THE GREAT GAME
The Rise of Dost Mohammad
It was not until 1826 that the energetic Dost Mohammad was able
to exert sufficient control over his brothers to take over the
throne in Kabul, where he proclaimed himself amir. Although
the British had begun to show interest in Afghanistan as early
as their 1809 treaty with Shuja, it was not until the reign of
Dost Mohammad, first of the Muhammadzai rulers, that the opening
gambits were played in what came to be known as the "Great Game."
The Great Game set in motion the confrontation of the British
and Russian empires--whose spheres of influence moved steadily
closer to one another until they met in Afghanistan. It also involved
Britain's repeated attempts to impose a puppet government in Kabul.
The remainder of the nineteenth century saw greater European involvement
in Afghanistan and her surrounding territories and heightened
conflict among the ambitious local rulers as Afghanistan's fate
played out globally.
Dost Mohammad achieved prominence among his brothers through
clever use of the support of his mother's Qizilbash tribesmen
and his own youthful apprenticeship under his brother, Fateh Khan.
Among the many problems he faced was repelling Sikh encroachment
on the Pashtun areas east of the Khyber Pass. After working assiduously
to establish control and stability in his domains around 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 ruled directly by Kabul. In 1836 Dost
Mohammad's forces, under the command of his son Akbar Khan, defeated
the Sikhs at Jamrud, a post fifteen kilometers west of Peshawar.
The Afghan leader did not follow up this triumph by retaking Peshawar,
however, but instead contacted Lord Auckland, the new British
governor general in India, for help in dealing with the Sikhs.
With this letter, Dost Mohammad formally set the stage for British
intervention in Afghanistan. At the heart of the Great Game lay
the willingness of Britain and Russia to subdue, subvert, or subjugate
the small independent states that lay between them.
The debacle of the Afghan civil war left a vacuum in the Hindu
Kush area that concerned the British, who were well aware of the
many times in history it had been employed as the invasion route
to India. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, it became
clear to the British that the major threat to their interests
in India would not come from the fragmented Afghan empire, the
Iranians, or the French, but from the Russians, who had already
begun a steady advance southward from the Caucasus.
At the same time, the Russians feared permanent British occupation
in Central Asia as the British encroached northward, taking the
Punjab, Sindh, and Kashmir. The British viewed Russia's absorption
of the Caucasus, the Kirghiz and Turkmen lands, and the Khanates
of Khiva and Bukhara with equal suspicion as a threat to their
interests in the Indian subcontinent.
In addition to this rivalry between Britain and Russia, there
were two specific reasons for British concern over Russia's intentions.
First was the Russian influence at the Iranian court, which prompted
the Russians to support Iran in its attempt to take Herat, historically
the western gateway to Afghanistan and northern India. In 1837
Iran advanced on Herat with the support and advice of Russian
officers. The second immediate reason was the presence in Kabul
in 1837 of a Russian agent, Captain P. Vitkevich, who was ostensibly
there, as was the British agent Alexander Burnes, for commercial
The British demanded that Dost Mohammad sever all contact with
the Iranians and Russians, remove Vitkevich from Kabul, surrender
all claims to Peshawar, and respect Peshawar's independence as
well as that of Qandahar, which was under the control of his brothers
at the time. In return, the British government intimated that
it would ask Ranjit Singh to reconcile with the Afghans. When
Auckland refused to put the agreement in writing, Dost Mohammad
turned his back on the British and began negotiations with Vitkevich.
In 1838 Auckland, Ranjit Singh, and Shuja signed an agreement
stating that Shuja would regain control of Kabul and Qandahar
with the help of the British and Sikhs; he would accept Sikh rule
of the former Afghan provinces already controlled by Ranjit Singh,
and that Herat would remain independent. In practice, the plan
replaced Dost Mohammad with a British figurehead whose autonomy
would be as limited as that of other Indian princes.
It soon became apparent to the British that Sikh participation--advancing
toward Kabul through the Khyber Pass while Shuja and the British
advanced through Qandahar--would not be forthcoming. Auckland's
plan in the spring of 1838 was for the Sikhs--with British support--to
place Shuja on the Afghan throne. By summer's end, however, the
plan had changed; now the British alone would impose the pliant
Data as of 1997