Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

The Folly of Double Government: Lessons from the First Anglo-Afghan War for the 21st century

AAN Team 3 min

The latest AAN report, “The Folly of Double Government: Lessons from the First Anglo-Afghan War for the 21st Century” by guest author Noah Arjomand, revisits Britain’s attempt at state-building in Afghanistan from 1839-1841. The disastrous British retreat from Kabul in January 1842 and the subsequent British pillage of the Afghan capital are well-known events that have made it not only into Afghanistan’s national mythos, but are also remembered in Britain as one of its worst military defeats. But what in the previous three years of British occupation had brought political tensions within the country to the point of open warfare? After all, British had installed their chosen monarch, Shah Shuja al-Mulk Saddozai, in Kabul with relative ease and, indeed, with the support of many in the local elite who would later fight against them. This paper argues that the failure of governing that led to the revolt against British occupation was rooted in the very structure of the hybrid state they created.

Bala Hissar and city of Caubul with the British cantonments from the 'Ba Maroo' HillBala Hissar and city of Caubul with the British cantonments from the 'Ba Maroo' Hill

The first part of the paper considers the state structure that the British established in comparison with other types of foreign rule. The British created what Arjomand calls a system of ‘double government’, double because a British military and administrative presence operated in parallel to the fledgling Afghan state of Shah Shuja. In a direct system of colonial rule, a foreign colonizer establishes a clear state hierarchy with local bureaucrats serving a colonial administrator. In an indirect system of rule, a local leader is allowed autonomy in exchange for controlling the local population on the foreign ruler’s behalf. However, in Afghanistan, the British established a double government where Shah Shuja was supposed to be sovereign, but at the same time ‘guided’ by the British.

Confusion, ambiguity and a fractious relationship between the British and Shah Shuja was the inevitable consequence. He was deprived of autonomy and the strategically vital ability to tell locals one thing and his British backers another. Also, whereas indirect rule would have involved only a token foreign presence in the country, double government required a large-scale British occupation, which came with its own inherent problems independent of particular policy decisions the British made.

The second part of the paper looks in detail at how the double government’s management of everything from taxation to inflation to military reform to prostitution was stymied by British oscillation between non-intervention and state-building activism and by the structurally unsound relationship between the British and Shah Shuja. The ineffectiveness of the double government aligned different and often rival social groups and classes in resistance to an unprecedented degree and the Anglo-Saddozai state quickly crumbled, leading to the withdrawal and then destruction of the British mission.

An Indian political assistant who worked for the British during the First Anglo-Afghan War later reflected on the frustrating reality of trying to oversee reforms to the Saddozai Afghan state:

Inwardly or secretly we interfered in all transactions, contrary to the terms of our own engagement with the Shah; and outwardly we wore the mask of neutrality. In this manner we gave annoyance to the king upon the one hand, and disappointment to the people upon the other (1).

Such comments carry echoes straight into the twentieth-first century, leading the author to compare, in the third part of his paper, the double government of the First Anglo-Afghan War with the international state-building project in Afghanistan post-2001.

Despite many differences between the two cases, certain patterns of action by foreign actors and patterns in relationships between those actors and the country’s leadership are strikingly similar to those evident in 1839-1841. Arjomand argues that these similarities in behaviour stem from similarities between the nineteen century double government model and the state structure established by the 2001 foreign intervention. In drawing this comparison, the paper invites a rethinking of some fundamental assumptions about how effective foreign oversight can be in creating a functional state.


AAN discussion paper 2/2015 can be downloaded here.

(Note: AAN’s short discussion papers have no executive summary.)


(1) Mohan Lal, Life of the Amir Dost Mohammed Khan, of Kabul, Vol. II, London, Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans 1846, 313.




Britain British Empire History international engagement International Intervention