- Lessons from the past
For the past many years, Afghanistan has been going through a bloody civil war; an occupation by imperial America and has been a diplomatic battleground for powerful neighbours such as Russia, Iran and Pakistan—all vying for political domination. It is not a new situation for the Afghans because over two centuries back, they were the battlefield of the “Great Game” being played between Russia, Persia and Britain. A glance at the “Great Game” shows that notwithstanding the perception that the Afghans lack finesse and sophistication, preferring brawn over brains; in effect, they have been diplomats par excellence. All they need to get out of the present tangle is a diplomat like Ameer Dost Mohammad Khan.
The “Great Game” was a struggle for political ascendancy among the aforementioned Big Powers to establish potent hold over Afghanistan whereas the objectives of the Afghan ruler Dost Mohammad were not only to ensure his political survival but also to avoid offending the predatory neighbours and in the process milk them to advance his interests. To do this, one doesn’t have to be a graduate of the Fletcher School of Diplomacy but a person of some common sense to smartly play one rival against the other. To outsmart one another, both Britain and Czarist Russia sent demanding diplomatic missions to Kabul headed by Sir Alexander Burnes and Captain Vikovich, respectively. Dost Mohammad assured that he valued their friendship but as a mark of their commitment demanded military assistance against Ranjit Singh, the Sikh ruler of Punjab, who had occupied Afghan territories and had been fanning the ambitions of one of his recalcitrant brothers, Sultan Mohammad to the throne of Kabul.
Dost Mohammad’s strategy was to use the wealth and military might of the Big Powers to defeat Ranjit Singh and crush his aggressive brothers. He knew well that the British were allies of the Sikhs so he humoured the British Mission by writing submissive letters to Governor General Auckland in which he not only offered unconditional services to the Crown but also promised “Whatever directions your Lordship may be pleased to issue for the administration of this country, I will act accordingly.” This must have been music to the British ears but Dost Muhammad was not as naive as he seemed because about the same time, he shot another letter to the Shah of Persia, Mohammad Shah in which he glorified the Persian monarch as the “King of Kings,” “Centre of Faith” and the “King of Islam” and after reminding the past association of the Afghan rulers to the Shahs of Persia, expressed his desire to become his “devoted adherent.” He evoked the religious sentiments of the Shah by branding the Sikhs as the “wicked infidels” and “faithless enemy” and after presenting himself as the preserver of the “true faith,” requested the Persian sovereign to furnish military assistance against the Sikhs by emphasising that if the Persian help did not come then “I have no choice…[but to]…connect myself with the English, who will thus obtain a complete authority over the whole of Afghanistan.”
The Afghan ruler’s next diplomatic move was equally brilliant. He knew Persia was an ally of Russia so he wrote yet another letter to the Czar in which he wished to attach with Moscow by following the Persian example. He requested military help against the Sikhs by stating that Ranjit Singh was a friend of the British and if the Russian Emperor did not help then the Sikhs could make inroads in his country which would serve as a springboard for the British to take control of Afghanistan and “annihilate the flourishing trade between Moscow, Bokhara and Kabul,” and added, if Russia, Persia and Afghanistan got united as “one body,” it would be a win-win situation for all. After playing his cards, he waited for the best response of his liking.
To squeeze as much out of the Russians as he could, the savoir-faire ruler of Kabul played an ace by writing to the Russian Ambassador Count Simonich
In this diplomatic “duel” for preeminence in Afghanistan, the British lost to the Russians which was due to the substance and style of their diplomacy. The Asian rulers, including Dost Mohammad preferred direct contact with the rival monarchs or their representatives, who were vested with the authority to deal directly on their behalf. While Sir Alexander Burnes, the head of the British Mission was appointed by the Governor General of India, he had no authority to take independent decisions on the spot. Worse, the Governor General himself was bound by the directions from London whereas Captain Vikovich, the head of the Russian Mission was in possession of letters from the Russian Emperor to first persuade Ranjit Singh to accede to Dost Mohammad’s demands by returning the occupied territories otherwise Russia would not only provide money to the Afghan Ameer to raise an army but would also back him militarily to knock out the Sikhs.
During his stay in Kabul, Alexander Burnes had realised that there was some compact between Russia and Persia over Afghanistan and suggested “vigorous” counter British efforts, failure to which could result in the eastward expansion of the Russian Empire towards Kabul and Turkistan. Governor General Auckland made the mistake of not taking any effective action because, one, he did not give much importance to a Russian Captain’s Mission, and two, he wanted this sensitive issue to be directly handled by the higher authorities in London. Ignoring Burnes’ cry of a deterrent action against the Russo-Persian machinations, the poor fellow was instead directed to prevail upon Dost Mohammad to throw out the Russian Mission from Kabul and if he did not comply then warn him not to enter into “alliances with any power to the westward” if he wanted to retain British friendship and if he still did not listen then to threaten him that the British would not use their influence over Ranjit Singh in favour of Dost Mohammad. This was quite disappointing to the Afghan Ameer.
To squeeze as much out of the Russians as he could, the savoir-faire ruler of Kabul played an ace by writing to the Russian Ambassador Count Simonich that he hoped that the Russian government “will support and defend” his honour and in fine diplomatese communicated that the British Mission was in Kabul to sow “the seeds of friendship between Ranjit Singh and myself; nothing is yet settled;” thus keeping his options open till the last minute. The Russians took the bait by opening their coffers and promise of military assistance to him. Thus, ended the crucial diplomatic “duel” with the ignominious return of Burnes and victory of Russian Mission for clout in Kabul.
(The writer is an academic and journalist. He can be reached at [email protected])