Photograph of Indian and Afridi soldiers taken by John Burke in 1878. The Afridi figure in the centre is posed in the act of aiming his jezail, a long and heavy Afghan musket. The Afridis were a powerful, independent tribe inhabiting the Peshawar border of the North West Frontier Province. They had a reputation for being first rate soldiers and particularly good skirmishers. The power of the British army along the frontier of its Indian Empire owed much to the courage and loyalty of the native soldiers who formed such a significant part of it. Burke, the most intrepid of the photographers active in Victorian India, accompanied nearly all of the British military campaigns of this period, but is best known for his photography during the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80). He accompanied the Peshawar Valley Field Force during the two-year campaign and worked steadily in the hostile environment of Afghanistan and the North West Frontier Province (Pakistan), the scene of the military operations. Burke's photographs include many of the people of Afghanistan, and he is also credited with photographing the many darbars that took place with Afghan chiefs which led to the uneasy peace treaties characteristic of the campaign. His Afghan expedition produced an important visual document of the region where strategies of the Great Game were played out.
The Anglo-Russian rivalry (called the Great Game) precipitated the Second Afghan War. Afghanistan was of strategic importance to the British in the defence of their Indian Empire, and the prevention of the spreading influence of Russia. They favoured a Forward Policy of extending India's frontiers to the Hindu Kush and gaining control over Afghanistan. An opportunity presented itself when the Amir Sher Ali turned away a British mission while a Russian mission was visiting his court at Kabul. The British had demanded a permanent mission at Kabul which Sher Ali, trying to keep a balance between the Russians and British, would not permit.
British suspicions of the Amir's perceived susceptibility to the Russians led them to invade Afghanistan.