub Khan, suspected of complicity in the massacre of Cavagnari and his staff, was obliged to abdicate. The British considered a number of possible political settlements, including partitioning Afghanistan between multiple rulers or placing Yaqub's brother Ayub Khan on the throne, but ultimately decided to install his cousin Abdur Rahman Khan as emir instead. Ayub Khan, who had been serving as governor of Herat, rose in revolt, defeated a British detachment at the Battle of Maiwand in July 1880 and besieged Kandahar. Roberts then led the main British force from Kabul and decisively defeated Ayub Khan in September at the Battle of Kandahar, bringing his rebellion to an end. Abdur Rahman had confirmed the Treaty of Gandamak, leaving the British in control of the territories ceded by Yaqub Khan and ensuring British control of Afghanistan's foreign policy in exchange for protection and a subsidy. Abandoning the provocative policy of maintaining a British resident in Kabul, but having achieved all their other objectives, the British withdrew.
As far as British interests were concerned, Abdur Rahman answered their prayers: a forceful, intelligent leader capable of welding his divided people into a state; and he was willing to accept limitations to his power imposed by British control of his country's foreign affairs and the British buffer state policy. His twenty-one-year reign was marked by efforts to modernize and establish control of the kingdom, whose boundaries were delineated by the two empires bordering it. Abdur Rahman turned his considerable energies to what evolved into the creation of the modern state of Afghanistan.
He achieved this consolidation of Afghanistan in three ways. He suppressed various rebellions and followed up his victories with harsh punishment, execution, and deportation. He broke the stronghold of Pashtun tribes by forcibly transplanting them. He transplanted his most powerful Pashtun enemies, the Ghilzai, and other tribes from southern and south-central Afghanistan to areas north of the Hindu Kush with predominantly non-Pashtun populations. The last non-Muslim Afghans of Kafiristan north of Kabul were forcefully converted to Islam. Finally, he created a system of provincial governorates different from old tribal boundaries. Provincial governors had a great deal of power in local matters, and an army was placed at their disposal to enforce tax collection and suppress dissent. Abdur Rahman kept a close eye on these governors, however, by creating an effective intelligence system. During his reign, tribal organization began to erode as provincial government officials allowed land to change hands outside the traditional clan and tribal limits.
In addition to forging a nation from the splintered regions comprising Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman tried to modernize his kingdom by forging a regular army and the first institutionalized bureaucracy. Despite his distinctly authoritarian personality, Abdur Rahman called for a loya jirga, an assemblage of royal princes, important notables, and religious leaders. According to his autobiography, Abdur Rahman had three goals: subjugating the tribes, extending government control through a strong, visible army, and reinforcing the power of the ruler and the royal family.
Abdur Rahman also paid attention to technological advancement. He brought foreign physicians, engineers (especially for mining), geologists, and printers to Afghanistan. He imported European machinery and encouraged the establishment of small factories to manufacture soap, candles, and leather goods. He sought European technical advice on communications, transport, and irrigation. Local Afghan tribes strongly resisted this modernization. Workmen making roads had to be protected by the army against local warriors. Nonetheless, despite these sweeping internal policies, Abdur Rahman's foreign policy was completely in foreign hands.
The first important frontier dispute was the Panjdeh crisis of 1885, precipitated by Russian encroachment into Central Asia. Having seized the Merv (now Mary) Oasis by 1884, Russian forces were directly adjacent to Afghanistan. Claims to the Panjdeh Oasis were in debate, with the Russians keen to take over all the region's Turkoman domains. After battling Afghan forces in the spring of 1885, the Russians seized the oasis. Russian and British troops were quickly alerted, but the two powers reached a compromise; Russia was in possession of the oasis, and Britain believed it could keep the Russians from advancing any farther. Without an Afghan say in the matter, the Joint Anglo-Russian Boundary Commission agreed the Russians would relinquish the farthest territory captured in their advance but retain Panjdeh. This agreement on these border sections delineated for Afghanistan a permanent northern frontier at the Amu Darya but also the loss of much territory, especially around Panjdeh.
The second section of Afghan border demarcated during Abdur Rahman's reign was in the Wakhan Corridor. The British insisted Abdur Rahman accept sovereignty over this remote region where unruly Kyrgyz held sway, he had no choice but to accept Britain's compromise. In 1895 and 1896 another Joint Anglo-Russian Boundary Commission agreed on the frontier boundary to the far northeast of Afghanistan, which bordered Chinese territory (although the Chinese did not formally accept this as a boundary between the two countries until 1964.)
For Abdur Rahman, delineating the boundary with India (through the Pashtun area) was far more significant, and it was during his reign that the Durand Line was drawn. Under pressure, Abdur Rahman agreed in 1893 to accept a mission headed by the British Indian foreign secretary, Sir Mortimer Durand, to define the limits of British and Afghan control in the Pashtun territories. Boundary limits were agreed on by Durand and Abdur Rahman before the end of 1893, but there is some question about the degree to which Abdur Rahman willingly ceded certain regions. There were indications that he regarded the Durand Line as a delimitation of separate areas of political responsibility, not a permanent international frontier, and that he did not explicitly cede control over certain parts (such as Kurram and Chitral) that were already in British control under the Treaty of Gandamak.
The Durand Line cut through tribes and bore little relation to the realities of demography or military strategy. The line laid the foundation not for peace between the border regions, but for heated disagreement between the governments of Afghanistan and British India, and later, Afghanistan and Pakistan over what came to be known as the issue of Pashtunistan or 'Land of the Pashtuns'. (See Siege of Malakand).
The clearest manifestation that Abdur Rahman had established control in Afghanistan was the peaceful succession of his eldest son, Habibullah Khan, to the throne on his father's death in October 1901. Although Abdur Rahman had fathered many children, he groomed Habibullah to succeed him, and he made it difficult for his other sons to contest the succession by keeping power from them and sequestering them in Kabul under his control.
Habibullah Khan, Abdur Rahman Khan's eldest son but child of a slave mother, kept a close watch on the palace intrigues revolving around his father's more distinguished wife (a granddaughter of Dost Mohammad), who sought the throne for her own son. Although made secure in his position as ruler by virtue of support from the army which was created by his father, Habibullah was not as domineering as Abdur Rahman. Consequently, the influence of religious leaders as well as that of Mahmud Tarzi, a cousin of the king, increased during his reign. Mahmud Tarzi, a highly educated, well-traveled poet and journalist, founded an Afghan nationalist newspaper with Habibullah's agreement, and until 1919 he used the newspaper as a platform for rebutting clerical criticism of Western-influenced changes in government and society, for espousing full Afghan independence, and for other reforms. Tarzi's passionate Afghan nationalism influenced a future generation of Asian reformers.
The boundary with Iran was firmly delineated in 1904, replacing the ambiguous line made by a British commission in 1872. Agreement could not be reached, however, on sharing the waters of the Helmand River.
Like all foreign policy developments of this period affecting Afghanistan, the conclusion of the "Great Game" between Russia and Britain occurred without the Afghan ruler's participation. The 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention (Entente, the Convention of St. Petersburg) not only divided the region into separate areas of Russian and British influence but also established foundations for Afghan neutrality. The convention provided for Russian acquiescence that Afghanistan was now outside this sphere of influence, and for Russia to consult directly with Britain on matters relating to Russian-Afghan relations. Britain, for its part, would not occupy or annex Afghan territory, or interfere in Afghanistan's internal affairs.
During World War I, Afghanistan remained neutral despite pressure to support Turkey when its sultan proclaimed his nation's participation in what it considered a holy war. Habibullah did, however, entertain a Indo-German-Turkish mission in Kabul in 1915 that had as its titular head the Indian nationalist Mahendra Pratap and was led by Oskar Niedermayer and the German legate Werner Otto von Hentig. After much procrastination, he won an agreement from the Central Powers for a huge payment and arms provision in exchange for attacking British India. But the crafty Afghan ruler clearly viewed the war as an opportunity to play one side off against the other, for he also offered the British to resist a Central Powers attack on India in exchange for an end to British control of Afghan foreign policy.
On 20 February 1919, Habibullah Khan was assassinated on a hunting trip. He had not declared a succession, but left his third son, Amanullah Khan, in charge in Kabul. Because Amanullah controlled both the national treasury and the army, he was well situated to seize power. Army support allowed Amanullah to suppress other claims and imprison those relatives who would not swear loyalty to him. Within a few months, the new amir had gained the allegiance of most tribal leaders and established control over the cities.
Amanullah Khan's reforms were heavily influenced by Europe. This came through the influence of Mahmud Tarzi, who was both Amanullah Khan's father-in-law and Foreign Minister. Mahmud Tarzi, a highly educated, well-traveled poet, journalist, and diplomat, was a key figure that brought Western dress and etiquette to Afghanistan. He also fought for progressive reforms such as woman's rights, educational rights, and freedom of press. All of these influences, brought by Tarzi and others, were welcomed by Amanullah Khan.
In 1927 and 1928 Amanullah Khan and his wife Soraya Tarzi visited Europe. On this trip they were honored and feted. In fact, in 1928 the King and Queen of Afghanistan received honorary degrees from Oxford University. This was an era when other Muslim nations, like Turkey and Egypt were also on the path to modernization. King Amanullah was so impressed with the social progress of Europe that he tried to implement them right away, this met with heavy resistance from the conservative sect and eventually lead to his demise.
Amanullah enjoyed quite a bit of early popularity within Afghanistan and he used his power to modernize the country. Amanullah created new cosmopolitan schools for both boys and girls in the region and overturned centuries-old traditions such as strict dress codes for women. He created a new capital city and increased trade with Europe and Asia. He also advanced a modernist constitution that incorporated equal rights and individual freedoms. This rapid modernization though, created a backlash, and a reactionary uprising known as the Khost rebellion which was suppressed in 1924.
Amanullah came to power just as the entente between Russia and Britain broke down following the Russian Revolution of 1917. Once again Afghanistan provided a stage on which the great powers played out their schemes against one another. Amanullah attacked the British in May 1919 in two thrusts, taking them by surprise. Afghan forces achieved success in the early days of the war as Pashtun tribesmen on both sides of the border joined forces with them.
The military skirmishes soon ended in a stalemate as the British recovered from their initial surprise. British forces used airpower to shock the Afghans, the King's home was directly attacked in what is the first case of aerial bombardment in Afghanistan’s history. The attacks played a key role in forcing an armistice but brought an angry rebuke from King Amanullah. He wrote: "It is a matter of great regret that the throwing of bombs by zeppelins on London was denounced as a most savage act and the bombardment of places of worship and sacred spots was considered a most abominable operation. While we now see with our own eyes that such operations were a habit which is prevalent among all civilized people of the west"
Britain virtually dictated the terms of the 1919 Rawalpindi Agreement, a temporary armistice that provided, somewhat ambiguously, for Afghan self-determination in foreign affairs. Before final negotiations were concluded in 1921, however, Afghanistan had already begun to establish its own foreign policy, including diplomatic relations with the new government in the Soviet Union in 1919. During the 1920s, Afghanistan established diplomatic relations with most major countries.