HL Deb 28 October 1919 vol 37 cc43-52

LORD SYDENHAM rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether the full text of the Peace Treaty with Aghanistan, together with the communications relating to the Armistice and to the Conference at Rawal Pindi which passed between the Secretary of State and the Viceroy, and between the representative of the latter and the Afghan delegates, will be made available for the information of Parliament.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, on August 13 last I asked for some Papers on the subject which is referred to in this Question. The noble Lord the Under-Secretary of State for India, after explaining what had been done, said that the Papers would be published at the earliest possible date. More than two months have passed since that was said, and, so far as I know, the only Papers which have been issued were some rather controversial correspondence between the Secretary of State and the Viceroy in regard to the medical arrangements on the North-West Frontier of India. This reticence seems to me to be the more unfortunate because our gallant British and Indian troops, who suffered from most trying conditions during the campaign, must have felt—and I know did feel—that they were being neglected and forgotten by the public at home. In these days of intense domestic pre-occupations and anxieties it is very difficult for any one to follow events in India, but I cannot believe that any reticence in regard to a subject so important as a Treaty with Afghanistan can in any way be justified.

I do not know whether your Lordships have seen the Proclamation of the Viceroy to the Afghan people. I have never seen it in any London paper; yet it is surely a State document of great importance. I wonder whether the noble Earl who leads the House has seen that Paper; and I wonder still more, if he has seen it, what he really thinks about it. Then there were certain communications from the Afghans which were described in some quarters as being conciliatory but which to my mind appeared to be distinctly insulting. Again, we know nothing whatever practically about the negotiations which led up to the Armistice. And the Armistice, as your Lordships know, was violated by the Afghans, probably because no efficient and effective guarantees were taken for its execution. Then came the peace negotiations at Rawal Pindi. We have never had the complete terms of the Treaty, and the fact that the Afghans were made independent as regards their foreign relations came as a surprise and a shock to everybody who realised what the abandonment of our settled policy in regard to Afghanistan must mean. Whether this provision was in the Treaty, or whether it is embodied in some subsequent and separate instrument I have no idea.

In addressing the Afghan delegates on July 26, Sir Hamilton Grant, after commenting very severely upon the action of the Amir, used these rather ominous words— I fear that I have had to begin these proceedings by saying a number of unpalatable things; but when there is illness it is necessary to take the ill-tasting drug first. The sweetmeat that removes the evil itself comes later. I trust that this may be so now, and that, having purged our discussions of misunderstanding, we may hereafter benefit. I quote these words from a Sikh paper published at Amritsar, and I suppose the sweetmeat contemplated was the abandonment of British control over the foreign relations of Afghanistan. In spite of this very pleasant prospect which we held out to him, the reply of Surdar Ali Ahmad Khan was extraordinarily truculent. He said, among other things, that although "the friendship of Great Britain was essential to Afghanistan, it was not so essential as was the friendship of Afghanistan to Great Britain." He then compared the Afghans to the Allies in the recent war, and he pointed out that, although the Germans had bombed London, as we had bombed Kabul, still the Germans were beaten in the long run. He also declared that even if Great Britain won a war with Afghanistan, which he evidently regarded as exceedingly improbable, the victory would only admit into India a flood of Bolshevism. So far as I know, all that we have gained, after an unprovoked and treacherous invasion, which was undertaken either in anticipation of or in collusion with a dangerous rebellion in the Punjab, has been the right to demarcate the Durand line, which might lave been done many years ago, although I am well aware of the difficulties of carrying it out.

One natural result of the Treaty very quickly followed. An Afghan Embassy reached Moscow on the 10th of this month, and was welcomed by Lenin, who said, according to a wireless message— I am glad to see in the Red Capital of the Workers' and Peasants' Government the representatives of the friendly Afghan people, who have suffered from, and are struggling against, the imperialistic yoke. That was two months after the imperialistic yoke had apparently been removed. The Afghan Ambassador replied in these words— I am glad to hold out a friendly hand to you, and hope that you will assist to free the entire East from European imperialism. Yesterday a telegram was published in The Times stating that Afghan emissaries were at work in Southern Turkestan, and it is quite evident that an alliance between Bolshevism and the Afghans might be a source of most serious mischief throughout the East.

I hope I have said enough to show that it is really necessary that we should possess full information of all the facts relating to the Armistice and to the Treaty. I may be quite wrong in thinking that a mistake has been made—a mistake that might gravely affect our position in India, our prestige in Central Asia and throughout the Far East, and our future relations with Persia. All this may have been inevitable, though in these days of aeroplanes I cannot believe that it is so. But if the information for which I have asked is given, this and many other important questions will be cleared up. What has impressed me most unfavourably, from the imperfect information that I have been able to obtain, is the attitude of victors which seems throughout to have been assumed by the Afghans. Having regard to the arrogant character of that people, I do think that this fact bodes ill for the future peace of the Indian frontier. I want again to protest against the reticence in regard to Indian matters, of which we have had too much of late. I feel that if this reticence continues we shall have some very unpleasant surprises before many years have passed. I have no idea whether this reticence is due to the India Office or to the Government of India, or to both, but I have noticed, in. connection with several of the Questions which I have put, that the information in the possession of the India Office seems to be very small. I beg to ask the Question standing in my name.


My Lords, I am left in a condition of some astonishment by the speech of the noble Lord to which we have just listened. He has complained, without giving details—which I do not therefore carry in my memory—of reticence as practised by the India Office with regard to public matters. Whether he alludes more particularly to affairs in connection with the frontier or Afghanistan or whether he includes in his remark matters of general Indian concern, I do not know. I am not, as he knows, responsible for the India Office, and I am not conscious of any desire on their part—and I am sure my noble friend the Under-Secretary of State would repudiate any desire on their part—to keep the House or the public at large in ignorance of anything that should properly be disclosed.

But the whole of the noble Lord's remarks this afternoon which have been devoted to the question of Afghanistan, and his complaints of reticence about our policy there, appear to have been conceived in complete ignorance of the existence of the White Paper which I hold in my hand. Can it really be that my noble friend has not seen this White Paper entitled "East India (Afghanistan),'' and described as "Papers regarding hostilities with Afghanistan in 1919"—a White Book covering 36 pages of print and containing nearly the whole, if not the whole, of the information which the noble Lord desires? He complains, for instance, that the full text of the Peace Treaty with Afghanistan has never been communicated, and he asks me in the first limb of his Question to-night whether we will make it available for the information of Parliament. My Lords, here it is in print, circulated to Parliament and to the public since August 23; and I can only conclude that my noble friend, in the overwhelming duties that he undertakes in the public interest, not only has not found time to study the volume, but was even unaware of its existence. He admits that. I can only regret that my noble friend had not seen the Paper, because it would have dispensed him front the obligation of making some of the remarks to which we have listened, and, equally, would have relieved me of the task of giving a reply.

But as the noble Lord's speech was based upon a misconception which, for all I know, may not be confined to him, and as his ignorance of this document may be shared by others, it may be just as well that I should assume that your Lordships are as ignorant of this Paper as he has shown himself to be, and that I should answer seriatim the points that he has made in the remarks to which we have just listened. The full text of the Treaty is contained on page 35 of this White Paper, and there is nothing whatever to be added to it. Nothing has been withheld, and there is nothing, therefore, to be added.

In the earlier part of the White Paper is the correspondence between the Amir of Afghanistan and the Government of India that preceded and accompanied the outbreak of hostilitie; between the two Governments. There is then contained an account of the actual hostilities themselves. We next pass to the request for an Armistice put forward by the Afghans. We then have the arrangements for the Conference at Rawal Pindi, to which the noble Lord referred, and, finally, we have the terms of the agreement as concluded. This White Paper does not, of course, contain the whole of the correspondence that has passed between the Secretary of State in London and the Government of India, or the whole of the communications that passed between the representatives of the Indian Government and the Afghan delegates at Rawal Pindi. Nobody will understand more readily than the noble Lord that it would not be in the public interest at the present moment to lay the whole of these Papers.

But there is another reason why the whole of these Papers could not be laid at the present moment, and that is that this Treaty—and here I point to another misconception which I think underlay the whole of the noble Lord's remarks—is only the first stage in the negotiations between Afghanistan and ourselves; negotiations which are not yet completed and which will have to be carried on further, I hope to a final stage, before full publication of the Papers can take place. If the noble Lord had had the advantage of perusing the Treaty he would have seen it described here as "a Peace Treaty containing Articles for the Restoration of Peace." That is unquestionably what it was, and no more. It was an arrangement for the suspension of hostilities between the two Governments. It was not a Treaty attempting to regulate or lay down the future relations political, diplomatical, or otherwise, between the Afghan Government and ourselves.

Let me recall what passed. The Afghans themselves had committed, as the noble Lord remarked, a series of acts of unprovoked aggression on the Indian Frontier. We had been compelled to retaliate, and our troops had advanced as far as the Afghan town of Dakka. We had bombed some of the towns in the interior, and thereupon the Afghans themselves sued for an Armistice, and it was in consequence of this that the Conference took place at Rawal Pindi which eventuated in the agreement to which I am here referring. The noble Lord referred to this agreement, the limited nature of which he did not appear to apprehend, as if in some sense it involved a victory for the other side. Is that the case?

Let us look for a moment at the terms of this agreement. We impose in this agreement, in the first place, the refusal of the subsidy hitherto enjoyed by the Amirs of Afghanistan—a subsidy which in the time of Amir Habibullah Khan, the last ruler, amounted to over 20 lakhs per annum. Secondly, the arrears of the subsidy not drawn by that Sovereign are also cancelled. Thirdly, the importation of arms and ammunition into Afghanistan from or through India, upon which the late Amir relied in the main for the defence of his country, is forbidden.

As regards the frontier, the noble Lord was again under a misapprehension. He talked about a provision being inserted for the demarcation of the Durand line. That is not the case at all. What has been done is this. There was a small section of the frontier to the west of the Khyber which had remained undermarcated ever since the Durand Mission to Kabul, and which has been a fruitful source of trouble between Afghanistan and ourselves. It was a constant source of anxiety and distress to me when I was in India. It was the Afghan claims and action upon the undemarcated section of the boundary which led to the hostilities that broke out in the present case. In this Treaty we have provided for the demarcation of that section of the frontier by British officers without Afghan co-operation, the agreement arrived at to be accepted by them.

Finally—and this is a point to which he noble Lord paid no attention—a probationary period of six months is set out from the conclusion of the agreement in which the conduct and attitude of the Amir will be considered before friendly relations can be restored between his Government and our own at a further meeting, to be followed up by a final Treaty of which this is merely the preliminary. I think, my Lords, I have shown that this agreement sufficiently indicates the relative position of the two parties at the end of the struggle, and demonstrates the price which Afghanistan has had to pay for its altogether unprovoked act of aggression upon the Indian frontier.

The noble Lord calls my particular attention to the Proclamation which was issued by the Viceroy in the early stages of these events, and asks whether I knew anything about it. No, my Lords, His Majesty's Government did not know anything about it at the time. The Proclamation was issued by the Viceroy in the exercise of his prerogative at the commencement of hostilities. It was circulated to the people of Afghanistan with a view to bringing about an early termination of hostilities, and inducing them to refrain from supporting their Ruler in the acts of headlong folly upon which he seemed disposed to embark. The Proclamation only reached this country rather more than a month after it had been issued in India, and I assume that it was justified by the objects for which it was issued. Anyhow, it was a matter within the prerogative of the Viceroy with which we at this end had nothing to do.

The noble Lord appears also to be rather anxious about a letter which had been sent by Sir Hamilton Grant, the Indian representative, to the Afghan delegates at the close of the proceedings at Rawal Pindi. Again, his only knowledge of this letter appears to be derived from what he has seen in the Indian newspapers. The letter is here. It has been in the possession of anybody who chose to read this White Paper since August 23; and it is rather late in the day for the noble Lord to come here and startle the House by this sudden discovery, which it was open to any one to anticipate who had followed the ordinary sources of official information. This is the letter with regard to the foreign relations of the Government of Afghanistan.

I have observed in the Press some notice given to the fact that this letter is alleged to have been kept back. My Lords, that is not the case. The letter was handed to the Afghan delegates on August 8. Of course, it was not received in this country until the mail had arrived, but it was published here, along with the other Papers, on August 23; and the letter only recorded what really is obvious if you look at the terms of the Treaty which I have summarised to your Lordships' House. Remember this. The previous Treaties between the Government or Sovereign of Afghanistan and ourselves were cancelled by the act of war, undertaken, as I say, without any provocation, by the Amir. I have already informed your Lordships that under the agreement the subsidy is gone; the arrears of the subsidy are forfeited; the privileges enjoyed by the late Amir in respect of the importation of arms are gone; the guarantees for the protection of the frontiers of Afghanistan against unprovoked attack are gone, too. In these circumstances, my Lords, we could not possibly insist upon the equivalent of those conditions—namely, upon retaining control of the foreign relations of the Afghan Government. This letter really only records what was quite evident in the document itself. I should be quite prepared on another occasion, if need arises, to argue the question of the degree to which it is necessary or even wise to attempt under modern conditions to exercise control over the external affairs of Afghanistan, but I do not think it is a matter which comes before us to-night, or which arises out of the Question which the noble Lord has put upon the Paper.

What I ask your Lordships to remember, after my explanation of all that has passed, is this—that only the first stage in these proceedings has so far been enacted, that we are now in the intervening period of six months in which we are waiting to see how the Amir will conduct himself and the policy of his country. A locus pœnitentiœ is given to him, to show what his real sentiments towards our Government are. If during that period we find that he acts in a spirit of friendliness and loyalty to the British Government, if he ceases to intrigue with the tribes on our side of the frontier and expels the dangerous outlaws from his own Dominions, and refuses to intrigue with those foreign agitators concerning whom the noble Lord has told us something in the concluding parts of his speech, but about whom we have no information that I can call authentic—if he behaves in this way, and treats the British Agent at Kabul with that courtesy which has been too often lacking in the past, then I hope it will be possible to make some arrangement with the Afghan Government which will differ in many important respects from those that have preceded it, but which I hope will give us what is really the sole essential thing—namely, a neighbour on the frontier who is friendly to ourselves and is loyal to the British connection, and with whom we can live in the future., as we have done with some of his predecessors in the past, on amicable terms. I think I have now given as full a reply as possible—and it has been a very full one—to the Question asked by my noble friend.


My Lords, like the Leader of the House I find myself in a position of some astonishment. My noble friend's Question has been on the Paper for a week, and I think any other Minister, if he had been an ordinary man, would have had my noble friend informed by means of his private secretary that the White Paper existed and that it was not necessary to ask the Question. Then I am sure my noble friend would have withdrawn his Question with a grateful acknowledgment of the courtesy, and so escaped the rebuke which has been heaped upon him.


With all respect, I cannot allow myself to be subjected to the rebuke of my noble friend. It never occurred to me for one moment that a noble Lord who is so thoroughly well informed as the noble Lord below the gangway (Lord Sydenham) could possibly have escaped seeing this document—nor did it ever occur to the India Office—and in preparing to give him an elaborate reply I was really paying him a compliment which I thought was deserved by his exceptional authority and position.


What seems to the noble Earl a compliment seems to others a rather cheap score, which might have been avoided.


I ask your Lordships' pardon for having wasted so much valuable time. The White Paper certainly never reached me, but of course I am to blame for not seeing that it was available. I hope that your Lordships were much more prescient, and took the steps which I neglected to take. I do not feel any sense of being rebuked. I only feel that I have made a great mistake, for which I apologise.