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Third Anglo-Afghan War - 1919

Distorted reports of the disturbed state of the Punjab found their way to Afghanistan and led the new Amir, Amanulla, to conclude that an invasion of India might prove a solution of his domestic differences. On February 20, 1919, the Amir Habibullah was assassinated on a hunting trip. He had not declared a succession, but left his third son, Amanullah, in charge in Kabul. Because Amanullah controlled both the national treasury and the army, he was well situated to seize power. Army support allowed Amanullah to suppress other claims and imprison those relatives who would not swear loyalty to him. Within a few months, the new amir had gained the allegiance of most tribal leaders and established control over the cities. But his succession was disliked by powerful factions. An invasion of India might increase his popularity with the army and the anti-British party and would appeal to the religious fanaticism of his Mahommedan subjects, deeply stirred as it was by the humiliation and defeat of Turkey and by the British conquest of Mesopotamia.

Starting in May 1919 when he won complete independence in the month-long Third Anglo-Afghan War with Britain, Amanullah altered foreign policy in his new relations with external powers and transformed domestic politics with his social, political, and economic reforms. Although his reign ended abruptly, he achieved some notable successes, and his efforts failed as much due to the centripetal forces of tribal Afghanistan and the machinations of Russia and Britain as to any political folly on his part.

Amanullah came to power just as the entente between Russia and Britain broke down following the Russian Revolution of 1917. Once again Afghanistan provided a stage on which the great powers played out their schemes against one another. Amanullah attacked the British in May 1919 in two thrusts, taking them by surprise. Afghan forces achieved success in the early days of the war as Pashtun tribesmen on both sides of the border joined forces with them.

His plan was to start with an anti-British propaganda in India, to incite the independent tribes to rise and to follow up their raiding parties with his Afghan regular forces. His designs miscarried. The frontier tribes were slow to move. Aggressive movements of his troops in the Khyber were countered by the rapid mobilization of the army in India early in May, the occupation of the Afghan advanced base at Dacca and the bombing by aeroplanes of Kabul and Jalalabad. By the middle of May 1919 the Afghans asked for a cessation of hostilities and threw out feelers for peace. Dilatory negotiations followed before the Amir could bring himself to ask for terms.

In June 1919 he reluctantly accepted the conditions of armistice offered to him. In July his representatives attended a conference at Rawalpindi and on 08 August 1919 a treaty of peace was signed. The terms proposed were lenient as the object was to reestablish friendly relations with Afghanistan. The Amir lost his subsidy and the privilege of importing arms through India. Another article expressed the willingness of the British Government to resume friendly relations with Afghanistan, if in the next six months the Afghans proved by their conduct that they were sincerely anxious to regain its friendship.

A concession to which the Afghan delegates attached much importance was conveyed in a separate letter, which officially recognized the freedom of Afghanistan from foreign control. Doubts were expressed as to the wisdom of this concession. But British control over the foreign policy of Afghanistan had always been nominal rather than real, and the withdrawal of the subsidy in itself implied the rescission of the reciprocal obligation. The policy embodied in the treaty was slow of fruition. After many delays the Amir sent delegates to India in 1920 to discuss the basis of a permanent friendly agreement, and as a sequel to these discussions a British envoy proceeded to Kabul to confer with the Afghan Government. The progress of Bolshevism in the countries to the north of Afghanistan and the overthrow of the state of Bokhara may have disposed the Amir to seek a renewal of friendship with the British power, but in 1921 nothing was settled.

The Rawalpindi treaty did not end the troubles on the frontier. The independent tribes of Wazirs and Mahsuds, who occupied a large block of country south of the Khyber line between Afghanistan and the British districts to the east, had risen in May 1919 at the instigation of the Afghans, raided the adjoining British districts and achieved some temporary successes over the tribal militia and levies by whom the border is policed. As their raids showed no abatement, the Indian Government determined to undertake the permanent pacification of the country. It was a serious undertaking, as the tribes could place some 30,000 well-armed men in the field, of whom a number had served in the Indian army.

A strong force was assembled on the frontier in October 1919 and an ultimatum given to the tribes. They were required to make reparation for damages, to surrender arms in specified amounts, and were informed that the Government intended to make military roads through their country and occupy certain positions, The Wazirs in the Tochi Valley were soon subdued, but the Mahsuds held out and fought with dogged obstinacy and great skill. There were two considerable encounters (on Dec. 21 1919 and Jan. 14 1920) in which the British casualties were heavy.

In the end the Mahsuds accepted the terms imposed upon them and operations closed on May 7 1920. This frontier campaign is officially described as one of "unparalleled hard fighting and severity. The enemy fought with a determination and courage which have rarely, if ever, been met with by our troops in similar operations." They were well armed, and many retired regular soldiers and deserters from the Indian army and tribal militia were present in their ranks. It was later found necessary to occupy the central portion of the Mahsud country while road-making, one of the most pacifying influences, was in progress.

Before final negotiations were concluded in 1921, however, Afghanistan had already begun to establish its own foreign policy, including diplomatic relations with the new government in the Soviet Union in 1919. During the 1920s, Afghanistan established diplomatic relations with most major countries, and Amanullah became king in 1923.

The second round of Anglo-Afghan negotiations for final peace were inconclusive. Both sides were prepared to agree on Afghan independence in foreign affairs, as provided for in the previous agreement. The two nations disagreed, however, on the issue that had plagued Anglo-Afghan relations for decades and would continue to cause friction for many more--authority over Pashtun tribes on both sides of the Durand Line. The British refused to concede Afghan control over the tribes on the British side of the line while the Afghans insisted on it. The Afghans regarded the 1921 agreement as only an informal one.

The rivalry of the great powers in the region might have remained subdued had it not been for the dramatic change in government in Moscow brought about by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. In their efforts to placate Muslims within their borders, the new Soviet leaders were eager to establish cordial relations with neighboring Muslim states. In the case of Afghanistan, the Soviets could achieve a dual purpose: by strengthening relations with the leadership in Kabul, they could also threaten Britain, which was one of the Western states supporting counterrevolution in the Soviet Union. In his attempts to unclench British control of Afghan foreign policy, Amanullah sent an emissary to Moscow in 1919; Lenin received the envoy warmly and responded by sending a Soviet representative to Kabul to offer aid to Amanullah's government.

Throughout Amanullah's reign, Soviet-Afghan relations fluctuated according Afghanistan's value to the Soviet leadership at a given time; Afghanistan was either viewed as a tool for dealing with Soviet Muslim minorities or for threatening the British. Whereas the Soviets sought Amanullah's assistance in suppressing anti-Bolshevik elements in Central Asia in return for help against the British, the Afghans were more interested in regaining lands across the Amu Darya lost to Russia in the nineteenth century. Afghan attempts to regain the oases of Merv and Panjdeh were easily subdued by the Soviet Red Army.

In May 1921, the Afghans and the Soviets signed a Treaty of Friendship, Afghanistan's first international agreement since gaining full independence in 1919. The Soviets provided Amanullah with aid in the form of cash, technology, and military equipment. Despite this, Amanullah grew increasingly disillusioned with the Soviets, especially as he witnessed the widening oppression of his fellow Muslims across the border.

Anglo-Afghan relations soured over British fear of an Afghan-Soviet friendship, especially with the introduction of a few Soviet planes into Afghanistan. British unease increased when Amanullah maintained contacts with Indian nationalists and gave them asylum in Kabul, and also when he sought to stir up unrest among the Pashtun tribes across the border. The British responded by refusing to address Amanullah as "Your Majesty," and imposing restrictions on the transit of goods through India.

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Page last modified: 03-08-2012 19:22:49 ZULU