Second Anglo–Afghan War
Part of the Great Game

92nd Highlanders at Kandahar. Oil by Richard Caton Woodville Jr.
Afghanistan, and modern Pakistan

British victory[1][2][3]

Districts of Quetta, Pishin, Sibi, Harnai & Thal Chotiali ceded to British India[5]


 United Kingdom

Commanders and leaders
Casualties and losses

Total fatalities are unknown

  • 5,000+ killed in major battles[6]

Total: 9,850 fatalities

The Second Anglo-Afghan War (Dari: جنگ دوم افغان و انگلیس, Pashto: د افغان-انګرېز دويمه جګړه) was a military conflict fought between the British Raj and the Emirate of Afghanistan from 1878 to 1880, when the latter was ruled by Sher Ali Khan of the Barakzai dynasty, the son of former Emir Dost Mohammad Khan. The war was part of the Great Game between the British and Russian empires.

The war was split into two campaigns – the first began in November 1878 with the British invasion of Afghanistan from India. The British were quickly victorious and forced the AmirSher Ali Khan to flee. Ali's successor Mohammad Yaqub Khan immediately sued for peace and the Treaty of Gandamak was then signed on 26 May 1879. The British sent an envoy and mission led by Sir Louis Cavagnari to Kabul, but on 3 September this mission was massacred and the conflict was reignited by Ayub Khan which led to the abdication of his brother Yaqub.[7]

The second campaign ended in September 1880 when the British decisively defeated Ayub Khan outside Kandahar. A new Amir – Abdur Rahman Khan selected by the British, ratified and confirmed the Gandamak treaty once more. When the British and Indian soldiers had withdrawn, the Afghans agreed to let the British attain all of their geopolitical objectives, as well as create a buffer between the British Raj and the Russian Empire.[8]


After tension between Russia and Britain in Europe ended with the June 1878 Congress of Berlin, Russia turned its attention to Central Asia. That same summer, Russia sent an uninvited diplomatic mission to Kabul. Sher Ali Khan, the Amir of Afghanistan, tried unsuccessfully to keep them out. Russian envoys arrived in Kabul on 22 July 1878, and on 14 August, the British demanded that Sher Ali accept a British mission too.[9]

The Amir not only refused to receive a British mission under Neville Bowles Chamberlain, but threatened to stop it if it were dispatched. Lord Lytton, the viceroy of India, ordered a diplomatic mission to set out for Kabul in September 1878 but the mission was turned back as it approached the eastern entrance of the Khyber Pass, triggering the Second Anglo–Afghan War.[10]


First phase

The first campaign began in November 1878 when a British force of about 50,000 fighting men, mostly Indians, was distributed into three military columns which penetrated Afghanistan at three different points. The British victories at the battles of Ali Masjid and Peiwar Kotal meant that the approach to Kabul was left virtually undefended by Afghan troops.[11]

An alarmed Sher Ali attempted to appeal in person to the Russian Tsar for assistance, but their insistence was that he should seek terms of surrender from the British.[12] He returned to Mazar-i-Sharif, where he died on 21 February 1879.[13]


With British forces occupying much of the country, Sher Ali's son and successor, Mohammad Yaqub Khan, signed the Treaty of Gandamak in May 1879 to prevent a British invasion of the rest of the country. According to this agreement and in return for an annual subsidy and vague assurances of assistance in case of foreign aggression, Yaqub relinquished control of Afghan foreign affairs to Britain. British representatives were installed in Kabul and other locations, British control was extended to the Khyber and Michni passes, and Afghanistan ceded various North-West Frontier Province areas and Quetta to Britain. The British Army then withdrew.[14]

However, on 3 September 1879 an uprising in Kabul led to the slaughter of Sir Louis Cavagnari, the British representative, along with his guards, and staff – provoking the next phase of the Second Afghan War.[15]

Second phase

Titled "Dignity & Impudence" for stereotypic personality traits of elephants and mules respectively, this photograph by John Burke shows an elephant and mule battery during the Second Anglo-Afghan War. The mule team would have towed the small field gun, which appears to be a Rifled Muzzle Loader (RML) 7-pounder mountain gun. The elephant towed the larger gun, apparently a Rifled breech loader (RBL) 40-pounder Armstrong

Major General Sir Frederick Roberts led the Kabul Field Force over the Shutargardan Pass into central Afghanistan, defeated the Afghan Army at Charasiab on 6 October 1879, and occupied Kabul two days later.[16] Ghazi Mohammad Jan Khan Wardak, and a force of 10,000 Afghans, staged an uprising and attacked British forces near Kabul in the Siege of the Sherpur Cantonment in December 1879. The rebellion collapsed after the failure of a direct attack on Roberts' force on 23 December. Yaqub Khan, suspected of complicity in the massacre of Cavagnari and his staff, was obliged to abdicate. The British considered a number of possible political settlements, including partitioning Afghanistan between multiple rulers or placing Yaqub's brother Ayub Khan on the throne, but ultimately decided to install his cousin Abdur Rahman Khan as Amir instead.[17][18]

A rare coin minted during the occupation of Kandahar. British Crown within wreath on the obverse, Arabic inscription in four lines on the reverse. These issues were struck under local authorities who routinely recalled and devalued the coppers. This abusive practice led to a great variety of types, often featuring various animal or flower motifs. Accordingly, the types on this coin were likely not ordered by the occupation authorities, but rather placed by an opportunistic engraver eager to please the occupiers.

Ayub Khan, who had been serving as governor of Herat, rose in revolt, defeated a British detachment at the Battle of Maiwand in July 1880 and besieged Kandahar. Roberts then led the main British force from Kabul and decisively defeated Ayub Khan on 1 September at the Battle of Kandahar, bringing his rebellion to an end.[17]


The Afghan revolt: Herati Soldiers 1879

With Ayub Khan defeated, the war was officially over and the British selected and supported a new Amir – Abdur Rahman Khan son of Muhammad Afzal and nephew of the former Amir Sher Ali. Rahman confirmed the Treaty of Gandamak, whereby the British took control of the territories ceded by Yaqub Khan, and also of Afghanistan's foreign policy in exchange for protection and a subsidy.[9] The Afghan tribes maintained internal rule and local customs, and provided a continuing buffer between the British Raj and the Russian Empire.[8]

Abandoning the provocative policy of maintaining a British resident in Kabul, but having achieved all their other objectives, the British withdrew from the region.[17] By April 1881 all British and Indian troops had left Afghanistan, but British Indian agents were left behind to smooth liaison between the governments.[19] No further trouble resulted between Afghanistan and British India during Rahman's period of rule, and he became known as the 'iron Amir'. The Russians kept well out of Afghan internal affairs, with the exception of the Panjdeh incident three years later, resolved by arbitration and negotiation after an initial British ultimatum.[20]

In 1893, Mortimer Durand was despatched to Kabul by British India to sign an agreement with Rahman for fixing the limits of their respective spheres of influence as well as improving diplomatic relations and trade. On November 12, 1893, the Durand Line Agreement was reached. This led to the creation of a new North-West Frontier Province.

Timeline of battles

There were several decisive actions in the Second Anglo–Afghan War, from 1878 to 1880. Here are the battles and actions in chronological order. An asterisk (*) indicates a clasp was awarded for that particular battle with the Afghanistan Medal.

British team at the site of the Battle of Ali Masjid
British Royal Horse Artillery withdrawing at the Battle of Maiwand
Afghan victors of the Battle of Maiwand


  1. Battle of Ali Masjid* (British victory)
  2. Battle of Peiwar Kotal* (British victory)


  1. Action at Takht-i-Pul (British victory)
  2. Action at Matun (British victory)
  3. Battle of Khushk-i-Nakud (British victory)
  4. Battle of Fatehabad (Afghan victory)
  5. Siege of the British Residency in Kabul (Afghan victory)
  6. Battle of Kam Dakka (Afghan victory)
  7. Battle of Charasiab* (British victory)[21]
  8. Battle of Shajui
  9. Battle of Karez Mir
  10. Battle of Takht-i-Shah
  11. Battle of Asmai Heights* (Afghan victory)
  12. Siege of Sherpur (Kabul)* (British victory)


  1. Battle of Ahmed Khel* (British victory)
  2. Battle of Arzu
  3. Second Battle of Charasiab (British victory)
  4. Battle of Maiwand (Afghan victory)
  5. Battle of Deh Koja (Afghan Victory)
  6. Battle of Kandahar* (British victory)


  1. Evacuation of Kandahar (and Afghanistan) by British-led forces

Order of battle

Durban Maidan of Sherpur Cantonment in 1879.
Bengal Sapper and Miners Bastion in Sherpur cantonment.
Highlanders of Amir Yaqub at Gandamak
Drummer James Roddick of the Gordon Highlanders defends a wounded officer during British attack at Gundi Mulla Sahibdad during the Battle of Kandahar
45th Rattray's Sikhs guard Afghan prisoners during an advance through the Khyber Pass

In November 1878, at the start of the war, the British established three Field Forces – designated Peshawar Valley, Kurram Valley and Kandahar respectively – each of which invaded Afghanistan by a different route.[22]

At the end of the first phase of the war in May 1879, the Peshawar Force was withdrawn, while the Kandahar Force was reduced in size. In September 1879, at the beginning of the second phase, additional British and Indian Army units were despatched to Afghanistan, while the Kurram Valley Force was reinforced, and redesignated the Kabul Field Force.[26]

See also


  1. ^ Schmidt, Karl J. (1995). An Atlas and Survey of South Asian History. M.E. Sharpe. p. 74. ISBN 978-1563243332. British forces were victorious and Sher Ali was deposed
  2. ^ "Zarena Aslami, "The Second Anglo-Afghan War, or the Return of the Uninvited" | BRANCH".
  3. ^ "Second Anglo-Afghan War | 1878–1880".
  4. ^ Adamec, L.W.; Norris, J.A. (2010). "Anglo-Afghan Wars". Encyclopædia Iranica.
  5. ^ Blood 1996, pp. 20–21.
  6. ^ a b Robson, Brian. (2007). The Road to Kabul: The Second Afghan War 1878–1881. Stroud: Spellmount. p. 299. ISBN 978-1-86227-416-7.
  7. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Yakub Khan" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 28 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 898.
  8. ^ a b Barfield 2010, p. 145.
  9. ^ a b Barthorp 2002, pp. 85–90.
  10. ^ Barthorp 2002, pp. 66–67.
  11. ^ Afghanistan 1878-1880 The Build-Up to Conflict at
  12. ^ Sinhai, Damodar Prasad. "India and Afghanistan, 1876", p. 183.
  13. ^ Hanna 1904, pp. 150–155.
  14. ^ Barthorp 2002, p. 71.
  15. ^ Wilkinson-Latham 1977, p. 15.
  16. ^ Barthorp 2002, pp. 77–79.
  17. ^ a b c Wilkinson-Latham 1977, pp. 16–17.
  18. ^ Barthorp 2002, pp. 81–85.
  19. ^ Prasad, Bisheshwar (1979). Foundations of India's Foreign Policy: Imperial Era, 1882-1914. Nayad Prokash. p. 25.
  20. ^ Conflict in Afghanistan: A Historical Encyclopedia By Clements, F. ABC-Clio, Santa Barbara, California, 2003 p. 198
  21. ^ Alikuzai, Hamid Wahed (2013). A Concise History of Afghanistan in 25 Volumes, Volume 14. Trafford Publishing. p. 594. ISBN 978-1490714417.
  22. ^ Farwell 1973, p. 203.
  23. ^ Joslin; Litherland; Simpkin (1988). British Battles and Medals. London: Spink & Son. p. 155. ISBN 0-907605-25-7.
  24. ^ Roberts 1897, p. 553, Appendix III.
  25. ^ Luscombe, Stephen. "Second Afghan War". Retrieved 2022-11-07.
  26. ^ Farwell 1973, p. 207.


 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Abdur Rahman Khan". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 1 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 37–38.