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- Indian Frontier Policy - 6/8 -

Candahar and Quetta, being alone retained by the British Government.

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, being about the same amount as had been expended in the former great war of 1839-41.

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.



Further Advance of Russia--Merv Occupied--Sir West Ridgeway's Frontier Commission of 1885--The Durand Agreement with Abdul Rahman--The Chitral Expedition of 1895: its Results--Sudden Outbreak of Frontier Tribes, 1897.

The reaction after the war naturally inclined the authorities in both countries to leave frontier policy alone, at all events for the time. Our professed object for years had been to make Afghanistan strong, friendly, and independent. The first had certainly not been accomplished, and the other two were doubtful. Still, by patience, conciliation, and subsidies, we might hope in the course of time that the wounds we had inflicted would gradually be healed, and a more stable condition ensue. For a short period it was so; but then the old bugbear of Russian advance over the dreary wastes of Central Asia again supervened, and exercised its malign influence on our policy.

In 1881 and the following years, Russia, whilst completing her conquests, and improving her communications in the south-western part of Central Asia, became involved in somewhat prolonged hostilities with the Tekke-Turcomans, ending in their subjugation, and in the occupation of the long, desolate strip of country extending eastwards from the Caspian, which had hitherto been independent. A railway was gradually constructed from the vicinity of Kras-novodsk, on the Caspian, towards Samarcand. Merv, formerly a city of importance, but of late a mere village in the desert, was also occupied. These acquisitions of Russia, accomplished in districts far removed from India, would not appear to involve any special consideration on our part; but as the southern frontiers of Russia thus became conterminous for a long distance with Northern Persia, and also with some districts of Afghanistan, their new position was regarded as possibly involving designs against our Indian Empire, and remonstrances were made by us, more especially as regards the occupation of Merv.[Footnote: _Central Asia_, No. 2, 1885.]

In a strategical point of view the question would not appear to be of much importance, and would probably have dropped; but early in 1885 the Russians attacked and drove the Afghan troops out of Penjdeh, a small, hitherto almost unknown village in the desert. It was a high-handed measure, and the relations between the two Governments, British and Russian, which were already rather strained, became critical, and war at one moment appeared to be almost inevitable.

It is not necessary, nor would it be desirable, now to recapitulate the details of this serious crisis; because, happily, owing to the prudence exercised by both Governments, the danger gradually passed away, a Joint Commission being agreed on, to meet on the frontier, and to report as to its delimitation. It may, however, be as well to mention that it seems rather doubtful whether Penjdeh at the time absolutely belonged to Afghanistan. Frontiers in the East are proverbially uncertain and shifting, and in our own official maps, not very long before the occurrences in question, it was marked as outside the Afghan border. Colonel Stewart, reporting in 1884 on the northern frontier of Afghanistan, and alluding to Penjdeh, said that it was inhabited by Turcomans, and he thus described the position: 'The state of affairs seems to have been that the Turcomans acknowledged that they were squatting on Afghan land, and were liable to pay taxes, and each year they paid something as an acknowledgment of Afghan rights; but so long as this was done, the Afghans looked upon them as a protection against the Tekke further north, and left them very much to themselves.'

The appointment of a Joint Commission of Russian and British officers to delimit the northern frontiers of Afghanistan proved of great value, not only in gaining information regarding districts hitherto but little known, but also because its conjoint work tended to engender feelings of respect and goodwill between the two nations concerned.

Its labours commenced in the autumn of 1885, and the report of Sir West Ridgeway, the British Commissioner, is full of interest and encouragement. In an article in the 'Nineteenth Century' of October, 1887, on the completion of his work, he gives some details of the country, and also of the position of Russia in Central Asia, which are worth quoting. As to the Afghan border he says: 'The three or four hundred miles of country through which the new north-western frontier of Afghanistan runs is a sandy, treeless, waterless desert, except where it is traversed from south to north by the Heri-Rood, the Murghab and the Oxus. The only cultivable ground is on the banks of these rivers; but in spring time, after the winter snows have melted, the intervening plains afford good grazing for sheep.' But perhaps the most important part of his article is his view of the position of Russia in Central Asia: 'If any Russian general,' he writes, 'were so reckless as to attempt the invasion of India, and relying on the single line of lightly constructed rails which connects the Caspian with the Oxus, and which are liable in summer to be blocked by the moving sands of the desert, and in winter by the falling snows of Heaven--if, relying on this frail and precarious base, he were to move an army through the barren plains bordering the Oxus, and leaving in his rear the various hostile and excited races of Central Asia, he were to cross the difficult passes of the Hindoo Koosh, and entangle his army in the barren mountain homes of the fanatical and treacherous Afghan, then indeed our fortunate generals may well congratulate themselves that the Lord has delivered the enemy into their hand....'

Whilst, however, his conclusions as to the military weakness of Russia in that part of the world are clear and decisive enough, he at the same time does full justice to the good work which she is carrying out in that vast area. He says: 'Hitherto Russia's advance in Central Asia has been the triumph of civilisation. Wherever she has planted her flag slavery has ceased to exist. This was keenly brought home to us in the course of our travels. For hundreds of miles before we reached Herat we found the country desolated and depopulated by Turcoman raids, while even in the Herat valley we continually came across the fathers and brothers of men who had been carried off from their peaceful fields by man-stealing Turcomans, and sold into slavery many hundred miles away. All this has ceased since the Russian occupation of Merv; the cruel slave trade has been stamped out....'

Lord Salisbury, speaking in 1887, at the conclusion of the frontier delimitation, happily described the situation as follows: 'I value the settlement for this reason--not that I attach much importance to the square miles of desert land with which we have been dealing, and which probably after ten generations of mankind will not yield the slightest value to any human being: but the settlement indicates on both sides that spirit which in the two Governments is consistent with continued peace. There is abundant room for both Governments, if they would only think so....' What a pity that some statesman could not have persuaded England to that effect fifty years before!

During the next few years no events of special importance occurred to affect our general frontier policy in India, so far as Russia and Afghanistan proper are concerned. The ample information we now possess of the relative power and position of each country, and the experience gained in bygone wars, enable us to form a correct judgment of the great strength of our Empire in the East; and it is to be hoped that in the future we shall hear less of those alarmist views which have so frequently led us into erroneous policy and untoward expeditions.

Russia and England are now, happily, on friendly terms, and Abdul Rahman, the Ameer of Cabul, although his position is difficult in the midst of a turbulent people, has proved himself a loyal neighbour.

But another cloud has appeared on the horizon, and our troubles with the intervening frontier tribes are now apparently worse than ever. From accounts already given of those who dwell along the border, it is evident that although our differences with them, during past years, have been frequent and often serious, they have been more or less of a local character. Troublesome as our neighbours have proved, still they have no power of inflicting serious injury, or of endangering our rule. Under these circumstances, the best policy, whilst firmly repressing their predatory instincts, is to leave them alone.

In the absence of full official information as to the origin of recent difficulties, which have culminated in the present frontier war, it is only possible to speak in general terms. It may be mentioned, in the first place, that owing to the uncertain line of demarcation between the territories of the Ameer of Cabul and those of his independent tribal neighbours, constant feuds and local hostilities occurred from time to time in the mountains; and with a view of defining their respective spheres, the Government of India, in 1893, sent a Mission to Cabul for the purpose. This in itself would appear to have been a reasonable step; and the 'Durand Agreement' which ensued (but which has not been published) would, it was hoped, tend to a cessation of conflicts between the Ameer's subjects and their neighbours. But there is a further aspect of the question. So far as is known, not only were the respective borders laid down, but it is understood that in many cases the intervening tribes are now assumed to be what is termed 'within the sphere of British influence.' In maps recently published, presumably with some authority, vast mountainous districts are now included in this somewhat mysterious phrase. For instance, the Koorum Valley, the Samana Range, the countries of the Afredis and the Mohmunds, the districts of Chitral, Bajour, Dir, Swat, Bonair, and others, are all included within it; and in many instances fortified positions, occupied by British troops, are to be found either within or along their borders.

Surely this opens out a wide question, and it would be interesting to know whether, in the discussions at Cabul, the chiefs of the intervening tribes were present, and whether they acquiesced, not only in the new boundaries, but also in being included as within our sphere of influence? It is evident it should have been a tripartite, and not a dual, agreement. It is perfectly well known, and has been proved by long experience, that these frontier tribes value their independence and liberties, beyond everything else, and will not submit peacefully to interference; and if they were not consulted in the arrangements just described, we may begin to trace the origin of the present crisis.

Although, as I have explained, we are unable, from want of official information, to deal fully with, the larger topic of recent border policy, we have, at all events, ample details as regards the Chitral

Indian Frontier Policy - 6/8

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