It was all about the Russians

David French

  • The Dark Defile: Britain’s Catastrophic Invasion of Afghanistan 1838-42 by Diana Preston
    Walker, 307 pp, £21.00, February 2012, ISBN 978 0 8027 7982 3

There is nothing novel about British forces being involved in Afghanistan. Britain was deeply concerned with Afghanistan from the early 19th century right up until the moment it relinquished its empire in India in 1947, and at times actively engaged in its affairs. Diana Preston’s book focuses on one particular episode, the First Anglo-Afghan War of 1838-42. She shows how the expansion of the tsarist empire into Central Asia frightened the British administration in Calcutta into believing that the Russian advance might threaten the security of its Indian empire. After failing to gain the support of the emir, Dost Muhammad, the British decided to occupy Afghanistan, and in 1839 a force of British and Indian troops arrived in Kabul. In 1842 the Afghans succeeded in driving out the garrison and almost the entire force – 3800 Indian sepoys, 700 British soldiers and 12,000 camp followers – perished during the retreat to the Jugdulluk Pass. A little more than a generation later Britain tried once more to conquer Afghanistan. The last independent state in Central Asia, the Khanate of Khiva, fell to the Russians in 1873, and in 1878 a Russian envoy arrived in Kabul. Alarmed, the British launched a second invasion in 1878. The outcome was yet another military defeat: the Afghans destroyed most of a brigade of the British-Indian army at the battle of Maiwand in July 1880.

Episodes like these have encouraged some modern commentators to argue that British policy towards Afghanistan during this period was an unmitigated failure. They have then gone on to argue, applying ‘lessons’ from the imperial past, that just as the Afghans have always thwarted would-be conquerors, they will go on doing so. But they haven’t stopped to consider why the British thought it worthwhile to become involved in Afghanistan in the first place, or what they hoped to achieve. These questions are important. Unless they can be answered satisfactorily, the insistence that because the British ‘failed’ in Afghanistan in the past, they will probably do so again in the future, is merely unsubstantiated assertion.

That the British sometimes failed in Afghanistan is unquestionable. The battle of Maiwand was a military defeat on a par with the destruction of Lord Chelmsford’s column at Isandlwana in Zululand in January 1879, and of comparable importance. Both battles were significant tactical setbacks. They were costly in terms of lives lost, and provided scope for sensationalist headlines. The editor of the Morning Post wrote of the ‘Disaster at Isandlwana’, and his counterpart at the Standard a year later of ‘The Maiwand Disaster’. But what the journalists overlooked was that neither battle was a strategic failure. Both in South Africa and in Afghanistan the British went on to retrieve the situation. To understand how and why that was so, you have to understand why they were interested in Afghanistan in the first place.

It was only after 1884, following the Russian occupation of Turkestan and the building of the Transcaspian railway, that British policymakers took seriously the possibility that the Russians might send an army to invade India since its soldiers could now be brought directly to the Afghan border by rail. In 1884, Sir Charles MacGregor, the quartermaster general of the army in India, published a book called The Defence of India, in which he asserted that the Russians had 95,000 troops available to invade India, and that the British would need 100,000 reinforcements to stop them. Similar ideas were propagated subsequently by Lord Roberts and Lord Kitchener when they were commanders-in-chief in India. The generals had found a good way of extracting money from the Treasury at a time when the army was finding it hard to compete with the Royal Navy for exiguous funds. The invasion bogey had gripped the popular imagination, which helped, but it was never satisfactorily explained how the Russians were going to overcome the formidable problems of marching on foot through Afghanistan, or for that matter how the British were going to maintain a sufficiently large army in the country to stop them. In 1905 a staff officer in London calculated that to supply an army on the line from Kabul to Kandahar for a year would require more than three million camels. That put paid to any remaining fantasies of overcoming the invasion bogey, and in 1907 the British and tsarist governments signed the Anglo-Russian agreement, which effectively made Afghanistan a no-man’s-land between their respective Asian empires.

Few policymakers in London or Calcutta had ever really believed that a Russian army would one day cross the Indus. What worried them was that Russian agents on the frontier would cause disaffection among the frontier tribes, which would lead to a rebellion inside India. The empire was run on a shoestring: a few thousand officials, and a few tens of thousands of British soldiers, governed and policed a population of tens of millions. The system functioned only because a minority of Indians were prepared to collaborate in its operation, and the rest were content to let it be. But what if this delicate balance was upset? There were plenty of potentially disaffected groups in India: the rulers of the remaining princely states, Muslims dispossessed of power by British conquest, popular religious movements, frontier tribesmen and potentially mutinous sepoys in the Indian army. It was the enemy inside India, not the enemy outside it, that gave them their worst nightmares, and the events of 1857 showed that nightmares could become reality.

Keeping the Russians as far as possible from the frontiers was, therefore, a centrepiece of British policy, and there was no shortage of possible ways to achieve it. One scheme was to make Persia a British-dominated buffer state, for if the Russians could be kept out of Persia they could be kept away from the Indian frontier. Consequently, the British did whatever they could throughout the 19th century to maintain Persia’s territorial and political integrity, periodically encouraging the Persians to reform their government and economy in order to deprive the Russians of any excuse to intervene. What they would not do was offer a firm guarantee that they would come to Persia’s aid if the Russians threatened serious territorial incursions. There was a point beyond which they were not prepared to go, not least because they didn’t believe they could make good any such guarantee and failure to do so would have had a devastating effect on their prestige.

A second possibility was to set up a base in the Persian Gulf. From there they could extend their influence into Persia and Iraq, form alliances with tribal groups onshore, and perhaps exert a degree of control by setting up naval blockades and encouraging tribal uprisings. A combination of the two would throw both countries into chaos, thus ensuring that their co-operation with any European power would be worthless. They began to try this in 1838 when forces from India seized Kharg Island in the Persian Gulf. But in 1842 they relinquished their grip, frightened at what the Russian reaction might be if they remained. A third possibility in the event of a Russian move against India was to use the navy to attack Russia’s Black Sea and Baltic coastlines. This proved to be a successful – though very expensive – strategy during the Crimean War. A political agreement with the Russians was the fourth possibility. The Russian foreign minister Count Nesselrode first suggested this in 1838-39. The government in Calcutta welcomed the idea because it would have relieved them of much of their defence burden. But Lord Palmerston, foreign secretary at the time, didn’t think it could be made to work. The idea was mooted on several occasions later in the century, but nothing happened until 1907.

A ‘forward’ policy – i.e. one of occupying Afghanistan, installing a British puppet in Kabul and reducing the country to a vassal state – was, therefore, only one of several possible ways of dealing with the Russian threat. It was pursued twice, but only briefly, first between 1838 and 1842, and then between 1875 and 1881. For the rest of the period that ended with Indian independence they opted for a close border policy. India was best defended on the North-West Frontier itself, it was thought, and no permanent military commitments were to be made beyond that.

This made sense for several reasons. The British were careful to ensure that setbacks such as the retreat from Kabul and the battle of Maiwand did not inflict any long-term damage to their prestige by acting quickly to exact revenge. In 1842, British troops returned to sack Kabul. Their mission, according to the governor-general of India, would be ‘to exhibit our strength where we suffered defeat, to inflict just, but not vindictive retribution upon the Afghans, and to recover the guns and colours as well as the prisoners lost by our army’. Sir Frederick Roberts’s famous march from Kabul to Kandahar in 1879, and his destruction of the Afghan force that had inflicted the defeat at Maiwand, was not just a military victory but an immensely influential propaganda victory.

Major military expeditions were not common occurrences, however: they were too costly. Besides, remaining in Afghanistan in the face of a militantly hostile population would have been a drain on British resources. That was something the government of India couldn’t afford, and in any case it could achieve its objective more cheaply. It is worth considering what the consequences might have been had the British maintained a garrison of ten or fifteen thousand troops in Afghanistan after 1842. That sizeable force would not then have been available during the mutiny of 1857 to maintain Britain’s shaky grip on India. Fortunately they had discovered by then that in Kabul a mixture of diplomacy and bribery usually worked well enough. In 1857, £220,000 helped ensure that Afghanistan remained neutral while the British crushed the mutiny. That was security at a bargain basement price. Amir Dost Muhammad, who had ousted the British favourite Shah Shuja, was perfectly willing to govern in ways that suited British interests. He had remained on the sidelines when they were conquering the Punjab in the second half of the 1840s and, moreover, had showed no real inclination to align himself with Russia.

The British were equally fortunate after 1879 that another effective Afghan ruler, Abd al-Rahman Khan, accepted British demands that he maintain diplomatic relations only with them and not with Russia; in return, he was given a subsidy paid partly in cash and partly in weapons, and an undertaking that Britain would stop interfering in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. The North-West Frontier region itself became a buffer zone. The British worked hard to ensure that the tribes who lived near the strategic passes came under their influence – the worry as always was that they might become instruments of Russian subversion. Establishing and maintaining that influence was the task of the ‘politicals’, members of the Foreign and Political Department of the government of India. A combination of bribes and locally raised tribal levies were used to secure the support of local potentates and their followers, but when bribery failed and unruly tribesmen strayed across the frontier on raids into India, they were punished. Time and again villages were burned down, and wells and crops destroyed, before the British withdrew into their cantonments on their side of the frontier. Even in 1919, when the Afghans themselves started a war, invading British India in an attempt to end British control over their foreign policy, the British opted for a limited military engagement. They forced the Afghans to come to terms by blocking the advance of their armies and using the modern weapon of air power to bomb Kabul. But they did agree that the Afghans could have diplomatic relations with anyone they chose.

Preston shows why the British invaded Afghanistan in 1839, and explores a whole series of reasons why they were driven out in 1842. These ranged from failing to mobilise sufficient troops, failing to ensure that they could be properly supplied, and what Sir Jasper Nicolls, the commander-in-chief in India, called ‘great military neglect and mismanagement after the outbreak’. But the wider context is sketched in very lightly; Preston’s book is stronger on picturesque details than on strategic analysis. She gives too many contemporary accounts of Afghan atrocities, though she balances this by repeating Churchill’s admission, after he had taken part in a punitive expedition at the end of the century, that ‘there is no doubt we are a very cruel people.’ When the British finally left India in 1947, their reasons had little to do with Afghanistan. In the context of what the British wanted from Afghanistan, and how they went about getting it, the Anglo-Afghan wars of 1839-42 and 1878-81 were aberrations.