It was all these fears and suspicions of empire-building that were to turn Afghanistan into a battleground. According to Britain’s former ambassador to Moscow, historian Sir Rodric Braithwaite.

Rodric Braithwaite
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 and money. To stir up these places against the Russians, so they were as terrified as we were.”

Rodric Braithwaite

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 very different ideas. They ignored Burnes completely. In their 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.

Rodric Braithwaite: 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.

Imperial Instinct

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.”

Dost Mohammad
Dost Mohammad

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.”

Shah Shuja
Shah Shuja

Tatiana Zagarodnikova

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.”

Tatiana Zagarodnikova
Tatiana Zagarodnikova

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.”

British Army

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

Grand Picnic
Grand Picnic

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, a 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, this only encouraged suspicions on both sides. The English knew so little about the real-life of Kabul.

Hostile Afghan Faces

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.

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Rodric Braithwaite tells of the Afghan fears