Monday, 25 October 2010

Catastrophe on the Frontier - Afghanistan 1842 - The Dodgy Dossier

Dost Mohammed wished to know if we had any designs on Cabool. He had been told of us by some Russian merchants
'Travels into Bokhara' by Alexander Burnes, published by John Murray, 1835

I'm heading towards two first hand accounts, published by John Murray, of what is known as The First Afghan War.

(We're now in the middle of number four...or five...if you count our covert involvement in the Moujahedin War of the 1980s. This is a portrait of Dost Mohammed from Burnes' "Cabool" . He was the man the British displaced as Amir...he then returned to power after the Brits had been kicked out. It is possibly worth noting that one of the senior commanders of today's Taliban has named himself after this guy...however, I digress)

Many aspects of this earlier conflict should be horribly familiar to us. One of these aspects is the contoversy surrounding the whole business, with which the hero of my earlier posts, Alexander Burnes, was not unconnected.

He was an intelligence officer, as well as successful Murray author, and one accusation at the time was that his "intelligence" had been repressed, and, to employ an appropriate anachronistic neologism, spun.

The more I look into this story, the more horribly familiar it is...the same blend of wishful thinking and fear driven opportunism as has organised the last decade of foriegn I go any further:

Here is the 'dodgy dossier' of the time, or rather an extract from the official rationale for the invasion, known as the SIMLA DECLARATION of 1838:

"by the measures completed, or in progress, it may reasonably be hoped that the general freeedom and security of commerce will be promoted; that the name and just influence of the British government will gain their proper footing among the nations of Central Asia; that tranquility will be established on the most important frontier of India; and that a lasting barrier will be raised against hostile intrigue and encroachment. His majesty, Shah Soojah ool Moolk, will enter Afghanistan, surrounded by his own troops, and will be supported against foriegn interference and factious opposition by a British Army. The Governor General confidently hopes that the Shah will be speedily replaced on his throne by his own subjects, and, the independence and integrity of Afghanistan established, the British army will be withdrawn..."

The 'Governor General' is the Govenor General of British India, the document continues:

"The Governor General has been led to these measures by the duty....of providing for the security of the possessions of the British Crown; but he rejoices that, in the discharge of his duty, he will be enabled to assist in restoring the union and prosperity of the Afghan people..."

On Dost Mohammed, with whom Auckland had sent Burnes to negotiate, Auckland's manifesto had this to say:

'The Dost is further accused of "a most unjustifiable and cruel long as Caubul remained under his government, we would never hope that the tranquillity of our neighbourhood would be secured or that the interests of our Indian Empire would be preserved inviolate. It has been clearly ascertained from the various officers who have visited Afghanistan (i.e. Burnes) that the Baruzye chiefs, from their disunion and unpopularity, were ill fitted under any circumstances to be useful allies to the British government".'

In this, he was saying what he and Burnes knew to be untrue. But a "forward policy" for Afghanistan had been decided, and justification had to be found for the invasion. I hope that rings great big jangling bells for you as it does for me.

Just as in recent times, this incursion was not unopposed at the time...and the accusations of mendacity again resonate rather around the belltower...

The following comes from 'Letters to the Morning Herald' by D. Urquhart published as a pamphlet in London in 1843...reminds me of my letters to the Glasgow Herald in 2002.

'There is but one reason alleged why we invaded Afghanistan, and one only justification of the war offered, and that is the unfriendliness of Dost Mohammed. Our only object was to construct a chief of Cabool who should be friendly...are we to believe that we had such idiots for rulers that they believed all this? the present case, they come forward with no statement of wrongs or dangers - they come forward only with an insinuation...and set up a certain dynasty in a certain country...because of there being certain unstated designs of certain other powers....Did we not march an army into their country, take by force of arms but without the forms of war? Did we not then establish a government by means illegal and unjust, and having the external characters of foriegn domination and religious persecution. England, hitherto the assertor of the rights of nations, has become herself the invader, the spoiler, the oppressor, the destroyer.'

What is more, D. Urquart goes on to allege that he has papers in his possession written by Alexander Burnes that prove that the intelligence was distorted, and that the causus belli were deliberate fraud...

And if there's anyone out there who knows where THOSE papers are, I wish they'd tell me. And maybe 160 years from now someone will find a letter from George Bush to Tony Blair. There's some material in the national Archive in London I intend to check out first chance I get.

I've also just found out that there was a parliamentary inquiry twenty odd years later, into the distorting of that intelligence...more later perhaps...

Next time, a bit more factual context for the invasion before launching once more into the wastelands of rhetoric. And some more of that nice Lt Rattray's pictures to look at...In the meantime, courtessy of the good people at the British Library, here is the frontispiece image of his book on the Costumes and Peoples of "Afghaunistan" published in 1847, when the bloodbath was over, and the picturesque could once again be presented to his wealthy subscribers.

As a grim postscript, among these subscribers, their names marked by an astersisk to indicate their decease, are the names of Alexander Burnes and his brother David, that of Lord Elphinstone, the ill fated commander of the Kabul; Garrison, and that of the envoy, Sir William McNaghten. None of them survived their noble intentions to see the fruits of Lt Rattray's labours with pen and watercolour.

This lithograph of Dourraunnee chieftains in full armour was taken from the frontispiece of 'Afghaunistan' by Lieutenant
James Rattray.

Pretty, isn't it?


Pretty, isn't it?

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