Zarena Aslami, “The Second Anglo-Afghan War, or The Return of the Uninvited”


The Second Anglo-Afghan War grew out of longstanding tensions between Russia and Britain over Britain’s prized colonial possession of India. In my account of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, I would like to emphasize two main themes. First, Afghanistan occupied an anomalous position in the British Empire. The British did not seek to colonize it or conquer it. Rather, they sought to install a sovereign who would be sympathetic to British interests, allow the British to control Afghan foreign policy, and forbid Russia from entering its borders. Second, by granting sovereignty to chosen leaders, British actions toward Afghanistan complicated the notion of sovereignty as such. The case of Afghanistan ought to remind us that it is extremely difficult to generalize how imperial power functioned across the nineteenth century and, moreover, that imperial power, in Afghanistan and other sites, was not homogeneous but rather could emanate from multiple empires at cross purposes over a single location.

If one went by name alone, the Second Anglo-Afghan War would seem to involve Britain and Afghanistan in a quantifiable, discrete military confrontation. However, the series of events collected under this name involved at least two other major actors, Russia and India, and a much longer history. This history includes complex negotiations, threats, shifting allegiances, assassinations, retaliations, the paying of subsidies and arms, the exchange of territories, the ousting and installing of Afghan amirs, internecine fighting among Afghan dynasties, and struggles on the part of Afghan amirs to govern and protect the land from foreign intrusions. In my account of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, I would like to emphasize two main themes. First, Afghanistan occupied an anomalous position in the British Empire. The British did not seek to colonize it or conquer it. Rather, they sought to install a sovereign who would allow the British to control Afghan foreign policy and forbid Russia from entering its borders. Second, by granting sovereignty to chosen leaders, British actions toward Afghanistan complicated the notion of sovereignty as such. If sovereignty refers to having independent authority over a territory, what does it mean that the British were in the business of granting authority to dynastic figures within Afghanistan who remained dependent upon them because they received subsidies and arms from the British government? The case of Afghanistan ought to remind us that it is extremely difficult to generalize how imperial power functioned across the nineteenth century and, moreover, that imperial power as it was exercised in Afghanistan, and other sites, was not homogeneous but rather could emanate from multiple empires at cross purposes over a single location.

The events that led to the Second Anglo-Afghan War should be understood as part of the strategic and military imbroglio involving multiple actors and played out across multiple national borders, the so-called Great Game. While Rudyard Kipling is credited with popularizing the metaphor in Kim—his 1901 novel of British military intrigue, spying, and disguise in Asia—Peter Hopkirk names a British captain, Arthur Conolly, as the originator of the phrase in the early nineteenth century (1). The Great Game refers to the power struggle played primarily between Russia and Britain since at least the 1820s, after Russia defeated Persia and was intent on conquering more of Asia (O’Ballance 7). Convinced that Russia planned to invade India, Britain’s prized colonial possession, the British turned to Afghanistan as a necessary buffer zone.

It is difficult to begin a story whose roots go back for centuries and involve multiple empires. For the purposes of our timeline, we may start about twenty years or so after the end of the First Anglo-Afghan War with the 1860s when Russia began to expand further into Central Asia.[1] In 1868, they took over Samarqand (in current-day Uzbekistan) and defeated the Amir of Bukhara, turning it into their protectorate. This move alarmed British military and political officials, who interpreted Russian expansion as another potential threat upon India. In 1873, the Russians and the British came to an agreement that the land south of the Oxus River was Afghan territory and that therefore the Russians would not invade it. The Russians also agreed to allow Britain to influence Afghan policy. Noticeably absent from these negotiations was the Afghan Amir himself, Sher Ali, who was not invited. According to Thomas Barfield, in an immediate sense, Sher Ali’s interests were served by the agreement because it curbed Russian expansion. However, since Russian generals tended to act independently of map iconSt. Petersburg, he did not see the agreement as a guarantee and remained uneasy about both Russian and British intentions.

Meanwhile, in Britain, the government changed hands from William Gladstone’s Liberal party to Benjamin Disraeli’s Conservative one in 1874, which meant a change in thinking regarding British involvement in the region. Gladstone had supported what was termed the “stationary policy,” while Disraeli favored the Forward Policy. Barfield explains, “At a minimum, [the Forward Policy] demanded more direct control over Afghan affairs; at a maximum, it foresaw the dismemberment of Afghanistan into its component regions and their incorporation into British India” (140). Thus, unlike the First Anglo-Afghan War, the Second Anglo-Afghan War, occurring as it did during the era of high imperialism, saw the British seeking to install much more direct control over Afghanistan.

In 1876, carrying out the Forward Policy favored by Disraeli’s government, the British military took over Afghan-held Quetta in map iconBaluchistan. The new British viceroy in India, Lord Edward Robert Lytton, sought to govern Afghanistan as a protectorate by installing a British envoy permanently in map iconKabul. However, Sher Ali refused this demand, explaining that the Afghan people would never accept the permanent presence of an outsider. Tensions began to mount and finally exploded in July 1878 when the Russians reappeared and forced an uninvited diplomatic delegation into Kabul, against the wishes of Sher Ali. When news of the Russians’ presence in Kabul reached Lytton, the Viceroy angrily insisted again that Sher Ali accept a British agent and sent him forward. The British agent was turned away at the border, leading Britain to declare war and invade Afghanistan in November of 1878, marking the official start of the Second Anglo-Afghan War.

Once the British invaded, Sher Ali turned to the Russians for help. They advised him to make peace with the British and refused his request to appeal to the Czar in person. By January 1879, the British easily took over map iconJalalabad. Upon the death of Sher Ali in February 1879, the British supported the ascension of his not-so-favored son, Yaqub Khan. Yaqub agreed to make peace with the British and signed the Treaty of map iconGandamak in May 1879. The treaty was negotiated by Major Louis Cavagnari and granted certain borderlands, including map iconthe Khyber Pass, which had been under Afghan control, to India. The treaty also allowed the British to install a permanent mission within its borders, to control Afghan foreign policy, and to incorporate Afghanistan into a free trade zone with India. In exchange, Yaqub and his heirs were guaranteed a British subsidy.

Cavagnari took up the position of envoy in Yaqub Khan’s court in Kabul in July. Martin Ewans notes that Disraeli’s government boasted about the success of the treaty, even though Parliament strongly criticized it. Disraeli went so far as to congratulate the Viceroy Lytton for gaining the “scientific frontier” that they had long sought (Ewans 88). However, as Ewans remarks, “It had all been too easy” (88). On 3 September 1879, three Afghan regiments from map iconHerat, who had not been paid, marched to the British mission in Kabul for redress. They were turned away; tensions rose; and, joined by local residents, they forced their way into the building, ultimately killing Cavagnari and his guards. The British press, such as the Pall Mall Gazette on 8 September 1879, drew emotional comparisons between this event and the 1841 uprising in Kabul during the First Anglo-Afghan War, which had resulted in a similar killing of the British agent, Sir Alexander Burnes.

With this earlier event in mind, the British retaliated fiercely. In October 1879, General Frederick Roberts occupied Kabul, leading to Amir Yaqub Khan’s abdication and subsequent exile to India. The Viceroy Lytton ordered Roberts to burn Kabul to the ground. In Ewans’s words, Roberts waged “what can only be described as a reign of terror” in Kabul (89). The historic headquarters of Afghan rulers, Bala Hissar, was indeed blown apart, and Afghans suspected of participating in the uprising were put to death. O’Ballance notes that the British Liberal press later criticized General Roberts “for executing Afghans whose only ‘crime’ had been to fight against an invading enemy” (43), pointing to a healthy sense of distaste for the war in Britain.

On 13 October 1879, General Roberts conducted a Grand Victory March through Kabul. The British now acted as if their occupation and direct rule of Afghanistan would be permanent, with Lytton claiming that if the British could not establish an amir who would acquiesce to British orders, he would divide Afghanistan into smaller parts along the northern range of the Hindu Kush, separating Qandahar from Kabul and even bestowing Herat on the Persians (Barfield 142). Yet again, though, the game was not yet over. In December 1879, Afghan and British forces fought in the hills outside of Kabul. The British retreated and the Afghan forces overtook Kabul. Roberts gained ground again in Sherpur, winning easily against Afghan soldiers and retaking Kabul. In 1880, General Donald Stewart took over command in Kabul. Upon word that Afghan forces were again approaching Kabul, Stewart and his troops met them in Maiwand on 27 July 1880. The Afghans, led by Ayub Khan, outnumbered the British and exacted high fatalities upon the British and Indian troops. The British survivors of the attack took over Kandaharmap icon and were relieved by General Roberts. (See Fig. 1.) Together, these British forces marched out and overcame the insurgent forces led by Ayub Khan. With Ayub Khan quelled, the war was officially over.

Battle of Kandahar

Figure 1: The Battle of Kandahar, 1880, depicted by William Skeoch Cumming

The task now for the British was to select and support a new amir. British officials finally settled upon a man who had made his presence felt during the battles of the Second Anglo-Afghan War: Abdur Rahman, son of Muhammad Afzal and nephew of the former Amir Sher Ali. At first, the British granted Abdur Rahman only Northern Afghanistan, but, reluctant to rule over a divided Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman was not quick to take this offer. Abdur Rahman had the support of tribal leaders and seemed capable of restarting conflict with the British if his terms were not met, one of which was his refusal to allow a British envoy in Kabul. Despite the fact that this refusal, on the part of the former Amir Sher Ali, ostensibly was the reason for the start of the war, the British agreed. In exchange for British support of his rule, and the granting of large subsidies, Abdur Rahman allowed the British to influence Afghan foreign policy from afar through Indian agents, whom he did allow into Kabul.

The Second Anglo-Afghan War had not been popular among the British people. During his comeback campaign in November 1879, Gladstone made strategic use of vivid scenes of violence and destruction of Afghan life and property from the war to criticize Disraeli’s Forward Policy. By 1880, Gladstone had reassumed the position of Prime Minister and the Parliament was once more in the hands of the Liberal Party. Disraeli’s Forward Policy was discontinued and Lytton was replaced by the Marquis of Ripon. Ripon ordered the complete withdrawal of British and Indian forces from Afghanistan. In addition to distaste for what was thought to be an overly aggressive war, the withdrawal was heavily influenced by economic factors. At that point, the war had cost more than 17 million pounds, far surpassing the original estimate of 5 million pounds (O’Ballance 46).

The Second Anglo-Afghan War ushered in a new ruler, Abdur Rahman, who would become known as the Iron Amir. Barfield and other scholars, such as Louis Dupree, have discussed the impact of his centralizing efforts and his attempts to weaken other major cities in Afghanistan and tribal regions that had been used to a certain degree of autonomy from any central authority in Afghanistan (Barfield 147). His harsh rule and severe taxes caused discontent among the population. The Amir was strategic, attacking one opponent at a time, but not too many at once, developing allegiances to help him in his aggressions against other tribes and areas. Barfield writes:

By the end of his reign, he had created a powerful police state in which even subversive talk that might offend the amir could land a person in jail or worse. The level of violence it took to bring Afghanistan to such a state has frequently been overlooked by historians and later political leaders, who instead lauded the amir’s ability to bring order to such a fractured land. (147)

According to Barfield, Abdur Rahman’s military efforts to centralize Afghanistan—that is, his wars with the rebellious Ghilzais; with his cousin Ishaq Khan, who governed Turkistan and disagreed with the amir’s desire to centralize Afghanistan with Kabul as its seat of power; and with the non-Sunni regions of map iconHazarajat and map iconKafirstan—contributed to his consent to the unpopular imposition of the map iconDurand Line in 1893. The cost of the wars and the need for weapons rendered Abdur Rahman dependent on British subsidies and the international arms market, making him more amenable to a border treaty than he might have been (Barfield 153). Ewans points out how the Durand Line, which carved out the national borders of Afghanistan, was motivated in part to rein in the aggressions of the amir. In response to the amir’s skirmishes in the frontier, the Viceroy of India, Lord Lansdowne, sought a way to make clear where British authority stopped and Afghan authority began. Administered by the Foreign Minister of British India, Sir Mortimer Durand, the agreement defined the border between Afghanistan and India by in effect granting to India borderlands that had been ceded to the Afghans by the Persians in 1857, including Chagai, Baluchistan, New Chaman, and Waziristan. In exchange, Afghanistan acquired a small region in the mountains lying between the Hindu Kush and the map iconPamirs, worth much less to the amir than the previously mentioned increase in British subsidies and access to the arms market that he truly needed to carry out his own internal warfare (O’Ballance 51).

The Durand Line extended for about 1,500 miles. It cut from the Pamir mountain range in the north down to the Arabian Sea, taking little notice of tribal regions in the northern and central parts of Afghanistan. The Durand Line proved unpopular among those frontier tribes who found their territories split by it and themselves suddenly subject to the British, Afghans who had hoped for an extension of borders to the sea, and nomadic tribes whose migration routes the British were now monitoring and could potentially block (Ewans 108).

While Abdur Rahman is credited with producing the Afghan nation-state and maintaining a kind of independence from Britain and Russia, he is also blamed for a number of ongoing issues that Barfield and Ewans suggest have plagued the region into the present day. Foremost, Abdur Rahman continued a modern tradition of economic dependence on the British to achieve his centralizing aims through warfare against internal dissidents. He also sought to block modernization in the form of new transportation and communication technologies, leaving Afghanistan with very little infrastructure. He also did little to develop Afghanistan’s manufacturing, economic, or educational institutions. His efforts to centralize Afghanistan and establish absolute rule had ambivalent effects.

A brief turn to late nineteenth-century fiction gives us a sense of how the Second Anglo-Afghan War entered into the late-Victorian imagination.[2] Afghans appear deceitful, savage, and murderous; yet, at the same time, individualist, honorable, and virtuous. As I discuss elsewhere, this mixed treatment of Afghans can be found earlier in the nineteenth century, as well, but imbued with slightly different meanings. In the age of high imperialism, this doubled, ambivalent representation perhaps served, on the one hand, to justify the British invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, as well as control of its foreign policy. On the other hand, it rationalized British military failures at the hands of less well-equipped Afghan warriors and deflected British incoherence about how to exert power over Afghanistan without conquering and colonizing it.

For example, G. A. Henty, the prolific and bestselling author of adventure novels for boys, features this treatment of Afghans in his For Name and Fame, or Through Afghan Passes (1886), published just five years after the Second Anglo-Afghan War, in which it is set. In the preface, the narrator tells us:

In these pages you will see the strength and the weakness of these wild people of the mountains; their strength lying in their personal bravery, their determination to preserve their freedom at all costs, and the nature of their country. Their weakness consists in their want of organization, their tribal jealousies, and their impatience of regular habits and of the restraint necessary to render them good soldiers. (iii-iv)

Likewise, in Kipling’s very brief portrait of Abdur Rahman, “The Amir’s Homily,” published in Life’s Handicap (1891), the narrator writes:

To the Afghan neither life, property, law, nor kingship are sacred when his own lusts prompt him to rebel. He is a thief by instinct, a murderer by heredity and training, and frankly and bestially immoral by all three. None the less he has his own crooked notions of honour, and his character is fascinating to study. (287)

And, lastly, we might turn to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s inaugural Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet (1887), a story that, unlike the first two, is not explicitly about Afghanistan or set in Afghanistan but which nevertheless begins with the important detail of Watson’s wounding at the Battle of map iconMaiwand. This wound is physical and psychological, as Watson flashes back to scenes of savagery during the Second Anglo-Afghan War to make sense of a degenerating London. As I discuss elsewhere, though, the problem of justice and revenge—is it just to invade another country and seek revenge or does the crossing of national boundaries transform the act of revenge simply into an act of murder?—structures the plot and themes of a novel that tracks the revenge story of an American in Britain. Moreover, the famously strange second half of the novel, set in Utah and featuring Mormons, enacts a strange displacement of the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan, its chiefs, clans, polygamy, and uncanny individualism that, despite the overall aversion that the British felt towards Mormon culture, earned a grudging British respect.[3]

These ambivalent castings of Afghans are linked to the question of sovereignty that, as I suggested in the introduction to this essay, the Second Anglo-Afghan War brings to the fore. Kipling’s “The Amir’s Homily” broaches this question in a typically complex way. As with other Kipling stories, “The Amir’s Homily” is layered and does not give itself to any easy interpretation. For Kipling’s narrator, Amir Abdur Rahman is a classic version of the Oriental ruler. He rules according to an older principle of sovereignty, boiled down to the credo of “the right to take life or let live,” as Michel Foucault phrases it in his study of modern war and power, “Society Must Be Defended” (240-1). This punitive form of governance, according to the narrator, is the only way to rule the “unaccountable” Afghan (Kipling 287). The narrator explains at the beginning, “Like most other rulers, [the Amir] governs not as he would but as he can, and the mantle of his authority covers the most turbulent race under the stars” (287). The story concerns a man who has become a thief and is brought to the court of the amir. The amir recounts his own hardships and how he never stole, finally pronouncing the death sentence of the thief. The narrator concludes the homily with, “So they led the thief away, and the whole of him was seen no more together; and the Court rustled out of its silence, whispering, ‘Before God and the Prophet, but this is a man!’” (31). Compared with British judicial rationality, the act appears starkly barbaric and cruel. But the Afghan Court is given the last word, leading one to wonder, is that what we the reader are to think, as well? And, yet, in another turn, if all Afghans are “the most turbulent race under the stars,” then are we to view the pronouncement of the Afghan members of the Court as reliable?

However we read the story, the narrator’s admiration for the amir’s hard work and nobility and his final refusal to take into consideration the poverty of the criminal as a mitigating factor in his theft suggests that something about the amir’s practice of sovereignty appears more favorable to the narrator than the mode of power that ultimately, according to Foucault, reshaped sovereignty in the West, the practice of biopower or “the power to ‘make’ live and ‘let’ die” (241). Again, the context is quite complicated since the British both granted and conceded sovereignty to Abdur Rahman. Abdur Rahman’s power is thus both given to and taken by him from the British. On the one hand, Kipling’s story vaunts the concentrated power of the amir, perhaps in contrast to a perceived diffusion of power as it was exercised at home, with an interventionist state felt to be focused on providing welfare to its citizens rather than presuming their independence. On the other hand, it also effectively contains the amir’s power by rendering it Oriental, savage, and contingent upon British will.

Late nineteenth-century British culture posed these questions as it sought to make sense of the Second Anglo-Afghan War with its themes of uninvited intrusions, changes in British government leading to changes in imperial policy, the complicated bestowing of sovereignty (the act of which complicates the status of the thing being bestowed; can sovereignty be gifted?), and the status of a territory that is not desired in itself but for its potential as a buffer zone. Imperial contest between Russia and Britain ultimately led to the late nineteenth-century production of Afghanistan as, externally, a coherent national territory, a category imposed upon the region by outside forces. British oscillation between direct and indirect control of Afghanistan raised questions about the supposed inviolability and actual transitivity of sovereignty and the proper exercise of power abroad and at home. The imperial forces and motivations may have changed, but the ongoing history of Afghanistan continues to bear this legacy.

Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Antoinette Burton and the anonymous reviewer for their valuable comments on this essay.

Zarena Aslami is Associate Professor in the Department of English at Michigan State University and the author of The Dream Life of Citizens: Late Victorian Novels and the Fantasy of the State (Fordham University Press, 2012). She is currently working on a project about Victorian representations of Afghanistan.


published August 2012

Aslami, Zarena. “The Second Anglo-Afghan War, or The Return of the Uninvited.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


Aslami, Zarena. The Dream Life of Citizens: Late Victorian Novels and the Fantasy of the State. New York: Fordham UP, 2012. Print.

Barfield, Thomas. Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 2010. Print.

Burton, Antoinette. “The First Anglo-Afghan War: Spectacle of Disaster.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. 25 July 2012.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. A Study in Scarlet. 1887. New York: Random House, Inc. 2003. Print.

Dupree, Louis. Afghanistan. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1978. Print.

“Epitome of Opinion in the Morning Journals: The Revolt at Cabul.” The Pall Mall Gazette 8 September 1879: 2. Gale. Web. 3 February 2012.

Ewans, Martin. Afghanistan: A Short History of Its People and Politics. New York: Harper Collins, 2002. Print.

Foucault, Michel. “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. Eds. Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana. Trans. David Macey. New York: Picador, 2003. Print.

Gladstone, W. E. Political Speeches in Scotland, November and December 1879. Edinburgh: Andrew Elliot, 1880. Google Books. Web. 20 December 2008.

Henty, G. A. For Name and Fame, or Through Afghan Passes. 1886. New York: A.L. Burt, Publisher; 1900. Print.

Hopkirk, Peter. The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia. New York: Kodansha International, 1992. Print.

Kipling, Rudyard. “The Amir’s Homily.” Life’s Handicap: Being Stories of Mine Own People. New York: Macmillan and Co., 1981. 286-291. Print.

McLaughlin, Joseph. Writing the Urban Jungle: Reading Empire in London from Doyle to Eliot. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 2000. Print.

O’Ballance, Edgar. Afghan Wars: Battles in a Hostile Land: 1839 to the Present. New York: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.


Antoinette Burton, “On the First Anglo-Afghan War, 1839-42: Spectacle of Disaster”


[1] See Antoinette Burton’s excellent essay on the First Anglo-Afghan War in BRANCH. The parallels between the two wars are striking and point to how models of British foreign policy and military strategy concerning the problem of Afghanistan endured across the nineteenth century.

[2] This essay draws upon work that I first presented in my book, The Dream Life of Citizens: Late Victorian Novels and the Fantasy of the State, in particular from Ch. 2: “‘Rather a Geographical Expression than a Country’: State Fantasy and the Production of Victorian Afghanistan.” In this chapter, I provide fuller discussions of the ambivalent treatment of Afghans in nineteenth-century discourse, the production of Afghanistan from the outside, its rendering as a detail in contemporary, as well as recent, discourse, and readings of Gladstone’s “Midlothian Speeches,” Henty’s For Name and Fame, and Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet.

[3] For more on British attitudes to Mormons, and an elegant reading of A Study in Scarlet, see Ch. 2 of McLaughlin.