THEN 1919: An Afridi Tribesman sniper fires down upon British troops from a vantage point in the Hindu Kush mountains. Despite the primitive condition of their weapons, many Afridi tribesman were excellent shots.
From Ancient Silk Route to Insurgent Transit Safe Haven
In a move to tighten security and provide a persistent surveillance capability along it’s 2,400 km border with Afghanistan, Pakistani military officials recently announced their desire to purchase Boeing Australia ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV – UCAV). The deployment of ScanEagle UAV’s would provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) mission capability in support of ongoing Pakistani border control and military operations. In a related development, Western military officials have confirmed the US resumption of missile strikes from unmanned drones inside Pakistan against Taliban assets operating in the Bajur district of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). These operations, while deemed successful by the West, have been condemned as “an attack on Pakistan’s sovereignty” according to Owais Ahmed Ghani, Governor of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier.
As the Pakistani government continues to pursue their policy of negotiation and prisoner exchange with militant groups operating along the Northwest Frontier, the tempo of violence has sharply increased across the border in Afghanistan. According to James Appathurai, a NATO spokesman in Brussels, the accommodation of extremist groups in tribal areas may be providing them with the means to establish safe havens, rest, re-supply and then move back across the border to engage ISAF forces fighting in Helmand and other hot spots in southern Afghanistan. Evidence indicates the Taliban continues to show considerable determination in their efforts to hold open the mountain pass roads along the Pakistani Afghan border as this vital route is used to receive weapons, reinforcements and money originating from sources sympathetic with the Taliban.
CIA Predator UCAV – The CIA Predators carry as many as four Hellfire missiles. The CIA has previously used a Predator to kill the No: 3 man in al-Qaeda with a Hellfire strike mission in Pakistan.
The Northwest frontier between Pakistan & Afghanistan has always proved a graveyard for foreign armies, yet throughout history (from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to today) it has become too important to ignore. Pivoted between the British and Russian Empires during 1919-22, it was fated to become a pawn in a political game in which the interests of its indigenous peoples mattered for nothing. Ruled from Kabul by a king whose power over his disparate people was never more than tenuous, Afghanistan comprised a number of warlike and fiercely independent tribes with little more than religion in common. Usually these tribes were content to fight among themselves, but occasionally their squabbles permeated south across the Khyber Pass into India. When this happened British intervention invariably followed, although rarely with the outcome anticipated by Delhi.
Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, Afghanistan remained the thorn in the side of the British Empire. Coveted by Britain and Russia alike, it acted as a magnet to the warring and fiercely independent tribes of the Northwest Frontier. Attempts to subjugate Afghanistan by force of arms were abandoned as impractical after repeated military defeats. Instead, Britain embarked upon a policy of diplomacy, hoping to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan leaders if not the loyalty of the tribesmen.
Although these major geographic features demarcate the landscape, the passes that intersect them facilitate the movement of people between north, south, east and west. It has long been acknowledged that the regions that now make up modern Afghanistan, and the NWFP and eastern Baluchistan in Pakistan acted as the “Crossroads of Asia”. The passes through this region are mainly known for their role as components of the famous Silk Route, which was primarily in operation in the 1st and early 2nd millennia AD. (click to enlarge).
The Khyber Pass is in fact only the first stage of the approximately 240km route between Peshawar and Kabul, and it actually provides the key passage between the Peshawar Valley and the Jalalabad region. It is from the latter that further passes such as the Sokhta, Chinar and Haft Kotal must be traversed in order to reach Kabul. This entire route has been highlighted on the artificially colored terrain map above, which very effectively emphasizes the mountainous nature of the landscape (click to enlarge).
In 1901 Habibullah succeeded his father Abdur Rahman to the throne of Afghanistan and immediately began to show a certain susceptibility to British influence. Even so, he was fiercely resentful of her presence on the Northwest Frontier, which he regarded historically as Afghan soil. Habibullah was a man of great bravery and considerable intellect, who accepted British largesse, at the same time continuing in his attempts to rid his country of her influence. On a wholly different score, he was apparently a man of vast sexual appetite, having one of the largest harems in recorded history and being reputed to have sired 200 children.
Although Habibullah accepted an Indian Imperial delegation to Kabul in 1904, reciprocating by visiting the Viceroy in Simla three years later, his precise aspirations remained unclear until 1914. On August 4 the same year, Britain declared war on Germany. Habibullah might have chosen to side with the Central Powers, tying up on sentry duty along the Northwest Frontier much of the Indian Army then desperately needed in Europe. Instead, he unreservedly threw in his lot with the British, earning for himself the undying hatred of the majority of his people. When Turkey joined the Central Alliance the war took on the air of a jihad in the eyes of many Afghan Muslim fundamentalists, driving an even greater wedge between themselves and their king.
The British forward operating encampment at Jamrud served as the headquarters of the Khyber Rifles and the doorway to the Khyber Pass in the Hindu Kush mountain range. Note the presence of the fort at Jamrud (lower right).
Habibullah’s position became untenable. His younger brother, Nasrullah, inspired by his friend, the ideologue and satirist Mahmud Tarzi, openly conspired against him while his son and presumed heir, Amanullah, disowned him. In 1919 matters came to a head. Habibullah’s demand for a written agreement recognizing the absolute liberty, freedom of action and perpetual independence of the Sublime Government of Afghanistan, a not unreasonable reward for four years of wartime support, was ignored by Britain as was his less realistic request for a seat at the Versailles Peace Conference.
On February 19, 1919, an unknown assailant assassinated Habibullah. After a brief power struggle between Amanullah and Nasrullah the younger man ascended the throne, having first imprisoned his uncle for life, charging him with complicity in the murder of the hapless Habibullah. Amanullah, although initially popular with the tribesmen, enjoyed few of the social or academic graces of his late father and soon found his throne in jeopardy. Desperate for a unifying factor around which to rally his people, the young king turned to India for a solution.
India was then embroiled in a state of sectarian and political unrest compounded by the heavy-handed and insensitive activities of the post-war government. On April 13, 1919 thousands of townspeople gathered in the Punjabi city of Amritsar to observe a Hindu holy day in defiance of a Government order banning public assemblies. Brigadier Dyer, at the head of a Gurkha force, was sent to maintain order and decided without further recourse to teach the natives a lesson. Without giving the demonstrators prior warning, Dyer ordered his men to fire volley after volley into the heart of the crowd. Within ten minutes, 379 men, women and children had been killed and a further 1,200 wounded. The survivors were forced to crawl from the scene on their hands and knees as a final act of humiliation. The world was outraged. Dyer was forced to resign, Gandhi began his rise to power and Amanullah seized his opportunity.
Ignoring the fact that the vast majority of the dead were Hindu, Amanullah called for a Muslim holy jihad against the British infidels. Matters quickly got out of hand. Troops had to be called in to protect the British Agent in Kabul; proclamations declaring Holy War were posted in mosques across the country and Mullahs began to infiltrate the Frontier hills to arouse the already volatile Pathan tribes. On their heels marched the Afghan Army, on Amanullah’s orders.
Amanullah now began to grow uneasy. It had been his intention to coerce a few concessions from a war-weary Britain, not to goad her into open warfare. His army was small, ramshackle and badly trained. More disconcertingly, it had not received a promised pay raise and elements were nearing open revolt. Amanullah could do no more than hold his men on their own side of the Durand Line, the highly artificial border then prevailing, and wait for some chance to withdraw gracefully.
He was to be presented with his opportunity and duly squander it. On May 1 Afghan scouts reported the presence of a British officer and four sepoys in Bagh, a shabby patch of near worthless cultivation in the Khyber Pass. Bagh was occupied by neither adversary, but claimed by both, due to its proximity to the strategically important town of Landi Kotal. Although the British patrol was almost certainly routine, Amanullah over-reacted. General Saleh Muhammed, the Commander-in-Chief of the Afghan Army, was ordered to build a fort in the area. When Britain complained, a force of 150 Afghan soldiers occupied Bagh. That night a band of Shinwari Pathans led by Zar Shah attacked a nearby Indian work gang, killing five men. Keen to ferment war, Zar Shah then sent word to the British that he had acted on General Saleh Mohammed’s orders. Unprepared for war, the British ignored this obvious provocation and gave the Afghans an opportunity to withdraw. When this was not acted upon, the Indian Government announced a formal declaration of war against Afghanistan.
Indian Army Mountain Battery – soldiers and horse drawn artillery traverse the difficult terrain so prevalent in the region. Indian Army forces were wholly unprepared and ill-equipped to engage the battle hardened irregulars they were sent to fight.
To navigate through the mountains, regular army forces often used the beds of narrow streams to traverse difficult passages, placing them at high risk for ambush with little or no cover. Note the heavy equipment (lower center) being man handled up-river.
Britain’s motive in declaring war was not so much the destruction of the Afghan Army as the prevention of a new and serious Frontier tribal uprising. Saleh had five infantry battalions supported by six field guns in the region of Landi Kotal, which had been garrisoned by Britain with a force of less than 500 sepoys of the Khyber Rifles. If he were to consolidate his position at Bagh and march on Landi Kotal the authorities feared that many of the local Pathan laskars would swell the ranks of the jihad. The 20,000 Afridis, Orakzais and Mohmands under arms in the Khyber Pass would then combine to turn the area into a bloodbath. On May 7, two days after the declaration of war, mass desertions broke out among the sepoys of the Khyber Rifles forcing the Commissioner to pre-empt a mutiny by disbanding the force and replacing irregular troops.
The Indian Army of the day was far from being battle-ready, post-war demobilization having left it dangerously below strength. Many of its new recruits had not fired a shot in training, let alone anger, and it’s British officers were largely unaccustomed to the misery of Frontier service. British regiments in the area were little better. Manned largely by “hostilities only” conscripts called up for the war, the majority of officers and men were actively seeking demobilization and had absolutely no desires to become caught up in a frontier war against some of the most vicious tribesman in the world. When asked to volunteer for action most initially refused, complaining that their employers in England would not keep their jobs open for them if it were discovered that they had stayed on in India of their own volition. For a while it looked as if insubordination would degenerate into mutiny. Eventually, however, a composite unit commanded by Brigadier O’Dowda, nicknamed the O’Dowda’s Bolshie Brigade after a second near mutiny en route, was sent north to the Frontier.
With surprising resourcefulness, the British managed to conceal their presence as they moved up the Khyber Pass and were thus left unharmed by the otherwise suspicious tribesmen. On May 7, only two days after the declaration of war, the Bolshies reached Landi Kotal where they combined with a somewhat more reliable force of Gurkhas and Sikhs under the command of the gallant if impetuous Brigadier Crocker. Shortly after sunrise on May 9 the force began fanning out west of the fort towards Bagh. Initial Afghan resistance was fierce despite the accurate application of British artillery, which speedily silenced the enemy guns. As the troops advanced they became aware of the fact that thousands of Afridi warriors had drawn up in battle formation between themselves and the comparative protection of Landi Kotal. The Afridis had come to watch events. They did not join the battle, though every soldier present knew that they would, with devastating effect, should the allied force fail to take Bagh. Spurred on by the horrific consequences of failure, Bagh was stormed after two days of heavy fighting. So ended the first stage of the so-called “Third Afghan War”. The enemy had been forced out of the disputed territory and the Pathans had not risen in their support. Britain knew however, that it would take a far more comprehensive victory than that at Bagh to cement a lasting peace in the area.
Dakka, a village about 5 miles to the northwest, became the next objective. A squadron of Royal Flying Corps bombers was called in to soften up the target, with little success. It was left to the infantry yet again to bear the brunt of the fighting. The Afghan defensive positions at Dakka were excellent, so much so that Crocker made no initial attempt to storm the village. Instead, he encamped his men in a defensive position outside and awaited events. The conditions in and around the camp were atrocious. Few of the men had been inoculated before the campaign and cholera quickly became the principal killer. To add to the force’s discomfort, they were constantly sniped at by Mohmand tribesmen firing clay-filled expanding bullets from the surrounding hills. The position was eventually taken but with 22 British and Indians killed and 157 wounded, it was a terrible price for so insignificant a prize.
On May 28 the troops received a much-needed boost to their morale when a Handley-Page bomber flew low overhead on its way to bomb Kabul. The aircraft’s two 100 pound bombs killed no one and caused little damage to the capital, although they reputedly created chaos in the harem. They did however herald the next stage in the British advance. On May 28 the British troops were ordered to quit their hated camp at Dakka and resume their westward march to occupy Jalalabad.
General Nadir Khan, Amanullah’s third cousin and the only Afghan military leader with a true grasp of strategy, now began to influence events. Discredited since his implied complicity in Habibullah’s murder, Nadir was rehabilitated and given overall command of Afghan strategy. He immediately saw that the British forces were dangerously stretched and planned to attack them where least expected. Gathering together a force of 3,000 Afghan infantry regulars and two cavalry regiments supported by ten 100mm Krupp guns and seven 75mm Krupp howitzers, he sought a target of opportunity. Thal, to the south of the Kurram Valley, offered an excellent target. Defended by no more than 800 militiamen with two artillery pieces, it occupied a strategically important position at the northern end of a railway line. If it were to fall, Nadir reasoned that the consequences would be enormous. The British would no longer appear invincible in the eyes of the hill tribesmen who would certainly rise against them, expelling their hated presence from the frontier. On May 25, to British consternation, Nadir marched his force across the border and headed northeast towards Thal. Local military posts in his path were evacuated in panic or mutinied, allowing him to continue virtually unhindered to his objective. Soon he was joined by a force of 12,000 Pathan laskars goaded into rebellion by the seeming impotency of their former British masters. Within days 20,000 Wazir and Mahsuds, many of them former allies of the British on the Western Front, swelled the ranks of the rebels.
In the meantime the British position at Thal was becoming critical. The defender’s guns were soon silenced by the far superior Krupps and the garrison was cut off from its water supply. A relief column had set off but had become bogged down somewhere to the east. Ammunition supplies were running low and defeat seemed inevitable. Had the infamous General Dyer not reached the fort on June 1 at the head of a force of 3,000 British-Indian regulars supported by a dozen large caliber field guns, Thal would have fallen. The attendant massacre of the British defenders at the hands of the Pathans would have electrified the frontier causing those tribesmen still at peace to take up arms in what would have become the largest insurrection in the history of the Northwest Frontier.
Instead, Dyer’s artillery destroyed the now out-gunned Krupps while his infantry routed the Pathans. The Afghans sued for peace and began to pull back, pursued by the British, until-ordered to stop. The war ended 29 days after it had started, in stalemate. Both sides claimed victory with a certain degree of justification. Although small-scale guerrilla activity continued for the next two years, the British had largely restored order in and around the Khyber Pass. For their part the Afghans had gained the right to implement their own foreign policy independent of Delhi.
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