The feeling in London in the 1870s was that the competing empires of Britain and Russia were bound to clash in central Asia at some point, with Russia's eventual goal being the invasion and seizure of Britain's prize possession, India.
British strategy, which would eventually become known as "The Great Game," was focused on keeping Russian influence out of Afghanistan, which could become Russia's stepping-stone to India.
In 1878 the popular British magazine Punch summed up the situation in a cartoon depicting a wary Sher Ali, the Amir of Afghanistan, caught between a growling British lion and a hungry Russian bear.
When the Russians sent an envoy to Afghanistan in July 1878, the British were greatly alarmed. They demanded that the Afghan government of Sher Ali accept a British diplomatic mission. The Afghans refused, and the British government decided to launch a war in late 1878.
The British had actually invaded Afghanistan from India decades earlier. The First Anglo-Afghan War ended disastrously with an entire British army making a horrendous winter retreat from Kabul in 1842.
The British Invade Afghanistan in 1878
British troops from India invaded Afghanistan in late 1878, with a total of about 40,000 troops advancing in three separate columns. The British Army met resistance from Afghan tribesmen, but was able to control a large part of Afghanistan by the spring of 1879.
With a military victory in hand, the British arranged for a treaty with the Afghan government. The country's strong leader, Sher Ali, had died, and his son Yakub Khan, had ascended to power.
The British envoy Major Louis Cavagnari, who had grown up in British-controlled India as the son of an Italian father and an Irish mother, met Yakub Khan at Gandmak. The resulting Treaty of Gandamak marked the end of the war, and it seemed that Britain had accomplished its objectives.
The Afghan leader agreed to accept a permanent British mission which would essentially conduct Afghanistan's foreign policy. Britain also agreed to defend Afghanistan against any foreign aggression, meaning any potential Russian invasion.
The problem was that it had all been too easy. The British did not realize that Yakub Khan was a weak leader who had agreed to conditions which his countrymen would rebel against.
A Massacre Begins A New Phase of the Second Anglo-Afghan War
Cavagnari was something of a hero for negotiating the treaty, and was knighted for his efforts. He was appointed as envoy at the court of Yakub Khan, and in the summer of 1879 he set up a residency in Kabul which was protected by a small contingent of British cavalry.
Relations with the Afghans began to sour, and in September a rebellion against the British broke out in Kabul. Cavagnari's residence was attacked, and Cavagnari was shot and killed, along with nearly all of the British soldiers tasked to protect him.
The Afghan leader, Yakub Khan, tried to restore order, and was nearly killed himself.
The British Army Crushes the Uprising in Kabul
A British column commanded by General Frederick Roberts, one of the most capable British officers of the period, marched on Kabul to take revenge.
After fighting his way to the capital in October 1879, Roberts had a number of Afghans captured and hanged. There were also reports of what amounted to a reign of terror in Kabul as the British avenged the massacre of Cavagnari and his men.
General Roberts announced that Yakub Khan had abdicated and appointed himself military governor of Afghanistan. With his force of approximately 6,500 men, he settled in for the winter. In early December 1879 Roberts and his men had to fight a substantial battle against attacking Afghans. The British moved out of the city of Kabul and took up a fortified position nearby.
Roberts wanted to avoid a repeat of the disaster of the British retreat from Kabul in 1842, and remained to fight another battle on December 23, 1879. The British held their position throughout the winter.
General Roberts Makes a Legendary March on Kandahar
In the spring of 1880 a British column commanded by General Stewart marched to Kabul and relieved General Roberts. But when news came that British troops at Kandahar were surrounded and facing grave danger, General Roberts embarked on what would become a legendary military feat.
With 10,000 men, Roberts marched from Kabul to Kandahar, a distance of about 300 miles, in just 20 days. The British march was generally unopposed, but being able to move that many troops 15 miles a day in the brutal heat of Afghanistan's summer was a remarkable example of discipline, organization, and leadership.
When General Roberts reached Kandahar he linked up with the British garrison of the city, and the combined British forces inflicted a defeat on the Afghan forces. This marked the end of hostilities in the Second Anglo-Afghan War.
The Diplomatic Outcome of the Second Anglo-Afghan War
As the fighting was winding down, a major player in Afghan politics, Abdur Rahman, the nephew of Sher Ali, who had been Afghanistan's ruler before the war, returned to the country from exile. The British recognized that he might be the strong leader they preferred in the country.
As General Roberts was making his march to Kandahar, Gerneral Stewart, in Kabul, installed Abdur Rahman as the new leader, the Amir, of Afghanistan.
Amir Abdul Rahman gave the British what they wanted, including assurances that Afghanistan would not have relations with any nation except Britain. In return, Britain agreed not to meddle in Afghanistan's internal affairs.
For the final decades of the 19th century Abdul Rahman held the throne in Afghanistan, becoming known as the "Iron Amir." He died in 1901.
The Russian invasion of Afghanistan which the British feared in the late 1870s never materialized, and Britain's hold on India remained secure.
Acknowledgment: Photograph of bust of Cavagnari courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections.