Sunday, 18 November 2007

The Second Afghan War

The problem of Afghanistan was a by-product of the whole Eastern crisis, the threat of Russia’s advance into central Asia. As early as the 1830s Russian agents had established themselves in Kabul and the First Afghan war (1839-42) was successfully fought to oust them (though in 1842 an entire British army was annihilated during a mid-winter retreat from Kabul). From the period of the Mutiny or even earlier there had been two opposed schools of thought about the north-west frontier:
1. the advocates of the ‘Forward Policy’ such as Lords Dalhousie and Canning believed that India would not be secure unless Afghan foreign policy was conducted on advice from British India.
2. the proponents of ‘masterly inactivity’ such as Lawrence regarded the Indus rather than the Hindu Kush as the natural frontier of India and considered that the barbarous tribes beyond should be left alone unless they showed some signs of attempting to cross it.
Disraeli believed that the Russian advance into central Asia invalidated the ‘masterly inactivity policy’. The new Viceroy, Lord Lytton, was told that his first task would be to persuade the Amir, Sher Ali, to receive a permanent British mission. The Amir prevaricated. In July 1878 he received a Russian delegation at Kabul. Lytton was determined to compel the Amir to receive a British mission and to dismiss the Russians. The first demand was reasonable, but the second was provocative, only justifiable on the grounds that a major confrontation with Russia was necessary. But at the same time government ministers in London were negotiating with St Petersburg over the matter and did not want Lytton to send his mission until the negotiations were finalized.

On 13 September Lytton received a telegraph ordering him not to enter Afghanistan until the British had received a reply from the Russians. However, on 21 September he ordered British troops into the Khyber Pass - a route that the Amir had forbidden - he wanted the British to use the route through Kandahar.

General Chamberlain was turned back at the frontier, a rebuff which made war inevitable. Disraeli was furious with Lytton but sure that he must be supported. In November the cabinet sent an ultimatum to the Amir. Meanwhile at his annual oration at the Lord Mayor’s banquet, Disraeli referred to India’s north-west frontier as ‘a haphazard and not a scientific frontier’ and hinted that steps would soon be taken ‘to terminate all this inconvenience’.

The Amir made no reply to the ultimatum and hostilities became inevitable. The British campaign went well, thanks largely to the brilliant operations of the column commanded by General Sir Frederick Roberts. Sher Ali fled to Turkestan, leaving the country in charge of his son, Yakub Khan. In May 1879 he signed a treaty with the British, and a mission was installed under a new Resident, the gallant but gullible Sir Louis Cavagnari. There was no reaction from Russia and Lytton’s policy seemed to have been vindicated.

On 3 September he and his entire staff were slaughtered by mutinous Afghan soldiers in Kabul. For the second time Roberts conducted a mountain campaign. On 13 October he entered Kabul in triumph, having routed a large Afghan army with well-directed volleys of Martini-Henry rifle fire. He was rewarded with a peerage, granted him from Kandahar. However, as Disraeli admitted in private, the government had suffered a serious blow to its prestige.

The fundamental question facing the British government was what to do about Afghanistan: break it up into petty states, possibly keeping Kandahar as a strategic ‘outwork’ or find a new ruler for the country and withdraw. In April 1880 the Liberals won the general election. In July a field force of 2,000 British and Indians under Brigadier George Burrows set out from Kandahar to support a force of 6000 British equipped and allegedly friendly tribesmen in putting down a rebellion by Ayub Khan, the new governor of Herat. In the event most of the ‘friendly tribesmen’ mutined and went to join Ayub, leaving Burrow to face the rebel army alone. The British were surprised by an Afghan army at Maiwand and suffered 1,300 casualties. The survivors retreated to Kandahar, where the Afghans besieged them.

A strong column was at once assembled at Kabul on 8 August, arriving at Kandahar on 28 August, having travelled over 300 miles in 20 days. This column relieved the demoralized Kandahar garrison. On 1 September Roberts launched an attack on the Afghan army. Under heavy fire the Highlanders and Ghurkas stormed the Afghan positions and drove them out of their entrenchments, capturing all their guns.

With the arrival of a new Viceroy, Lord Ripon, Afghanistan’s independence was acknowledged, with the exception of foreign affairs, which were conducted from Delhi. In the autumn the British withdrew from Kabul. Afghanistan slipped into the background and did not play a major role in international politics for the next hundred years. From 1919 it was officially independent and neutral.