HL Deb 22 March 1880 vol 251 cc1255-68

rose to call the attention of the House to the affairs of Afghanistan. He said, before this expiring Parliament absolutely died, he was anxious to make a few remarks on the subject of the state of things in Afghanistan. He had listened with great attention to the conversation which took place some little time ago on Afghan affairs. That debate must have been of absorbing interest to those who had taken an active part in the proceedings discussed; but to all ordinary unemployed Englishmen it was instructive only from an historical or antiquarian point of view. Never having been an Ambassador, or General in command in the field, or a Viceroy or Secretary of State for India, or a Prime Minister, or any of those kind of things, it did not interest him so very much to know who began it, or what the different actors in the drama did some years ago. He would rather have learnt who was going to finish it, and what was going on now, and what was to be done next. But these matters were passed over comparatively in silence. He confessed that he saw much to approve of in the general policy of Her Majesty's Government, and he recognized great force in their plea that circumstances had completely changed since the late Government were in Office. He believed it was necessary for the Government to take action in regard to Afghanistan to assert the proper position of England in regard to that country, to check Russian ascendancy, to re-assure the people of India that we intended to be masters, and to secure a better Frontier for our Indian Empire. The faulty nature of the opposite policy pursued by the noble Duke (the Duke of Argyll) who spoke first in that debate was indicated by his own statement. He said he was frequently taunted with not having shared in Shere Ali's fear at the Russian advance. But the noble Duke declared solemnly, in the face of their Lordships' House, that he never had been afraid and was not afraid then. But the noble Duke did not condescend to explain why he was not afraid, or to advance arguments to show that there was no cause for alarm. He merely asserted that he was not frightened. That did not prove there was no danger—it only showed that the noble Duke was incapable of fear. That was the difficulty. The noble Duke was too courageous. Being incapable of fear, he was also unable to appreciate danger. Circumstances had abundantly proved that Shere Ali was right, and that the noble Duke was wrong. The noble Duke spoke of the Government as listening, appalled and trembling, with ears to the ground, to the approach of the thirsty and the Russian battalions, and said that such a posture was undignified. He would not stop to inquire how far Her Majesty's Government was affected by the ignoble sentiment of fear; but he believed that the ordinary Englishman, determined that this Empire should be maintained intact, or that the ordinary Englishman, actuated by more sordid motives and having large sums of money invested in India, would prefer that the Government should hear the approach of these Russian battalions, even if they were frightened, rather than that the Government should not be afraid because they were deaf. No one could deny or ignore the rapidity with which Russia had of late years approached our Frontier—a rapidity which was marvellous considering the nature of the country she had had to traverse. He did not pretend to say that her object was to attack India. He only meant to say that a very powerful and aggressive nation—a nation that could bring an Army of about 1,000,000 of men into the field—had advanced comparatively close to the Frontiers of British India. Russia would go to Merv. She had said that if necessary she would go there; and the noble Duke said that he saw no reason why she should not go there, if it was desirable that she should extend her civilizing influence as far as that. The present was a rather unfortunate moment for speaking of the civilizing influences of Russia. The morals and manners of the Turkomans must be bad indeed if they could be much improved by copying from Russia. However, he quite agreed that there was no reason why Russia should not go to Merv if she desired it; but at Merv she would be within 220 miles of Herat. Then came the serious question whether she should be permitted to go to Herat. Herat might not be the key of India; but it certainly was a very important place. If Russia were meditating an invasion of India, it would be the natural end and object of her advances across the deserts. In that valley she could gradually accumulate the forces necessary for an invasion, and could there develop all requisite materials for war. She could organize an invasion with little drain upon her own resources by drilling and utilizing the native material in men and the various products of the earth. For an invasion it was essential to have a base, and Herat and the adjacent country afforded the only base convenient for the purpose of invading India. For an invasion of India Herat was invaluable. It could be of no use to Russia for any other purpose. The noble Earl, who was formerly Viceroy of India (the Earl of Northbrook), said that Russia ought never to be allowed to go to Herat. That was very strong language, stronger than he (the Earl of Dunraven) should like to use. However, he could understand the policy which contended that Russia should never be allowed to occupy Herat; but he could not understand the policy which said that, and argued at the same time that England should have remained on her old Frontier, should not prevent the Russian occupation of Herat by occupying it herself, and should not even place herself in a position to nullify as much as possible the effects of a Russian occupation of Herat. With Russia at Merv, whither she would certainly go, and with England at her old Frontier line, we should be perfectly powerless to prevent a further Russian advance. But with Candahar, and railway communication from Candahar to the sea—and it should not be forgotten that England's base of operations in India was the sea—they would be in a very different position. They would be in a good position to act in the event of any Russian advance on Herat. He believed that, with the Passes in their hands and with such a magnificent flanking position as Candahar, British India would be perfectly defensible and secure. In the Paper containing the Treaty of Gandamak, which was presented to Parliament, mention was made of a Schedule annexed, dealing with the delimitation of certain districts, and he supposed that in the Schedule the scientific Frontier was marked out. The Schedule was omitted, and he did not believe that it had ever been presented to Parliament. If not, he thought that Her Majesty's Government should give the House some information as to what the Frontier was or was to be. It was a question whether it were a better strategical position to hold the heads of the Passes, the entrances to them, as they now did, or whether they would not have done better in making the mouths, the exits of the Passes on the Indian side, easily defensible. That was a matter he should like to have heard discussed in that House. In civil life, if he expected the approach of a burglar through a long and narrow passage, he should prefer waiting for him just outside, so that he might conveniently knock him on the head the moment he emerged. But in this question of a Scientific Frontier there was much to be considered, and he could understand that it might be advisable to hold the crests of the mountains. Besides, there was the question of health to be considered, if European garrisons had to be kept at the mouths of the Passes. The Government asserted that they had got the scientific Frontier they wanted, and they had as yet heard no strong arguments urged against it. It was true that the noble Duke (the Duke of Argyll) spoke about its being useless to occupy the crests of the mountains they now held, because there were other crests beyond them which they would have in turn to occupy. But the noble Lord (Lord Napier of Magdala) pointed out that a plain, about 120 miles in width, extended at the base of the mountains they now held. Big guns not having been yet developed to an extent that they could throw projectiles 120 miles, the enemy could not affect them in any way without deploying on the plain, and giving them the opportunity of attacking their forces when and how they pleased. Their position on the mountains was, with the addition of Candahar, so strong, that they ought to be quite content with it, provided, of course, it was understood that Herat was outside the sphere of Russia. If, however, Herat was such a very important place, and if it were absolutely certain that under no circumstances must Russia be allowed to take it—that her possession of it would be fatal to them—then he trusted that they would take it themselves. He quite agreed with the noble Duke in saying that it would be foolish to bolster up Persia. Nothing could be more injudicious than to hand over Herat to Persia. The noble Lord so long connected with the Foreign Office (Lord Hammond) touched the most important point of the debate when he called attention to the position which Russia would occupy, acting upon her Treaty rights, if Persia were possessed of Herat. Her Majesty's Government had been asked by the noble Earl the Leader of the Opposition (Earl Granville) if they had had any negotiation or convention with Russia as regarded Herat. They had never yet given a definite answer on that subject. He (the Earl of Dunraven) noticed in The Standard of that day a telegram from Candahar, saying that the Shah had sent an Envoy to Herat with a strong escort, and it was supposed that he had treasure with him. That rather looked as if some arrangement had been entered into with Persia as regarded Herat, and he trusted that Her Majesty's Government would be able to give some definite assurance that such had not been the case. There was only one thing that could be worse than giving a guarantee to Persia, and that would be for England and Russia to enter into a co-partnership in the matter. They had had enough of mutual interference in the case of Egypt; and he feared that before the next Parliament met they might be pledged to co-partnership with Russia, or a guarantee of Persia. Her Majesty's Government had been very reticent on the question of Herat, and they had returned somewhat evasive answers to the noble Earl the Leader of the Opposition on the subject. It was not unnatural that they should look with some uneasiness upon this silence. The most extraordinary and quite anomalous, position of affairs in Afghanistan was They were at war; they had an Army of 50,000 or 60,000 men in the field; they found great difficulty in recruiting for it. The Commander-in-Chief was going to the front to take command, and they had not the slightest idea what they were fighting for, or what the war was about. The objects the Prime Minister mentioned—the scientific Frontier, the assertion of their determination to put up with the influence of no Foreign Power in Afghanistan—had been accomplished. In securing their position and vindicating their authority the Government acted wisely and well; but they committed one great, fatal error in forcing a European Envoy upon the Afghans at Cabul. The results of that error the Prime Minister described as an incident or accident of war. It cost the life of a most talented and gallant officer, and many brave men. It cost to this country the services of a man who might have been of the greatest value to it, and it dragged this country into war, or into warlike complications out of which we saw no way of extricating ourselves. And the reason why that was done was, according to the noble Viscount the Secretary of State for India (Viscount Cranbrook), because a Native Envoy would not have been so useful. He (the Earl of Dunraven), however, believed a Native Envoy would have been found infinitely more useful than a European one. But it was thought necessary, because a Russian Envoy had been to Cabul, that we should send an Englishman there. That appeared to him a childish assertion of power; and that was called an "accident." He called it a grave diplomatic error—an error in judgment, that entailed most disastrous results—a mistake, and a fatal one, in policy; not an accident. If they went to war to vindicate their authority and honour and to improve their Frontier, then every penny spent and every drop of blood shed since the Treaty of Gandamak had been poured out and wasted on account of that "accident" or "incident" of war. The differences between England and Russia had been narrowed to a very small issue—down to a question of boundaries and ultimate aims and objects in Central Asia—and it would be very strange if an understanding—permanent, because satisfactory to both parties—could not be arrived at. No understanding that consisted of a co-operation or co-partnership could be satisfactory. It was right and proper that Russia should be allowed to fulfil what she deemed her civilizing mission in Central Asia; but the possession of Herat could not be necessary to secure that object. The possession of Herat would be a direct menace to British rule in India, and should be dealt with according as circumstances would at the time indicate; and, in the meantime, we should take up a position which would secure us even against any evil arising from that eventuality. But if it be agreed, as the noble Earl (the Earl of Northbrook) appeared to think, that it was absolutely essential that Herat should never be in the possession of Russia, then let them settle that question in the only way in which it could be settled satisfactorily—namely, by taking it themselves. He did not believe, however, that was necessary; he believed, with the Passes and Candahar in their hands, India was safe enough. Her Majesty's Government might be actuated by a very laudable desire to extend the blessings of their rule to people who sadly needed it; the settled dwellers in the cities and valleys would be only too glad to be protected by them from the savage highland clans that now ruled them; but he trusted the Government would consider chiefly what was best for the interests of England and for' our fellow-subjects in India. There were two distinct policies, and a good deal could be said to recommend each of them. They could remain where they were, on the lines settled by the Treaty of Gandamak with the addition of Candahar, or they could take Herat and annex the whole country. They knew not as yet in which direction the policy of the Government lay. There was an intermediate policy—a policy that would be fatal—a policy that would endeavour to exercise a feeble control over Herat through another Power; that would give Persia a vicarious authority in Afghanistan; that would possibly involve England in some international arrangement with Russia—some joint-stock business, in which of a surety their liability would not be limited. It was a policy which would be very fatal to the country, and yet the Parliament was about to be dissolved, leaving the country in absolute ignorance as to whether the policy of Her Majesty's Government tended in that direction or not. It would, therefore, be to the interest of the country if the Government would give some information on the subject before Parliament dissolved.


said, the noble Earl who had just sat down (the Earl of Dunraven) had understated the case with regard to the unfortunate death of Major Cavagnari; it was no accident of war; not only should the Government not have insisted on sending a European officer as Envoy, but Major Cavagnari was the last man that should have been chosen for that service, for he was identified in the minds of the Afghans as the man who caused and began the first wax1; and what had happened was foreseen and anticipated. If a European were selected as Envoy he should have been a civilian, and either have had no escort, and trusted himself to the hospitality of the people, or have had a larger escort. We did not yet know who was responsible for this selection; whether it was the Home Government or the Indian Government. He would not say much about the first war, as their Lordships had already heard so much about it; but it would have been unnecessary, if the Government had then done what they had seemed lately to be inclined to do, to make an alliance with Persia. Sir Henry Rawlinson had advocated an alliance with Persia for the last 20 years, and his ideas were very good; but they must be taken as a whole and fully carried out. Now they had had an alliance with Persia; but in 1825 they had abandoned Persia, although several British officers were at that time in command of Persian troops; and in 1827 the Treaty of Turkman Tchai had excluded Persian ships from the Caspian. In Nadir Shah's time an Englishman had commanded a Persian ship on the Caspian, and from the Caspian Sea the Russians could be taken not only on the flank, but in the rear. The telegraphic news from Afghanistan was conflicting. One telegram spoke of negotiation with the Afghans in Ghuznee, and another said orders had come from India to attack it. He hoped that this would be avoided by negotiation and pacification, and that they would not uselessly throw away the lives of their own men in attacking it, nor uselessly increase the blood-feud between them by killing more of the Afghans. He also wished to say that if Abderrahman Khan should succeed in establishing himself over a considerable part of Afghanistan, it would be very short-sighted on their part to oppose him, merely because, when in exile, he had been a pensioner of Russia. By his age and position he was one of the family of the Barakzais, who had most claim to rule in Afghanistan; and the most gracious Speech of the Queen at the opening of the Session had repeated the desire for a friendly and independent Afghanistan.


said, that the invasion of India by a merely Russian Force would be of little consequence; but if Russia gained strength in the advance she was assuredly making upon India, and was allowed by us to add the very formidable Turkoman cavalry and the hardy Afghan races to her own Forces, then their joint invasion of India would probably be a success. A locust was a small and weak thing in itself; yet the locusts in India had been known, by attaching themselves in great numbers to the rails and train, to overcome the power of the engine to move the train. An invasion of India from Central Asia, organized on a large scale, would be overwhelming from its numbers—resistance would be vain. Some military men had proposed to stop invasion by forts and armies; if it took place, probably no resistance of the kind would avail. The safer way was to prevent such an invasion taking place; to detach the whole of Afghanistan, not only from Russia, but from barbarism; for so long as any considerable portion of that country remained barbarian it would yield to the invitations of Russia to join her in looting India. Roads, trade, good government, would civilize Afghanistan, as they had done other countries, and unite her people in a common interest with India. We en- tered on the policy of drawing the countries yet remaining between us and Russia to our side when we left the Indus Valley; that was not an ancient Frontier, for the Afghan races had dominated a large part of India, and it had only been occupied by us for about 30 years—a weak Frontier, and hemmed in by barbarians. The question was, whether our present plans were sufficiently comprehensive? A Frontier drawn through the middle of the country was likely to involve us in chronic warfare. There is no course that would effect our object of strengthening India by a civilized and dependent Afghanistan, short of ruling the whole country. Why did we delay to take Herat? We had a large force at Candahar—the campaigning season was about to begin—Herat might be expected to offer less resistance now than at any future time. It was necessary to take it to subdue opposition to our arms and authority in Afghanistan. Herat had always occupied a leading position in giving a Ruler to that country. We might use it to that end, or we might, by inactivity, allow it to be used against us. The possession of Herat would allow us to take another step towards the prevention of a successful invasion of India. Once there, we should be in a position, by diplomacy, or by acts, to secure the independence from Russia of the Tekke Turkomans.


said, he was sure their Lordships would not expect him to notice all the remarks of the noble Lords who had spoken on the subject, or to agree with them in all the conclusions at which they had arrived. Very different opinions had been expressed by the noble Lords who had spoken; and he thought those of their Lordships who had listened to the discussion would come to the conclusion that, at all events, those who were not responsible for our treatment of Afghanistan had very different methods of dealing with it. The noble Lord who spoke last (Lord Blantyre) had told them to annex the whole of Afghanistan. The noble Earl who introduced the subject (the Earl of Dun-raven) deprecated anything of the kind, advised them not to go beyond the scientific Frontier of Gandamak, and that we should take particular care not to allow Persia to take Herat, or to have any voice in the affairs of Afghan- istan. The noble Lord (Lord Stanley of Alderley) said that we should enter into an alliance with Persia and hand her over Herat, and at the same time—which struck him (Viscount Cranbrook) as inconsistent—they should attempt to set up a strong, united Afghanistan. It was very well for noble Lords to evolve out of their own consciousness their various modes of dealing with this question, and they might be worthy of great consideration in the abstract; but when the Government had to deal with the actual facts of the country, and look at the position in which they were placed, they had to deal with causes and effects of which noble Lords were not aware. He was quite ignorant of what was intended by the noble Earl, who merely gave Notice that he would call attention to the affairs of Afghanistan; he did not know whether he was going to support the Government in the course they had taken, or how he was going to deal with the question. He was very glad, however, to hear the noble Earl state that he did not mean to refer to the old history of the country. It was much better to direct their attention now to what had to be done rather than to what had been done. The noble Earl complained of the reticence of the Government. Now, the Government, in the Queen's Speech, announced particularly that they had no desire to annex Afghanistan, and that they would go in the main on the lines of the Treaty of Gandamak. That was the policy to which they still adhered; but he objected altogether, at the very moment when the spring had arrived, and the war might be going to commence, to lay down any particular rule as to any particular line of Frontier until they saw what the dispositions of the Natives were, and how they were to assert their supremacy in that country. The noble Earl asked whether the Treaty of Gandamak did not lay down definitely any plan. No, it did not. Only a short interval elapsed before the unfortunate Cavagnari and his companions, whose loss he (Viscount Cranbrook) deeply deplored, were murdered, and the period was too short thoroughly to survey the position. The noble Earl had condemned the policy of sending an English Envoy to Cabul. Now, Cabul was not their selection; it was the selection of Yakoob Khan, and it was in deference to his wishes that the Envoy went there. It might be that the fall of Sir Louis Cavagnari might have been foretold; but all he could say was that it was not foretold by himself, or by those who were conversant with the affairs of Afghanistan. Nor was it contemplated by him when he was there; because, although he knew there were great dangers to Yakoob Khan, he had no reason to suspect that there was the deep-rooted hostility against the Mission which was manifested by the attack on the Residency. When the time came for unravelling some of the secrets of the matter, it might be that steps were taken which involved treachery too deep for them to have suspected. However, that was past. But he did not understand the noble Earl to condemn our sending troops to avenge the insult offered to England, or to blame them for having taken steps to vindicate the authority so set at naught. It was, no doubt, their duty to go to Cabul then, although their desire had been in the former campaign not to do anything which might interfere with the security of the Ameer or tend to the disintegration of his Kingdon. With respect to English Envoys as against Native Envoys, he would just say this—In one of his letters he had lately read, Lord Minto expressed himself strongly as to the deficiencies of Native Envoys. They were trustworthy to a certain extent; but it was impossible for them to speak with an authority that could be relied on—with the authority of an Envoy belonging to the ruling nation. They spoke as they were told by those in whose Courts they were; and it was notorious that their reports were actually, in some cases, revised and corrected by the authorities of the Court to which they were attached. That did not seem to be a position of things to enable them to get correct information; and assuming that Yakoob Khan could have protected the Envoy who was sent there at his own request, they would have found themselves on much better terms than they had been before. Unfortunately, that did not take place, and they had to advance upon Cabul. They were now in a position in which they had Forces in the Kurrum Valley, at Candahar, and at Cabul. The noble Lord objected to them marching on Ghuzuee; but unless a pacification was to come he saw no other course open to them. At no distant date he hoped that General Stewart would make his march back to India by Ghuznee. Whether it would be necessary for him to attack it, which he very much doubted, or whether it would not be a peaceable march to its possession, he could not at that moment say. But here, again, he might say rumours of very different characters prevailed as to the disposition of the Chiefs at Ghuznee; and it would be very foolish of him, when they were just at the beginning of spring, to adopt any conclusion as to what would be the conduct of the Tribes at that particular period. It must be remembered that sowing time was a most important time for these people; and they knew if they did not sow their fields they would have no harvest to reap. The time was also most important for us, when the Passes were open. It would give them a great advantage in any movement they might make if it were made at this time. With respect to Herat, the noble Earl was very anxious that they should not annex it. He (Viscount Cranbrook) was disposed to agree with the noble Earl to a certain extent that Herat was not of the infinite importance many attributed to it; and particularly when we were in possession of Candahar, and the other positions we held, Herat became of much less importance than it was on any previous occasion. But, as the noble Earl talked of the civilization of Central Asia, he (Viscount Cranbrook) would say that during last year more steps had been taken with that view than had ever been taken before, and that chiefly by pressing on those railways which had already reached Afghanistan. Sir Richard Temple described the progress of these works, in which he had taken an active part, in a most interesting manner, speaking of dynamite blasting the rocks in Afghanistan and making a way for the railways, which it was to be hoped would in 1882 be carried into Candahar. If that were the case the railways would go further and the trade of Central Asia would come by way of Candahar, and they might look forward to this great question being solved by their further progress towards Herat. In that way a solution would be arrived at far better than any that had been suggested to-night. The noble Earl ex- pressed a hope that they would have no understanding with Russia on this subject, and he asked whether there was any arrangement with respect to Herat. In reply to the noble Earl, he had to say that they had no understanding with Russia on the subject, and that no arrangement had been come to with Persia with respect to Herat. It might be true that Persia had emissaries in Herat, and he had no doubt Persia would be extremely glad to be in possession of Herat. There were possible conditions which might make its acquisition by Persia not so dangerous; but he must ask the noble Earl to leave this question unsolved for the present. He looked forward with great hope to the pacification of Afghanistan, and of its being governed by Rulers of its own choice, without any interference on our part in its internal affairs, only taking care to secure the Frontier we had achieved.

In answer to the Earl of NORTHBROOK,


said, no arrangement had been made by Convention or contract with Persia, to waive the Treaty of Paris with reference to Herat.

House adjourned at half past Eight o'clock, till To-morrow, half past Ten o'clock.