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
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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.