Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires – Case Study #1 – A very British catastrophe

In the scurry to avenge 9/11, concerns about a military occupation of Afghanistan were swept to one side. The human rights abuses and opium trade connections linked to the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, also known as the Northern Alliance, were seen as the lesser of two evils compared to the radical brand of Islamic government provided by the Taliban. Once Operation Enduring Freedom ousted Mullah Omar and his followers in 2001, the conventional wisdom had it that the Afghan’s, liberated from their oppressive overlords, would embrace the individual freedoms promised by a Western-style democracy.

Unfortunately, conventional wisdom can often be wrong. And, without the time to develop a detailed plan on how to maintain security, to develop infrastructure and build a lasting peace between tribal conflicts, many dating back hundreds of years, the US and UK forces and their associated allies now face a growing insurgency which makes the political and military situation increasingly complex and fraught with difficulty.

"Taliban activity" has increased steadily over the last five years

This is not the first time a nation, or nations, has intervened in Afghanistan with the advantage of overwhelming military force. Perhaps, by looking back at the lessons of history, we can examine why Afghanistan, far from being a nation of easily cowed peasants, has earned itself the title of Graveyard of Empires.

The first Anglo-Afghan War is a conflict largely forgotten by popular British history books. This is perhaps understandable given the British viewed the episode through the wider lens of a continuous struggle against Imperial Russia, known by participants as the Great Game. It was also a war that Victorian Britain, unused to being bested by uppity foreigners, wanted to forget in a hurry as it led to one of the greatest catastrophes in British military history.

The opening to the Siri Bolan Pass as sketched by James Atkinson during the invasion of Kabul

The events of 1840/1841 unfolded in a fashion perhaps familiar to observers of US/UK policy in present day Afghanistan. The Governor-General of India, Lord Auckland, paranoid about Russian incursion or influence north of India, the “Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire”, issued what was known as the Simla Manifesto in 1838. The Simla Manifesto stated that the welfare of India required that the British have on their western frontier a trustworthy ally and the current ruler, Dost Mohammed, was, due to bungled British diplomatic efforts, now regarded as coming under Russian influence.

Accordingly, the British invaded and installed their preferred ruler, Shah Shuja and Dost Mohammed fled. The terms of the manifesto stated that British troops would be withdrawn as soon as Shuja was installed but the reality on the ground was that, without British support and money to buy influence from hostile tribal leaders, Shuja was vulnerable to overthrow. A large force was left behind to help maintain Shuja in power but, as the main force withdrew, not everyone thought the situation would remain stable. General Sir John Keane, tunred to one of his officers and said…

I cannot but congratulate you on quitting this country; for, mark my words, it will not be long before there is here some signal catastrophe.


Dost Mohammed - He once told Sir John Lawrence, Viceroy of India, "We have men and we have rocks in plenty, but we have nothing else"

Dost Mohammed, perhaps the first Afghan leader to realise the power of Jihad, had declared himself Amir al-Mu’minin , the spiritual leader not just of Afghanistan but of all muslims, and displayed an incredibly rare and significant object, the Cloak of the Prophet, said to have been worn by Mohammed himself. The next time the cloak was seen in public was when it was donned by Mullah Omar during the Taliban’s rise to power in 1994.

Dost’s son, Akbar Khan began recruiting in the Khyber region saying…

I have today left Jalalabad with a view to commence a religious war against the detested infidels

His efforts were not unobserved by the British. Sir William Macnaghten, Lord Auckland’s political chief in Kabul, wrote about Dost Mohammed…

Religion is his watchword… I hope we are to be really well prepared for the worst that may happen

And the worst, perhaps far worse than Macnaghten envisaged. was about to happen. Looking at the political and military situation in 1840/1841 we can see a number of parallels with the modern day. The British were facing…

  • A growing Islamist Insurgency
  • Overstretched foreign troops unable to quell a widening and worsening conflict
  • Cultural clashes as occupiers behaved in ways that offended local sensibilities
  • An amir who couldn’t rule without foreign support
  • Increasing tensions between the occupying power and the Amir
  • Growing anger among tribal elders of financial support they believed were not being honoured

Burnes travelled extensively throughout Central Asia. His narrative of the exploits became a bestseller in 1834

It began with an argument over a woman. On the 1st of November the favourite mistress of a powerful Afghan leader, Abdullah Khan, was taken to the house of a British officer. Abdullah sent his nephew to investigate only to have the officer bar the door and deny she was inside. The Afghan complained to Macnaghten’s subordinate, Alexander Burnes, who did nothing.

Burnes, a traveller/explorer in the heroic Victorian mold, had already made a powerful enemy by sacking the police chief of Kabul to block the investigation of a complaint by another Afghan that his mistress had been spirited away across the rooftops by a British officer. Burnes and his brother, Charley, had also tested the moral tolerance of the locals by having Kashmiri women living with them. This last incident was the final straw.

A mob, led by the ousted Police chief, attacked Burnes’ house and, after a fierce fight, cut the occupants to pieces. The British, led by the elderly and indecisive Major-General Elphinstone, dithered hopelessly over a response. Lady Florentia Sale, whose A Journal of the Disasters in Afghanistan: A Firsthand Account by One of the Few Survivors subsequently became a bestseller, commented on the commander’s ineptitude.

We seem to sit quietly with our hands folded and look on

Within days the British had lost nearly all their supplies, stored inexcusably outside their main cantonment and a general uprising involving tens of thousands of Afghans threatened every British soldier in the country. As autumn turned to winter and fighting intensified, the British camp came under daily attack, particularly from snipers on the heights above the cantonment, an area Elphinstone had failed to secure.


The heights above the British cantonment. Two well known snipers, a blacksmith and a barber, were said to be able to hit a British soldier from 300 yards

Macnaghten, desperate to find a way of retreating from Kabul with honour, sent secret messages to Akbar Khan whilst trying to secure support from Afghans loyal to the British. His options rapidly dwindled, however, as he was forced to turn over a series of forts and strongholds in order to secure food and supplies for the besieged army.

Akbar Khan finally proposed a meeting, setting up a large rug on snow covered ground in a clearing 300 yards from the cantonment. Wary of treachery, Macnaghten requested two British regiments be made ready but the officer in charge, who had often argued with the political agent, failed to have his men available and made an excuse not to accompany Macnaghten to the meeting.

Macnaghten, accompanied by three officers, had good reason to be fearful. Within moments the officers had been seized, thrown over the backs of horses and taken into captivity. The last they saw of Macnaghten, he was being dragged head first, screaming, down a bank. He was cut to pieces and his body stripped and paraded in front of the British camp. Subsequently his hands, feet and trunk were paraded victoriously through the streets while his head was placed in a horse’s nosebag and displayed in the bazaar. Once again Elphinstone’s indecision, as Macnaghten’s body was flaunted before the British, infuriated Lady Sale…

…strange to say no endeavour was made to recover it, which might easily have been done by sending out the cavalry


"The Afghans are among the best marksmen in the world. They are accustomed to arms from early boyhood, live in a chronic state of warfare with their neighbors, and are most skilful in taking advantage of cover." - General Colin Mackenzie

The prospects for the British army, trapped with dwindling supplies in the middle of winter, grew increasingly grim. Lady Sale, whose forceful opinions stand in remarkable contrast to those of the ineffectual Elphinstone, was one of those who saw the writing on the wall. She saw the only remaining options as…

a disgraceful treaty or a disastrous retreat.

The decision was made, initially, to negotiate and the terms involved the British handing over almost all their artillery pieces and providing hostages. Then Elphinstone, once again dithering as the situation became desperate, decided that remaining in Kabul would prove disastrous. On the 6th of January 1842 the British army, consisting of approximately 4,500 troops and 12,000 camp followers began the retreat towards India.

The day was clear and frosty; the snow nearly a foot deep on the ground; the thermometer considerably below freezing point

At the urging of friendly Afghans they headed towards the gorge at Khurd Kabul. They camped out in the open and, as the rearguard straggled in at 2am, stories of terrible slaughter at the rear of the column began to circulate. In the morning they pressed on but decided unaccountably, to halt for the night at 1pm. The column was harrased with constant sniper fire from the heights above the gorge and marauding tribesmen made off with three more of their precious field guns.

Lady Sale’s observations give some idea of the dreadful conditions but also give an indication of the 52 year old’s indomitable will.

The ladies were mostly traveling in kajavas, and were mixed up with the baggage and column in the pass: here they were heavily fired on; many camels were killed. On one camel, in one kajava, Mrs. Boyd and her youngest boy Hugh; and in the other Mrs. Mainwaring and her infant, scarcely three months old, and Mrs. Anderson’s eldest child. This camel was shot. Mrs. Boyd got a horse to ride; and her child was put on another behind a man, who shortly after unfortunately killed, the child was carried off by the Affghans (sic). Mrs. Mainwaring, less fortunate, took her own baby in her arms. Mary Anderson was carried off in the confusion…

The pony Mrs. Stuart rode was wounded in the ear and neck. I had fortunately, only one ball in my arm; three others passed through my poshteen near the shoulder without doing me any injury. The party that fired on us were not above fifty yards from us, and we owed our escape to urging our horses on as fast as they could go over a road where, at any other time, we should have walked our horses very slowly

On the 8th of January, fortified by a cask of brandy, the troops fought off several assaults on the column and officers had to prevent drunken cavalrymen launching suicidal charges into the massed ranks of Afghans. More than 2000 camp followers were already dead and now many of them, driven to desperation by the cold, resorted to burning their clothing in order to keep warm. Akbar Khan appeared and offered to negotiate, an offer that was jumped upon by Elphinstone, but, after Lady Sale, other army wives and some senior officers were taken as hostages, the raids continued.


The Afghan snatch and grab tactics, aimed at the columns increasingly growing weak points, exhausted the troops tasked to protect them

Hundreds of camp followers froze to death where they lay, hundreds of others were snatched by tribesmen and killed or enslaved. By the 11th of January, from an army of 16,000 only 150 men from the 44th regiment, 16 horse artillery men and 25 from the 5th cavalry remained. Elphinstone left his forces and attempted to bargain with Akbar Khan for their lives to no avail and he joined the hostages. The remaining men, received a smuggled note from the Major General reading “March at once, there is treachery” and, on the night of the 11th they pushed to the top of the Jagdallak Pass were they found their way blocked by a double barrier of thorn branches six feet high.

Dr William Brydon, an assistant surgeon, wrote later…

The confusion became terrible, all discipline was at an end, and the shouts of “Halt, halt. Keep back the cavalry” were incessant. I made my way with great difficulty, to the front.


The Last Stand at Gandamack. Souter can be seen on the right with the colours under his coat.

It was every man for himself. A dozen or so mounted men made their way to a hill at Gandamack were they mounted a valiant last stand. An Afghan approached with an offer to accept their surrender but a Sergeant rebuffed him with the remark, “Not bloody likely”. They were all cut down with the exception of a Captain Souter, who had wrapped himself in the regiment’s colours prepared to defend them to the death. He was captured and joined the rest of the prisoners.

On 13th of January, a mere week after the retreat had begun, a solitary, exhausted figure approached the ramparts of Jalalabad on a stumbling horse. It was Dr Brydon, the only man among 16,000 to reach safety. He had been given the horse by a wounded Indian cavalryman after his own died beneath him. He was bleeding from one hand and had a bad head wound, only surviving the blow having stuffed a copy of Blackwood’s Magazine under his cap earlier to help keep warm. As soon as the pony was taken into a stable it lay down and died.

Elizabeth Butler's painting of Dr Brydon's arrival at the gates of Jalalabad now hangs in the Tate Gallery

Little wonder then that the architects of modern Western military exploits seldom refer to this, the first British incursion into Afghan territory. Perhaps they feel an event that occurred over 150 years ago bears little relevance to the realities they face on the ground. Perhaps they feel, with the overwhelming edge in terms of equipment and technology, defeat is not a possibility and the problem is not so much a matter of when victory is achieved but how it is and what it may look like.

But what the first Anglo-Afghan War should make clear is,without the support and goodwill of the Afghan people, a military occupation of Afghanistan is fraught with peril if not downright impossible. And this is just as true today as it has always been, even if you do hold a huge advantage militarily. The Soviets found this out to their cost in the 1980s.

But that will be the subject of Case Study #2 at a later date.

Further Reading: I have relied heavily on David Loyn’s brilliant 2008 book, Butcher and Bolt: Two Hundred Years of Foreign Engagement in Afghanistan. I had read his previous work Frontline: The True Story of the British Mavericks Who Changed the Face of War Reporting and can thoroughly recommend them both.

If you can track down a copy of Lady Sale’s A Journal of the Disasters in Afghanistan: A Firsthand Account by One of the Few Survivors it is also well worth reading. Lady Sale could almost serve as the classic example of the Imperial British Battleaxe during the years of the Raj. Stoic, unflappable and entirely sure of what the British way of doing things should be. She was held as hostage for nine months, being eventually rescued by  her husband, Sir Robert Henry Sale, a man completely the opposite in attitude and ability from Elphinstone. She was a remarkable woman living in remarkable times.

A fictional representation of the first Anglo-Afghan War can be found in Flashman by George Macdonald Fraser and is a tremendous yarn as well as being a great introduction to one of my favourite storytellers.

Additional Notes:

Dost Mohammed, also known as “The Great Amir”, returned to power and ruled Afghanistan until his death in 1863. In 1855 he formed a defensive and military alliance with the British against the Persians and, during 1857 and the Indian uprising against the British in India, proved loyal to his allies and refused to aid the rebels.

Akbar Khan, was defeated by Lady Sale’s husband when Sir Robert broke the siege of Jalalabad in 1842. Dost Mohammed appointed him as Wazir, a post Akbar Khan had wanted the British to give him under Shah Shujah, but he died in 1845. Many suspect he was poisoned by his father, Dost Mohammed, who may have feared his ruthless son’s ambition.

Dr Brydon went on to survive another siege, that of Lucknow in 1857 during the “Indian Mutiny” despite being badly wounded once more. He died in 1873.

Major General Elphinstone did not survive to face the furious indignation of Victorian Britain. He died in captivity in Afghanistan in 1842.

Lady Sale’s heroism on the march was rewarded by an annual pension of £500 from Queen Victoria, and when she died in her sixty-sixth year, her tombstone was given the appropriate inscription: ‘Under this stone reposes all that could die of Lady Sale’.

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9 Responses

  1. Guerilla wars are unwinnable, always have been

    • Unwinnable by who?
      The Guerillas?
      Tell that to Fidel Castro…
      The rulers?
      Have a look at Malaysia in the post World War Two period. It took time but eventually the Communist insurgency was snuffed out…
      And those are just the first two off the top of my head.

  2. Guerilla’s are pretty much the only ones who can win a guerilla war. I would categorise what the Americans are encountering in Afghanistan and Iraq as Guerilla, as I would what happened in Vietnam. If your “enemy” can hide amongst the populace you are F*cked. Was that really a “communist” insurgency or just a beat up by some right wing fascists. Read War of the Flea

    • It was a communist guerilla war.
      The British spent a tremendous amount of effort winning “hearts and minds” while slowly squeezing the insurgents out of different areas one by one.

      Each example has its own unique characteristics however and I certainly think, from where we are at the beginning of 2010, that the Taliban and their (current) allies are only too aware of the fact that the US would rather not be there.

      Afghanistan contains an incredibly complex web of tribal affiliations however… whether another contender for Hamid Karzai’s position seizes control before or after Mullah Omar does the job of destabilising the government is another matter.

  3. A very valuable and well-written piece of History. I’ve also enjoyed Butler’s painting and the story depicted; it reminded me of Frederick Remington’s work. Looking forward to the next case studies.

    • The Soviet example also has a number of parallels with the present day. I’ll aim to have it written over next week some time. (A large number of present day players are still involved today. Some of the shifting alliances are fascinating and the overly simplistic discourse surrounding “the West helped the Taliban and then they took control” is far more complex than many think)

  4. […] But let’s focus on the interim prospects for conducting a successful counterinsurgency campaign in the “graveyard of empires”. […]

  5. One sided story. The revenge campaign of British was equally brutal for the Afghans.

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