Forty-One Years in India
From Subaltern to Commander-In-Chief
FIELD MARSHAL LORD ROBERTS
The outlook in Afghanistan on the 1st January, 1880, was fairly satisfactory; the tidings of the defeat and dispersion of the tribesmen had spread far and wide, and had apparently had the effect of tranquillizing the country even in remote Kandahar, where the people had been greatly excited by the news of our retiring from Sherpur, and by the exaggerated reports of their countrymen's success. No complications now existed anywhere, and preparations were commenced for Sir Donald Stewart's force in southern Afghanistan to move towards Ghazni, in anticipation of the carrying out of a complete and connected scheme1 for the pacification of the country, and an early withdrawal from northern Afghanistan. No withdrawal, however, would be[Page 457] possible until durable foundations had been laid for the future safety of the Indian frontier, and reliable guarantees given for the continued good behaviour of India's Afghan neighbours.
Two Important Questions The two questions, therefore, which chiefly exercised the minds of people in authority, both in England and in India, with regard to Afghan affairs were, What was to be done with Afghanistan now we had got it? and, Who could be set up as Ruler with any chance of being able to hold his own?
The second question depended a good deal on the decision which might be arrived at with regard to the first, for the selection of a Ruler could hardly be considered until it had been determined whether the several provinces of Afghanistan were to be again formed into one kingdom, or whether the political scheme for the future government of the country should be based on the separation of the several States.
I myself had come to the conclusion, after much deliberation and anxious thought, that the latter course was the least dangerous for us to adopt. Disintegration had been the normal condition of Afghanistan, except for a short period which ended as far back as 1818. Dost Mahomed was the first since that time to attempt its unification, and it took him (the strongest Amir of the century) eight years after his restoration to establish his supremacy over Afghan-Turkestan, fourteen years before Kandahar acknowledged his authority, and twenty-one years ere he got possession of Herat, a consummation which was achieved only just before his death. His successor, Sher Ali, was five years making himself master of Afghanistan, and he could never have attained that position but for the material assistance he received from us. I felt it would be in the future as it had been in the past, and that there would always be the danger of a Ruler, made supreme by the aid of our money and our arms, turning against us for some supposed grievance, or at the instigation of a foreign Power, as had happened with[Page 458] Sher Ali. A strong, united Afghanistan was very desirable, no doubt, could we be certain that its interests and ours would always remain identical; but, in addition to the chance of its strength and unity being used against us, there was the certainty that, even if the man we might choose as Amir were to remain perfectly loyal, at his death Afghan history would repeat itself; the succession to the throne would be disputed, and the unification would have to begin all over again. For these reasons I had no hesitation in giving it as my opinion that Afghanistan should be disintegrated, and that we should not again attempt to place the whole country under any one Sovereign.
My views must have commended themselves to the Government of India, for in their despatch to the Secretary of State, dated 7th January, 1880, they indicated them as the line of policy they proposed to adopt in pursuance of the object they had at heart, viz., the safety of the Indian Empire and the tranquillity of its northern frontier; and in the communication to myself, conveying their idea of the general principles upon which the permanent settlement of Afghanistan should be based, the Foreign Secretary wrote that all arrangements for the establishment of a durable Government at Kabul depended on the selection of a suitable Ruler for that province; and that, as it was essential to clear away any apprehension that the British Government contemplated territorial annexation, which might be caused by a prolonged interregnum, it would be very advantageous if one of the principal Sirdars, qualified by his family connexions, his local influence, and his personal following, could be selected as the Ruler of the Kabul State.
A Ruler Required There was another very strong reason why the Government of India should wish to find some one to whom the administration of the country could safely be made over. The first warning notes of a General Election were heard in India early in January. Afghan affairs were being made a party question, and the policy of the Beaconsfield Government with regard to them was being severely and adversely criticized. Lord Lytton was, therefore, most anxious that a definite conclusion should be arrived at as to the administration of Afghanistan, and a period put to our occupation of the northern province before the meeting of Parliament should take place.
The difficulty was to find the right man. Abdur Rahman, who I had reason to believe would be acceptable to the army, was far away, I could not find out where, and I could think of no one else at all suitable. Under the circumstances, I deemed it advisable to open negotiations with the several leaders of the late combination against us, who were congregated at Ghazni, and had with them the young Heir-apparent, Musa Khan. In the middle of January I had received two communications from these people, one ostensibly written by Musa Khan himself, the other signed by seventy of the most influential[Page 459] chiefs; the tenor of both was the same; they demanded Yakub Khan's restoration, and asserted his innocence as to the massacre of the Embassy. I replied that Yakub Khan's return was impossible, and that they must consider his abdication final, as he himself had declared that he wished it to be,2 and a few days later I deputed the Mustaufi3 to visit Ghazni, in the hope that he might be able to induce the leaders to make some more feasible suggestion for the government of the country.
The Mustaufi had scarcely started, before what seemed to be a reliable report reached me that Abdur Rahman was at Kanduz, on his way to Badakhshan, and I immediately communicated this news to Lord Lytton.
News of Abdur Rahman Khan A fortnight later Abdur Rahman's mother, who resided at Kandahar, informed Sir Donald Stewart that Ayub Khan had received a letter from her son, in answer to an offer from Ayub to join him at Balkh and march with him against the British. In this letter Abdur Rahman had replied that he would have nothing to do with any of Sher Ali's family, who had deceived him and dealt with him in the same treacherous manner that characterized Sher Ali's dealings with the British; further, that he had no intention of opposing the British, knowing full well he was not strong enough to do so; that he could not leave Russian territory without the permission of the Russians, whose pensioner he was; and that, even if he got that permission, he could not come either into Turkestan or Kabul without an invitation from us, but that, if he received such an invitation, he would obey it [Page 460] as an order. He concluded by advising Ayub Khan to make his submission to the British, as opposition was useless. Sir Donald Stewart telegraphed the substance of this communication to the Foreign Secretary, adding that Abdur Rahman's family were well disposed towards us, and that there would be no difficulty in communicating with the Sirdar through them.
In the meantime, I had been careful to acquaint the Government of India with my failure to come to any conclusion with the Ghazni faction as to the future government of the country, and the hopelessness of finding anyone of sufficient strength of character to set up as Ruler of Kabul; and I had suggested, failing a really strong man, the alternative of letting the Afghans choose for themselves some Ruler, other than Yakub Khan, and thus leave us free to evacuate the country.
About this time Mr. Lyall, the Foreign Secretary, came to Kabul on a visit to me, and Captain West Ridgeway4 took the place of my Political Secretary, Mr. Durand, who left me to join the Foreign Office at Simla, Mr. (now Sir) Lepel Griffin, Secretary to the Punjab Government, being appointed Chief of the political staff at Kabul.
Lyall told me that the Indian Government fully appreciated the difficulty I was in about finding a Ruler for the province, and that, unless Abdur Rahman could be brought within negotiable distance, the alternative I had suggested would have to be acted upon.
Lord Lytton, however, was very sanguine about Abdur Rahman, and he warned Mr. Griffin, before he started for Kabul, that the Sirdar's letter to Ayub Khan indicated possibilities that might have the most important bearing on the solution of the difficult problem to be dealt with in northern Afghanistan. It was Lord Lytton's wish to place Abdur Rahman on the throne of Kabul, or, at least, to afford him the best opportunity of winning his own way to that position. The difficulty was to get at him, in the first instance, and, in the second, to convince him of our wish and power to help him; while a not unnatural hesitation on the Sirdar's part to enter Afghanistan without Russia's permission had to be considered.
Lord Lytton impressed upon Mr. Griffin the necessity for overcoming these difficulties in time to enable us to withdraw from northern Afghanistan in the early autumn at latest; and he desired Sir Oliver St. John (Sir Donald Stewart's political officer, who was at that time in Calcutta), immediately on his return to Kandahar, to communicate with Abdur Rahman, through his mother, the Viceroy's willingness to make him Ruler of Kabul and Turkestan, if he would accept the terms offered to him without delay.
The Viceroy communicated his views to the Secretary of State in[Page 461] the following telegram:
'Necessary to find without delay some Native authority to which we can restore northern Afghanistan without risk of immediate anarchy on our evacuation of Kabul not later than next autumn, and if possible earlier. No prospect of finding in the country any man strong enough for this purpose. I therefore advocate early public recognition of Abdur Rahman as legitimate heir of Dost Mahomed, and open deputation of Sirdars with British concurrence to offer him throne of Afghanistan as sole means of saving the country from anarchy. Do you approve?'
Lord Cranbrook's reply was as follows:
'Assuming that Abdur Rahman is acceptable to the country, and that he would be content with northern Afghanistan, it is desirable to support him at Kabul; the more spontaneous any advances to him on the part of the Sirdars, and the less appearance of British influence, the better. But where is he? And how do you propose to learn his wishes and intentions? If invited by Chiefs, every inducement to bring him to Kabul should be then held out. Public recognition should not precede, but follow, his adoption by Sirdars, and his acceptance of the position.'
Abdur Rahman in Afghan-Turkestan By the end of March authentic intelligence was received that Abdur Rahman had made himself master of Afghan-Turkestan, and was corresponding with the representative Sirdars at Kabul. It seemed, therefore, that the time had arrived when distinct overtures might be made to Abdur Rahman; accordingly, on the 1st April Mr. Griffin addressed to him the following letter:
Overtures made to Abdur Rahman
'It has become known that you have entered Afghanistan, and consequently this letter is sent you by a confidential messenger, in order that you may submit to the British officers at Kabul any representations that you may desire to make to the British Government with regard to your object in entering Afghanistan.'
Abdur Rahman, in his friendly but guarded reply,5 expressed in general terms his hope of being recognized as Amir. He greatly desired, he wrote, the friendship of the British, and their assistance in restoring peace and order to Afghanistan; but at the same time, he hinted that his obligations to the Russian Government for the hospitality they had extended to him placed him in some doubt as to the terms upon which our friendship might be accorded to him, and while he expressed a desire for the permanent establishment of Afghanistan, with our assistance and sympathy, he let it be understood that he wished to consider himself under the protection of Russia as well as of Great Britain.
In a verbal message, however, he added that he was ready to cross the Hindu Kush to discuss matters with our officers, and he begged that he might be furnished with information as to the 'nature of our friendship' and 'its conditions.'
In answer, Mr. Griffin was directed to inform Abdur Rahman that[Page 462] the relations of Afghanistan to the British and Russian Empires was a subject the Government of India must decline to discuss with him, and to explain that their declared determination had been the exclusion of foreign influence and interference from Afghanistan, a cardinal condition 'which had at all times and under all circumstances been deemed essential for the permanent security of Her Majesty's Indian Empire,' a condition, moreover, which had always been accepted by the Government of the Czar, which had repeatedly renewed those assurances, solemnly given to Her Majesty's Ministers, that 'Russia considered Afghanistan as entirely beyond the sphere of her influence.'6
Early in April the Mustaufi (whom, it will be remembered, I had sent to Ghazni to communicate with the Chiefs, and ascertain their ideas and desires as to the future government of Kabul) returned without having achieved much success. He had persuaded some of the leading men to accompany him as far as Maidan, whence a few representatives came on to Kabul as bearers of a document signed by Mahomed Jan, twelve other Sirdars, and 189 influential tribesmen, setting forth their views and wishes; but as these were all based upon the restoration of Yakub Khan, their proposals could not be entertained.
On the 13th April I held a durbar, at which I received this deputation; all the Sirdars, Chiefs, and maliks of Kabul and many Hazaras being present. Mr. Griffin, on the part of the Government, told them that Yakub Khan could not be allowed to return to Afghanistan, but that the names of any Sirdars, approved of by a large proportion of the people for the Amirship, would be laid before the Viceroy; that there was no intention of annexing Afghanistan, and that there would be no occupation of any places except such as were necessary for the safety of our Indian frontier. They were further informed that the British army would be withdrawn as soon as the country had settled down peacefully and an Amir, amicably disposed towards us, had been selected; but that Kandahar would not again be united to Kabul.
The effect produced was good. The deputation was greatly disappointed that Yakub Khan was not to be permitted to return, but all present felt that they had received a definite reply.
FOOTNOTES, CHAPTER LVIII
[Footnote 1: In reply to a reference made to me on the subject, I represented that, before operations could be undertaken on so extensive a scale as was proposed, it would be necessary to reinforce the Kabul garrison and the several posts on the Kyber line by:
One battery of Horse or Field Artillery.
This was agreed to; the reinforcements were sent up by degrees, and a second division was formed at Kabul, to the command of which Major-General J. Ross,[*] C.B., was appointed.]
[Note *: Now General Sir John Ross, G.C.B.]
[Footnote 2: As the deportation of Yakub Khan was believed to be one of the chief causes of recent disturbances, and as a powerful party in the country still looked forward to having him back as their Ruler, I was directed to make it clear to his adherents that the ex-Amir would never be allowed to return to Afghanistan, and that his abdication must be, as he himself at the time wished it to be, considered irrevocable. In support of this decision, I was informed that the unanimous verdict of guilty of murder, recorded against Yakub Khan by Colonel Macgregor's Commission, was substantially endorsed by the Chief Justice of Calcutta and the Advocate-General; and that, although other authorities who had considered the evidence did not quite go so far as these two high legal functionaries, the general conclusion come to was that, if the Amir did not connive at the massacre of the Mission, he made no attempt whatever to interpose on its behalf, and that his whole conduct on that occasion betrayed a culpable indifference to the fate of Sir Louis Cavagnari and his companions, and a total disregard of the solemn obligation which he had contracted with the British Government.]
[Footnote 3: I had released the Mustaufi from confinement when the general amnesty was published on the 26th December, and he had subsequently been usefully employed assisting the political officers in revenue matters. I did not suppose that he had any great love for the British, but he was anxious to see us out of the country, and was wise enough to know that no armed opposition could effect his purpose, and that it could only be accomplished by the establishment of a stable government, under a Ruler that we could accept.]
[Footnote 4: Now Colonel Sir West Ridgeway, K.C.B.]
[Footnote 5: Abdur Rahman's letter is given in the Appendix*.
See Appendix VIII.]
[Footnote 6: This letter from the Foreign Secretary to Mr. Griffin is given in full in the Appendix*.
See Appendix IX.]