HL Deb 27 February 1919 vol 33 cc392-5

My Lords, before public business is taken I should like to ask the noble Earl the Leader of the House a Question of which I have given him private notice, with reference to the murder of the Amir of Afghanistan. I think it is only right that some notice should be taken of the loss we have sustained by the death of a true Ally. In most difficult circumstances, and under great temptations, perhaps, to desert us, he had always been faithful to the policy carried on between us and him for a number of years.


The noble Lord, who I believe was honoured by the personal friendship of the late Amir of Afghanistan, is quite justified in putting to me the question of which he has given me private notice—namely, whether I can, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, add anything to the information that has appeared in the public Press about the unfortunate assassination of that Sovereign. I am afraid that as regards actual details of the event we have no further information than that which has already appeared. I gather that, the Amir being in camp at a place called Laghman, to the north-east of Kabul, an entry was made into his tent at an early hour on the morning of February 20, and that the Amir was killed by bullet shots and was also stabbed. His dead body was recovered and was taken back by the members of his family to Kabul. What were the objects of this attack we do not know. As the noble Lord knows very well, policy, and particularly domestic policy, in Eastern Courts is a very obscure factor, and whether the assassination of the late Sovereign was due to religious and fanatical reasons or to reasons of politics or to causes of domestic intrigue, we do not know. Suffice it to say that in these tragic circumstances he lost his life.

The noble Lord, in the few sentences to which he gave utterance, spoke, and spoke justly, of the late Amir as having been a consistent and loyal friend of this country. That is a true description of his attitude throughout his long reign. The late Amir was not fifty years of age when he was killed. He succeeded his father in the year 1901, and occupied the Throne for the nearly eighteen years which have since elapsed. The Amir Habibullah Khan was not, of course, cast in the same mould as his father, the late Amir Abdur Rahnian Khan. As the House may perhaps recollect, I was brought into personal contact with that Sovereign during a fortnight's stay at his capital. Any one who ever met Amir Abdur Rahman Khan would bear me out in saying that he was one of the most remarkable personalities of the East—a man of adventurous career, of iron character, of great strength of will, of an almost overmastering personality. I certainly count it amongst the most remarkable incidents of my political life that I was brought into close association with that sovereign. When he died his eldest son, Habibullah Khan, succeeded him upon the Throne. It was what rarely happens in those countries—a peaceful succession; and the son, although, as I have said, not of the same calibre as his father, still pursued his father's policy with a loyalty, consistency, and skill which did him infinite credit. He was a man, as the noble Lord will remember, of a genial and affable temperament. He had a great taste for European civilisation, and was thoroughly imbued with the need of introducing all the instruments of modern progress into his rather backward country. In some respects he shared the fierce traditions, and may indeed have reproduced the cruel habits, of his countrymen; but, broadly speaking, he kept his country in order, he facilitated its forward march on the paths of progress, and he remained, throughout the eighteen years of his reign, a true and loyal adherent of the British connection.

When I went back to India in 1904 I had the pleasure of entertaining at Calcutta his eldest son, a young prince who had not yet attained the age of maturity, Prince Inayattillah Khan, who seemed to me to reproduce in many respects the intelligence of his father. A little later the Amir himself came down to India, and the noble Lord will recall the various incidents of his progress through that country—how much he struck those whom he met by his enlightenment and intelligence and the friendly attitude he displayed, and, on the whole, what very favourable impressions he left. Of course, there occurred throughout his reign the traditional difficulties between the Government of Afghanistan and the Government of India, but they were never pushed to the point of serious trouble, and practically the Government of India could regard him with truth as having faithfully carried on the traditions of his father.

Then came the outbreak of war in 1914, and your Lordships can imagine how the designs of the enemy were at once directed to finding a weak spot in our armour in that direction. Turkish and German emissaries found their way to Kabul. The Turks could appeal to the Amir on the ground of the solidarity of Islam; the Germans could appeal to him with the bribe of the territories outside the Afghan frontier which it was so easy to promise to restore. The Amir received these missions and listened to what they had to say. He entertained them hospitably, and in due time—it was usually after a long time—he dismissed them re infecta. That, in substance, is what happened throughout the war; and many as were the appeals addressed to the cupidity or self-interest of the Amir throughout that time, or to the traditional ambitions of his nation and race, he nevertheless remained a staunch adherent of the British cause. It is a great misfortune that he has been killed. It is, perhaps, a less misfortune that the blow should have fallen now than that it should have happened at an earlier date when the issues of the war were still uncertain; but, nevertheless, it is a tragedy that we should lose so good a friend.

As to what has happened in Kabul since the Amir's assassination, our information is not very great. It would appear that the succession has been given to his younger brother, Nasrullah Khan, whom many of your Lordships will remember as having been the guest of the British Government in this country between twenty and thirty years ago. We have no reason to believe that he has been set up as Amir without the consent of or in supersession of the eldest son whom I mentioned just now. The Afghans, in common with other Oriental people, have their own rules of inheritance, and it may be that he was popularly acclaimed as most suitable for the Throne. All we know is that upon his recognition at the Court of Kabul he addressed at once a letter to the Government of India couched in the most friendly and loyal terms, in which he renewed to the British Government the expressions of friendliness and loyalty of his brother and of his family. To that letter an appropriate reply is being sent, and there is no reason, at any rate for the present, to suppose that there will be any interruption in the happy relations which prevail between us and Afghanistan.

I need hardly say that there is but one opinion here about our policy towards that country, which has been testified by the history of the last twenty or thirty years and has been enshrined in numerous documents. We desire to maintain the independence and integrity of Afghanistan, and we hold it essential that its political relations should look towards the East rather than towards the West, and that it should remain in close and constant friendship with the Government of India. I hope, my Lords, just as that policy was initiated and carried on by Abdur Rahman and by the late deceased Amir, so it may continue in the hands of Nasrullah Khan, if he succeeds to the Throne.


I thank the noble Earl for his interesting statement, one of exceptional weight and far more complete than I dared to expect.