Indian Frontier Policy

Into the Storm. Helmland, 2013.

For a few years subsequent to the Second Anglo-Afghan war, our frontier policy happily remained free from complications. It will be desirable to refer shortly to the progress of Russia in Central Asia, and of her conquests of the decaying Principalities of Khiva, Bokhara and Kokand.

The Principalities had no military organisation which would enable them to withstand a great Power; their troops and those of Russia were frequently in conflict of late years; but the battles were in a military sense trivial; and the broad result is, that Russia has been for some years predominant throughout the whole region; and her frontiers are now continuous with the northern provinces of both Afghanistan and Persia. It is this latter point which is the important one, so far as we are concerned.

From 1872 to 1876 Lord Northbrook was Viceroy of India, and one of his last acts before leaving was the appointment of Colonel Sandeman as our Envoy, with a view to mediate between the Khan and his subordinates, and which proved successful. The principal terms which were finally accepted by the Khan and his tribal chiefs were, that their foreign policy was to be under our guidance, and we were also to be the referee in case of internal disputes; that the commerce of the Bolam was to be opened and protected, the annual subsidy hitherto granted to the Khan being doubled to cover the necessary expenditure; and, finally, that a British Agent with a suitable contingent should be established at Quetta. It is important to observe that the negotiations were conducted throughout in a spirit of conciliation, and that their beneficial results remain in force to the present day.

The policy pursued for many years on the Afghan frontier, although regulated by the same general principles as in Khelat, was not altogether so rapidly accomplished, or so entirely successful. The circumstances were in some degree different and less simple. As a consequence, we were compelled to maintain a large force and fortified posts along the frontier; and many punitive expeditions became necessary from time to time against lawless offending tribes. Still, on the whole, and considering the difficulties of the situation, the policy of conciliation, subsidies, and of noninterference with their internal affairs, gradually succeeded; raids once chronic became exceptional, and were dealt with rather as matters of frontier policy than of war.

In 1855, Lord Dalhousie was Governor-General, and a treaty was made with Dost Mohamed, by which both parties agreed to respect each other’s territories. In January, 1857, a still more important one followed. We were then once more at war with Persia; and at a meeting between Sir John Lawrence and the Ameer, an agreement was entered into that Dost Mohamed, acting in co-operation with us, should receive a monthly stipend for military purposes, to continue during the war; that English officers should reside in his country temporarily, to keep the Indian Government informed, but not to interfere with the administration, and that when peace ensued they should be withdrawn, and a native agent alone remain as our representative. It is important to note that this friendly treaty was made at Peshawar, just before the the 1857 Indian Mutiny, and that the Ameer, though urged by his people to attack us in our hour of danger, remained faithful, and would not allow them to cross the border.

Dost Mohamed died in June, 1863, and for some years after his death family feuds and intestine wars occurred as to his successor, during which we carefully abstained from interference. Ultimately, in 1868, his son Shere Ali established his authority in Afghanistan, and we acknowledged him accordingly. Lord Lawrence was then the Viceroy, and in a dispatch to the Secretary of State expressed his views as regards the advances of Russia. After pointing out that they were now paramount in Central Asia, he suggested a mutual agreement as to our respective spheres and relations with the tribes and nations with whom we were now both in contact, and he went on to welcome the civilising effect of Russian government over the wild tribes of the Steppes, and pointed out that if Russia were assured of our loyal feeling in these matters, she would have no jealousy in respect of our alliance with the Afghans.

I have written extensively of abortive efforts to induce the Ameer to comply with our demands, because it is evident that if he continued to resist, compulsion must almost inevitably ensue. It must also be noted that our relations with Russia in Europe were much strained by the summer of 1878, so that probably the preparations in India were in some degree due to the apprehension of war in other parts of the world.

In the summer of 1878, a Russian envoy arrived at Kabul, which under the circumstances is hardly to be wondered at. Some months however elapsed, and it was not until November 1878 that war was declared. Lord Lytton, the Viceroy, in his proclamation stated: “That for ten years we had been friendly to Shere Ali; had assisted him with money and arms; and had secured for him formal recognition of his northern frontier by Russia.” It went on to state, that in return he had requited us with active ill-will; had closed the passes and allowed British traders to be plundered; and had endeavoured to stir up religious hatred against us. It then pointed out that whilst refusing a British Mission he had received one from Russia; and ended by saying that we had no quarrel with the Afghans, but only with Shere Ali himself.

From official correspondence published subsequently it appeared that in entering Afghanistan our chief object at the outset was to establish what was called a strategical triangle, by the occupation of Kabul, Ghazni and Jalalabad; and it was stated that by holding this position, entrenched behind a rampart of mountains, we should have the power of debouching on the plains of the Oxus against Russia in Central Asia! “It is difficult,” said Lord Lytton, “to imagine a more commanding strategical position.” The events of the war, however, soon put an end to this somewhat fanciful strategy.

In November 1878 the British forces entered the country by three main routes, the Khyber, the Khorum, and the Bolam, and hard fighting at once ensued on the two northern ones. The results were immediate: Shere Ali fled northwards, and died soon after. His son, Yakub Khan, assumed temporarily the position of Ameer, but in the convulsed state of the country lie possessed little real power or authority. In May, 1879, he met the British authorities, and after considerable discussion signed a treaty, the chief points of which were as follows:

1) The foreign affairs of Afghanistan were to be under our guidance; and we undertook to support the Ameer against foreign aggression;
2) British agents were to reside in the country;
3) The Khorum, Pisheen, and Sibi Valleys were assigned to the British Government;
4) Yakoob Khan was to receive an annual subsidy.

As a first result of the treaty, Sir Louis Cavagnari was appointed our Envoy, and accompanied by a few officers and a small escort, arrived at Kabul in July, being received in a friendly manner by the Ameer; although influences adverse to his presence in the capital soon became apparent. Suddenly, on September 3, the British Residency was attacked by several Afghan regiments, and after a desperate resistance, Cavagnari and the whole of his officers and escort perished.

This deplorable event, of course, upset all previous arrangements, and led to an immediate resumption of hostilities. Our troops at once advanced and captured Kabul, leading to Yakub Khan voluntarily abdicating and becoming an exile in India. Ghazni also was occupied shortly afterwards by our advance from Kandahar.

The Government of India, in a dispatch in January, 1880, pointed out that, in view of the complete change in the political situation, it was necessary, in the first place, fully to establish our military position in the country. They acknowledged that the hopes entertained of establishing a strong, friendly, and independent kingdom on our frontier had collapsed; and that Afghanistan had fallen to pieces at the first blow, its provinces being now disconnected and masterless. In view of these unexpected results, they went on to recommend the permanent separation of the provinces under separate rulers; and having regard to the special difficulties connected with Herat, advocated its being handed over to Persia!

This was indeed a policy of despair!

Lord Hartington, who had become Secretary of State for India, writing in May, 1880, summed up the situation as follows: “It appears that as the result of two successful campaigns, of the employment of an enormous force, and of the expenditure of large sums of money, all that has yet been accomplished has been the disintegration of the State which it was desired to see strong, friendly and independent; the assumption of fresh and unwelcome liabilities in regard to one of its provinces, and a condition of anarchy throughout the remainder of the country.”

So ended the great war of 1878-80. At its close we had over 70,000 men in Afghanistan, or on the border in reserve; and even then we really only held the territory within range of our guns. The whole country had been disintegrated and was in anarchy; whilst the total cost of the war exceeded twenty millions sterling. The military operations in themselves had been conducted throughout with great skill in a most difficult country, and the troops, both British and Native, had proved themselves admirable soldiers; but as regards the policy which led us into war, it appears to have been as unjust in principle as it was unfortunate in result. The facts, however, speak for themselves.


Original text by Sir John Adye (1819-1900), courtesy of Project Gutenberg. In addition to being a British general with experience in the Crimean and Afghan Wars, Adye was an accomplished amateur artist. Photograph courtesy of Marines. Published under a Creative Commons License.

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