The British have a long history of conflict in Afghanistan and along the North West Frontier region in what is now Pakistan. This ranges from the First Afghan War, 1839-1842, through the Second, 1878-1880, and Third, 1919, Wars, to the current campaign against the Taliban.
The Third Afghan War is the least well known of these conflicts. It was famously described by Sir Hamilton Grant, a contemporary diplomat, as
“the most meaningless, crazy and unnecessary war in history”.
Yet of all the Anglo-Afghan conflicts, the Third War was the only occasion on which Afghan regular forces invaded British India. It was also a vicious little campaign which cost the lives of over a thousand British and Indian troops.
Why do so few know about the Third War?
Partly because of its proximity to the First World War. The aftermath of that conflict was still playing out in Europe as the Bolshevik Revolution and the Paris Peace Conference were both ongoing when the Afghans invaded.
And, while political and economic reconstruction had commenced in Europe, in India, the shocks of the Amritsar massacre were still reverberating; the rumblings of the independence movements were becoming increasingly vocal.
All this took place over 5,000 miles from the UK, when short communications could be sent by telegraph, but detailed dispatches had to go by ship, with a transit time of around a month in each direction.
The war was an unwelcome surprise to the British administration in India; for the government back in Britain, partly as a result of that distance, it came as a complete shock.
It was also a short war. The Afghans invaded on 3 May 1919 and the main fighting took place over the course of a month. Within ten days of initiating the invasion, Amanullah, Afghanistan’s Amir, was making peace overtures to Delhi.
The ceasefire was agreed on 3 June 1919. Skirmishing, particularly on the Kurram frontier, continued for another week. While the situation remained very tense with the Afghan tribes, the traditional source of trouble on the North West Frontier, the formal Armistice was signed on 8 August 1919.
An overshadowed war
Today, the Third Afghan War has also been overshadowed by the focus on the centenary of the Armistice of the Great War.
Together with the short length of the war, the comparatively small casualty list (the total casualties equated to about an average week on the Western Front) and the relatively small number of British troops involved (about 75% of the British-Indian forces involved were Indian) the lack of knowledge of the Third Afghan War today is perhaps unsurprising.
Nevertheless, particularly as its centenary passes, the Third Afghan War deserves to be better remembered than it is.
War breaks out
The war was a classic case of distracting attention from trouble at home by fighting abroad. Habibullah, the Amir of Afghanistan, was assassinated in February 1919. This provoked a power struggle as Habibullah’s brother, Nasrullah Khan proclaimed himself as Habibullah’s successor.
However, in Kabul, Amanullah, Habibullah’s third son, also proclaimed himself Amir, and seized the throne in April 1919. Amanullah posed as a man of democratic ideals, promising reforms in the system of government.
He had his uncle arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment for Habibullah’s murder. His uncle had been the leader of a more conservative element in Afghanistan and his treatment at the hands of Amanullah rendered the Amir’s position as tenuous.
Amanullah therefore decided to take advantage of the rising civil unrest (following the Amritsar massacre) and the disaffected state of British and Indian troops, and to invade British India, in the hope of uniting both his fractious government and his people behind him.
The outcome of the war remains contentious
The British claimed victory on the grounds of having repulsed the Afghan invasion, restored the integrity of British India and subjected Kabul and Jalalabad to aerial bombing.
But the situation with the tribes remained tense and trouble continued, particularly in Waziristan, for several years. The Afghans continued to incite the tribesmen and failed to withdraw from the border as required by the ceasefire.
For them, the armistice was a diplomatic victory. Britain recognised Afghanistan as an independent nation and gave the Afghans control of their own foreign policy. As the Times of 30 Oct 1919 stated,
“the Government of India muddled the campaign and muddled the peace.”
The lessons of the Third Afghan War
The war provided important lessons for the British, especially with regards the importance of air power as a strategic asset. Lord Trenchard seized on the bombing of Kabul as justification for the role of strategic bombing for the independent Royal Air Force.
While the Official History recognised the limitations of aircraft in short range tactical reconnaissance, this did not stop the Royal Air Force pursuing a doctrine of imperial air policing in its fight to survive.
Meanwhile, on the ground, there was considerable concern at the performance of some British troops. General Sir Andrew Skeen was moved to write “Passing it On” a series of lectures about tribal fighting on the North West Frontier.
The Official History had further comments about the value of armoured cars and machine guns, as well as the importance of establishing both sound command and control and logistic support arrangements.
While no two conflicts are the same, and each is characterised by the prevailing conditions, weapons, communications, strategy and tactics of the day, there are some startling similarities between the Third Afghan War and recent operations in Afghanistan.
Ground forces are operating in areas where the rule of the national government is tenuous at best. A relatively evenly balanced fight on the ground contrasts with complete friendly force domination of the air.
There are challenges maintaining logistic support over extended supply lines, of introducing new equipment and adopting novel tactics, all of which echo the challenges of the Third Afghan War.
Much of Sir Andrew Skeen’s advice still holds true today.
Paul Macro is the son of Army Officers and both his grandparents were involved in the First World War. He has been an Army Officer throughout his adult life and a keen student of history, military history in particular. Action at Badama Post: The Third Afghan War, is his first book and was published on 30 September 2019, by Casemate Publishing.
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