The Second Anglo-Afghan War grew out of longstanding tensions between Russia and Britain over Britain’s prized colonial possession of India. In my account of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, I would like to emphasize two main themes. First, Afghanistan occupied an anomalous position in the British Empire. The British did not seek to colonize it or conquer it. Rather, they sought to install a sovereign who would be sympathetic to British interests, allow the British to control Afghan foreign policy, and forbid Russia from entering its borders. Second, by granting sovereignty to chosen leaders, British actions toward Afghanistan complicated the notion of sovereignty as such. The case of Afghanistan ought to remind us that it is extremely difficult to generalize how imperial power functioned across the nineteenth century and, moreover, that imperial power, in Afghanistan and other sites, was not homogeneous but rather could emanate from multiple empires at cross purposes over a single location.
This essay surveys representations of the first Anglo-Afghan campaign (1839-42) in an effort to recast the narrative of the war so that it accounts for the variety of native actors in the war and in the geopolitical crises leading up to it. The “Great Game” may have been a “tournament of shadows” between the British and the Russians, but it was entangled by both local dynastic conflicts and a challenging, even insurgent, physical terrain as well. Though the British officially won the war, Afghanistan was hardly secure either during the occupation or in the decades that followed. In that sense, the first Anglo-Afghan war presaged a century of precarious imperial power on the frontier of the Raj.