So little has appeared in the newspapers about the Third Afghan War that probably most respectable citizens do not know there has been one. Yet, at any other time than this, it would have been the subject of the keenest debate; and though the war concluded this week only began in May, it has been one of the biggest and also one of the least creditable of our small wars, and it has caused the maximum of anxiety and annoyance to those who have had relatives engaged in it, for it has been fought, in part at least, by Territorial troops who have felt in part their detention in India after the German war was over as a great personal injustice. It has even been said there has been trouble with them, and their indignation has contributed not a little to the strong feeling at home against our military policy.
The reasons that led the new Ameer of Afghanistan to begin war on India are obscure, and the version of his motives given by the Indian Government make him out to be little better than a fool. One feels that there must be another and more reasonable side to the whole business. The old principles of our Afghan policy, which worked on the whole remarkably well for nearly forty years, when Abdurrahman and Habibullah were Ameers, were simple enough. We gave Afghanistan a stiff subsidy, and in return claimed the right to control of its foreign relations. The country was independent and enjoyed the right to import arms and munitions from India, but the condition was that it should have no windows looking on the outside world, except towards India. Abdurrahman, a ruler of quite remarkable ability, did not like the arrangement, but he accepted it, because he distrusted Russia as much as or more than he distrusted India. He compared himself to a swan swimming on a lake, with a tiger watching him from one bank and a bear from the other. But he was quite successful in keeping his feathers intact. When Russia, however, turned Bolshevist, the situation changed. The bear seemed to have lost its claws, while the tiger was seen to be devouring Turkey – no doubt from humanitarian motives. Bolshevist ideas produced a ferment in Bokhara, and the murder of Habibullah was a distant imitation of the murder of the Czar. When Amanullah, the new Ameer, seized the throne, he posed as a man of democratic ideas. In his proclamation, in the beginning of April, he promised reforms in the system of government (which it certainly needed); that there should be no forced labour, no tyranny or oppression and that Afghanistan should be free and independent by which he apparently meant that it should no longer be bound by existing treaties with India.
A month later, in May, Afghan regulars crossed their border into the No-Man’s-Land between it and the frontier of India and threatened Landi Kotal, in the Khyber. The British, under General Barrett, rushed troops up the Khyber and occupied Dakka, just over the Afghan border; and there they stuck, unable to move forward. The new macadam roads are said to have been unfit to carry the weight of military traffic; at any rate, our transport completely broke down. Thereupon the Afghans turned our flank to the south, penetrated the Kuram, and the Tochi Valleys, and attacked the important frontier position of Thal. We retaliated by aeroplane raids on Kabul and by the more legitimate use of our air power to bomb and disperse armed gatherings of Afghan troops. In June, an armistice was concluded, which has just been converted into a Treaty of Peace. By this Treaty, we withdraw from the Ameer the privilege of importing arms and cancel the subsidy, arrears and all, but about the future control of Afghan foreign policy nothing is said in the Treaty. The Ameer will say that as we have withdrawn the consideration on which he agreed to abstain from relations with foreign powers, he is free to conduct his foreign policy as he sees fit. The Indian Government, on the other hand, will maintain that our old rights to control the foreign policy of Afghanistan not having been expressly abrogated still persist. There are all the makings in the Treaty of a fourth Afghan war, unless a discussion in this country can put our policy towards Afghanistan on a new and better footing.
There are two questions raised by this little war, to which the country must insist on getting an answer. What ails the Indian Army that it should have made such a mess of the operations? If there is one subject that the Indian Army ought to have studied, it is the defence of this frontier. Yet the Afghans, cut off as they are from communication with the outside world, showed themselves much more mobile troops than our own army. They penetrated the Khyber before we were ready to meet them; they out-manoeuvred us by their attack on the Kuram, and, in addition, it would appear that some of the hospital scandals of the Mesopotamian campaign were repeated in this war. There was the same breakdown of transport, with far less excuse; the same shortage of hospital equipment; and the same (in kind, if not in amount) preventable disease and suffering. A Commission of Enquiry into the Indian Army has been appointed and the facts, so far as they are known, point to something radically wrong in its administration. If our Indian Frontier policy in the future is to rely mainly on the tactics of defence, and to avoid military adventures, it is necessary that our frontier organisation should be as nearly perfect as we can make it. It is evident that it is in need of drastic reforms, and until these are made the Government of India should be given no rest.
As for our Frontier policy, it is quite evident that Afghanistan has outgrown the old restrictions. The Afghan is no longer the man who lives on quarrels and fighting. He is anxious to become civilised; he has strong democratic instincts, and he has the makings of a progressive country. There are 25,000 Afghans in Bombay alone, all behaving like decent members of society, and some of them making a good deal of money. The disloyal Postmaster at Peshawar was an Afghan; and, when they can be trusted, everyone who knows them recognises that there is good stuff in the nation. If there is this progressive spirit abroad, we can only make an enemy of it by maintaining the artificial restrictions of outlook that worked under Abdurrahman. There is no fear of Afghanistan turning Bolshevist, and if we wish to fight Bolshevist intrigue in Afghanistan – there is plenty of evidence of that – we shall best do it by abandoning India’s claims to stand between Afghanistan and the outside world. The old system of subsidy and control is obsolete; the new alternatives are, either to assume responsibility ourselves for the government of Afghanistan or to encourage Afghanistan to develop on her own lines, and to let India take her chance with other powers of influence in Afghanistan. If India appears as a friend, not of the old despotism at Kabul, but of the new and more enlightened Afghanistan that is beginning to emerge, she will stand to gain. The first alternative of assuming responsibility for the internal affairs of Afghanistan is, under present conditions, clearly out of the question, for it would lead to an enormous increase in India’s military burdens just at the time when we need all the assistance she can give elsewhere, and perhaps to serious revolution.
It is a corollary of this new policy of leaving Afghanistan perfect freedom in her foreign relations that the Indian Frontier system should be put in a perfect condition of defence. It is the finest natural frontier in the world, and if we cannot defend it we are certainly not capable of conducting field operations in Central Asia. The German theory of waging defensive war beyond one’s own borders may have good military reasons in country like Europe, but they do not apply to the barren hills of Afghanistan. The sound policy of defence for India is to avoid entanglement in Afghanistan. Between the administrative frontier of India and the Durand line, which is the frontier of Afghanistan, there is a zone sufficiently wide to serve as a buffer to India against foreign attack. It is to our interest to keep this zone independent, alike of Afghanistan and of our own administration. More than that we need not do, except to convince Afghanistan that we are her friend and have no wish to stand between her and a place in the sun.