(1826 -1839; 1843 - 1863) Dost Mohammad Khan (born 1793, Afghanistan died June 9, 1863, Herat), ruler of Afghanistan (1826-63) and founder of the Barakzai dynasty, who maintained Afghan independence during a time when the nation was a focus of political struggles between Great Britain and Russia.
Dost Mohammad was one of a number of sons of Payenda Khan, head of the Barakzai clan. In 1816 the clan rose in rebellion against the Afghan ruler Mahmud Shah, who had put to death his prime minister, a member of the clan. Following eight years of civil war, the clan claimed victory. Dost Mohammad emerged as its most powerful member, and he ascended the throne in 1826.
It was not until 1826 that the energetic Dost Mohammad was able to exert sufficient control over his own brothers to take over the throne in Kabul, where he proclaimed himself amir, not shah. Although the British had begun to show interest in Afghanistan as early as 1809 with their agreement with Shuja, it was not until the reign of Dost Mohammad, the first of the Muhammadzai rulers, that the opening gambits were played in what came to be known as the Great Game. The Great Game involved not only the confrontation of two great empires whose spheres of influence moved steadily closer to one another until they met in Afghanistan, but also the repeated attempts by a foreign power to impose a puppet government in Kabul. The remainder of the nineteenth century was a time of European involvement in Afghanistan and the adjacent areas and of conflicting ambitions among the various local rulers.
Dost Mohammad achieved predominance among his ambitious brothers through clever use of the support of his mother’s Qizilbash tribesmen and his own youthful apprenticeship under his brother, Fateh Khan. He was, by all accounts, a shrewd and charming leader. Many problems demanded his attention: consolidating his power in the areas under his command, controlling his half-brothers who ruled the southern areas of Afghanistan, defeating Mahmud in Herat, and repulsing the encroachment of the Sikhs on the Pashtun areas east of the Khyber Pass. After working assiduously to establish control and stability in his domains around Kabul, the amir next chose to confront the Sikhs.
In 1834 Dost Mohammad defeated an invasion by ex-shah Shuja, but his absence from Kabul gave the Sikhs the opportunity to expand westward. The forces of Ranjit Singh occupied Peshawar and moved from there into territory ruled directly by Kabul. In 1836 Dost Mohammad’s forces, under the command of his son, defeated the Sikhs at Jamrud, a post some 15 kilometers west of Peshawar. The Afghan leader, however, did not follow up this triumph by retaking Peshawar. Instead, Dost Mohammad decided to contact the British directly for help in dealing with the Sikhs. In the spring of 1836 he wrote the new governor general of India, Lord Auckland, a letter of congratulations and asked his advice on dealing with the Sikhs. Just as Dost Mohammad’s letter formally set the stage for British intervention in Afghanistan, so also did Lord Auckland’s reply foreshadow the duplicitous policy of the British in dealing with the Afghans. Auckland responded that he would send a commercial mission to Kabul and stated that “it is not the practice of the British Government to interfere with the affairs of other independent states.” In fact, at the heart of the Great Game lay the willingness of Britain and Russia to subdue, subvert, or subjugate the small independent states that lay between them.
With Great Britain and Russia maneuverings for influence in Afghanistan, Dost Mohammad was forced to balance his nation between the two great powers. He also sought to recover territory lost from the central government's control during the civil war. The British, feeling that Dost Mohammad was either hostile to them or unable to resist Russian penetration, moved to take a direct role in Afghan affairs. First they negotiated unsatisfactorily with Dost Mohammad, and then they gave military support to an exiled Afghan ruler, Shah Shuja. In 1839 they tried to use British troops to place Shah Shuja on the throne at the capital in Kabul; this action resulted in the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42). Dost Mohammad surrendered to British forces following the capture of his family in 1840.
The position of Shah Shuja and the British forces in Kabul, however, deteriorated rapidly. Shah Shuja was killed in a rebellion, and British troops were massacred as they attempted to retreat from the city. After the British departed in 1843, Dost Mohammad was restored to the throne. He then tried with some success to regain control of outlying sections of the country. He also reached an accommodation with the British, signing treaties of friendship in 1855 and 1857. In June 1863 his forces, under the command of his son-in-law, captured the city of Herat, and Dost Mohammad died there a few days later.