Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878–1880)

Sansar LochanModern1 Comment

Today we will discuss about causes and the results of the Second Anglo-Afghan War.

Second Anglo-Afghan War

The difference between Britain and Russia gradually increased on the question of Turkey. Russia, in retaliation, moved towards Afghanistan and Central Asia. Sher Ali, the Amir of Afghanistan felt worried because of the expansion of Russia near its border. He sought the support of the English in India but failed to get it. The English, at that time, were pursuing the policy of Masterly Inactivity. Sher Ali then attempted to gain the favour of Russia. He started correspondence with the Russian governor at Tashkent. Britain asked Russia to stop correspondence with the Amir. Russia refused to do so. The English grew suspicious of the activities of the Amir. The change of government in Britain and the appointment of Lord Lytton as the governor-general in India changed the entire situation because it reversed the policy of the English towards Afghanistan.

Lord Lytton himself stated that he was sent to India with instructions to sign a fixed, permanent and clear treaty with the Amir and to inform him that the English were prepared to accept all those terms which he had proposed to the English in 1873, viz., to enhance his annual subsidy, accept Abdulla Jan as his successor and to provide him complete protection against any foreign aggression. Just after one month of his arrival in India, Lytton expressed his desire to the Amir to send a  representative to Kabul with a view to negotiating a treaty on the above mentioned terms. Sher Ali declined the offer. He informed Lord Lytton that he had not agreed with Lord Mayo to accept a British representative at Kabul. He suggested that he would depute his own representative to meet the governor-general. Lord Lytton felt humiliated. He said: “A tool in the hands of Russia, I will never allow him to become such a tool. It would be my duty to break before it could be used.”

Treaty of San Stefano

At that very time when the Amir had refused to accept the English ambassador, certain European events also aggravated further the deteriorating relations between the English and the Amir. Russia had forced Turkey to sign the treaty of San Stefano which weakened Turkey further. Britain could not tolerate it and diplomatically forced Russia to put the matter before a European conference. The result was the Congress of Berlin in 1878. Russia felt aggrieved and despatched its armies towards Afghanistan and Pamir with a view to pressurising Britain. The Amir was forced to accept the Russian ambassador at Kabul. The acceptance of the Russian ambassador by the Amir enraged Lord Lytton.

Declaration of the War

Lord Lytton deputed Mr. Chamberlain as his ambassador to Afghanistan and asked the Amir to accept him at Kabul. The Amir failed to reply to Lytton because his son Abdulla Jan had died the day he received the letter of Lytton. Lytton did not wait. He asked Chamberlain to move ahead and informed the Amir that if his entry into Afghanistan was checked then that action would be treated as an act of the enemy. The Amir protested it. He also secretly informed the English that the Russian ambassador was about to leave Afghanistan and he would they accept the English ambassador. Russia, in fact, recalled its ambassador after the treaty of Berlin. Yet, nothing deterred Lytton. Chamberlain was stopped by the Afghans at Ali Masjid. Lord Lytton sent a letter to the Amir asking him to accept the English ambassador and apologize. When no reply was received, Lord Lytton declared war against Afghanistan on November 21, 1878.

The English were solely responsible for the second Anglo-Afghan War. The supporters of Lord Lytton argued that Sher Ali had thrown a challenge to the English by accepting the Russian ambassador at his court. Therefore, Lytton was left with no alternative except war. But their contention is unreasonable. The English themselves had created those conditions which forced the Amir to receive the Russian ambassador at his court. Sher Ali had repeatedly requested the English for a treaty when Lord Lawrence, Lord Mayo and Lord Northbrook acted as the governors-general in India. The English had refused to accept his proposals. It was only much later that he showed his favour to Russia. Yet, he had signed no treaty with that country. The Amir refused to accept a permanent English ambassador at his court not because of the Russian influence but because he feared that the story of the first Anglo-Afghan War could be repeated. That is why he had refused this offer of the English during the periods of Lawrence, Mayo and Northbrook as well. Besides, Sher Ali was an independent ruler. He was perfectly free to befriend either the Russians or the English. The English had no moral or legal claim to force their friendship on him. Lord Lytton attempted to force the Amir for a treaty because he felt that the Afghans were weak and could be coerced, to gain certain advantages. It was Imperialism pure and simple.

Who was more responsible for this war?

There is another question concerning this war. Who was more responsible for this war : Disraeli, prime minister of Britain, Salisbury, the Secretary of State for India or Lytton? There is no doubt that all the three were in favour of a forward policy against Afghanistan and so all of them were responsible for the war. Yet, Lytton was certainly more responsible for it as compared to the other two. In 1877, Lord Salisbury had advised Lytton, not to put much pressure on the Amir but, at that time, Disraeli supported a strong policy. But, at another instance, Disraeli expressed : “He (Lord Lytton) was told to wait until we had received the answer from Russia to our remonstrance. I was very strong on this, having good reasons for my opinion. He disobeyed us.” Thus, it is clear that both Lord Disraeli and Lord Salisbury had advised Lord Lytton to observe restraint. They were trying to reach a settlement with Russia in Europe: But Lord Lytton failed to observe any caution. He asked the English ambassador to enter Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass deliberately though Salisbury had advised him against this step. Lytton rightly understood that it would provoke the Afghans which would give him some pretext to declare war against Afghanistan. Therefore, Lord Lytton was more responsible for creating those conditions which led to the second Anglo-Afghan war.

Treaty of Gandamak

After the declaration of war, the English attacked Afghanistan from three sides. The Afghans were easily defeated. Sher Ali fled to Russian Turkestan and his son Yakub Khan sued for peace. The treaty of Gandamak was, therefore, signed in May, 1879. By it, the English accepted Yakub Khan as the Amir of Afghanistan; he surrendered to the English several phases; he accepted to conduct his foreign policy with the advice of the English; he agreed to keep an English ambassador at Kabul; and, the English agreed to pay an annual subsidy of rupees six lakhs to the Amir and to protect him for foreign aggression.

Results of Second Anglo-Afghan War

The Amir accepted the English ambassador at Kabul and peace reigned in Afghanistan for some time. But, the Afghans were not reconciled with the situation. They revolted in September, 1879 at Kabul. The English took immediate steps to suppress this revolt. Kabul and Kandhar were captured by the English and Yakub Khan sought British shelter. The Afghans declared Muhammad Jan, son of Yakub Khan, the ruler of Afghanistan and attempted to gain control of Afghanistan. But, they failed. Yakub Khan, however, surrendered all his claims over the throne of Afghanistan and he was sent to India under the English protection. The English were confused regarding the fate of Afghanistan. There was no ruler there with whom they could make an agreement while they themselves were not in a position to hold it in their hands for long. But, at that very time, Abdul Rehman, the son of the eldest son of Dost Muhammad who had been so far in the captivity of the Russians, came to Afghanistan and entered into negotiations with the British. The English made a treaty with him on the following terms :

  1. The English accepted Abdul Rehman as the Amir of Afghanistan.
  2. The English agreed to support the Amir in case of foreign aggression.
  3. The Amir agreed to conduct relations with foreign powers with the consent of the English.
  4. The English agreed to pay an annual subsidy of rupees twelve lakhs to the Amir.
  5. He handed over some of his districts to the English.


The English army then returned to India. Divergent opinions have been expressed by scholars regarding the second Anglo-Afghan War. According to some scholars it was the result of the aggressive policy of the English and brought no fruitful result. The other view is that after the war the English could place a friendly Amir on the throne of Afghanistan and also acquired some useful territory. Thus, it certainly brought some advantages to the English.

Points to remember


  1. Sher Ali had felt worried because of the expansion of Russia towards his kingdom, sought protection of the English government eats his having failed in receiving it, accepted the Russian Resident at Kabul.
  2. But change in the government in Britain brought about a change in the policy of Indian Government towards Afghanistan and the new governor-general Lord Lytton immediately informed the Amir of his desire to accept a treaty with him on conditions offered by him to Northbrook and to send a representative to Kabul for negotiating it.
  3. The Amir, however, expressed the desire to postpone the matter.
  4. In the meantime, the pressure of Russia forced the Amur to accept a Russian ambassador which infuriated Lytton.
  5. Lytton deputed Mr. Chamberlain as his ambassador to Afghanistan and asked the Amir to accept him. .
  6. The Amir informed Lytton that Russian ambassador was about to leave his court and he would accept the English ambassador after his departure.
  7. The Russian ambassador soon left the court of the Amur but that failed to restrain Lytton from action and when Chamberlain was stopped at Ali Masjid, he declared war against Afghanistan in November 1878.
  8. The English had no justification for declaring war against the Amir as they themselves had created those conditions which had forced the Amir to receive the Russian Ambassador; the three governors-general prior to Lytton had themselves refused to sign treaty with the Amir; the Russian ambassador had left the court of the Amir; the acceptance of the English ambassador by the Amir would have sown distrust among the Afghans; and, finally, the English had no right to coerce an independent ruler.
  9. Disraeli, the prime minister of Britain, Salisbury, the Secretary of State for India and Lytton were all responsible for the second Anglo-Afghan War but the primary responsibility was that of Lytton who failed to observe any caution or restraint.
  10. The Afghans were easily defeated, Sher Khan fled and his son Yakub Khan signed the treaty of Gandamak in May 1789 with the English by which he surrendered his foreign policy to the English and accepted a Resident in return of their support against foreign aggression.
  11. But, very soon, the Afghans revolted.
  12. It was quickly suppressed and Yakub Khan surrendered to the English .
  13. At that time, Abdul Rehman claimed the throne.
  14. The English signed a treaty with Abdul Rehman by which he ceded certain districts and handed over his foreign policy to the English in return of English protection against foreign aggression.
  15. Several historians have expressed the view that the second Anglo-Afghan war brought no fruitful result to the English but several others have maintained that it was beneficial to them as it placed a friendly person on the throne of Afghanistan.

Source used : NCERT, Tamil Nadu Board, IGNOU Modern History, NIOS textbooks. Wikipedia notes for UPSC exam.

Tags : PDF for UPSC exam short notes on the second Anglo-Afghan war. When it occured? Causes and result of the war.

Questions for UPSC mains :

Trace the circumstanced leading to the second Anglo-Afghan war. How far was Lord Lytton responsible for it?

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One Comment on “Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878–1880)”

  1. The way you have explained this sir, is inexpressible. In so easy words and facts of facts, it really helped me to understand all the topics you have covered here, thank you so much sir, I have been covering spectrum book but lot of times couldn’t stand stories properly, but thanks to you…. Really appreciate your work sir as I am preparing for UPSC, i would recommend to all my friends about your pages, keep posting sir.. Your new follower from New Delhi.

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