Preventing Strategic Defeat – A Reassessment of the First Anglo-Afghan War

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Copyright: Findlay, Adam
During 1830s Russian and Persian armies threatened an advance towards the north-western frontier of the British-Indian Empire. The British responded in April 1839 by invading Afghanistan with the ‘Army of the Indus’. Despite initial successes, a growing Afghan insurgency resulted in the devastating destruction of the Kabul Garrison in January 1842. For most commentators this cataclysmic event marked the end of an ill-conceived, poorly executed and inept British intervention into Afghanistan. The First Anglo-Afghan War has been persistently characterised as both a political and military failure ever since. This thesis provides a reassessment of the First Anglo-Afghan War and concludes that it was not the strategic disaster as popularly perceived. Through a close examination of the regional geo-strategic circumstances, Britain’s strategic rationale for the invasion is analysed. It is argued that despite the tactical calamity in Kabul the British were able to salvage their strategic objectives. The thesis argues for a more balanced account of the war, contending that the popular fixation on the destruction in Kabul has marginalised the critical significance of both the undefeated campaign of the Kandahar Garrison and the decisive re-intervention into Afghanistan by the ‘Army of Retribution’. The actions of the battlefield commanders, Major-Generals Pollock and Nott, are examined through the close reading of historical manuscripts. The thesis argues for their critical role in successfully advocating for re-intervention with the Governor-General, Lord Ellenborough, and thus maintaining Britain’s strategic goals. While Britain did not withdraw from Afghanistan as victors, the successful actions of the ‘Army of Retribution’ reasserted Britain’s martial superiority over the Afghans, restored Britain’s frontier security and averted a strategic defeat for British-India.
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Findlay, Adam
Grey, Jeffrey
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PhD Doctorate
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