Dost Mohammad and Shah Shuja
It was all these fears and suspicions of Empire that were to turn Afghanistan into a battleground, according to Britain's former ambassador to
Moscow, historian Sir Rodric Braithwaite.
Sir Rodric Braithwaite
Sir Rodric Braithwaite "They thought that the Russians are getting their agents into Kabul and we must forestall them. We've got to do something
here, with the Russians allegedly coming over the frontiers. And, of course, the Russians had a mirror image view of us. They saw our agents penetrating
northern Afghanistan into areas of central Asia, which they thought were their interest. they believed that these guys would come
with propaganda, Islamic propaganda, weapons, money, and stir up these places against the Russians, so they were as terrified as we were."
By 1839, the British government was increasingly obsessed with the Russian threat. Key advisers, men who never set foot in Afghanistan, began to claim
that Russia may use Afghanistan as a stepping stone for the invasion of British India. Britain's man on the ground in Afghanistan, Alexander Burnes,
thought that Afghanistan should be left well alone, but a small group of policy-makers in the government of India had a very different ideas. They
ignored Burnes completely. In there minds Afghanistan was an empty, failed state into which Russia would move.
The Hawks decided the answer was regime change, to topple the sitting king of Afghanistan, Dost Mohammad, and replace him with their own man.
British intelligence felt they had the perfect candidate, Shah Shuja, a man who'd been living in British India for 30 years, urbane and beautifully
dressed, a man who could be relied upon to do Britain's bidding.
To justify themselves, they published a document claiming that Dost Mohammad, who was trying to keep his distance from both Russia and Britain, was in
fact disloyal to the British and represented an imminent and urgent threat to the British Empire.
Rodric Braithwaite "The motives are always very mixed, it's both the aggressive, expansive imperial instinct, plus a terror that it's going to
come up against a brick wall or somebody's going to come and take it away from you. And the trouble with intervention is that you may or may not have
identified the right target but you then tend to use the wrong means for dealing with it."
So were the Hawks right to fear Russia? Here in Moscow, I've come to meet an eminent Russian historian of the period, Prof Tatiana Zagarodnikova.
I wanted to ask if Russia was really preparing to invade Afghanistan as a bridgehead for an attack on India.
Tatiana Zagarodnikova "That was a time of colonisation of smaller, weaker states and that was a process all over the world, not only in Great
Britain and in Russia. The same in France, the same in other great powers. Great Britain at that time considered every step of Russia either in
Europe or Asia, and maybe even in Africa, as a Russian step towards India. Everything was considered as a Russians' march to India."
Were the British paranoid?
Tatiana Zagarodnikova "Well it was just, to my mind, it was a game, kind of making face, towards audience, towards public opinion. Another thing
is that that was a wonderful pretext in the parliament to demand more money for military purposes, for keeping big armies in India and so on."
The Hawks were obsessed with putting their man on the throne, but their belief in a Russian threat was more faith than reality. The dossier was
torn to pieces in the British press. Everyone from the Duke of Wellington attacked the idea is madness, but rather than calling off the mission,
these men pushed on and, within a few weeks, the Army of the Indus was marching into Afghanistan.
William Dalrymple "As we know in our own time, if you create a phantasm, a horror figure of your own imaginings, that figure can actually come
into being. You can imagine a threat into life. Just like the neo-cons had wanted to topple Saddam Hussein long before 9/11, and 9/11 gave the
neo-cons the excuse they were looking for. In the same way the Hawks, the Russophobes, in the British establishment in Simla and in Calcutta, had
been wanting to pre-empt the Russians in Central Asia."
As they wound their way through the narrow passes towards Kabul, the British Army were supremely confident. They'd never been defeated in
Central Asia, and many in the Army were treating it as a game. A lot of the young officers were behaving as though they were going on a grand
picnic. Their generals were enraged. The 22-year-olds were travelling with camel trains, piled with mess silver with Eau-de-Cologne, with exotic
wines. The 16th Lancers even managed to bring their own pack of foxhounds towards Afghanistan
The Army of the Indus arrived in Kabul in April 1839, and as they swaggered into the city they had little idea of the horrors ahead.
The British entered Kabul in squadrons, the Royal horse Artillery in gold, the Lancers in Scarlet, the Dragoons in blue, the ostrich feathers on the
hats of the envoys, with all the glory of a parade, victory parade. But around them in the crowded bazaar – blank faces, hostility, suspicion.
Britain had taken a decisive step and placed an army of occupation in this distant and unlikely land. But as the soldiers settled into life in
Kabul, their need for security made them live in protected compounds, separate from the Afghan people, and this only encouraged suspicions on both
sides. The English knew so little about the real life of Kabul.
Behind the Doors
If they came down to the city at all, they travelled in armed groups seeing hostile
Afghan faces, glimpses of tiny windows, blank mud walls and they had very, very little idea about the rich civilisation behind those doors. Largely
hidden from and totally misunderstood by most British troops, was a culture of extraordinary richness, a culture of calligraphy, miniature painting
and poetry, with sophisticated Afghan forms of law, government and patronage.
The occupation dragged on and the British only became more and more entrenched and the Afghans began to get anxious. The thing that really
worried the Afghans was when the women began to arrive European babies were born, that the British were here to stay.
The British in the towers of their forts, and the Afghans gazing back at them from their family compounds, began to look at each other with
deepening mistrust and incomprehension.