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The Anglo-Afghan Wars

The British Empire engaged in three wars in Afghanistan between 1839 and 1919. These wars were part of the struggle for influence in Central Asia between Britain and Russia that was known as the “Great Game.” The first war was an utter disaster for the British – one of the worst defeats suffered by the empire. The second war, which lasted from 1878 to 1880, was at best a tactical success for the British who were unable to gain sovereignty over Afghanistan, but did manage to gain some control over Afghan foreign affairs. In the Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919, Afghanistan regained control of their foreign affairs after an Afghani offensive.

These three wars were bloody and financially costly for the British, ,and ended rather dismally with Russia, or rather the new government in the Soviet Union, gaining the upper hand.

Despite the general technical superiority of British military forces, they were barely able to hold their own in fighting against the Afghanis. Firstly, the British strategy of “divide and conquer” rarely worked to their advantage in the political chaos that was, and remains today, a characteristic of the Afghan countryside. The numerous tribes, particularly along the country’s mountainous western border, were rarely dependable. They commonly were in the habit of siding with whoever appeared to be winning at the moment.

Most of the country is extremely rugged with steep, barren mountains offering little water during the searing hot summers, and little cover during the snowy winters. In such a harsh environment, the British found it extremely difficult to maintain supply lines with their bases in India. The ruggedness of the terrain made it difficult for the British to capitalize on the superiority of their arms. The jagged cliffs, caves and narrow passes were perfect for guerilla style warfare when faced with superior firepower.

The fierce independence of the people whether it be the Afghani ruling elite, the Pashtun tribes, or other groups added to the difficulties the British had in this region. The Afghan rulers proved that they were capable of quickly adapting to modern diplomatic challenges of the times. They played the competition between Russia and Britain to their own advantage, using the former as a supplier of arms, and military advice and training.

However, if Russia’s successor – the Soviet Union – thought that Afghanistan was its prize from the Great Game, it would find out the hard way that Afghanistan was also a player in that game along with Russia and Britain.


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