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Captain's Log Entry 5: The Great Game, Chapter 1

Posted August 19th, 2017 at 09:43 AM by Junius

By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Russia was by far the most dominant land power in Europe. Even as it fought one of its most desperate struggles for survival, Mother Russia had the power to enforce its will in places thousands of miles away from Moscow. Russian forces in the Caucasus enjoyed an astonishing run of success during the 1810's, trouncing the Persians and the Ottomans simultaneously. Hundreds of square miles of territory came under Russian control, and the Tsar looked to solidify his claim to guardianship of all Christians in the Holy Land, which suddenly appeared within his grasp.

To the British in India, this mysterious and still mostly unknown threat from the northwest was as dangerous (if not more so) a threat as Napoleon. Napoleon still had to overcome well-nigh insurmountable odds just to reach India ever since his Egyptian campaign. However, just about four Eastern kingdoms stood in the Tsar's path to what would become the Jewel of the Crown: the Shah of Persia, Maharaja Ranjit Singh of the Punjab, the Amirs of Sindh, and the Kingdom of Afghanistan, which lay in between the other three. Securing these four realms in alliance with the Company was deemed vital to the national interest, since they could serve as vital observation posts before the enemy poured down on Ludhiana, then the Company's northwestern frontier.

However, the Russians had yet to consider expanding into India or Central Asia. There were scarcely any Russian traders or travelers within 1,000 miles of Bukhara (one of Uzbekistan's oldest and grandest cities), let alone Kabul (the capital of Afghanistan), which lies about 700km to the southeast. Consequently, British paranoia about the Russian threat to India in the 1820s and 1830s was its cause rather than its effect. Alexander Burnes, the legendary Scots traveler and agent, was tasked by his masters to explore up the Indus before mapping out a route from the Punjab to Kabul and beyond. His Travels Into Bokhara was the result of this expedition. Burnes solidified the Company's alliance with Ranjit Singh and established a genuine bond of friendship with the ruler of Kabul, Dost Mohammad Khan.

Traditionally, Afghanistan has been dominated by two clans- the Sadozai and the Barakzai. Ahmad Shah Abdali, the founder of the Durrani Empire, was a Sadozai chieftain, while his artillery commander and Wazir, Haji Jamal Khan, headed the Barakzai. This united Afghan Empire came to prominence at a unique moment in history. The three major powers surrounding it- the Uzbeks to the north, the Afsharid Dynasty in Persia to the west, and the Mughal Empire to the southeast- were all in terminal decline at about the same time, allowing Abdali to fill the void. He extended his control from Nishapur in modern-day Iran to the Punjab, securing the loyalty of the tribal peoples of Afghanistan with multiple raids into the now-defenseless lands of Northern India to fill their coffers.

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After Abdali's death in 1772, however, his son Timur Shah dealt more with holding his existing possessions together than with acquiring new ones. Although the Maratha threat had been seen off at the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761, rebellions sprung up across the Empire. The scholarly and erudite Timur held his Afghan possessions, and to a limited extent his Indian ones, but he was unable to hold the Persian western section of his Empire, with his frontier stabilizing at around Herat (around the Western border of modern Afghanistan). Timur also moved his capital from Kandahar (which lay close to the empire’s turbulent Pashtun heartland) to Kabul, a change that has since become permanent. In accordance with the Sadozai-Barakzai power sharing agreement, Jamal Khan's son, Payindah, served as Timur's wazir, although this was not to last.

In 1793, Timur Shah died, leaving the throne to his son, Shah Zaman. One incident of note during his reign was an attempted raid on the Punjab. Although this was traditionally an easy way for the Afghans to earn much-needed plunder and loot, this particular occasion marked the arrival of a new power in the region- the sepoys of the East India Company, who threw the Afghans back in disarray. On the verge of losing his cannon to the mud of the Jhelum River (the westernmost of the five great tributaries of the Indus River), Shah Zaman was saved by the efforts of his then-vassal, the one-eyed Ranjit Singh. Grateful to and impressed by the character and figure of this adolescent, Shah Zaman put Ranjit in charge of large tracts of the Punjab, setting the Lion of the Punjab on his path to greatness.

This defeat, combined with the inherent difficulties in governing a tribal, decentralized, and disunited people like the Afghans, served to ruin relations between Shah Zaman and Payindah Khan. The King (correctly) suspected his wazir of plotting to usurp the throne, but his methods ironically brought about the very result he wished to avoid. The blinding and execution of the Barakzai patriarch galvanized the rest of his clan into action, and an alliance with the King's half brother, Shah Mahmoud, proved sufficient to achieve their ends. Shah Mahmoud ascended to the throne in 1800, appointed Fatteh Khan Barakzai (the eldest of Payindah's twenty-one sons) to the post of wazir, and blinded his rival. The only Sadozai (Mahmoud's harem excepted) to escape the ensuing purge was the seventeen year old Shah Shuja.

Shuja-ul-Mulk is one of the most fascinating characters in this saga of early-modern Afghanistan. Although he was fully capable of playing the games of intrigue required for one who sought to survive in the Afghanistan of his day, he strongly preferred the pen to the sword. Although the Shah spent most of his adult life in exile (often due to dumb luck), he remained remarkably optimistic in his certainty that he would somehow return to the Bala Hisar Citadel in Kabul. The blood feud with the Barakzai would come to encompass the rest of Shuja's life- it is impossible to understand the latter without remaining cognizant of the former.

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After wandering around the mountains of Afghanistan for three years, Shuja drove out Mahmoud and his cohorts from Kabul and imprisoned the former. However, in a startling new precedent, he neglected to blind his rival, which would prove to be a mistake when he escaped from prison in the winter of 1809 due to Barakzai machinations. The Mahmoud- Barakzai alliance returned to power, and Shuja was forced to seek "refuge" with Ranjit Singh, who had by now carved out a sizeable kingdom for himself in the Punjab out of Durrani possessions. Ranjit hardly rolled out the red carpet for the Shah and his harem- in fact, the Maharaja's men repeatedly tortured the Shah's sons in front of him until he agreed to part with his most valued possession. This was the fabled Kohinoor (Mountain of Light) Diamond, which Nader Shah had plundered from the Mughals when he sacked Delhi in 1739. When the man behind Persia's temporary revival died in 1747, Ahmad Shah Abdali, one of his favorite generals, took care to keep the diamond with his person, passing it down to his heirs.
Eventually, Shah Shuja escaped the clutches of Ranjit and made his way to Ludhiana, at the time the northwesternmost city in British India. He was to remain holed up here for the next twenty years, accompanied by his harem and his blind brother, Shah Zaman.

Alas, they were not the only Sadozai to lose their kingdoms. By 1818, Shah Mahmoud began to suspect the Barakzai of plotting to overthrow him, a situation that paralleled that before the fall of his older brother. What ensued was almost an exact repeat of the events of twenty-five years before. Although Fatteh Khan proved relatively easy to torture and kill, the rest of his clan defeated the Shah and forced him to retreat to Herat in semi-exile.

One of the greatest beneficiaries of the Barakzai's seizure of power was Dost Mohammad Khan, the seventeenth son of Payindah Khan. Dost Mohammad began his rise to power as a protégé of his oldest brother, Fatteh Khan. Although he was initially in a precarious position after the latter's death, he slowly rose in prominence as he tightened his control of the area around Kabul. By the late 1820s, he was undoubtedly the strongest Afghan leader, virtually giving orders to his half-brothers in Kandahar and Shah Mahmoud's son in Herat.

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It was around this time that Britain began to develop what would become one of the most extensive intelligence networks of the age. Perhaps the first player in the Great Game was Claude Wade, the Company's agent in Ludhiana who would spend close to two decades in the region, although he would never visit Afghanistan. He was responsible for relations with the powers beyond the frontier, including Ranjit Singh and the various rulers in Afghanistan. To this end, he established an impressive network of agents, with a presence in places as far afield as Kabul, Tehran, and Bukhara.

Wade championed a strong alliance with the Sikhs and restoring Shah Shuja to the throne of his ancestors. He had wholeheartedly adopted the views of his Sadozai beneficiaries with respect to the Barakzai- that they were tyrannical usurpers whose popular support could not compare with the King's. Although he argued vigorously for this course of action, it took the events of 1830 and 1831 for the British to take the Russian threat seriously enough to commit substantial resources to their Northwest Frontier.

Ironically, the move that brought this about was initially considered a severe setback to Wade's ambitions. Not only was Burnes an employee of the rival Bhuj Agency (which lay to the southwest in Gujarat, close to the Arabian Sea), but his advice ran contrary to the Spymaster of Ludhiana's. Although Burnes agreed that it was vital to maintain the alliance with Ranjit Singh, he saw little use in propping up what he saw to be the spent force that was Shah Shuja. Not only was Dost Mohammad a capable ruler, but he genuinely desired an alliance with the British. However, out of pure selfishness, Wade did everything he could to sabotage such a move, annotating Burnes' reports to their masters (which were always sent via Ludhiana) with caustic comments and undermining the Scotsman's credibility.

This had the effect of holding off a switch in support to Dost Mohammad, as the Governor-General came to see Wade's point of view, although Burnes was nonetheless feted for his accomplishments, including a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society.

As noted before, Russia had yet to seriously contemplate expanding into Central Asia. However, Burnes' book alarmed her sufficiently to dispatch an agent of her own to the region, a man who would become Alexander Burnes' greatest rival- Ivan Vitkevitch. The Russian's first two expeditions to Bukhara vindicated his masters' faith in him- the latter saw him safely conduct Mirza Hussein Ali, an emissary of Dost Mohammad, to the Russian Court at St. Petersburg. Vitkevitch's third expedition, in 1837, was meant to build on the prior successes and outmaneuver the British in Afghanistan. In this, Russia had one crucial ally- Great Britain.

Although Shah Shuja had by now spent around two decades and seen as many failures in his attempts to recapture his homeland, he had not lost his determination or resolve. In 1834, he decided the time was ripe for another effort, in concert with the British and Ranjit Singh. While the former forwarded an advance on his pension and covertly subsidized his purchases of arms and other supplies, the latter undertook to distract Dost Mohammad from his attack on Kandahar by attacking Peshawar. While Ranjit's European-trained forces rolled over the Afghans, Shah Shuja was defeated in spectacular fashion at a watering hole on the outskirts of Kandahar, as Dost Mohammad caught his much larger force unawares. When the victors plundered their adversary's baggage, they found evidence of British complicity in the enterprise, enraging Dost Mohammad.

However, despite this dramatic misstep, Vitkevitch's success was by no means assured. Burnes had been dispatched on his second mission to Central Asia, and both rivals were among the most talented and perceptive agents their country had to offer. Quite apart from his personal equation with Burnes, Dost Mohammad was predisposed towards an alliance with the British rather than the Russians. Even though Vitkevitch promised the Afghans massive assistance and cash subsidies, in stark contrast to the peanuts Burnes' government had forced him to offer, the Scotsman took lodgings in one of Kabul's grandest residences, while Vitkevitch was confined to virtual house arrest and forced to communicate with Dost Mohammad via an intermediary. The Afghans offered the British very generous terms for an alliance- demanding only the restitution of Peshawar, which Ranjit Singh had captured during his attempt to aid Shah Shuja's last attempt on the throne.

The odds of this happening would seem reasonable to a neutral observer. Ranjit Singh's occupation of the city had been a huge drain on his treasury, as more and more troops had to be devoted to suppressing a relentless series of insurrections by the mostly Muslim populace. However, he refused to consider ceding a post near the eastern end of the vital Khyber Pass, even after his death, and the new Governor-General of India, George Eden, Lord Auckland, refused to press him on the matter. In fact, Auckland, urged along by his bookish adviser, William Macnaghten (who was one of Wade's key allies), thought that the Afghans ought to have been thankful that the British had not yet overthrown him. With Burnes' hands tied to such an extent, neither he nor Dost Mohammad, who had by now been appointed Amir of Kabul (Defender of the Faith) by the Kabul ulema, could have avoided the unavoidable. The Russians scored a huge triumph, and British prestige in the region seemed irreparably damaged.

When Macnaghten and Auckland heard of this news, their thoughts turned immediately to replacing Dost Mohammad with his Sadozai rival. When Ranjit Singh was consulted, he appeared eager to get a slice of the pie and extend the borders of his empire further. However, the wily Sikh not only secured a huge annual "subsidy" from Shuja, but he also managed to force the British to commit their own troops to the enterprise, something Macnaghten had not initially contemplated. Astonishingly, Shah Shuja, the man in whose name the entire enterprise was conducted, was not even informed of the Anglo-Sikh negotiations until after their conclusion. To compound this slight, his obligations under the "Tripartite Treaty" were presented as a fait accompli, even the humiliating tribute to the man who seized the Kohinoor from him nearly a quarter of a century before.

The result of this enterprise is one of the more well-known parts of British Imperial history- the British sent an entire army to Kabul, and only one man, Dr. William Brydon, survived the immediate onslaught. Of course, this is somewhat of an exaggeration (although Brydon was the only European in the Kabul Army not to have been killed or taken prisoner). However, the fact remains that the First Anglo-Afghan War was an unmitigated disaster for the British. Besides the huge loss in men, materiel, and money (for few places as poor as Afghanistan have ever been as expensive to administer), Britain lost face globally, as it suffered a bloody nose at perhaps the height of its global power. Additionally, the success of the Afghans in 1842 greatly emboldened the Persian-speaking Northern Indians to revolt against the Company in spectacular fashion just fifteen years later. The Indian Rebellion essentially caused the Company to lose its solvency, as the Crown assumed direct control of India. It also brought Britain's expansion into Central Asia to a screeching halt- never again would Britannia rule the lands northwest of Peshawar and the Khyber Pass (barring a brief moment during the Second Anglo-Afghan War).

The war was as unnecessary as it was futile. Dost Mohammad was all but ready to tie his fortunes to those of the British; no serious effort was required on their part. Indeed, in 1855, after suffering so much from British hubris, Dost Mohammad concluded a military alliance with the British. Additionally, Shah Shuja, the supposed beneficiary of British largesse, was in a Catch-22 situation. It was clear from the events of his twenty-year exile that he could only have regained the throne with their help. However, they were also the force that prevented him from having any hope of consolidating his rule. Dost Mohammad's unprecedented taxation levels notwithstanding, many Afghan nobles were predisposed to support the Sadozai over their Barakzai rivals. Abdullah Khan Achakzai, a young firebrand at the time of the 1841 Uprising, was a prime example of this. His grandfather had competed with Dost Mohammad's grandfather for the post of Wazir of Shah Shuja's grandfather, and the Achakzai were as envious of the Barakzai's status and position as the Barakzai were of the Sadozai's status and position. As a result, he welcomed Shuja's return, even though, like many others, he was appalled that the Shah had to resort to enlisting the aid of kafirs. However, British missteps, such as cutting the tribal leaders' subsidies (which were their payment for providing law and order in their lands) or the far more serious rape of many Afghan women, forced men like Achakzai to do all they could to reclaim their home. That Shah Shuja's unpopularity could be attributed to the British was proved by the events of the spring of 1842. Free of the British at last, Shuja outwitted Dost Mohammad's eldest son, Akbar Khan, and was on the verge of a stunning diplomatic victory when his own godson cut him down. Thus ended the blood feud between the Sadozai and the Barakzai, the struggle that defined and heavily influenced the first episode of the Great Game.
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