Afghanistan Table of Contents
The Rise of Dost Mohammad
It was not until 1826 that the energetic Dost Mohammad was able to exert sufficient control over his brothers to take over the throne in Kabul, where he proclaimed himself amir. Although the British had begun to show interest in Afghanistan as early as their 1809 treaty with Shuja, it was not until the reign of Dost Mohammad, first of the Muhammadzai rulers, that the opening gambits were played in what came to be 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.
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 amir next chose to confront the Sikhs.
In 1834 Dost Mohammad defeated an invasion by the former ruler, Shah Shuja, 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 Akbar Khan, defeated the Sikhs at Jamrud, a post fifteen kilometers west of Peshawar. The Afghan leader did not follow up this triumph by retaking Peshawar, however, but instead contacted Lord Auckland, the new British governor general in 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 them.
The debacle 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 Kirghiz and Turkmen lands, and the Khanates of Khiva and 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 Qandahar, 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 Qandahar 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 Qandahar--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.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress