Thursday, 28 October 2010

Puppet Kings and Security forces: Afghanistan 1839

The Afghans do not appear to have the smallest prejudice against Christians.
'Travels in Bokhara' by Alexander Burnes, published by John Murray 1835

We've met Alexander Burnes who was a sensual, ambitious young Scotsman on the make, a talented linguist who argued for one policy...that of offering support to Dost Mohammed's rule in Kabul as a bulwark against the Russians, but who changed to supporting the Dost's overthrow when that became the policy of his superiors, and accompanied the Army of the Indus that overthrew Dost Mohammed in 1838, reversing the policy of containment, and pursuing what was then called "forward policy" in Afghanistan, denying it to the Russians through a military presence, rather as the 2001 invasion was supposed to deny the country as a base of operations to Al Quaida.

Entirely understandable from a careerist point of view...that way lay promotion...but it did identify him personally, among the Afghans, as a perjurer...perfidious Albion in a single pair of pants.

Later, once the army was in occupation of Kabul, it was his anxiety to be rid of his boss, Mcnaghten, and thus secure his own promotion, that led him to underestimate the danger faced by the British Army of occupation…If there was peace, then his boss would leave, and he’d get the top job for himself. So he told everyone, including himself, that there was peace, though he knew deep down this wasn’t true.

In the end, it was his ambition to be visible, combined with this last misjudgement that led him and his brother to their nemesis, and the long knives in the garden of his house in Kabul in November 1841.

Burnes murder was the start of an insurrection that was to drive the British out in ignominious, bloody defeat.

To continue my series of posts on Murray publications and its paralells with our more resonant military SNAFU, I'm handing over for a moment to the introduction written by Patrick Macrory (the author whose "Signal Catastrophe" inspired the first Flashman novel) to a book that called 'Disaster in Afghanistan' by Lady Florentia Sale, published by Longmans in 1969 in their Military Memoirs series, but which was reprinted from an original published by the firm of John Murray in 1843 in the immediate wake of said catastrophe.

This is his description of the situation in which the army of occupation found itself, Macrory as a proper military historian saying it better than I could.

'Kabul was entered on 7th August 1839, and Shah Soojah was restored to his throne. Dost Mohammed fled into the interior, where for some fifteen months he carried on a desultory guerilla warfare. He then made his surrender to the British Envoy at Kabul, and was sent off to an honourable exile in India. There he was presently joined by all his family, with the significant exception of his favourite son, Akbar Khan. Akbar preferred to live an outlaw's life somewhere out beyond the Hindu Kush and implacably bided his time.'

Back to me.

This is a picture of the court of the puppet King as rendered by Lt James Rattray, a friend of Burnes, reproduced by kind permission of the British Library.

The British and Sikh installed King proved to be unpopular, however...a bit like Mohammed Karzai today...but as with Karzai, the only alternative ruler was the enemy, so the Regime Change, which had been intended to be an Afghan only affair, required the continued presence of British troops.

I trust this is making you feel sick?

McCrory continues:

'Reluctantly the British decided that some of their own troops must remain in Afghanistan for Soojah's protection. So, when General Keane and the greatest part of the Army of the Indus marched back to India at the end of 1839, a division was left at Kandahar under General Nott and a force of two brigades at Kabul itself...Soojah, for reasons of prestige, opposed (their) being housed in the Bala Hissar, the great citadel...that contained his own palace, and it was decided to build cantonments on the plain a mile or so outside the badly designed as they were badly sited.'

So far so familiar...but then we get to some more Victorian touches and nuances...a bit of the old Raj...the women arrived.

'Before the end of 1839, MacNaghten, realizing the that the occupation was going to be indefinitely prolonged, sent for his wife to join him at Kabul. The sepoys too, were encouraged to bring up their families".

I do have to love how the Brits, no matter where in the world they are, still think they're in Surrey. I suspect this is the secret of their former success. Here, Mcrory describes their life in Kabul:

'Life in the cantonments was a gay butterfly existence. There were horse racing, hunting and amateur theatricals. When winter gripped the land, the British had skates made by the farriers and skimmed over the frozen lakes to the astonishment of the Afghans...the same could be said in summer of cricket.'

Finally, Macrory quotes Alexander Burnes, hero of my earlier posts in this series, now "British Resident", who had a courtyarded mansion in the city, saying that at his weekly dinner parties he could lay before his guests:

'champagne, hock, madeira, sherry, port, claret, suaterne, not forgetting a glass of curacoa and maraschino, and the hermetically sealed salmon and hotchpotch [veritable hotchpotch, all the way 'frae' Aberdeen], for deuced good it is, the peas as big as if they had been soaked for bristling'.

Good old Sandy...a party animal to the last...

Next...the Reverend George Gleig and his first hand account (published, naturally, by the Murrays) of the calm before the storm.

Interior of the palace of Shauh Shujah Ool Moolk, Late King of Cabul.
This lithograph is taken from plate 3 of 'Afghaunistan' by Lieutenant James Rattray. Used by permission of the British Library.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Imperial Intrigue and vanishing Russian agents - Alexander Burnes and Henry Rawlinson on Her Majesty's Secret Service

Ah, those Murray authors!

Whether they went in search of Godliness or a good time, they surely got around...further research reveals there were two of them kicking around on secret business in Afghanistan in the 1830s, running into Russian spies who were on the same mission as themselves. Much as in Afghanistan now you can't tell who is working for who without a crib sheet.

We've already met Alexander's the other one, Henry Rawlinson, later to be the discoverer and decipherer of Ancient Sanskrit in Mesopotamia, from Patrick Mcrory's Signal Catastrophe, Hodder and Stoughten 1966 (republished as 'Kabul Catastrophe' in 1986).

"Major Rawlinson, an officer on the staff of the British Minister at Teheran, was bivouacking one night in the wild desert country about a hundred miles west of Heart…he found another party camping nearby. Some of them…wore Cossack uniform...Their officer rose and bowed politely in silence…Rawlinson addressed him in French, but he shook his head. The Englishman tried his own language and was answered in Russian. Rawlinson then switched to Persian and the stranger replied in halting Uzbeg-Turkish, of which the British officer knew just enough to carry on a simple conversation…the two officers smoked a silent friendly pipe together and Rawlinson rode on his way…Two days later the young Cossack officer rode into the Persian camp and at once greeted Rawlinson in excellent French with the smiling comment that "it would not do to be too familiar with strangers in the desert". Rawlinson, realizing that this was the first evidence of direct communication between St Petersburg and Kabul, immediately posted back the 750 miles to Teheran to report to his minister that he had met a Russian emissary to Dost Mohammed, and that his name was Captain Vickovich."

(Though he only had a walk on part in this adventure, because he SURVIVED it...we will be meeting Henry Rawlinson again in my NEXT series of posts...from Iraq...and no, Virginia, we didn't invade Iraq in the 1840s...that had to wait till the, what Rawlinson was doing in Iraq a few years later, in company with Murray author, Henry Austen Layard, was digging up Nineveh and confirming the bible as an historical document...later...later)

Meantime, "We are in a mess here" wrote Alexander Burnes, in Kabul to negotiate with the then ruler there, Dost Mohammed, to a friend; "the emperor of Russia has sent an envoy to Kabul to offer Dost Mohammed Khan money to fight Runjeet Singh!!! I could not believe my eyes and ears; but Captain Vickovich arrived here with a blazing letter, three feet long...the Amir came over to me sharp, and offered to do as I like…and I sent an express at once to my Lord A, telling him that after this I knew not what might happen, and it was now a neck-and-neck race between Russia and us."

Burnes, as envoy, now found himself in a cleft stick. He was not authorised to offer the Dost anything by way of an alliance because the Brits were simultaneously making lifelong chums of the Sikhs (at least until we had a war with THEM...which wasn't long in coming...1842, actually).

"Russia has come forward with offers…Persia has been lavish in her promises, and Bokhara and other states have not been backward.Yet...the chief of Caubaul declares that he prefers the friendly offices of the British...I have no authority…am I to stand by and see us ruined at Kandahar?"

But by the time Burnes was writing this, in late 1838, the decision to invade Afghanistan (in order to prevent Dost Mohammed from making an alliance with Russia, which he had no intention of doing, then or later) had already been taken.

This is confirmed by what happened next. Burnes had left Kabul. Soon after however, the then Russian allies, the Persians, abandoned their siege of Herat. Lord Palmerston, who had long maintained a suspicious and hostile attitude towards Russia, protested to the embarassed Russians about them sending an agent to Kabul and Count Nesselrode, a Russian diplomat who knew that his Tsar's ambitions in the region were unrealistic hogwash, took the opportunity to disavow his own agent…he pretended he had no knowledge of him, (John le Carre didn't invent all this stuff, it seems) saying he:

"knew no Captain Vickovish except an adventurer of that name who had been ...engaged lately in some unauthorised intrigues at Kabul and Kandahar."

As Mcrory continues the story:

"Vickovich realised that he was to be a sacrifice on the altar of appeasement. He went back to his hotel, wrote a few bitter and reproachful messages, burnt the rest of his papers and blew out his brains".

Yes, well, all a great spy story to be later thrillingly retold by Murray author Peter Hopkirk in 'The Great Game' .

But, in the meantime, McCrory says: "The Russian backed threat to Afghanistan had melted like snow in summer. Now was the time far the british to leave well alone."

Fat chance, as we'll see. Meanwhile, the enticing Afghan women above are again taken from the exquisite work of Lt James Rattray who was in the British Army of the Indus that invaded Afghanistan in 1838. It wasn't all about politics, you know...

As we shall see.

'Ghiljie women in the lower orders' taken from plate 6 of 'Afghaunistan' by Lieutenant James Rattray Used by permission of the British Library.

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?