Afghanistan

These two articles that follow this introduction were published in The Irish Political Review around a decade ago, in 2008 and 2009.

Now, in 2021, we know that the U.S./U.K. have failed in Afghanistan. There should be no British complaints about President Biden’s decision to throw in the towel and cut the Afghan client government loose to face a reckoning with the locals. The British Army was thoroughly defeated in Afghanistan and the UK was doing no good there. The U.S. President has announced that it has fulfilled its original objective in invading the country 20 years ago and the superficial things it has been attempting ever since, termed “progress” are not worth the candle. Those of a superficial disposition are appalled by such realism on the part of the leader of the Western World. They believed, or at least convinced themselves, that the West does nothing but good in the world and its eternal mission has been left unaccomplished. But alas, there is no army but the U.S. Army to fight the good fight and the President is Commander in Chief of that army. So those Pound Shop British Generals can go back to playing war games with their toy soldiers and dreaming of when Britain ruled the World and screwed it up, before the Americans took over and did the same.

The British Foreign Secretary in 2009 stated that Britain fought the Taliban in Afghanistan to prevent the possibility of them having to be fought on the streets of London. There was never any evidence that the Taliban had any interest in the fleshpots of London. There was far more likelihood that local English jihadists operated in the U.K., and afterwards were siphoned off to Syria, largely because of what the UK was doing in Afghanistan and Iraq. But we can assume on his logic that the battle for London will soon begin, now that the war in Afghanistan has been lost. The frontline will be in Kensington, rather than Kabul!

Prince Harry, the most high status bomber of the Afghans, from a suitably safe location, has retired from his military career to pursue fame and fortune with an American actress. He has become the darling of the liberal West for marrying a “woman of colour” deserting his cruel family, becoming a migrant, and making his own way in life in California.

The Afghan communist government sustained itself for years after the Russian withdrawal and yet the present Western client government in Kabul, shorn of the US Airforce, has shown itself to be something without substance by the speed of its collapse. What the West did for the Afghans is obviously not worth fighting for by the Afghans themselves. They were prepared to fight longer and harder for communist values than Western Liberal values it seems. What does that say? Presumably, that they have had enough of the West and its hypocrisy. It has thoroughly disgraced itself in Afghanistan and other places since it became master of the world.

After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan it was possible to stabilise the state under President Najibullah. The US had sought to bleed the Soviet Union dry in Afghanistan. When the Red Army withdrew there was no necessity to press the war. However, all efforts by the Afghan government to bring about a peaceful settlement were subverted in the interests of pursuing the Cold War, even after the USSR was collapsing.

What is happening now will hopefully enable Afghanistan to develop through its own agency in conjunction with any foreign powers who can aid reconstruction (i.e. China). The Taliban are the only force capable of bringing order and stability to Afghanistan so their speedy victory should be welcomed. The hard fact of the matter, demonstrated by the absence of resistance from the army and state that the US spent trillions of dollars constructing, is that the only people of real substance in Afghanistan are in the ranks of the Taliban. And states have to be built around substance or they will be castles built on sand.

Perhaps the greatest consequence of the Taliban victory in August 2021 will be the end of the Great Game in Afghanistan. That surely would be a positive development, leaving the Afghans free to tend to their own affairs instead of forming the glacis on which the Great Powers fight their battles.

Spare us the Western liberal bleating about the prospects for “Afghan women”. The original Western intervention in Afghanistan was prompted by a local revolt against Afghan communist initiatives to educate Afghan girls. The West worked up an insurrection in Afghanistan for Cold War purposes, arming and training guerrillas who aimed to keep women uneducated and in their traditional place. The CIA and SAS trained these guerrillas in urban terrorism to enhance their military potential, when they were failing against the Soviet forces. The U.S. and U.K. assisted Bin Laden and other terrorists (freedom fighters?) to establish themselves in Afghanistan to wage jihad. (The spirit of the times is captured in the Hollywood movie, Charlie Wilson’s War and one of the later Rambo films with Sylvester Stallone, donning a pakol, and leading the jihadists on a white horse, while uttering God Bless America). The Mujahideen ultimately captured Kabul and took power and the Western backed war lords turned the country into lawless fiefdoms, where robbery, rape and murder were routine parts of everyday life.

The Taliban, an organised and coherent religious force, were welcomed as a necessary element to rid Afghanistan of this nightmare and bring much needed order and stability to people’s lives. And the West did business with them until Bin Laden struck, and bit the hand that fed him, on 9/11. How ungrateful! Was it something we did to annoy him?

These are the facts about the West’s destructive recent encounter with Afghanistan that will be absent in 2021 chatter. Those who have failed the Afghans and brought upon them nothing but death and destruction have no reason to bring these facts to the attention of the world.

The Bad Lands of Afghanistan (September 2009)

The British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, has said that it is essential to fight in the “bad lands of Afghanistan” lest the Taliban have to be fought on the streets of London: “This is about the future of Britain because we know that the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan have been used to launch terrible attacks, not just on the US but on Britain as well.”  (11 Sept)

Britain should know a lot about the bad lands of Afghanistan since it did so much to create them in the Great Game.

The present border between Afghanistan and Pakistan was established in a treaty signed on 12th November 1893, in Kabul by Sir Mortimer Durand, representing British India, and Abd al-Rahman, Amir of Afghanistan. Durand had been sent by Lord Lansdowne, the Viceroy of British India, to pursue Britain’s ‘Forward Policy’ which was designed to pacify tribal activity along the northwest hinterland of British India. It was a treaty in the British sense of the term, whereby a weaker party signed a piece of paper under duress because the stronger party wanted it and because not to do so would have resulted in worse consequences for the weaker party.

The Durand line came about as a result of the ‘Great Game.’ The ‘Great Game’ was the British term for Anglo-Russian rivalry in Central Asia. It stemmed from the British fear that the Russian civilizing mission in Central Asia would extend into Afghanistan and ultimately India. Throughout the 19th century the British were gradually moving North, and the Russians were slowly moving South in Asia. Britain took over the entire Indian sub-continent and, during the same period of time, the forces of the Czar of Russia were taking over Turkic speaking areas, such as Samarkand and Bukhara.

The Imperial ruling class in London viewed the Russian civilizing, particularly of the Moslem regions of Asia, as having great dangers for the Indian Empire and they determined that it should be prevented from entering Afghanistan.

England was also determined to prevent any foreign power from gaining ports that would gain them access to the Persian Gulf or Indian Ocean which might facilitate trade routes out of the sphere of influence of the Royal Navy. Peter the Great of Russia had decreed that Russia must find a warm-water port. Having blocked the Czars in Constantinople through the Crimean War the British feared that Russia would try to establish that warm water port in Karachi.

The Afghan Wars resulted from the British desire to maintain Afghanistan as a buffer state between Russian influence and India and to install puppet regimes in Kabul. When Afghan rulers refused to accept English missions to Kabul armies were sent from India to change their minds.  

The First Afghan War (1838-42) had ended in disaster for Britain as an army of 16,000 perished to a man retreating from Kabul. But in the 1870s the New vigorous British Imperialism favoured a ‘Forward Policy’ toward Afghanistan, holding that the ‘defence of India’ required pushing its frontiers to the natural barrier of the Hindu Kush, so that Afghanistan, or at least parts of it, would be brought entirely under British control. In 1876 Disraeli sent the new Indian Viceroy, Lord Lytton, to Delhi with orders to institute the Forward Policy. Shir Ali, the Amir, rejected a demand for a British mission in Kabul in 1876 arguing that if he agreed the Russians might demand the same right and his country would become a battleground of the Great Powers.

After Britain blocked the Russian advance in the Balkans (to Constantinople, it was feared) at the Congress of Berlin the Czar turned his attention to Central Asia. In 1878 Russia sent an uninvited diplomatic mission to Kabul. The British demanded that Shir Ali accept a British mission. Shir Ali had not responded by August 17 when his heir died, throwing the court at Kabul into mourning.

When no reply was received, the British dispatched an envoy, Sir Neville Chamberlain, with a military force. When he was refused permission to cross the Khyber Pass by Afghan troops the British viewed this as a handy pretext for implementing the Forward Policy and grabbing most of Afghanistan. An ultimatum was delivered to Shir Ali, demanding an explanation of his actions and when the Afghan response was viewed as unsatisfactory three British armies entered Afghanistan. Shir Ali, died on a mission to plead with the Czar for help and with British forces occupying much of the country, his son, Yaqub, signed the Treaty of Gandamak to prevent British invasion of the rest of Afghanistan.

According to this agreement, and in return for an annual subsidy and an assurance of assistance in case of Russian aggression, Yaqub agreed to British control of Afghan foreign affairs, the presence of British representatives in Kabul and Kandahar, British control of the Khyber passes, and the cessation of various frontier areas to the Indian Empire. Then the head of the British Mission , Sir Louis Cavagnari, was assassinated, just after he arrived in Kabul. A British army went through the passes and reoccupied Kabul, deposing Yaqub.

But despite the initial success of the military expedition, Britain was unable to control the country outside the capital and it withdrew. Britain would have preferred to incorporate Afghanistan into the Indian Empire. But the British were forced to use the negotiating table and draw up the Durand Line.

The Russians and the British made a deal. Under the treaty everything North and West of Durand’s line was Afghanistan. Everything South and East of the line was British India, an area which is now in Pakistan. The Russians would stay North of the Oxus River. The British would stay south of the crest of the Himalayas. In order to make sure that neither country would come into conflict with the other, a sort of giant no-mans land was set up. A buffer state was created which would be in between the Russian and the British Empires. The name of that Buffer State was Afghanistan a state which had not existed previously.

This is the reason why a part of Afghanistan reaches out and touches as far as China. The arm is called the Wakhan Corridor. There, the northern border of Afghanistan is the Oxus River. The southern border is the crest of the Himalayas and Hindu Kush mountains, which converge together at that point. It was important to the British that Russia never came to acquire territory adjacent to India. For this reason, the Wakhan Corridor, which is only eight miles wide at its narrowest point, was made part of Afghanistan and was extended to touch China.

The ‘State’ of Afghanistan was split in two by the second highest mountain range in the world, the Hindu Kush. The people north of the Hindu Kush had little in common with those south of the Hindu Kush. Their language was different as well as their religion. South of the Hindu Kush, the speakers were primarily Pashtun. North of the Hindu Kush, mostly Turkic languages is spoken, as well as Farsi.

The Durand Line, whilst constructing a State of distinct peoples in a territory whose geography was not conducive to a state, also split the lands of its major ethnic group in two. The border bisected the Pashtun tribal area, leaving more than half the Pashtun tribes in Pakistan. The Durand Line ran through the middle of the lands of the most important eastern Afghan Pashtun tribes and as a result millions of Pashtuns now inhabit the Pakistani provinces of Punjab and Sindh, the cities of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. (The Pashtun are divided into more than 60 clans, all speaking the common Pashtun language. They number about 12 ½ million in Afghanistan and 14 million in Pakistan. In Pakistan, Pashtun speakers number less than 10 percent of the population of 145 million, which is dominated by Punjabis and other ethnic groups. In Afghanistan, however, a population of 26 million, contains the Pashtun, which constitute nearly half the population of the country, and have, more than often, dominated Afghan affairs.)

The Eastern Pashtuns never regarded the Durand Line through their homeland as an international border and refused to recognize it. No Afghan regime, including the Taliban when they were in power, has accepted the validity of the Durand Line. Afghans have never accepted this border since it was imposed by Imperial Powers with the intention of marking out their spheres of influence rather than an international frontier.

After the communist takeover of Afghanistan in 1978, the government actively challenged the legitimacy of the Durand Line and formally repudiated the Durand Agreement in 1979. In 1993, 100 years after the signing of the Agreement, the Durand Agreement lapsed. Afghanistan refused to renew the treaty, leaving Afghanistan and Pakistan with no official border.

The period between 1907 and 1919 revealed that Britain, even though it had concluded a treaty with Russia, establishing the Line, regarded it as a mere ‘scrap of paper’ (in the supposed manner of the Kaiser with regard to Belgium) and a temporary situation. It took the attitude it has with all treaties – they are there to be broken when the time is right and a suitable reason or cause found to break them. They are there to support the interests of the time but never to cater for the interests of the future.

As part of its agreement with Russia in 1907, to clear the decks for war on Germany, England had secured the Czar’s agreement that Afghanistan should become a British protectorate – thus ending the Great Game. The Czar presumably agreed to this because he got what he had wanted all along – a warm water port. Edward Grey had overturned the main plank of British Foreign Policy of the nineteenth century (known in music hall parlance as ‘The Russians shall not have Constantinople’) to engage the Russian Steamroller to flatten Germany on its eastern flank, after securing the French in 1904 on the Kaiser’s west.

Of course, the Afghans had no say in the matter. Their country had been the battleground in the Great Game and now that the Game was over the winner took the board.

But in 1919 the Czar was gone and Britain felt that all deals were off with regard to Russia with the regime change – accept with regard to Afghanistan where the agreement of 1907 with the Czar was deemed to stand. And the idea of Protectorate started to appear old-hat to the victor.

Afghanistan had remained neutral in the Great War and the new Amir, Amanullah, thought that since the Czar had gone and Britain was free of the Great Game and had fought a war for small nations Afghanistan might be one of those nations that might enjoy the new world of the victors. So he wrote to the Governor General of India declaring his accession to the free and independent state of Afghanistan and his intention of asserting this status through an independent foreign policy. But like Ireland found there were small nations and small nations.

On 3rd June 1919 The Irish News revealed that the situation had developed into the Third Afghan War:

“An Amir was murdered recently – by no means an unusual fate for Amirs – and the Afghans soon afterwards delivered attacks on England’s Indian outposts. Therefore ‘the Afghans are lawless, ignorant, rapacious, and almost incurably vain; they are a race of desperate fanatics.’ … For long years the Afghans were England’s allies; they held the pathway between Russian territory in Central Asia and the Indian Peninsula, and the Russians should fight the Amir’s forces if they tried to get to the Punjab. In those days the Afghans were a brave and martial race – fearless mountaineers who loved liberty so well that no Muscovite dared trifle with their territory. Now they are ‘lawless, ignorant’ etcetera…

Afghanistan is a large country – as big, we learn, as France, Belgium, Holland and Switzerland put together. But its population is only between 5,000,000 and 6,000,000. So recently as 1907 – when relations between the Czar’s Government and the British Government were becoming cordial – Russia declared that Afghan territory was without the Russian ’sphere of influence’ and undertook to act in all its political relations with Afghanistan through the British Ministry. Russia exists no longer as an Imperial State; and Turkey’s downfall leaves Afghanistan the largest and most formidable of the Moslem Powers. The headship of the Moslem World has practically reverted to the Amir: and this fact must be borne in mind when the new Anglo-Afghan war is considered… Fomenters of strife have an immense area of operations… Asia must be reconquered from the eastern borders of China to the Mediterranean Sea. The latest Afghan War – the third waged against the mountain tribes of the old ‘buffer state’ within 42 years – is only one piece of a gigantic movement that may soon reach the dimensions and be marked by the ferocity of a ‘Holy War.’ Afghanistan cannot cope with the English power in India but it is doubtful whether England will deem it advisable to march troops through the Himalayan Passes again and occupy Kabul, Kandahar and Herat. The cost of conquering the whole country would be serious – in blood and treasure. The cost of holding it would mean a huge annual addition to the burden of taxation. But if the Moslems of Afghanistan are not completely subdued they will be perennially dangerous to the British Empire in India. It is an awkward dilemma: it would be difficult if Afghanistan alone were conquered; but the Afghans are only a small section of the vast Mahommedan population in Western and Central Asia, and in India, the prospects of peace in a continent where war under the ‘banner of the Prophet’ is considered a solemn duty and where death in battle is looked upon as the opening of the gate to external bliss – the variety of supreme happiness that commends itself to the Oriental imagination – are not particularly hopeful.”

In April 1919 the Amir moved troops to the frontier with British India in response to the administrative massacre of 400 Indians by General Edward Dyer at Amritsar. In Britain this was called an ‘invasion’ since it threatened the Durand Line that England was, itself, about to ignore.

But it could hardly be seen as an ‘invasion’ to the locals since the area was inhabited by the Pashtun, who moved across both territories, and hardly recognised the existence of a border at all

Fighting broke out in the Hindu Kush and when this proved costly to Britain the RAF bombed Kabul and Jalalabad and the Amir sued for peace.

This was the great opportunity to drive the lesson home to the Afghans that they were to be ‘protected’ by Britain whether they liked it or not. But when it came to the bit the thought of occupying Kabul, Kandahar and Herat made the Indian administration think again and the Third Afghan War was ended with the Treaty of Rawalpindi. In this Treaty England conceded the Afghan demands for independence and control of foreign relations and almost immediately the Amir made an agreement with the Bolsheviks for the establishment of a Soviet consulate in Kabul.

Here is Colonel Repington’s (The Times military correspondent, and a man ‘in the know.’) take on it:

“In 1917 and 1919 two very important events occurred. In the former year Imperial Russia collapsed, and in the latter our good friend the Amir Habibula was murdered in his bed. His son Amanulla, immediately after his accession, declared Afghanistan to be a free and independent kingdom. It was his right, for our arrangements with each Amir were personal and not dynastic. He went to war with us, and was let off lightly owing to his youth and inexperience. Our control over his external relations ceased, and also our liability to defend his country from attack.

A third event happened in 1920, namely a decision to send a strong Anglo-Indian force, eventually 45,000 strong into Waziristan – for the ninth time, so far as I can recall – to chastise its people, especially the Mahsuds, who had thoroughly deserved punishment…  

We accepted the declaration of independence with calm… But then the unexpected happened again. We gradually discovered that the Government of India had not only sent an army into Waziristan, but meant to occupy it.  A complete occupation was apparently found to be too great and costly a business, but our public have not been informed how matters passed at this particular stage… Then we saw that the Government of India had shied at the cost of the complete occupation and had invented a new school of frontier political strategy, namely the ‘half-forward’ school, and was endeavouring to prove to us what a wonderful invention it was.” (Policy And Arms, pp.254-5) 

Afghanistan was one of the first signs that Britain’s power, which seemed to have increased with its victory in the Great War, and its territorial extensions in the Middle East, was not all it appeared to be. Things began to be done that were always done and then undone, and then done again in a half-hearted fashion, on the cheap. And it was all rather clever but ultimately purposeless. No more British armies marched up the Khyber Pass to Kabul.

The Durand Line and the Afghan State survived because in the moment of victory, when the Afghans were ripe for the taking (if not for the keeping), Britain had exhausted itself in the war to see off Germany.

In the 1980s the Great Game resumed in another form and the Durand Line became a supply route for men and material, encouraged by the state agencies of America and Britain. During the Soviet occupation of Western and Northern Afghanistan, some portions of Eastern and Southern Afghanistan inhabited by the Pashtun became part of a ‘free’ Afghanistan, a kind of satellite of Pakistan. 6 million Afghans came to Pakistan during this period and more than one million Afghan children were born within Pakistan.

Pakistan has always upheld the legitimacy of the Line and desired to make it permanent because it does not want to lose any more territory (as it did with Bangladesh in 1971) and because it wishes to preserve influence within Afghanistan. Pakistan would prefer an Afghan government dominated by ethnic Pashtuns that would provide it with strategic influence both in its conflict with India and in maintaining access to the Central Asian resources. This is why Pakistan trained and armed the Taliban, and continued to do so even after joining the US in the ‘war on terror.’ But an unstable Pakistan-Afghanistan border is not a trouble-free proposition for Pakistan and the more the West has interfered in Afghanistan the more it has pushed the problem into Pakistan territory.

However, Pakistan is aware of the difficulties of governing a section of people who straddle the Line and it administers the Pashtun area through the Federally Administered Tribal Agency (FATA), under the direct control of its central government. Frontier regulations stipulated that the Pashtun clans retain their own legal order through tribal elders’ councils and local jirgas (courts). It also permitted the practice of going to war to resolve tribal disputes over land and livestock.

Regulations have allowed smuggling to go on – from weapons to consumer goods. The Pakistan-Afghanistan Agreement on Shipping (costing Pakistan about US$4-5 billion each year in lost duties) maintains the border as a kind of legal fiction. The agreement guarantees free movement of goods. Travelling from Pakistan to Afghanistan, one would become aware of the border only after it had been crossed through encountering an on-coming truck which in Afghanistan, unlike in Pakistan, drives on the right-hand side of the road.

The Durand Line poses a problem for Afghanistan in maintaining its sovereignty. It weakens the Pashtuns, the majority ethnic group in Afghanistan, preventing them from functioning as a coherent political entity. Some Americans have suggested that the only solution to the problem is to push the Durand Line eastward to the River Indus to bring all the Pashtuns under Afghanistan.

Such a proposal would meet with strong resistance from Pakistan. And perhaps that is the reason the Pakistan Army moved against the Taliban earlier in the year, as this idea was being floated.

What is Britain doing back in Afghanistan? I doubt it if Britain knows itself, let alone the son of a famous Marxist who has found himself in the position of Lord Curzon. About 95 years ago in the course of waging its Great War on Germany a fundamental thing happened in the British State. It established a propaganda department called Wellington House to flood the world with ideas about the benevolent war England waged on its behalf, and on behalf of civilization. The problem is, a lot of the world began to take this in earnest. Not only that, England began to take it in earnest.

The British State, up to the Great War, acted purposefully in the world. During that War, in deluging the world with propaganda, it confused itself into incoherence. That incoherence began to have disastrous effects on the world, which England found itself master of, from 1919.

Propaganda has always been a weapon of the British State but it had never been the basis of policy of that State. From the Great War policy became infected by propaganda until the relationship has become unclear. The war in Afghanistan is now presented in propaganda terms by Foreign Secretary Miliband. But what lies under the propaganda, in the policy? Nothing it appears. 

The result, after the Great War, and ever since, has been incoherence at the heart of the British State – beginning and ending in the bad lands of Afghanistan.

Perhaps Britain’s army is there just to help the U.S. But the U.S. has had to bail out the British in Helmand because the British evidently thought they could pursue the strategy they have deluded themselves into believing “won the war in Northern Ireland”. It was noticed in Washington that Britain was intent on doing what it did in Basra in Helmand – bribe a few elders, make a great deal of walking about without helmets on occasional forays into local towns for the journalists, and scurrying back to barracks. As John Reid put it, the remnants of the Taliban would be subdued “without a shot being fired.”

England created “the bad lands of Afghanistan” and it seems not to know what it’s doing there now. It can only hope that the U.S. can find a solution.

Ireland, Prince Harry, And The Great Game (August 2008)

Prince Harry has been withdrawn from active service as button pusher for the bombers of the Afghans. Someone else will now have to do the dangerous job of pushing the button for the bombers that Harry pushed. For Prince Harry the war is over. He has played his last innings in the Great Game which England has resumed playing in Afghanistan in conjunction with the United States.

In the past the Great Game proved deadly for England and when America took it up about two decades ago it proved deadly to them too. The Hindu Kush, which for centuries has been only interested in being left alone, has had an unpleasant habit of cursing all those who have disturbed it.

About 25 years ago there was a revolt in the Afghan army over the education of women. The government in Kabul was attempting to bring about some civilising progress in this matter. But the United States and Britain utilised the fundamentalist revolt against the educating of females by escalating a war against progress and its allies in Moscow. Now it has been made into a Hollywood film, without the unhappy ending, of course.

A decade or so ago I remember reading in The Sunday Times an article by some Special Forces operative which detailed how teams of British and Americans  instructed the Afghan rabble, who were getting the worst of it from the Russians, in the arts of terrorism and made them into an effective threat to the infidel. And this was printed without comment on the subsequent use of those arts on the friendly infidels. 

Much of what is happening now in Afghanistan and Iraq has its roots in Britain’s decision to carve up the Ottoman Empire in 1919-20.

In those days much of the Irish press was Redmondite. But it did a lot more thinking for itself than it does today in ‘independent’ Ireland. The Irish News, the Belfast paper of Joe Devlin, would be a revelation to The Irish News of today, on foreign affairs. In fact it is more radically anti-imperialist than anything modern Ireland produces.

That is a strange fact indeed – that Ireland was more independent minded in its understanding of foreign affairs when it was under the Empire than it is today.

I must admit that I believed that the healthy distrust Ireland had of Britain’s intentions in the world was a product of independent Ireland. I then found it in 1900 with regard to the Boer War in The Freeman’s Journal. I thought that marked an end to it before 1916 and Republican Ireland. But I did not think I would find it in Joe Devlin’s paper in 1919.

Another thing I noticed in studying the Irish papers of this time was how much better was the Devlinite paper than its Free State equivalents on foreign affairs.

The Devlinite Irish News was a supporter of the Great War on Germany and Turkey. During the Home Rule struggle the objectives of Irish Nationalism and English Liberalism merged and Redmondite Imperialism was the outcome. The Irish News fully supported all the extensions and escalations that British Imperialism engaged in from the war for democracy and small nations. But around 1920 The Irish News began to realise that what it was hoping for in the world of Imperial triumph was not what was occurring.

In Belfast the Devlinite dream was turning sour. The Imperial forces, for which The Irish News had helped recruit, had attempted to put down the Irish democracy. The Irish soldiers who had gone to fight for the Empire against Germany and Turkey, in the expectation of a reward of Home Rule, saw no Home Rule and their homes and families attacked by their former comrades in arms. This seems to have had a disconcerting effect on the Devlinites.

An interesting contrast is revealed between South and North during this period. The coverage of events in the Middle East is much more extensive in the Belfast Irish News than in The Independent. In an editorial, The Balkans Again, The Independent comments on September 19th 1922: There may be a new war. Well dont worry. Ireland is busy setting up house. We havent time for outside concerns.

In August 1922 the conflict about the Treaty in the South began to change character. The Free State forces had largely won control of most towns and won the war of territory; the Republican forces had began guerrilla type activity in response. What The Independent meant when it said that Ireland is busy setting up house is that the Irish Republic was being disestablished through military force in favour of the Irish Free State – a house acceptable to the Empire.

The Independent was becoming the newspaper of the Free State during this period and it was leaving behind the activist Imperialism of the Redmondite period. That is not to say that it was leaving behind the British influence in its understanding of foreign affairs. That was still there in its world outlook. And that can be seen in contrasting its view to that of The Catholic Bulletin.

An independent Irish viewpoint on the world did not emerge within the popular press until the publication of the Irish Press in 1931. This paper was the newspaper of independent Ireland. All the other papers have been adaptations from the Home Rule era, in one way or another.

The North-East, unlike the South, was still Redmondite, or more correctly, Devlinite. The Irish News was hesitantly moving toward a Free State position for the purposes of adapting to what the bulk of the nation was doing in the South, but it was doing so within the ambit of the Devlinite Imperialism of the previous decade or so. That is understandable. To the Northern Catholics the Irish ‘Civil War’ was a travesty and disaster. The main concern in the North was for the conflict between Nationalists in the South to be over so that the main part of the nation could exert itself on the behalf of the Northern Catholics again. That is mainly why The Irish News took the Free State side. But the Catholics of Belfast remained Hibernian/Devlinite in orientation – despite the British/Unionist provocation that was driving them in a Republican direction.

West Belfast, unlike the rest of the country, was reasonably content with Home Rule and the participation in Imperial affairs that went with it. Belfast was a British city, unlike anything in the South, and it took a continued interest in the affairs of the State it remained part of, and what it was doing in the world. That is why there are references sprinkled about The Irish News about the continued importance of events in the East when the Free State Independent does not want to know.

On May 19th 1919 The Irish News editorial, Dividing Up, reported on the proposed division of the Ottoman Empire amongst the victors:

“Official sanction has not yet been proclaimed in connection with the Allies’ dismemberment of the ‘Turkish Empire.’ There was a time – and that within the memory of men who yet deem themselves far from aged – when the preservation of the Turkish Empire in Europe and Asia was a cardinal point of British ‘Imperial’ policy… England fought the Crimean War to secure Turkish integrity… and now the Turkish Empire is to pass from existence, as greater ‘combinations’ have faded out of sight. Assyria, Greece, Rome, Carthage, where are they now?…

We do not question England’s desire to get Palestine and Mesopotamia. The Suez Canal will then be as completely under English control as the passage through Panama is under American, and the Red Sea will become an ‘English lake.’ Some years ago Russia (of the Czar) and England ‘partitioned’ the ancient Kingdom of Persia into ‘spheres of influence.’ Russia has vanished from the ‘Imperialist picture’; we shall soon learn that Persia’s genuine interests demand the supervision and ‘protection’ of the European Power whose new territories adjoin the Dominions of the Shah. In old days the Russian menace to India from the North was the most pressing problem of English statesmanship. The Ameer of Afghanistan and his people were threatened, petted, coaxed, and bribed in turns so that English influence might be maintained and Afghanistan held as a ‘buffer state’ between the Czar’s forces and India. Now the necessity for preserving a sort of independence in Afghanistan has passed away; therefore it is being discovered that the Ameer and the Afghans are behaving badly – that they are treacherous and uncivilised – that they engaged in a ‘German Plot’ – and that the interests of Law and Order, the League of Nations, Christianity, and Civilisation imperatively require their subjection to proper discipline. When Afghanistan and Persia have been placed in a fitting state of ‘protection,’ Central Asia, south of Siberia and China, from the Mediterranean and Red Sea to the Pacific Ocean, will be under English dominion. And, of course, we did not go into the war for new territories in Asia or Africa and President Wilson barred conquests, and declared that no people’s lands or liberties should be bartered as if they were cattle.”

A week or so later on 3rd June The Irish News revealed that the situation had developed into the Third Afghan War:

“An Amir was murdered recently – by no means an unusual fate for Amirs – and the Afghans soon afterwards delivered attacks on England’s Indian outposts. Therefore ‘the Afghans are lawless, ignorant, rapacious, and almost incurably vain; they are a race of desperate fanatics.’ … For long years the Afghans were England’s allies; they held the pathway between Russian territory in Central Asia and the Indian Peninsula, and the Russians should fight the Amir’s forces if they tried to get to the Punjab. In those days the Afghans were a brave and martial race – fearless mountaineers who loved liberty so well that no Muscovite dared trifle with their territory. Now they are ‘lawless, ignorant’ etcetera…

Afghanistan is a large country – as big, we learn, as France, Belgium, Holland and Switzerland put together. But its population is only between 5,000,000 and 6,000,000. So recently as 1907 – when relations between the Czar’s Government and the British Government were becoming cordial – Russia declared that Afghan territory was without the Russian ’sphere of influence’ and undertook to act in all its political relations with Afghanistan through the British Ministry. Russia exists no longer as an Imperial State; and Turkey’s downfall leaves Afghanistan the largest and most formidable of the Moslem Powers. The headship of the Moslem World has practically reverted to the Amir: and this fact must be borne in mind when the new Anglo-Afghan war is considered… Fomenters of strife have an immense area of operations… Asia must be reconquered from the eastern borders of China to the Mediterranean Sea. The latest Afghan War – the third waged against the mountain tribes of the old ‘buffer state’ within 42 years – is only one piece of a gigantic movement that may soon reach the dimensions and be marked by the ferocity of a ‘Holy War.’ Afghanistan cannot cope with the English power in India but it is doubtful whether England will deem it advisable to march troops through the Himalayan Passes again and occupy Kabul, Kandahar and Herat. The cost of conquering the whole country would be serious – in blood and treasure. The cost of holding it would mean a huge annual addition to the burden of taxation. But if the Moslems of Afghanistan are not completely subdued they will be perennially dangerous to the British Empire in India. It is an awkward dilemma: it would be difficult if Afghanistan alone were conquered; but the Afghans are only a small section of the vast Mahommedan population in Western and Central Asia, and in India, the prospects of peace in a continent where war under the ‘banner of the Prophet’ is considered a solemn duty and where death in battle is looked upon as the opening of the gate to external bliss – the variety of supreme happiness that commends itself to the Oriental imagination – are not particularly hopeful.”

The Great Game was the British term for Anglo-Russian rivalry in Central Asia. It stemmed from the British fear that the Russian civilizing mission in Central Asia would extend into Afghanistan and ultimately India. The Imperial ruling class in London viewed the Russian civilizing, particularly of the Moslem regions of Asia, as having great dangers for the Indian Empire and they determined that it should be prevented from entering Afghanistan.

The Afghan Wars resulted from the British desire to maintain Afghanistan as a buffer state between Russian influence and India and to install puppet regimes in Kabul. When Afghan rulers refused to accept English missions to Kabul armies were sent from India to change their minds, as in The Second Afghan War.  

The First Afghan War (1838-42) had ended in disaster for Britain as an army of 16,000 perished to a man retreating from Kabul. But in the 1870s the New Imperialism favoured a Forward Policy toward Afghanistan, holding that the ‘defence of India’ required pushing its frontiers to the natural barrier of the Hindu Kush, so that Afghanistan, or at least parts of it, would be brought entirely under British control. In 1876 Disraeli sent the new Indian Viceroy, Lord Lytton, to Delhi with orders to institute the Forward Policy. Sher Ali, the Emir, rejected a demand for a British mission in Kabul in1876 arguing that if he agreed the Russians might demand the same right and his country would become a battleground of the Great Powers.

After Britain blocked Russian influence in the Balkans at the Congress of Berlin the Czar turned his attention to Central Asia. In 1878 Russia sent an uninvited diplomatic mission to Kabul. The British demanded that Sher Ali accept a British mission. Sher Ali had not responded by August 17 when his heir died, throwing the court at Kabul into mourning.

When no reply was received, the British dispatched an envoy, Sir Neville Chamberlain, with a military force. When he was refused permission to cross the Khyber Pass by Afghan troops the British viewed this as a handy pretext for implementing the Forward Policy and grabbing most of Afghanistan. An ultimatum was delivered to Sher Ali, demanding an explanation of his actions and when the Afghan response was viewed as unsatisfactory three British armies entered Afghanistan. Sher Ali, died on a mission to plead with the Czar for help and with British forces occupying much of the country, his son, Yaqub, signed the Treaty of Gandamak to prevent British invasion of the rest of Afghanistan.

According to this agreement, and in return for an annual subsidy and an assurance of assistance in case of Russian aggression, Yaqub agreed to British control of Afghan foreign affairs, the presence of British representatives in Kabul and Kandahar, British control of the Khyber passes, and the cessation of various frontier areas to the Indian Empire. Then the head of the British Mission , Sir Louis Cavagnari, was assassinated, just after he arrived in Kabul. A British army went through the passes and reoccupied Kabul, deposing Yaqub.

But despite the initial success of the military expedition, Britain was unable to control the country outside the capital and withdrew.

The Afghan State was always easy to destabilise since it was hardly a state at all. The Afghans preferred to live in their tribal lands with their extended family groups and get on with life free from the ‘progress’ imposed by a centralising state structure. But the political preferences of the Afghans made them difficult to conquer and control. So in the late nineteenth century Britain used mainly punitive operations against Kabul to maintain an influence that kept the Russians out.

As part of its agreement with Russia in 1907, to clear the decks for war on Germany, England had secured the Czar’s agreement that Afghanistan should become a British protectorate – thus ending the Great Game. Of course, the Afghans had no say in the matter. Their country had been the battleground in the Great Game and now that the Game was over the winner took the board.

In 1919 the Czar was gone and Britain felt that all deals were off with regard to Russia with the regime change – accept with regard to Afghanistan where the agreement of 1907 with the Czar was deemed to stand. Only the idea of Protectorate had started to appear old-hat.

Afghanistan had remained neutral in the Great War and the new Amir, Amanullah, thought that since the Czar had gone and Britain was free of the Great Game and had fought a war for small nations Afghanistan might be one of those nations that might enjoy the new world of the victors. So he wrote to the Governor General of India declaring his accession to the free and independent state of Afghanistan and his intention of asserting this status through an independent foreign policy.

In April 1919 the Amir moved troops to the frontier with British India in response to the administrative massacre of 400 Indians by General Edward Dyer at Amritsar. In Britain this was called an ‘invasion.’ But it can hardly be seen as an invasion since the area around the Afghan/Indian (now Pakistani) frontier is inhabited by the Pashtun, who move across both territories, and hardly recognise the existence of a border at all (Afghanistan’s frontier with British India was drawn up by Sir Mortimer Durand in 1893. It was an arbitrary line designed to cut the lands of the Pashtun tribes in two and make them easier to control.)

Fighting broke out in the Hindu Kush and when this proved costly to Britain the RAF bombed Kabul and Jalalabad and the Amir sued for peace.

This was the great opportunity to drive the lesson home to the Afghans that they were to be ‘protected’ by Britain whether they liked it or not. But when it came to the bit the thought of occupying Kabul, Kandahar and Herat made the Indian administration think again and the Third Afghan War was ended with the Treaty of Rawalpindi. In this Treaty England conceded the Afghan demands for independence and control of foreign relations and almost immediately the Amir made an agreement with the Bolsheviks for the establishment of a Soviet consulate in Kabul.

Afghanistan was the first sign that Britain’s power, which seemed to have increased with its victory in the Great War, and its territorial extensions in the Middle East, was not all it appeared to be. No more British armies marched up the Khyber Pass to Kabul.

Is modern ‘independent’ Ireland closer to the views of Free State Independent or the Devlinite Irish News? I’m afraid it must be The Free State Independent. What does that say about ’independent’ Ireland?

Pat Walsh

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