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The Afghan Wars : The First British Invasion

On April 14th, 2021 U.S. President Joe Biden announced the official withdrawal of the U.S. Military from Afghanistan. The longest war in American history came to an anticlimactic end. On August 15th, 2021 the Afghan government collapsed as the countries capital, Kabul, was surrounded by the Taliban. Facing little to no resistance, the Taliban completely overran the Afghan forces and took over the presidential palace as President Ghani flees the country. This article is the first part of a series which outlines the history behind the Afghan Wars, from which parallels to the present events in Afghanistan will be drawn. Ultimately, explaining how it was possible that Taliban fighters were able to reverse the 20-year U.S. war in just four months.

Britain Invades Afghanistan

To understand the history behind Afghan-American War one must start in 1864, the end of the first Anglo-Afghan War. One can draw many parallels from history to the present. The reasons behind the breakdown of the U.S. Military are the same as the reasons for the failure of the Britain invasion almost 200 years ago. The harsh terrain, the brutal and unpredictable weather, splintered tribal politics, and tumultuous ties with the local populace and armed civilians are only a few of the factors that contributed to Britain's failure in Afghanistan. The British colonies, as well as the East India Trading Company, were concerned of Russian power development in the East at the time. A Russian invasion of Afghanistan was believed to be an unavoidable component of this. However, more than a century later, with the Soviet-Afghan war of 1979-1989, such an invasion eventually realized.

The Great Game

Dōst Moḥammad Khan, undated engraving.
Dōst Moḥammad Khan |

The ‘Great Game,' as historians refer to it, was a tug-of-war between East and West over who would rule the region throughout the nineteenth century. The first Afghan War was not so much a defeat for the British as it was a total humiliation: a military calamity of unparalleled dimensions, maybe equalled only by the American military failure in the very same nation. The takeover of Kabul had started rather quietly.

The British were initially aligned with Dost Mohammed, an indigenous monarch who had succeeded in unifying the fragmented Afghan clans during the previous decade. When the British suspected Dost Mohammed of colluding with the Russians, he was deposed and replaced by Shah Shuja.

The Afghans Rise

Along with the British Army, two prominent people, Sir William McNaghten and Sir Alexander Burnes, were sent to effectively manage Shah Shuja's government. Two well-known and highly experienced political officers were among the men. Burnes had previously lived in Kabul and had published a book on his experiences there.
Sir William Hay MacNaghten | National Army Museum

The Afghan people were infuriated by the British forces. Tensions gradually grew, and despite warnings from friendly Afghans that an uprising was coming, the British were caught off guard when an insurgency erupted in Kabul in November 1841.

Sir Alexander Burnes' residence was encircled by a crowd. The British envoy attempted, but failed, to offer the mob money to distribute. The mansion, which was only minimally protected, was overrun. Both Burnes and his brother were assassinated.

Because the cantonment was encircled, the British troops in the city were vastly outnumbered and unable to defend themselves efficiently. In late November, a cease-fire was reached, and it appears that the Afghans just wanted the British to depart. However, tensions rose when Dost Mohammed's son, Muhammad Akbar Khan, arrived in abul and adopted a tougher stance on the invaders.

The Great British Escape

On December 23, 1841, Sir William McNaghten, who had been attempting to negotiate a route out of the city, was assassinated, allegedly by Muhammad Akbar Khan himself. Despite their desperate condition, the British managed to negotiate a pact to depart Afghanistan.
Britain’s Retreat from Kabul 1842 |

The British began their evacuation from Kabul on January 6, 1842. The city was evacuated by around 4,500 British troops and 12,000 civilians who had accompanied the British Army to Kabul. Many died from exposure in the initial days as a result of the retreat in the bitterly cold weather. Despite the treaty that allowed them to escape from Kabul in the first place, what began as a rapid retreat swiftly turned into a death march through hell for those escaping. As Afghan forces intensified their onslaught on the fleeing soldiers, the situation devolved into a bloodbath as the column approached the Khurd Kabul, a 5-mile-long narrow pass.

Massacre in the Mountain Passes

Six months later, in July 1842, the North American Review, a Boston-based publication, released a very comprehensive and timely report titled "The English in Afghanistan." It included the following colorful description:

"On the 6th of January, 1842, the Caboul forces commenced their retreat through the dismal pass, destined to be their grave. On the third day they were attacked by the mountaineers from all points, and a fearful slaughter ensued…
"The troops kept on, and awful scenes ensued. Without food, mangled and cut to pieces, each one caring only for himself, all subordination had fled; and the soldiers of the forty-fourth English regiment are reported to have knocked down their officers with the butts of their muskets.
"On the 13th of January, just seven days after the retreat commenced, one man, bloody and torn, mounted on a miserable pony, and pursued by horsemen, was seen riding furiously across the plains to Jellalabad. That was Dr. Brydon, the sole person to tell the tale of the passage of Khourd Caboul."

In the initial bloody aftermath of battle, it appeared that only one man had survived the slaughter, Assistant Surgeon William Brydon, and somehow, he limped into the safety of Jalalabad on a mortally wounded horse, watched by those British troops who were patiently waiting for their arrival. Asked what had happened to the army, he answered “I am the army”.

A Catastrophic Blow to British Pride

The harsh terrain, tribal politics, armed civilians and the fact that the British army, despite warnings, was caught completely off guard, were all contributing factors to Britains great first disaster in Afghanistan.

The British were obviously humiliated by the loss of so many troops to mountain tribesmen. Following the fall of Kabul, a campaign was launched to evacuate the remaining British troops from Afghanistan garrisons, and the British eventually withdrew from the nation altogether.

Despite the tragedy of 1842, the British did not give up aspirations of gaining control of Afghanistan. For the rest of the nineteenth century, the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880) established a diplomatic settlement that kept Russian dominance out of Afghanistan, as outlined in part II of the Afghan series.


Britain's Retreat from Kabul 1842. (2018, January 2). Historic UK.

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. (2020, June 2). Anglo-Afghan Wars | History, Significance, & Facts. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Laub, Z. (2017, May 1). The U.S. War in Afghanistan. Council on Foreign Relations.

One Man Survived the 1842 Massacre of a British Army in Afghanistan. (2019, December 6). ThoughtCo.

Smith, C. S. (2021, August 31). What did the US get wrong about Afghanistan? Opinions | Al Jazeera.

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