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- Indian Frontier Policy - 2/8 -


In view of all the circumstances--of the supposed designs of Russia and Persia, and of the hostility and incessant intrigues in Afghanistan--the Government of India were sorely perplexed, and opinions amongst the authorities widely differed as to the policy to be pursued. Lord Auckland, however, at length decided on the assemblage of a British force for service across the Indus. In his manifesto issued in December 1838 he first alluded to the Burnes mission, and the causes of its failure. He then referred to the claims of Shah Soojah, a former ruler of Afghanistan (who had been living for some years in exile within our territories) and said we had determined, in co-operation with the Sikhs, to restore him to power as Ameer of Cabul.

It was arranged that Shah Soojah should enter Afghanistan with his own troops, such as they were, supported by a British army marching through Scinde and Beloochistan. The Governor-General expressed a hope that tranquillity would thus be established on the frontier, and a barrier formed against external aggression; and he ended by pro claiming that when the object was accomplished the British army would be withdrawn.

This was indeed a momentous decision. The Commander-in-Chief in India, Sir Henry Fane, had already given an adverse opinion, saying that 'every advance you make beyond the Sutlej in my opinion adds to your military weakness.'

On the decision becoming known in England many high authorities, and the public generally, disapproved, of the expedition. The Duke of Wellington said that 'our difficulties would commence where our military successes ended,' and that 'the consequences of crossing the Indus once, to settle a Government in Afghanistan, will be a perennial march, into that country.' The Marquis Wellesley spoke of 'the folly of occupying a land of rocks, sands, deserts, and snow.' Sir Charles Metcalfe from the first protested, and said, 'Depend upon it, the surest way to bring Russia down upon ourselves is for us to cross the Indus and meddle with the countries beyond it.' Mr. Elphinstone wrote: 'If you send 27,000 men up the Bolam to Candahar, and can feed them, I have no doubt you can take Candahar and Cabul and set up Soojah, but as for maintaining him in a poor, cold, strong, and remote country, among a turbulent people like the Afghans, I own it seems to me to be hopeless. If you succeed you will I fear weaken the position against Russia. The Afghans are neutral, and would have received your aid against invaders with gratitude. They will now be disaffected, and glad to join any invader to drive you out.'

Mr. Tucker, of the Court of Directors, wrote to the Duke of Wellington: 'We have contracted an alliance with Shah Soojah, although he does not possess a rood of ground in Afghanistan, nor a rupee which he did not derive from our bounty as a quondam pensioner.' He added, that 'even if we succeed we must maintain him in the government by a large military force, 800 miles from our frontier and our resources.'

The above were strong and weighty opinions and arguments against the rash and distant enterprise on which the Government of India were about to embark. But there is more to be said. Independently of the result in Afghanistan itself, it must be borne in mind that the proposed line of march of the army necessarily led through Scinde and Beloochistan, countries which (whatever their former position may have been) were then independent both of the Ameer and of ourselves.

The force from Bengal, consisting of about 9,500 men of all arms, with 38,000 camp followers, accompanied by Shah Soojah's levy, left Ferozepore in December, and crossing the Indus, arrived at Dadur, the entrance to the Bolam Pass, in March 1839. Difficulties with the Ameers of Scinde at once arose, chiefly as to our passage through their territories; but their remonstrances were disregarded, and they were informed that 'the day they connected themselves with any other Power than England would be the last of their independence, if not of their rule.' [Footnote: Kaye's _War in Afghanistan_.]

The army then advanced through the Bolam, and reached Quetta on March 26th. But here again obstacles similar in character to those just described occurred, and Sir Alexander Burnes visited the ruler of Beloochistan (the Khan of Khelat), demanding assistance, especially as to supplies of food. The Prince, with prophetic truth, pointed out that though we might restore Shah Soojah, we would not carry the Afghans with us, and would fail in the end. He alluded to the devastation which our march had already caused in the country; but having been granted a subsidy, unwillingly consented to afford us assistance; and the army, leaving possible enemies in its rear, passed on, and reached Candahar without opposition in April. At the end of June it recommenced its march northwards, and Ghuznee having been stormed and captured, our troops without further fighting arrived at Cabul on April 6. Dost Mahomed, deserted for the time by his people, fled northward over the Hindoo Koosh, finding a temporary refuge in Bokhara, and Shah Soojah reigned in his stead.

So far the great expedition had apparently accomplished its object, and the success of the tripartite treaty between ourselves, the Sikhs, and the new Ameer had been successfully carried out, almost entirely, however, by ourselves as the pre-dominant partner.

The time therefore would seem to have arrived when, in fulfilment of Lord Auckland's proclamation, the British army should be withdrawn from Afghanistan. For the moment this appeared to be the case. But in reality it was not so, and our position soon became dangerous, then critical, and at last desperate. In the first place, the long line of communication was liable at any time to be interrupted, as already mentioned; then, again, the arrival of Shah Soojah had excited no enthusiasm; and the very fact that we were foreigners in language, religion and race, rendered our presence hateful to his subjects. In short, the new Ameer was, and continued to be, a mere puppet, supported in authority by British bayonets.

These conditions were apparent from the first day of his arrival, and grew in intensity until the end. Shah Soojah himself soon discovered that his authority over his people was almost nominal; and although he chafed at our continued presence in the country, he also felt that the day of our departure would be the last of his reign, and that our withdrawal was under the circumstances impossible. But the situation was equally complicated from our own point of view. If, as originally promised, the British troops were withdrawn, the failure of the expedition would at once become apparent by the anarchy which would ensue. On the other hand, to retain an army in the far-distant mountains of Afghanistan would not only be a breach of faith, but, while entailing enormous expense, would deprive India of soldiers who might be required elsewhere.

After lengthy consideration, it was decided to reduce the total of our force in the country, while retaining a hold for the present on Cabul, Ghuznee, and Candahar, together with the passes of the Kyber and Bolam. In short, the British army was weakly scattered about in a region of mountains, amongst a hostile people, and with its long lines of communication insufficiently guarded. Both in a military and a political point of view the position was a false and dangerous one.

General Sir John Keane, who was about to return to India, writing at the time, said 'Mark my words, it will not be long before there is here some signal catastrophe.' During the summer of 1840 there were troubles both in the Kyber and Bolam passes. In the former the tribes, incensed at not receiving sufficient subsidies, attacked the outposts and plundered our stores; while in Beloochistan matters were so serious that a British force was sent, and captured Khelat, the Khan being killed, and part of his territory handed over to Shah Soojah. [Footnote: In the life of Sir Robert Sandeman, recently published, it is stated that the alleged treachery of Mehrab Khan, which cost him his life, was on subsequent inquiry not confirmed.] Rumours from Central Asia also added to our anxieties. Although the failure of the Russian attempt on Khiva became known some months later, it excited apprehension at the time amongst our political officers in Cabul. Sir Alexander Burnes, during the winter of 1839, expressed opinions which were curiously inconsistent with each other. 'I maintain,' he said, 'that man to be an enemy to his country who recommends a soldier to be stationed west of the Indus; 'while at the same moment he advocated the advance of our troops over the Hindoo Koosh into Balkh, so as to be ready to meet the Russians in the following May.

Sir William McNaghten, the chief political officer in Cabul, went still further, and in April 1840 not only urged a march on Bokhara, but also contemplated sending a Mission to Kokand, in order, as he said, 'to frustrate the knavish tricks of the Russians in that quarter.'

Our position, however, at that time was sufficiently precarious without adding to our anxieties by distant expeditions in Central Asia, even had the Russians established themselves in the Principalities, which at that time was not the case. Not only was Afghanistan itself seething with treachery and intrigues from one end to the other, but the Sikhs in the Punjaub, our nominal allies, had, since the death of Runjeet Singh, become disloyal and out of hand. Beloochistan was in tumult; the tribes in the Kyber, ever ready for mischief, incessantly threatened our communications; so that we were certainly in no condition to enter upon further dangerous expeditions against distant imaginary foes.

Sir Jasper Nicholls, the Commander-in-Chief, strongly objected to any advance. 'In truth,' he said, 'we are much weaker now than in 1838.'

During the latter months of 1840, and in 1841, matters became steadily worse, and all Afghanistan seemed ripe for revolt. 'We are in a stew here,' wrote Sir William McNaghten in September; 'it is reported that the whole country on this side the Oxus is up in favour of Dost Mahomed, who is certainly advancing in great strength.' Again, in a letter to Lord Auckland, he said 'that affairs in this quarter have the worst possible appearance'--and he quoted the opinion of Sir Willoughby Cotton, that 'unless the Bengal troops are instantly strengthened we cannot hold the country.'

At this critical period, however, Dost Mahomed was heavily defeated at Bamian, on the Hindoo Koosh, voluntarily surrendering shortly afterwards, and for the moment prospects looked brighter; but the clouds soon gathered again, and the end was at hand.

The Governor-General of India had throughout the whole war wisely and steadfastly resisted the proposed further operations in Central Asia; and the Court of Directors in London wrote as follows: 'We pronounce our decided opinion that, for many years to come, the restored monarchy will have need of a British force in order to maintain peace in its own territory, and prevent aggression from without.' And they go on: 'We again desire you seriously to consider which of the two alternatives (a speedy retreat from Afghanistan, or a considerable increase of the military force in that country) you may feel it your duty to adopt. We are convinced that you have no middle course to pursue with safety and with, honour.' The Government of India, hesitating to the last, failed in adopting either of the alternatives.

In November, 1841, Sir Alexander Burnes was treacherously murdered by a mob in Cabul, which was followed by an insurrection, and the defeat of our troops. General Elphinstone, who was in command, writing to Sir W. McNaghten on November 24, said that 'from the want of provisions and forage, the reduced state of our troops, the large number of wounded and sick, the difficulty of defending the extensive and ill-situated cantonment we occupy, the near approach of winter, our communications cut off, no prospect of relief, and the whole country in arms against us, I am of opinion that it is not feasible any longer to maintain our


Indian Frontier Policy - 2/8

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