Gurkhas and Afghanistan, 1839-1947

Gurkhas and Afghanistan, 1839-1947

Gurkhas and Afghanistan, 1839-1947

With the recent close of operations in Afghanistan, the 4th major period of British Gurkha involvement in Afghanistan has ended. Historically Gurkha soldiers have played a key role in Anglo-Afghan relations. Three Anglo-Afghan Wars and innumerable smaller operations, expeditions, skirmishes and conflicts have involved Gurkhas between the start of the First Anglo-Afghan War in 1839 and Indian Independence in 1947.


The First Anglo-Afghan War – 1839-1842

For much of the 19th century Great Britain and Russia engaged in a shadowy cold war in Central Asia. British fears of Russian encroachment towards India led to each trying to set up client states in the region. Afghanistan served as one of the most important of these and both Britain and Russia attempted to manipulate Afghan political rulers to their own ends. In 1839 Britain attempted to replace Afghanistan’s ruler, Dost Mohammed Khan, with one they saw as more controllable, Shah Shuja. In order to preserve the latter’s legitimacy British commanders allowed Shuja to raise his own units. One of these, the ‘4th (Goorkha) Regiment of Infantry, Shah Shooja’s Contingent’ was composed of Gurkhas.

Though the initial invasion of Afghanistan succeeded and Shah Shuja was installed as ruler, discontent quickly grew and the British were eventually forced to withdraw from Kabul with serious loss of life. This prompted another army to be sent, which exacted retribution and restored political stability with Afghanistan under the previous ruler. The 4th (Goorkha) Regiment suffered badly during the withdrawal, and was not re-raised, but around 165 survivors of the unit rejoined British Gurkha units.


The Second Anglo-Afghan War – 1878-1880

After some 35 years of uneasy peace, further Afghan refusals to allow a larger British political presence triggered a second conflict. This war, in contrast to the mainly guerilla skirmishes of the previous one, featured more set-piece battles between the British and Afghan armies. The British forces included troops from the 1st, 2nd 3rd, 4th and 5th Gurkha Rifles. Gurkhas saw service at the key battles of Ali Masjid and Peiwar Kotal (where the 5th Gurkhas took the Peiwar Heights by storm and Captain John Cook gained the Victoria Cross), as well as the climactic Battle of Kandahar in September 1880. This latter decisive Afghan defeat led to a political settlement with Afghanistan which would last nearly 40 years.


The Third Anglo-Afghan War – 1919

In May 1919, seeking to distract warring factions in the country, the then-Emir of Afghanistan, Amanullah Khan, launched an invasion of British India. British Indian troops responded in force, with the short-lived 11th Gurkha Rifles gaining much renown in their role leading the drive of the Afghan forces back into Afghanistan. Outclassed, outgunned and outmaneuvered by British forces and aircraft, the Afghan regime quickly sued for peace, with a treaty signed in August 1919.



After 1919 relations between Afghanistan and Britain remained stable as Britain’s relationship with Russia evolved. Nevertheless, British, Indian and Gurkha troops were instrumental in keeping the peace in the border region between India and Afghanistan called the North-West Frontier right until the departure of the British from India in 1947.

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