Foreign Policy of the British In India

The Northwest Frontier

British India expanded beyond its company borders to both the northwest and the northeast during this initial phase of Crown rule. The turbulent tribal frontier to the northwest remained a continuing source of harassment to settled British rule, and Pathan raiders served as a constant lure and justification to champions of the “forward school” of imperialism in the colonial offices of Calcutta and in the imperial government offices at Whitehall, London.

Russian expansion into central Asia in the 1860 s provided even greater anxiety and incentive to British proconsuls in India, as well as at the foreign office in London, to advance the frontier of the Indian empire beyond the Hindu Kush and, indeed, up to Afghanistan’s northern border along the Amu Darya. Lord Canning, however, was far too preoccupied with trying to restore tranquillity within India to consider embarking upon anything more ambitious than the northwest frontier punitive expedition policy (commonly called “butcher and bolt”), which was generally regarded as the simplest, cheapest method of “pacifying” the Pathans. As viceroy, Lord Lawrence (1864-1869) continued the same border-pacification policy and resolutely refused to be pushed or lured into the ever-simmering cauldron of Afghan politics. In 1863, when the popular old emir, Dost Muhammad Khan, died, Lawrence refrained from attempting to name his successor, leaving the emir’s 16 sons to fight their own fratricidal battles until 1868, when Sher Ali Khan finally emerged victorious. Lawrence then recognised and subsidised the new emir. The viceroy, Lord Mayo (governed 1869-1872), met to confer with Sher Ali at Ambala in 1869 and, though reaffirming Anglo-Afghan friendship, resisted all requests by the emir for more permanent and practical support for his still precarious regime. Lord Mayo, the only British viceroy killed in office, was assassinated by an Afghan prisoner on the Andaman Islands in 1872.

The Second Afghan War

Russia’s advance into Turkistan so sufficiently alarmed Prime Minister Disraeli and his Secretary of State for India, Robert Salisbury, that by 1874, when they came to power in London, they pressed the Government of India to pursue a more vigorous interventionist line with the Afghan government. The then Viceroy, Lord Northbrook, resisted all such cabinet promptings to reverse Lawrence’s non-interventionist policy and to return to the militant posture of the First Afghan War era. He resigned his office rather than accept orders from ministers whose diplomatic judgment he believed to be disastrously distorted by Russophobia. On the British government’s desired, soon after he reached Calcutta, he sent a “mission” to Kabul. When the emir refused Lytton permission to enter Afghanistan, the viceroy aggressively declared that Afghanistan was but “an earthen pipkin between two metal pots.”

He did not, however, take action against the kingdom until 1878, when Russia’s General Stolyetov was admitted to Kabul while Lytton’s envoy, Sir Neville Chamberlain, was turned back at the border by Afghan troops. The viceroy launched the Second Afghan War on Nov. 21, 1878, with a British invasion. Sher Ali fled his capital and country, dying in exile early in 1879. The British army occupied Kabul, as it had in the first war, and a treaty signed at Gandamak on May 26, 1879, was concluded with the former emir’s son, Yaqkub Khan. Yaqkub Khan promised, in exchange for British support and protection, to admit to his Kabul court a British resident who would direct Afghan foreign relations, but the resident, Sir Louis Cavagnari, was assassinated on Sept. 3, 1879, just two months after he arrived. British troops returned to Kabul and removed Yaqkub from the throne, which remained vacant until July 1880, when Abd al-Rahman Khan, nephew of Sher Ali, became emir. The new emir, one of the cleverest statesmen in Afghan history, remained secure on the throne until his death in 1901.

The viceroy, Lord Lansdowne (1888-1894), who sought to reassert a more forward policy in Afghanistan, did soon the advice of his military commander in chief, Lord Roberts, who had served as field commander in the Second Afghan War. In 1893 Lansdowne sent Sir Mortimer Durand, the Government of India’s foreign secretary, on a mission to Kabul to open negotiations on the delimitation of the Indo-Afghan border. The delimitation, known as the Durand Line, was completed in 1896 and added the tribal territory of the Afridis, Mahskuds, Waziris, and Swatis as well as the chieftainships of Chitral and Gilgit, to the domain of British India. The Earl of Elgin (1894-1899), Lansdowne’s successor, devoted much of his Viceregal tenure to sending British Indian armies on punitive expeditions along this new frontier. Lord Curzon (1899-1905), however, recognised the impracticality of trying to administer the turbulent frontier region as part of the large Punjab province. Thus, in 1901 he created a new North-West Frontier Province containing some about 100,000 square km of trans-Indus and tribal borderland territory under a British chief commissioner responsible directly to the Viceroy. By instituting a policy of regular payments to frontier tribes, the new province reduced border conflicts, though for the next decade British troops continued to fight against Mahskuds, Waziris, and Zakka Khel Afridis.

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