In June 1838, Lord Auckland, the British governor general of India, called a meeting of his top officials to discuss a proposed invasion of Afghanistan. Auckland and other British ministers had become increasingly concerned at Russia’s growing influence in the area. The Russians had already made an ally of Persia; they were now trying to do the same with Afghanistan, and if they were successful, the British in India would find themselves potentially cut off by land to the west and vulnerable to more incursions by the Russians. Instead of trying to outdo the Russians and negotiate an alliance with the Afghan ruler, Dost Mahomed, Auckland proposed what he thought was a surer solution: invade Afghanistan and install a new ruler–Shah Soojah, a former Afghan leader forced out of power twenty-five years earlier–who would then be indebted to the English.
Among the men listening to Auckland that day was William Macnaghten, the forty-five-year-old chief secretary of the Calcutta government. Macnaghten thought the invasion a brilliant idea: a friendly Afghanistan would secure British interests in the area and even help to spread British influence. And the invasion could hardly fail. The British army would have no trouble sweeping away the primitive Afghan tribesmen; they would present themselves as liberators, freeing the Afghans from Russian tyranny and bringing to the country the support and civilizing influence of England. As soon as Shah Soojah was in power, the army would leave, so that British influence over the grateful shah, although powerful, would be invisible to the Afghan public. When it came time for Macnaghten to give his opinion on the proposed invasion, his support of it was so sound and enthusiastic that Lord Auckland not only decided to go ahead, he named Macnaghten the queen’s envoy to Kabul, the Afghan capital–the top British representative in Afghanistan.
Meeting little resistance along the way, in August 1839 the British army reached Kabul. Dost Mahomed fled to the mountains, and the shah reentered the city. To the local inhabitants, this was a strange sight: Shah Soojah, whom many could barely remember, looked old and submissive alongside Macnaghten, who rode into Kabul wearing a bright-colored uniform topped by a cocked hat fringed with ostrich feathers. Why had these people come? What were they doing here?
With the shah back in power, Macnaghten had to reassess the situation. Reports came in informing him that Dost Mahomed was building an army in the mountains to the north. Meanwhile, to the south, it seemed that in invading the country the British had insulted some local chieftains by plundering their lands for food. These chiefs were now stirring up trouble. It was also clear that the shah was unpopular with his former subjects, so unpopular that Macnaghten could not leave him and other British interests in the country unprotected. Reluctantly Macnaghten ordered most of the British army to remain in Afghanistan until the situation was stabilized.
T ime went by, and eventually Macnaghten decided to allow the officers and soldiers of this increasingly long-standing occupying force to send for their families, so that life would be less harsh for them. Soon the wives and children came, along with their Indian servants. But where Macnaghten had imagined that the arrival of the soldiers’ families would have a humanizing, civilizing effect, it only alarmed the Afghans. Were the British planning a permanent occupation? Everywhere the local people looked, there were representatives of British interests, talking loudly in the streets, drinking wine, attending theaters and horse races–strange imported pleasures that they had introduced to the country. Now their families were making themselves at home. A hatred of everything English began to take root.
There were those who warned Macnaghten about this, and to all of them he had the same answer: everything would be forgotten and forgiven when the army left Afghanistan. The Afghans were childlike, emotional people; once they felt the benefits of English civilization, they would be more than grateful. One matter, however, did worry the envoy: the British government was unhappy about the increasing expense of the occupation. Macnaghten would have to do something to cut costs, and he knew just where to begin.
Most of the mountain passes through which Afghanistan’s main trade routes ran were held by the Ghilzye tribes, who for many years, over the lives of many different rulers of the country, had been paid a stipend to keep the passes open. Macnaghten decided to halve this stipend. The Ghilzyes responded by blocking the passes, and elsewhere in the country tribes sympathetic to the Ghilzyes rebelled. Macnaghten, caught off guard, tried to put these rebellions down, but he did not take them too seriously, and worried officers who told him to respond more vigorously were rebuked for overreacting. Now the British army would have to stay indefinitely.
The situation deteriorated quickly. In October 1841 a mob attacked the home of a British official and killed him. In Kabul local chiefs began to conspire to expel their British overlords. Shah Soojah panicked. For months he had begged Macnaghten to let him capture and kill his main rivals, an Afghan ruler’s traditional method of securing his position. Macnaghten had told him that a civilized country did not use murder to solve its political problems. The shah knew that the Afghans respected strength and authority, not “civilized” values; to them his failure to deal with his enemies made him look weak and unrulerlike and left him surrounded by enemies. Macnaghten would not listen.
The rebellion spread, and Macnaghten now had to confront the fact that he did not have the manpower to put down a general uprising. But why should he panic? The Afghans and their leaders were naive; he would regain the upper hand through intrigue and cleverness. To that end, Macnaghten publicly negotiated an agreement whereby British troops and citizens would leave Afghanistan, in exchange for which the Afghans would supply the retreating British with food. Privately, though, Macnaghten made it known to a few key chiefs that he was willing to make one of them the country’s vizier–and load with him money–in exchange for putting down the rebellion and allowing the English to stay.
The chief of the eastern Ghilzyes, Akbar Khan, responded to this offer, and on December 23, 1841, Macnaghten rode out for a private meeting with him to seal the bargain. After exchanging greetings Akbar asked Macnaghten if he wanted to go ahead with the treachery they were planning. Thrilled to have turned the situation around, Macnaghten cheerily answered that he did. Without a word of explanation, Akbar signaled his men to grab Macnaghten and throw him in prison–he had no intention of betraying the other chiefs. Along the way a mob developed, caught hold of the unfortunate envoy, and with a fury built up over years of humiliation literally tore him to pieces. His limbs and head were paraded through the streets of Kabul, and his torso was hung from a meat hook in the bazaar.
In a matter of days, everything unraveled. The remaining British troops–some 4,500 of them, along with 12,000 camp followers–were forced to agree to an immediate retreat from Afghanistan, despite the bitter winter weather. The Afghans were to keep the retreating army supplied but did not do so. Certain that the British would never leave unless forced to, they harassed them relentlessly in their retreat. Civilians and soldiers alike quickly perished in the snow.
On January 13, British forces at the fort in Jalalabad saw a single horse struggling toward the gates. Its half-dead rider, Dr. William Brydon, was the sole survivor of the British army’s doomed invasion of Afghanistan.