A Footnote to the Afghan War of Independence or the Third Anglo-Afghan War

Ali Ahmad Jalali
August 19, 2018

Afghanistan marked the signing of the Rawalpindi Treaty of August 8, 1919 as its official Day of Independence (celebrated in Kabul ten days later). Afghanistan has never been colonized by the British. There was no British presence in the country except during short-lived and failed British military occupations. And yet, the British control on Afghanistan external affairs, imposed following the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880), was seen as a matter of national dependence and a cause of fighting for its removal.

Afghanistan achieved its goal of full independence from British control following a short frontier war. The British concurrence with the Amanullah’s demand for lifting its control on Afghanistan’s foreign affairs, however, was inspired more out of fear of the consequences of refusal rather than by being forced to agree. The uprising of the frontier tribes caused by Amanullah’s undeclared war and its possible fallout into wider areas in India, where the British already faced internal security challenges, constituted a much stronger reason for the British Government to let Afghanistan go free. It was not the threat of the Afghan Army which was driven out of British-control territory and unable to prevent limited British incursions inside Afghanistan.

In hindsight, it is an open question whether the Afghan Amir would have attained his aim merely by exploiting the post-Great War situation in India and conducting agitation among the tribes without going to war? Amanullah himself was seemingly very cautious of not starting a war prematurely.[1] He had claimed that his sending troops to the border was aimed at preventing the troubles in India from spreading into Afghanistan.[2] But, if the Amir really intended for a military showdown, he had poorly planned, ineptly coordinated and very-badly led the military operations. The action on different fronts did not commence in a coordinated manner allowing the British army to deal with each axis individually. The initiation of military operations on the Khyber and Kurram fronts came some three weeks apart. On the Kandahar front, the army reached Kandahar even later, after leaving a single isolated Afghan battalion on the border to fight heroically to the death in the face of a British force ten-times stronger. The strategic concept for war, based on exploiting the internal British troubles in India and stirring up the Frontier Pashtun tribes against the British authority, was a brilliant idea, but the military planning and operations to support it was sloppy, unrealistic and poorly executed causing an unnecessary loss of lives and undermining the Afghan Army’s military prestige.

Although the Third Anglo-Afghan war lasted about one month, the military forces involved directly and indirectly surpassed those of the two previous Anglo-Afghan wars (1839-1842 and 1878-1880) each taking more than two years. In spite of the fact that no major battles were fought with forces larger that a division [3] far greater forces were mobilized in support of military operations. On the Afghan side tens of thousands of tribesmen joined about 60 infantry battalions and 15 cavalry regiments on five fronts of the war. The British deployed nearly 350,000 troops and 158,000 animals, an equivalent of about eight divisions with another two divisions in reserve. The cost of the war for India was estimated at seven million pounds sterling. The British human losses included 236 killed in action, 1516 wounded or died of disease [4], 650 wounded nearly 57,000 sick with 1,000 deaths mainly from cholera. British estimates of the Afghan battle casualties stands at 600 killed and 1,000 wounded. The Afghan and tribal losses are roughly estimated double those of the British. [5]

— Published with permission from author.



[1] In a firman issued by Amanullah at the beginning of May, he stated that in view of the anti-British uprising in India, which he considered a justified reaction to the British failure to reward the sacrifices made by the Hindu and Muslim subjects during the war, he had sent the Afghan Commander-in-Chief Saleh Mohammad Khan with an army to the eastern frontier to prevent the spread of disturbances in India into Afghanistan.

[2] Stewart, Rhea Talley, Fire in Afghanistan 1914-1929, Doubleday & Co., New York 1973, p. 47

[3] Official Account, The Third Afghan War 1919, Army Headquarters, Government of India, Calcutta 1926, pp. 22-29

[4] Molesworth, George, Afghanistan 1919—an Account of Operations in the Third Afghan War. New York: Asia Publishing House 1962, p. VII

[5] Robson, Brian, Crisis on the Frontier-the Third Afghan War and the campaign in Waziristan 1919-20, Spellmount, 2004 U.K , p.140