We have a beautiful game on our hands, if we have the means and inclination to play it properly.
William MacNaghten, discussing the British invasion of Afghanistan, 1838
British imperial forces fought three wars in Afghanistan. Currently this unforgiving battleground preys heavily on the minds of British politicians, soldiers and civilians alike, but the past has largely been forgotten. Afghanistan has a longer memory.
Until the very recent discovery of mineral deposits, Afghanistan boasted few resources to tempt empire-builders. However its geographical position, straddling key passes through the inaccessible Hindu Kush, has channelled the passage of armies for thousands of years. For this reason, between 1839 and 1919, Afghanistan’s political position between Russia and British India made its control desirable to both. Britain considered India critical to the Empire. Its protection was therefore paramount.
When Britain failed to maintain control of Afghanistan by diplomatic means it attempted to do so by force. This exhibition charts these attempts, and explores the stories of a handful of the thousands of British and Asian soldiers and civilians who participated in them.
We have men and we have rocks in plenty, but we have nothing else.
Dost Mohammed Khan, Amir of Afghanistan, 1838
In Kabul in 2001 I was sent with a unit to meet with an Afghan government minister. We had to explain that we weren’t Russian, we were British. As soon as we did he rounded on us and shouted:
British? You burned down the covered market! My first thought was s***, what have the Paras done now? I apologised and we got on with the meeting. Back at base I asked who had burned down the market. Blank faces all round, until someone at the back said he thought we had burned down the covered market. In 1842.
Warrant Officer, 1 Mechanised Brigade