The British Campaign in Afghanistan 1839-1842

The British campaign against Afghanistan was prompted by fear, began with hubris, squandered advantages, decayed into folly, and ended with tragedy. An analysis of the Mission, Enemy, Troops, Terrain, Time, and Civilian Considerations (METT-TC) of one of the greatest failures in British military history.

India was the crown jewel of the British Empire, providing raw materials such as cotton for the growing British economy. Queen Victoria had just taken the throne (20 June 1837) of “this vast empire on which the sun never sets, and whose bounds nature has not yet ascertained.” The British East India Company was in de facto control of much of modern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, except for in the United States, British arms had prevailed for a century, and the Industrial Revolution (mid 1700s to mid 1800s) was transforming the British Lion into the first European superpower since Rome.

There were a few obstacles to what Britons considered their inevitable ascendancy. Russia under Czar Nicholas I (reigned 1825-1855) was expanding, eventually to reach its historical zenith (7.7 million square miles) at his death. For centuries, Russia had had imperial ambitions and a major foreign policy goal was to obtain an ice-free year round deep water port. St Petersburg froze during the winter and fleets stationed there could be bottled up by control of Denmark, Sebastopol was ice free but fleets stationed there could be bottled up by control of the Bosporus or Dardanelles Straits. Vladivostok was too far from European Russia to be of much use in empire building in the West, and froze four months per year. The will of Peter the Great of Russia (1672-1725) told his countrymen to attack south into the Ottoman Empire, Persia and India (Pakistan) to acquire a warm water port. So a prime objective of the Russian Bear was to expand south to obtain a port in Eastern Europe or the Middle East.


Shah Shuja was King of Afghanistan from 1803-1809 and lived in exile hoping to regain his throne for 30 years. Dost Mohammad Khan ruled from 1826 to 1839. At first the British took little note of Afghan politics but as the Russians crept south, Dost Mohammad leaned towards the Bear and Shah Shuja cultivated his relations with the Lion. Tensions escalated and in 1839 Lord Auckland, the Governor-General of India, decided to invade Afghanistan to secure the northeast of their Indian Empire. General Sir John Keane commanded the Army of the Indus, including 9,500 British and Indian troops of the Bengal Army, 5,000 of the Bombay Army, and 6,000 Hindu troops led by Shah Shuja. Opposing them were several Afghan tribes and several garrisons including 3,500 men at Ghuznee.

The Invasion

The Army of the Indus staged in Shikapur in the Indian province of Sind and in March of 1839 began the 300 mile march up the Bolan Pass, past the village of Quetta, through the Kojak Pass, to Kandahar. The steep cliffs, winding gorge and precipitous ascent from 450 ft ASL to 5,600 ft ASL were a serious obstacle and significant resistance would have stopped the Army of the Indus in its tracks. However the political agent, William Hay Macnaghten (1793-1841), using a combination of force and bribes, convinced the local rulers, especially Mehrab Khan of Kelat, Master of the Bolan Pass, to let the British pass. A similar tactic worked to ensure relatively safe passage through the Kojak Pass further west. Mehrab Khan warned the British, however, “the Aghan people will never accept Shah Shuja as king”. Kandahar offered no resistance to the British, but the resident’s greeting for Shah Shuja, surrounded by Hindu and Christian troops, was cool, a bad omen for the future of the enterprise.

Marching northeast, the Army of the Indus confronted the Afghan fortress of Ghazni, less than 100 miles from Kabul, the capital city. An Afghan informer revealed the existence of a gate that had not been sealed. A team led by Lieutenant Henry Durand of the Bengal engineers blow upon the gate and a column led by BG Bob Sale and COL William Dennie rushed the breech. Seventeen British and Indians and 1,200 Afghans were killed in the ensuing battle. The fall of the supposedly impregnable Ghazni scared Dost Mohammed into exile and Kabul fell without a fight in November 1839.

The Occupation

Trouble began soon after moving the forces into Kabul. In addition to his Hindu forces, Shah Shuja brought about 400 others with him, including wives, concubines, children, eunuchs, entertainers, servants, and others. Bala Hissar was (and is) a large 5th century fortress situated on heights overlooking the city of Kabul from the south. The military leaders of the expedition wanted to garrison a brigade within the citadel but Shah Shuja refused, fearing that the British infidels could look down from their lofty perch and see the activities in his harem. Macnaghten relented and the Shah Shuja moved into the Bala Hissar. The British garrison of 10,000 soldiers built a camp on a flat plain one mile north of Kabul, located in the shadow of surrounding the hills. The containment had mud walls, in places only waist high, and the grain, hospital stores and other supplies were kept in a small fort outside the camp. Nonetheless the garrison settled in, wives and children arrived from India, and activities, including cricket, shooting, horse races, fox hunting, polo, and formal dinners began.

Not all of the men were married and not all of the married men were faithful, and Afghan women, dressed head to toe in their all concealing burkhas, had little difficulty making their way to the officer’s quarters. Even the wives of Afghan chiefs sometimes visited. Captain Robert Warburton of the Bengal artillery married a niece of Dost Mohammed, the Afghan ruler his army had deposed. Tensions rose among the Afghan men whose women were being seduced by infidel foreigners.

The international situation was deteriorating. Calcutta and London were pushing for a quick withdrawal, but to do so would be to consign the unpopular Shah Shuja to death at the hands of his countrymen. A Russian army was advancing on Khiva (in modern Uzbekistan) from the north and the Emir of Bokhara, close to the north, was increasingly hostile to the British crown. Finally, Dost Mohammed came back into Afghanistan and was exiled to India. Nonetheless, conditions in Kabul seemed stable in April 1841 when MG William Elphinstone, a sickly 59 year old who had not seen combat since Waterloo in 1815, arrived to take command of the Kabul forces.

Paying such heavy bribes to Afghan tribal leaders was breaking the bank in Calcutta and Macnaghten was told to cut costs. In the summer of 1841 he halved the agreed upon “subsidy” to the tribes, including the powerful Ghilzai tribe that controlled the passes between Kabul and Jalabad, the key escape route should the British face danger in the capital city. The Ghilzai retaliated by blocking British movement through the pass and the British subdued them with arms. Mohan Lai, the personal secretary to the Scottish political agent in Kabul, warned his boss that Akbar Khan, Dost Mohammed’s oldest and ablest son, was leading a group of Afghan chieftains planning to murder Burnes and rebel against the British. The Scotsman ignored the warning.

The Rebellion

On 2 November 1841 a crowd rioted outside Burnes mansion in Kabul, demanding his surrender for seducing Afghan women. Trying to flee, the agent was cut to pieces by the mob. Macnaghten and his family fled their residence for the safety of the British camp but MG Elphinstone took no action against the murderous mob. By this time there were approximately 5,000 British and Indian troops and 10,000 camp followers in the cantonment. A dozen stone forts were occupied by Afghani rebels on the hills surrounding the swampy cantonment, the British having garrisoned none of them. On 3 November the Afghans blocked the road between the cantonment and the supply fort. The British were unable to open the road and abandoned their supplies.

There were other painful realities. The British forces were equipped with the Brown Bess, a musket with an effective range of 150 yards that hadn’t changed significantly since Waterloo. The Afghans fought with the jezail, a musket with an effective range of up to 800 yards. Having lost their supplies, the occupiers were forced to forage for supplies amongst an increasingly hostile population.

Afghans from the village of Bemaru, situated on high ground north of the British camp, were especially notorious for harassing foraging parties. On 23 November, BG John Shelton took a party of infantry and cavalry up the heights to seize the village and punish the rebels. He occupied the heights but failed in his attempt to storm the village. The Afghans drove his forces back, but the British counterattacked and drove back the rebels. Rather than pursue the scattering Afghan, Shelton broke off the attack. A little later the Afghans counterattacked, capturing the lone field gun and driving the British back inside the cantonment.

Macnaghten sent messengers to beg for relief but with the approach of winter and with the hostility of the tribes holding the passes, it was impossible. He then tried to use to British money to play off one rival against another, negotiating with Akbar Khan, Shah Shuja and others to save his force and his life. It failed and Macnaghten was killed on 23 December 1841.

The news discouraged the British but snuffed out whatever spark of courage Elphinstone had left. The Afghans demanded that the British withdraw immediately, turning over their entire treasury and all but six of their remaining field guns. The rebels also wanted all of the married officers and their families left behind as hostages. In exchange, they would guarantee safe passage to Jalabad for Elphinstone and his army. Major Eldred Pottinger, a wounded soldier, Mohan Lai and Shah Shuja recommended rejection but Elphinstone agreed to the Afghans’ terms on Christmas Eve, 1841.

The Retreat

No Afghan army arrived to protect the 4,500 troops and 10,000 women, children, and other camp followers as they streamed out of Kabul on 6 January without food, money, or even wood for a fire. Temperatures were bitterly cold and the primary light was the fire of the looted camp they had just left. As the fugitives entered the passes controlled by the Ghilzai, sniping began, despite the late arrival of Akbar Khan’s escort. On 9 January the Afghan leader sent emissaries offering to “place all families and widowed women under his protection”. Khan may have been humanitarian, and he was probably thinking of his father’s British enforced exile in India.

The remaining refugees faced more dangers from freezing as they climbed the Jagdalek Pass between Kabul and Jalalabad. By 11 January 12,000 were dead. By 13 January, sentries of the British garrison at Jalalabad saw one man, Dr. William Brydon, come out of the pass. He was the only Briton to survive the retreat.

Abbreviated METT-TC Analysis


Strategic – The British interest was in securing the northwestern flank of their Indian possessions. They had to do this through one or a combination of the elements of national power: diplomatic/political, informational/social/cultural, military, and economic (DIME). 1. Securing peace with Russia 2. Supporting a friendly regime in Afghanistan, 3. Fortifying the passes and borders of India 4. Securing alliances with other nations that could distract the Russians from their southern pursuits 5. Other possibilities

Operational – Having chosen to use a combination of the means above, primarily military, William Hay Macnaghten, the British political leader and Sir John Keane, the British commander, had to occupy Afghanistan with British and Indian forces and support a puppet regime. They used bribes and other cash payments liberally, and tried to play groups off against each other.

Tactical – The tactical leaders’ mission was to accomplish the conquest and the occupation. They did the first well but bungled the second.

Enemy • Weapons – Better muskets, no significant artillery • Maneuver – better than British • Unwilling to accept Hindu and Christian occupying forces • More numerous • Better knowledge of terrain and local conditions • Fighting for home

Troops • MG Elphinstone was placed in a situation far beyond his ability. Perhaps 20 or even 10 years before he would have been an effective leader in this difficult situation, but in 1841 he was no match for the times. He exercised just enough control to prevent anyone more capable from leading the effort, and too little to control • Inadequate light weapons (Brown Bess muskets, Napoleonic War vintage), superior heavy weapons. • Fighting for a distant outpost and imperial policy

Terrain • Poor maneuverability on land • Poor defensive position, compromised by political considerations • The greatest strength of the British imperial forces at that time was their overwhelming command of the sea. No other world power could come close. Afghanistan, however, offered no access by sea and thereby neutralized one of their greatest assets.

Time • Evacuating Kabul on 6 January was destined to failure. The passes between Kabul and Jalabad were impassable, and casualties would have been high even without resistance. • There was no clear exit strategy and the occupation was longer than it should have been.

Civilians • Who are civilians, who are rebels? It is sometimes impossible to tell. • Occupation policy likely to generate support or not? Definitely not. This is why the modern US General Order #1 prohibits sex, drinking and other unseemly and dangerous conduct by military forces.

Bibliography • Macartney, George (1773). An Account of Ireland in 1773 by a Late Chief Secretary of that Kingdom. p. 55.; cited in Kenny, Kevin (2006). Ireland and the British Empire. Oxford University Press. p. 72,fn.22. ISBN 0199251843. • Meyer, Karl E. and Shareen Blair Brysac. Tournament of Shadow. Washington: Counterpoint, 1999.

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