The Great Game- the Rise of Dost Mohammad

The Great Game- the Rise of Dost Mohammad

It was not until 1826 that the energetic Dost Mohammad was able to exertsufficient control over his brothers to take over the throne in Kabul, where heproclaimed himself amir. Although the British had begun to showinterest in Afghanistan as early as their 1809 treaty with Shuja, it was notuntil the reign of Dost Mohammad, first of the Muhammadzai rulers, that theopening gambits were played in what came to be known as the "GreatGame." The Great Game set in motion the confrontation of the British andRussian empires--whose spheres of influence moved steadily closer to one anotheruntil they met in Afghanistan. It also involved Britain's repeated attempts toimpose a puppet government in Kabul. The remainder of the nineteenth century sawgreater European involvement in Afghanistan and her surrounding territories andheightened conflict among the ambitious local rulers as Afghanistan's fateplayed out globally.

Dost Mohammad achieved prominence among his brothers through clever use ofthe support of his mother's Qizilbash tribesmen and his own youthfulapprenticeship under his brother, Fateh Khan. Among the many problems he facedwas repelling Sikh encroachment on the Pashtun areas east of the Khyber Pass.After working assiduously to establish control and stability in his domainsaround Kabul, the amir next chose to confront the Sikhs.

In 1834 Dost Mohammad defeated an invasion by the former ruler, Shah Shuja,but his absence from Kabul gave the Sikhs the opportunity to expand westward.Ranjit Singh's forces occupied Peshawar, moving from there into territory ruleddirectly by Kabul. In 1836 Dost Mohammad's forces, under the command of his sonAkbar Khan, defeated the Sikhs at Jamrud, a post fifteen kilometers west ofPeshawar. The Afghan leader did not follow up this triumph by retaking Peshawar,however, but instead contacted Lord Auckland, the new British governor generalin India, for help in dealing with the Sikhs. With this letter, Dost Mohammadformally set the stage for British intervention in Afghanistan. At the heart ofthe Great Game lay the willingness of Britain and Russia to subdue, subvert, orsubjugate the small independent states that lay between them.

The debacle of the Afghan civil war left a vacuum in the Hindu Kush area thatconcerned the British, who were well aware of the many times in history it hadbeen employed as the invasion route to India. In the early decades of thenineteenth century, it became clear to the British that the major threat totheir interests in India would not come from the fragmented Afghan empire, theIranians, or the French, but from the Russians, who had already begun a steadyadvance southward from the Caucasus.

At the same time, the Russians feared permanent British occupation in CentralAsia as the British encroached northward, taking the Punjab, Sindh, and Kashmir.The British viewed Russia's absorption of the Caucasus, the Kirghiz and Turkmenlands, and the Khanates of Khiva and Bukhara with equal suspicion as a threat totheir interests in the Indian subcontinent.

In addition to this rivalry between Britain and Russia, there were twospecific reasons for British concern over Russia's intentions. First was theRussian influence at the Iranian court, which prompted the Russians to supportIran in its attempt to take Herat, historically the western gateway toAfghanistan and northern India. In 1837 Iran advanced on Herat with the supportand advice of Russian officers. The second immediate reason was the presence inKabul in 1837 of a Russian agent, Captain P. Vitkevich, who was ostensiblythere, as was the British agent Alexander Burnes, for commercial discussions.

The British demanded that Dost Mohammad sever all contact with the Iraniansand Russians, remove Vitkevich from Kabul, surrender all claims to Peshawar, andrespect Peshawar's independence as well as that of Qandahar, which was under thecontrol of his brothers at the time. In return, the British government intimatedthat it would ask Ranjit Singh to reconcile with the Afghans. When Aucklandrefused to put the agreement in writing, Dost Mohammad turned his back on theBritish and began negotiations with Vitkevich.

In 1838 Auckland, Ranjit Singh, and Shuja signed an agreement stating thatShuja would regain control of Kabul and Qandahar with the help of the Britishand Sikhs; he would accept Sikh rule of the former Afghan provinces alreadycontrolled by Ranjit Singh, and that Herat would remain independent. Inpractice, the plan replaced Dost Mohammad with a British figurehead whoseautonomy would be as limited as that of other Indian princes.

It soon became apparent to the British that Sikh participation--advancingtoward Kabul through the Khyber Pass while Shuja and the British advancedthrough Qandahar--would not be forthcoming. Auckland's plan in the spring of1838 was for the Sikhs--with British support--to place Shuja on the Afghanthrone. By summer's end, however, the plan had changed; now the British alonewould impose the pliant Shuja.

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