Afghan War, First (1839–1842)PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Britain vs. Afghans under Dost Muhammad
PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Afghanistan and northern India
MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Anxious to protect the northern approaches to colonial India, the British sought to check Russian influence in the region by replacing Dost Muhammad, an Afghan emir sympathetic to the Russians,with Shah Shuja, a ruler who favored the British.
OUTCOME: British losses were heavy, and although a punitive expedition prevailed against the Afghans, British forces (and commercial interests) withdrew from the country.
APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: The British fielded more than 30,000 men, including 6,000 Afghan levies; at Kandahar in 1842, Dost Muhammad fielded 20,000 Afghan troops.
CASUALTIES: More than 5,000 British dead; total Afghan losses are not known, but 1,500 were killed between 1839 and 1841.
In an attempt to protect the northern approaches to colonial India, the British sought to replace Dost Muhammad (1793–1863), the Afghan emir whose friendly relations with the Russians were perceived as a threat to British control, with former emir Shah Shuja (1780–1842), who was sympathetic to British interests. An Anglo-Indian army of 21,000 under General Sir John Keane occupied Kandahar in April 1839, successfully attacked Ghazni on July 21, and took Kabul on August 7. Keane captured Dost Muhammad and restored to power Shah Shuja. Leaving the superannuated major general William G. K. Elphinstone (d. 1842) with a 4,500-man garrison at Kabul to support two British diplomats there (Sir William Macnaghten [1793–1841] and Sir Alexander Burnes [1805–41]), Keane returned to India with his main force.Kabul remained relatively quiet until November 1841, when Sher Ali Akbar Khan (1825–79), son of Dost Muhammad, led an uprising against the British presence in the Afghan capital. The two British diplomats were murdered, and Elphinstone’s garrison was besieged. On January 6, 1842, Elphinstone surrendered to Akbar Khan in exchange for a grant of safe passage to India for his 4,500-man command and some 12,000 civilian refugees. On January 13, however, at the Khyber Pass, Akbar’s troops violated the safe conduct and overwhelmed Elphinstone’s already demoralized troops. Most were massacred, together with the civilian refugees. Of the small number taken prisoner, few survived captivity. A small British garrison at Ghazni also surrendered, but troops at Kandahar and Jalalabad resisted and held out. In April 1842 Akbar’s followers assassinated Shah Shuja, and that same month Sir George Pollock led an Anglo-Indian punitive expedition against the Khyber Pass. Successfully breaching it, he broke the siege of Jalalabad on April 16, then proceeded to Kabul. Here, on September 15, Pollock’s expedition rescued 95 prisoners, all that remained of Elphinstone’s garrison and its civilian charges. Pollock now ordered severe reprisals against the Afghans, including the destruction of the citadel and great bazaar of Kabul. With victory achieved, the British East India Company, chief trading force in the region, decided that it was both too dangerous and insufficiently profitable to remain in Afghanistan. In December British forces and civilians evacuated the country, and Dost Muhammad was given British permission to resume his reign as emir. He ruled until his death in 1863.
See also AFGHAN WAR, SECOND; AFGHAN WAR, THIRD.Further reading: Edgar O’Ballance, Afghan Wars, 1839–1992 (New York: Brassey’s, 1993).