Mobile empire-building: Babur’s campaigns against the Afghans

By Timur Khan

The Baburnama, the autobiography of Zahir al-Din ‘Babur’ (d. 1530), is extremely rich in personal reflections, observations, and details about the events, lands, and people Babur engaged with throughout his eventful life. It is also an important source for the history of the Pashtun people, at that time usually called ‘Afghans,’ who played important roles in the narrative at various stages. In this piece, I will look back on Babur’s own views on his early campaigns against these people. 

After a tumultuous youth trying and failing to build a kingdom in the heartlands of his ancestor Timur’s empire in Central Asia, Babur managed to secure the city of Kabul (capital of modern Afghanistan) as a base of operations. From there he subdued some neighboring regions to the north and south and began to launch attacks across the Hindu Kush mountain range into the Indian subcontinent.


For years, Babur raided and fought in and around the Peshawar valley, modern north-west Pakistan. This was a region in flux, as Babur was not the only newcomer: Afghans migrating eastwards from the environs of Kandahar (southern Afghanistan) and Kabul were settling in and around Peshawar as well. Sometimes these groups clashed with other Afghan or non-Afghan communities already living in the area, and sometimes they will have intermingled until old identities took new shapes. But there was certainly conquest involved, and Babur noted that while territories like “Bajaur, Swat, and Hashtnagar may at one time have been dependencies of Kabul,” they were now either desolated or “subject to (the Afghans).”

See also: The Baburnama and Afghan history

The campaigns of 1504-5

Babur too would descend violently – perhaps more so – into the region. His detailed accounts of different campaigns are an invaluable source on how warfare was conducted in this region: its tools, tactics, and purposes. As far as his own efforts, Babur’s words paint a picture of large-scale raids, focused on seizing resources and nominally subjugating local headmen. His well-armed and armored troops, some with matchlock guns that local people had never seen before, were apparently too potent to be effectively resisted. Some mocked the loud weapons, as in 1519 during Babur’s siege of the fort of Bajaur: the defenders responded to the guns with “unseemly gestures.” But they quickly proved potent. Still, Babur seems to avoid discussing his losses, so we cannot be sure how lightly his forces actually fared.


To refer to raids is not to say that this mode of warfare was a disorganized looting spree. Taking resources and even loosely establishing authority over local leaders was an important part of empire-building, or “kingdom-seizing” (mulkgirlik) as Babur referred to it. Capturing grain, for instance, could be a prelude to stockpiling it in fortresses which could then become viable nodes of control in a region. Babur describes this thought process when planning a campaign against the Yusufzai Afghans in late 1519. When the grain was deemed insufficient, he gave up on organizing the fortresses altogether. Tributary relationships with locals could provide a conqueror with resources and allies who possessed local knowledge, or else an excuse to continue the cycle of raiding if tribute did not arrive. Continuous campaigning kept the army active and sustained them with food and plunder, and the army sustained the king’s viability as a leader.

In 1504, Babur left Kabul intending to attack northern India, or Hindustan. But we can see by his recounting of events that a campaign was not a fixed operation, and Babur was not fully aware of all he might find across the Hindu Kush. While encamped around the Peshawar valley, Babur was informed that the people of Kohat (south of Peshawar, today a city and district of Pakistan) were rich in supplies. He had never heard of Kohat, but gave credence to this information and changed course. Not knowing the roads, he made use of locals. One was an Afghan chief, who had come to submit to Babur after his tribe had withdrawn from Peshawar due to Babur’s advance. As in any imperial project, local allies were a necessity and there were always those who sided with power for their own sake.

Having decamped at midnight, Babur’s forces attacked Kohat the following morning, stealing buffalo, cattle, and much grain but not finding the pickings as rich as promised. His foragers rode out as far as the Indus River to the east and returned to camp after a night. Following the rather ad-hoc nature of the campaign so far, Babur and his commanders decided to push into surrounding Afghan lands en route back to Kabul; the campaign over the Indus to Hindustan was not to be.

Babur’s Afghan adversaries put up greater resistance hereafter. In a valley flanked by mountains, his army was met with Afghans on “both hill-skirts, rais[ing] their war-cry with great clamour.” Again, local knowledge helped the invader: Babur’s guide told him that an isolated hill further on would make a good place to draw the Afghans in and surround them if they chose to come down to it. When they did, Babur’s troops were able to launch an attack on all sides. According to Babur, the Afghans could scarcely resist, instead putting grass between their teeth as a sign of surrender. Of one or two hundred Afghans, most were killed and those brought in alive were beheaded. A pillar of heads was erected at Babur’s camp.


Marching further along, Babur came across the sangar, a kind of hilltop picket or fortification the Afghans often used. According to him, his heavier troops had no issue smashing the sangars in direct attacks – though he remarks disapprovingly that some of his outriders who attacked other Afghan positions “turned back rather lightly” from the pickets. It was not the last time he would find fault with some of his soldiers’ courage.

In one battle, a warrior charged forward impetuously into a group of 40 to 50 Afghans who shot his horse with arrows, wounded him, and wrestled him down to the ground before stabbing him to death. Babur remarks a few times on the chainmail armor of his soldiers, including as they bested lightly-garbed Afghan combatants at wrestling, but an armored horseman could be overwhelmed at close quarters. The slain warrior’s companions had watched the whole fiasco from a distance and done nothing, leading Babur to chastise them viciously and mark them as unworthy of lands, titles, even their beards! Ever aware of tactics, Babur was especially critical of their inaction against an enemy who was standing on “dead level ground.”

A 16th-century depiction of Babur’s forces on the move – Los Angeles County Museum of Art – M.91.348.1

Babur refers to a few injuries suffered by his men, like the loss of an index finger by a cavalryman, but overall he presents his forces as having swept through the lands of different Afghan tribes looting, killing, and building pillars of heads. Afghan merchants on the road were also raided, and one “well-respected” merchant was killed in a mounted contest with one of Babur’s “braves.”


There are signs that the campaign may have been harder than he lets on, though. Boasting about defeating a night attack, Babur describes the tightly-controlled night watch maintained by himself and his troops, who encamped in their battle positions – anyone not at his post had his nose slit. This heightened vigilance suggests heightened worry as well. Later in the text, Babur mentions some Afghans were in the habit of picking off stragglers from among his troops. This and failure or slowness to pay tribute provided Babur with excuses to mount future attacks.

In the end, Babur’s army foraged its way through Afghan territories, leaving many dead and some released, and taking obeisance from a few chieftains before making its way back to Kabul. He would mount several more similar expeditions to “punish” or simply to raid the Afghans. There is an irony to reading his disparagement of them for plundering caravans or attacking his soldiers or otherwise being “thieves,” when he himself was operating on similar principles. Warfare in this region was often mobile, flexible, and not always aimed at an immediate and thorough conquest of territory.

The Baburnama’s perspective on Afghans is generally a military one, from the viewpoint of an adversary. It is important to recall that this is a limited lens, and that there may be more these passages can tell us beyond what Babur says directly. Reading between the lines could nuance and qualify the narrative discussed here, offering us a sense of how the Afghans themselves lived, fought and traded in their own right.

Timur Khan is a PhD student based in Leiden, the Netherlands. His work focuses on the early modern and colonial history of Afghanistan and South Asia, particularly the 18th and 19th century Durrani empire. His work can be found on his Academia page.


Further Readings:

The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor, translated by Wheeler Thackston (Modern Library, 2002)

The Illustrated Baburnama, translated by Som Prakash Verma (Routledge, 2019)

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