Preparations for War 17

Reading two reports by Lieutenant Leech written between January and March 1838. The first, on Candahar, contains the interesting sentence:

“ Mehrab Khan will most likely receive the allegiance of more of the Baloch tribes than he already possesses, when Sinde shall have become subject to British control. ”

The second one, entitled “Report on the Sindhian, Khelat and Daoodputr Armies, with a Collection of Routes”, is a precise description of the future march of the Army of the Indus, the route it might take, the availability of supplies and transport and the opposition that might be faced.

The interesting thing is that historians have not viewed an invasion of Afghanistan as being on the table at the time Leech was writing these; the invasion of Sinde still less. Furthermore, Leech presupposes a route through the Bolan pass, a decision supposedly only taken nine months later due to Runjit Singh’s non-cooperation over Khyber. Finally, Leech was of course part of Alexander Burnes’ mission, which has generally been construed as trying to avert the invasion rather than prepare for it.

This is not the only evidence, but is amongst the evidence, that leads me to conclude that the decision to invade Afghanistan was taken in 1837, a year before the generally accepted date. This fits in with recent experience – Bush and Blair decided to invade Iraq at Crawford, a year before the ostensible decision of Cabinet and Parliament and necessitating all the jiggery-pokery of fixed legal opinions by Lord Goldsmith.

I suppose it was ever thus; the apparent and the actual in politics are clean different things.

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17 thoughts on “Preparations for War

  • Komodo

    In 1843, the British army chaplain Rev. G.R. Gleig wrote a memoir of the disastrous (First) Anglo-Afghan War, of which he was one of the very few survivors. He wrote that it was

    “… a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, was acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated”. (Wikipedia: ‘First Afghan War’

    We do these things so well.

  • Uzbek in the UK

    Mr Murray,

    You know that every war requires preparation which sometimes takes year and years. Decision to start every war thus taken long before official announcement. Warmongers usually lobby for a war long before politicians start preparing for it. Unfortunately war makes tiny minority very rich while claiming many lives. More unfortunately is that this tiny minority are the ones who can convince others (who sacrifice their lives) of that war is needed.

  • lwtc247

    Craig. I know very little about this Afghan chapter in ‘The British Book of Shameful History’. Could you be so kind as to share your opinion as to what the Brits were actually doing there? If you’d be so kind.

  • April Showers

    Bush and Blair met at Crawford in February 2001 and April 2002.

    By then a coalition were in Afghanistan.

    Then in the Azores, Bush and Blair met up with Aznar and Barroso for a war criminals’ gathering in March 2003. Barroso now runs the EU. That job was his reward.


    Mrs Windsor went to Headley Court today to meet the injured and amputees.

    444 British troops have been killed in Afghanistan. Other grim statistics are here. Terrible. And all for what?

  • Bert

    Fascinating observations Craig, including that the apparent and the actual in politics are clean different things…

    The research of historical records has shown many cases where (political) events were not as they were portrayed at the time.

    The cases of The Wallsal ‘Anarchists’ of 1892 & the Plot to kill Lloyd George are interesting examples.

    I’d also recommend the book ‘Fenian Fire: The British Government Plot to Assasinate Queen Victoria’ by Christy Campbell, which details the machinations of the government/secoority services of the day….

    Campbell’s earlier book ‘The Maharajah’s Box’ (the remarkable story of how Maharajah Duleep Singh, the last Emperor of the Sikhs, was made by the British – as a nine-year-old in 1849 – to sign away his kingdom of the Punjab and give Queen Victoria the Koh-i-Noor diamond ) looks a fascinating historical research effort, along similar lines as your type of research into Alexander Burnes.

    I look forward to reading the fruits of your research project.

    Best Wishes.

  • Cryptonym

    The 1911 Project Gutenberg Encyclopedia Vol 1 (A to ANDROPHAGI) covers Afghanistan. Below is an excerpt, no doubt covering familiar ground to you, but interesting all the same.

    “The First Afghan War, 1838-42.—In 1809, in consequence
    of the intrigues Of Napoleon in Persia, the Hon. Mountstuart
    Elphinstone had been sent as envoy to Shah Shuja, then in
    power, and had been well received by him at Peshawar. This
    was the first time the Afghans made any acquaintance with
    Englishmen. Lieut. Alex. Burnes (afterwards Sir Alex.
    Burnes) visited Kabul on his way to Bokhara in 1832. In 1837
    the Persian siege of Herat and the proceedings of Russia created
    uneasiness, and Burnes was sent by the governor-general as
    resident to the amir’s court at Kabul. But the terms which
    the Dost sought were not conceded by the government, and
    the rash resolution was taken of re-establishing Shah Shuja,
    long a refugee in British territory. Ranjit Singh, king
    of the Punjab, bound himself to co-operate, but eventually
    declined to let the expedition cross his territories.

    The war began in March 1838, when the “Army of the Indus,”
    amounting to 21,000 men, assembled in Upper Sind and advanced
    through the Bolan Pass under the command of Sir John Keane.
    There was hardship, but scarcely any opposition. Kohandil
    Khan of Kandahar fled to Persia. That city was occupied in
    April 1839, and Shah Shuja was crowned in his grandfather’s
    mosque. Ghazni was reached 21st July; a gate of the city was
    blown open by the engineers (the match was fired by Lieut.,
    afterwards Sir Henry, Durand), and the place was taken by
    storm. Dost Mahommed, finding his troops deserting, passed
    the Hindu Kush, and Shah Shuja entered the capital (August
    7). The war was thought at an end, and Sir John Keane (made a
    peer) returned to India with a considerable part of the force,
    leaving behind 8000 men, besides the Shah’s force, with Sir
    W. Macnaghten as envoy, and Sir A. Burnes as his colleague.

    During the two following years Shah Shuja and his allies remained
    in possession of Kabul and Kandahar. The British outposts
    extended to Saighan, in the Oxus basin, and to Mullah Khan,
    in the plain of Seistan. Dost Mahommed surrendered (November
    5, 1840) and was sent to India, where he was honourably
    treated. From the beginning, insurrection against the new
    government had been rife. The political authorities were
    overconfident, and neglected warnings. On the 2nd of November
    1841 the revolt broke out violently at Kabul, with the massacre
    of Burnes and other officers. The position of the British
    camp, its communications with the citadel and the location
    of the stores were the worst possible; and the general
    (Elphinstone) was shattered in constitution. Disaster after
    disaster occurred, not without misconduct. At a conference
    (December 23) with the Dost’s son, Akbar Khan, who had taken
    the lead of the Afghans, Sir W. Macnaghten was murdered by
    that chief’s own hand. On the 6th of January 1842, after a
    convention to evacuate the country had been signed, the British
    garrison, still numbering 4500 soldiers (of whom 690 were
    Europeans), with some 12,000 followers, marched out of the
    camp. The winter was severe, the troops demoralised, the march
    a mass of confusion and massacre, and the force was finally
    overwhelmed in the Jagdalak pass between Kabul and Jalalabad.

    The sources, covering Afghanistan in total, not just this period are given as:

    AUTHORITIES. —MacGregor, Gazetteer or Afghanistan
    (1871); Elphinstone, Account of the Kingdom of Kabul
    (1809); Ferrier, History of the Afghanis (1858); Bellow,
    Afghanistan and the Afghans (1879); Baber’s Memoirs
    (1844); Kaye, History of the War in Afghanistan (1878);
    Malleson, History of Afghanistan (1879); Heusman, The
    Afghan War (1881); Sir H. M. Durand, The First Afghan War
    (1879); Forbes, The Afghan Wars (1892); Rawlinson, England
    and Russia in the East (1875); Wyllie, Essays on the
    External Policy of India (1875). A. C. Yate, Northern
    Afghanistan (1888); Curzon, Problems of the Far East (1894);
    Robertson, The Kafir of the Hindu Kush (1896); Holdich,
    Indian Borderland (1901); Thorburn, Asiatic Neighbours
    (1895); Lord Roberts, Forty-one Years in India (1898); Lady
    Betty Balfour, Lord Litton’s Indian Administration (1899);
    Hanna, Second Afghani War (1899); Gray, At the Court of
    the Amir (1895); Sultan Mohammad Khan, Constitution and
    Laws of Afghanistan (1900): Life of Abdur Rahinani (1900);
    Angus Hamilton, Afghanistan (1906). (H. Y.; A. C. L.)

    We owe our knowledge of the geology of Afghanistan almost
    entirely to the observations of C. U. Grierbach, and a summary
    of his researches will be found in Records of the Geological
    Survey of India, vol. xx. (1887), pp. 93-103, with map.

  • MJ

    “the apparent and the actual in politics are clean different things”

    Like J P Morgan said: a man always has two reasons for doing anything: a good reason and the real reason.

  • Trowbridge H. Ford

    According to my 1910 copy of The Encyclopedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, Vol.. i, the above post is just a copy of what it published about the First Afghan War,1838-42, p. 316.

    H. Y. is Sir Henry Yule, and A.C.L. is Sir Alfred Comyn Lyall. Historians back then were much better rewarded for writing what suited the government of the day 9.

  • Trowbridge H. Ford

    Lyall and Yule, having been in the thick of things in India, seem like the last historians to have wanted to set the record right when it came to expanding British control to Afghanistan.

  • Cryptonym

    Thanks Trowbridge H., that explains the dire disclaimer.

    “The Project Gutenberg Encyclopedia is a reproduction of a 1911 edition of a famous encyclopedia. The text has not been updated. Although the text is in the public domain in the United States, the original publisher still has a valid trademark in the original title of the encyclopedia […] In order to avoid possible future trademark infringements or confusion in the minds of the public, this electronic version should be referred to as the Project Gutenberg Encyclopedia. The name of the original print encyclopedia should not be used in any way in connection with this electronic text.”

    The contents then are ‘free’ but nonsensically the publication’s original title is encumbered legally. This is fair use in any case.

    I thought myself as you do that historians back then would have been a good deal more timid of authority/establishment and wouldn’t wish to rock the boat; also they were a bit closer in time to the events described, sensitivities still raw, persons mentioned might still have been alive and so on. As the text is identical to the publication you mentioned, Craig Murray almost certainly knows what’s there back to front and nothing new or surprising is likely revealed in it, I posted it mainly for the references than the beclouded story told.

    I did wonder at the manner in which Elphinstone’s constitution might have become shattered.

  • Mark Golding - Children of Conflict

    Preparations for War

    Paul Wolfowitz – -West Point June 6 2001

    This year marks the 60th anniversary of a military disaster whose name has become synonymous with surprise, the attack on Pearl Harbor. Interestingly that surprise attack was preceded by an astonishing number of unheeded warnings and missed signals.”

    “..military history is full of surprises, even if fewer, as dramatic or as memorable as Pearl Harbor. Surprise happens so often that it’s surprising that we’re still surprised by it. Very few of these surprises are the product of civil blindness or civil stupidity, always there have been warnings or signals that have been missed, sometimes because there were just too many warnings to pick the right one out, sometimes because of what a scholar at Pearl Harbor called, “a poverty of expectation – a routine obsession with a few familiar dangers. This expectation of the familiar has got whole governments sometimes whole societies into trouble.

    Wolfowitz considered former lecturer journalist, author and Labour Party MP, Sir Ralph Norman Angell’s argument that the idea that nations could profit from war, was obsolete and ‘The Great Illusion’ as titled in his book.

    Wolfowitz also educed Norman’s disciple David Starr Jordan argument, ‘the war in Europe will never come, the bankers will not find the money for such a fight, the Industries will not be tainted, the Statesmen cannot, there will be no General War.

    Clear to me, at the time, Wolfowitz is confident that the complex implementation stage that followed the pre-meditation(no surprises) established by the Project for a New American Century September 2000 document ‘Rebuilding America’s Defenses,’ robustly had it’s executive commanders in place, it’s plan distributed and it’s operations advanced into military exercises.

    We wizards believe the think-tanks premeditated evidence is sealed like Excalibur in stone expecting us, craving our wisdom, wavelength and vision.

    “Further, the process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor.”

  • lwtc247

    Craig. I know I could ‘google’ around this period of history, but I ask for your opinion.

    I may disagree with the occasional thing you say or throw the odd slap in your direction now and again, but I’ve been reading your blog for many years and know where your coming from. I know you are extraordinarily honest, open and frank. Hence your opinion would be of value to me.

    Understood however if time is too pressing


  • April Showers

    I did not watch Newsnight but apparently Esler and Urban were warmongering on Syria last night.

    Newsnight on War Footing last night…

    Posted by Ed on May 3, 2013, 5:40 am

    Didn’t see much, the old stomach couldn’t take it….

    But caught the Esler/Urban double act extolling war with their totally uncritical shite about “our” participation in “WAR”.
    Something to do with a new military view that we can now do One Major War at a time, Three Little Wars at a time, A Semi Big War and a two Lttle Wars, and other permutations!
    Listening to Urban was like listening to a drone plugged into Obama’s head!
    Esler started to interview Hammond…he seemed more keen on war than the the bloody tory defence minister with his “people are dying in Syria and we ain’t gonna do nowt” line…the BBC Balance for you!
    Great stuff for the EDS….take a look!

    Re: Newsnight on War Footing last night…

    Posted by Gloriousrevolution on May 3, 2013, 6:32 am, in reply to “Newsnight on War Footing last night…”

    I heard some of it. It was a total disgrace. Esler was edging Hammond on, so that he, (compared to Esler, who apparently has friends and family in Syria opposing the government and in fear for their lives, or that’s how it seemed)
    appeared moderate and calm. It’s like Iraq, Libya, and Bosnia all over again. In a democracy Esler and his chums would be put on trial too for spreading war-propaganda

    The programme.

    The BBC have apologised to the PSC for Esler’s untrue comments on the extent of the West Bank occupation.

  • craig Post author


    Still thinking about your question. I think the short answer is looting. Actually the war was very successful in this perspective. They lost Afghanistan, but within five years, arguably as a continuation of the same war, they had annexed the extremely profitable territories of Punjab, Kashmir, Peshawar, Daodpootra, and Sinde, in the greatest single expansion of the British Empire. These were all territories they first moved an army into for the first Anglo-Afghan war.

    No historian has ever written it in this light, as far as I can see, including not William Dalrymple.

  • April Showers

    This is the dramatic painting by William Barnes Wollen entitled ’Last Stand of the 44th at Gandamak’.

    Eric Margolis writes about this painting and another –

    The superb Victorian painter Lady Jane Butler captured this in oil ‘the triumphs and tragedies of the British Empire’. This haunting painting, “The Retreat from Kabul, ” shows the sole survivor of a British army of 16,500, Dr. William Brydon, struggling out of Afghanistan in January, 1842. All the rest were killed by Afghan tribesmen after a futile attempt to garrison Kabul. This gripping painting should have hung over the NATO summit meeting last week in Chicago to remind the US and its allies that Afghanistan remains “the graveyard of empires.” The latest empire to try to conquer Afghanistan has failed, and is now sounding the retreat. Stand

  • April Showers

    At the Oxford Union on 25th April.

    I would say unbelievable but it is Aaronovitch speaking in favour of drones. He is so strident.

    This House Believes Drone Warfare is Ethical and Effective
    with David Aaronovitch, Benjamin Wittes, Kenneth Anderson, Naureen Shah and Prof Jeremy Waldron. Preceded by emergency debate ‘THB Thatcherism was Good for Britain’, led by our competitive debating team. #oudrones

    Against Prof Jeremy Waldron
    For Benjamin Wittes
    Against Chris Cole
    For Kenneth Anderson
    Against Naureen Shah

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