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The Empire and the century/The Frontier Question

< The Empire and the century



When people talk of the Frontier Question they usually refer to that question which concerns our position on the frontiers of India with regard to Russia. There are many frontier questions, some of them of far more importance locally than the doubtful eventuality of a contest with Russia for the right of occupation of Afghanistan or Tibet; but no one minds them—in England, at any rate—and we shall probably not be far wrong if we confine the subject-matter of a short article to a summary of what Russia might accomplish in the way of menace to India and what reply we could effectually make. A residence of some years in Afghanistan, which has enabled me to visit all the chief provinces and strategical points of that interesting country, and a more than general acquaintance with the fighting tribes of the Indian frontier, acquired during twenty years of exploration and surveying amongst their rugged hills and stony plains (occasionally in close connection with members of the Russian topographical staff), has naturally led me to form conclusions from a standpoint which at least possesses the merit of originality. I accordingly offer them for what they may be worth.

It surprises me, in the first place, that there should still be men of light and leading who are actually afraid of Russia—afraid that, with her vast resources of men and money, and with the development of her railway system to the borderland of Afghanistan, she could really peril our security in India by an advance in force from the Oxus. We will for the moment set aside the fact that she has been disastrously beaten by a comparatively small Asiatic power, and is in no position to risk another failure in the Asiatic field, and confine our attention to that which she might accomplish on the borderland of Afghanistan on the supposition that she has recovered from the war with Japan; and then consider what should be our military policy as her action gradually develops. It is usual to take for granted the statements of military experts that Russia's capabilities as a military Power are vastly in excess of our own, and that she could, if it pleased her, distribute a force of 500,000 men at the termini of her Central Asian railway system on the Herat frontier and on the banks of the Oxus facing Afghan Turkestan without much difficulty. There is no reason to doubt this possibility. She has done even more than this in Manchuria at the end of the long single line traversing Siberia. On the other hand, we have no reason to suppose that the quality of the troops destined to take the field against Afghanistan and India would differ greatly from the quality of the army (drawn chiefly from Asiatic sources) which has over and over again proved itself incapable of holding strong defensive works against direct attack on the part of the Japanese; although we have often heard of late years from the lips of those who make a special study of such subjects, that direct attack against scientific defensive appliances must prove to be in future an impossible factor in modern tactics. There is no doubt, indeed, that military developments have tended to increase the power of defence out of all proportion to the power of offence in the field of action, and that there was ample justification for such a forecast. What are we to suppose, then? That the Japanese are a superhuman development as a fighting power in the world's arena—a race of natural soldiers such as the world has never seen; or that they are but ordinary mortals united by the bonds of patriotism, and animated by a spirit of self-sacrificing devotion to duty, bred and inculcated by their peculiar national creed and customs, which renders them invincible when opposed to the heterogeneous masses of a half-hearted army? The latter is the more probable supposition. The Russians have fought bravely, as they always do, but ineffectually, and they have lost positions time after time which, by all the rules of the modern war game, should be pronounced impregnable. There is no sign that at the present moment the Russian army is really formidable in aught save numbers. As regards numbers, we see that, though their resources are great, they are by no means unlimited. The great area of Russian territory alone requires vast numbers to garrison it and to preserve peace within its borders. The number available for aggression is relatively small; and in any large force there would necessarily be many who are soldiers but by virtue of their uniform—half-trained conscripts from local sources. I have seen many of them on the Russian frontier. The question is, Are they good enough for an offensive campaign against Afghanistan? If Afghanistan were unsupported from India, indifferent as they may be, the answer must, I think, be a modified 'Yes.'

It is a very great mistake to ignore the Afghan army. It is a matter of history that patriotism, unity of sentiment, and devotion to duty, have hitherto been lamentably deficient in Afghan armies; but if the morale is bad, the material is excellent; and nothing but the utter ineptitude of Afghan leaders prevents the Amir from possessing as efficient a fighting force as any in the East. We do not know, indeed, at the present time what the result of twenty-five years of careful nursing may be. The impulse of religious belief and inborn love of independence may have easily developed something akin to real patriotism. I worked with Afghan troops on the borders of Kafristan in 1895, and I could mark a distinct change, both in sentiment and discipline, which had been effected by fifteen years of peace amongst men of the same clan as those who had formed my escort in Herat in 1856, or who had acted as friendly guides in 1879. The métier of the Afghan is that of the irregular marksman. He is often a splendid shot, and no European troops could ever hope to compete with Ghilzai or Hazara mountaineers amongst their own hills in a defensive campaign. Ten thousand Afridis, it may be remembered (I had special opportunities for estimating their numbers), kept 40,000 British and Indian troops well employed in Tirah, and there is little to choose between the Afridi and his Afghan neighbour. The Amir of Afghanistan could certainly put 200,000 irregular riflemen (armed with modern weapons) into the field if he chose to do so, and he has at his command a very efficient force of mounted artillery to support them. In short, it would be a serious mistake for us to imagine that we could make our way to Kabul now with the same comparative ease that we did in 1878. Tirah has taught us differently. Why, then, should we say 'Yes' at all in answer to the question of whether the ordinary stamp of Russian frontier troops would be good enough for an invasion of the northern borders of Afghanistan? It is because we cannot contemplate the possibility of Afghanistan possessing a General of the Oyama type, or officers trained like the Japanese; and the first great move would be over the open Oxus plains, where strategic ability would a good deal more than counterbalance the irregular activity of Herati or Kateghani horsemen, and where the agility of the mountaineer would be useless. So far as Afghan Turkestan is concerned, we may take it for granted that, from the crossing of the Oxus, whether by bridge or by ferry, a Russian force moving across the wide plains of Turkestan (where there is little to break the monotony of the open view but the purple lines of waving grass which mark the course of canals, with a few widely-scattered blotches of village orchards, and those mounds of the now desiccated Balk plain, on which villages from prehistoric days have sought refuge from floods), until it faced the remarkable crack in the great Elburz wall, which forms the narrow way to Haibak, would encounter no opposition worth reckoning. On the Herat side, again, to the west, the mountain ridges separating the Herat valley from the rolling Choi about Kushk are not formidable. Herat itself, with its gigantic earth ramparts and mud-wall construction, is quite capable of offering a resistance which might prove formidable with a properly-organized defence; but there would probably be no organized defence, and we must assume that the Herat valley occupation would be but a matter of weeks. From Herat to Kandahar the way is open. It is the most open way to be found Indiawards in all Asia, and it is here that we must look for the chief concentration of advancing forces. Russia, however, we may fairly presume, knows her business better than to try to rush India. Any such attempt would end in disaster. We must expect, rather, that she would move slowly, consolidating her position, occupying the chief towns of Turkestan; and, inasmuch as neither the resources of Herat nor of all Afghan Turkestan put together could support 200,000 troops for long, she would have to develop a railway system behind her advance. So far, then, as Afghan Turkestan, her success would probably be assured; but this would not greatly affect the military situation as regards India. It would be but a warning for preparation.

We purposely omit all references to military movements farther east than Afghan Turkestan or Badakshan. They could not be more than demonstrations at the most, and space is wanting for their consideration.

The Kabul line of advance from the Oxus presents geographical difficulties the instant that Tashkurghan is passed southwards. Then commences that solid barrier of mountain conformation culminating in the Hindu Kush, which, through all ages, has been Kabul's buffer land and protection; and the bridging of which, from Alexander's days till now, has formed epochs in history. But we are now dealing with new conditions, with railway communications in support of vast bodies of men, and with modern scientific methods of defence in mountain country. No force that ever yet existed—Japanese, Chinese, Mongul, or European—could force a way across that barrier if properly defended. It never has been properly defended. We may admit that southward from Tashkurghan to the northern foothills of the outer ridges of the Hindu Kush progress could be made slowly, even with railway construction. We may also presume that progress farther would be carried along the lines of weakest resistance to the open spaces that exist in Gori or Anderab, and that the passage of the Hindu Kush would be attempted only at such a point as history marks to be the most practicable. Even so, the northern base of that great multiform, rugged, and inaccessible series of ridges which form the Hindu Kush, rising from 11,000 to 18,000 feet above sea-level, would mark the end of all railway-making; and beyond this the force that hopes to reach Kabul must be dependent on the ordinary convoy method for supplies over mountains blocked with snow for several months in the year, and offering opportunities through at least 100 miles for that deadly form of raiding and breaking up of communications in which the European proves himself to be but a child in the hands of the mountain-bred native of the frontier. If the Afghan is taught his business properly, the occupation of Kabul by an advancing foe from the north may be written down as relegated to past history. It should never happen again. On the Herat side to the west it is different. There the steady progress of a considerable force supported by a railway is practicable as far as Kandahar, provided there is sufficient development of water-supply along the route. There are large towns in western Afghanistan (Sabzawar, Adraskand, Farah, etc.), all of which are centres of a certain amount of cultivation, and all would contribute their share to the support of an advancing army. Even beyond Kandahar (which is strategically but little stronger than Herat) there is little opportunity for serious check, excepting at the Kojak, until our main line of defence at Quetta has to be faced. Thus it is always well to regard the Herat-Kandahar line as the line of least resistance for India—the line on which defensive strategy is chiefly to be considered and matured. In connection with this, the alternative line from Herat to Quetta viâ Sistan is not to be lost sight of. It is a possibility which must ever be taken into account. The point to be insisted on is that the strategic value of Quetta in these days largely exceeds that of Kabul. Quetta is the real key to India, and, knowing what we know now about 'impregnable' defences, no money and no amount of scientific skill can be wasted that is applied to the purpose of bringing those defences up to modern requirements in the matter of guns and equipment. We should take our lesson from Port Arthur, although the fate of that now historic fortress need not make us nervous. Had the Japanese been inside, and the Russians the besiegers, would the latter ever have taken it?

So far I have roughly outlined the probable progress of a Russian invasion of India. Recent events have placed the probability of such an attempt almost beyond the bounds of possibility for many a year to come. For another quarter of a century we have little to fear. But the Frontier Question we have always with us. It will still agitate a certain class of politicians, and to them it will always be a matter of intense interest to know, under such circumstances, what our reply should be to Russian movement.

We talk easily in the first place of Russian millions in men and money as if we had no millions of our own. Russia, all told, can only muster about 150,000,000 of people. We have nearly double that population (290,000,000) in India alone, and it is with India just now that we are concerned. It is true that of our 290,000,000 a very large proportion are people of unwarlike races that could not be guaranteed for purposes of soldiering. But the same may be said of Russia. In all large communities the proportion of the warrior caste must be comparatively small. Certainly we could enumerate districts in India containing 50,000,000 of people where good stuff for soldiering can be found; and that is numerically sufficient for our purpose. Next, it is argued that we may have the numbers, but not the trained efficiency. The forty odd millions of Japanese are not (taken as a whole nation) a fighting people. We have seen what they can do when their hearts are in it after but a short period of actual military training. It would take no longer to turn the Afghan into a good fighting unit than the Jap, provided he believes in his leaders and means to fight. My belief is that it would not be necessary to depart from the principle of a voluntary army to obtain all the force we want; but were conscription necessary for the purpose of meeting Russia, it would be accepted by the Asiatic far more readily than it would be by the Englishman. It would be regarded more or less as a necessity not to be discussed or questioned.

A war with Russia would be a popular war with the native soldier. It would be to the great majority of them the realization of their military ambition. They are always talking about it—not only in India but beyond our borders. The spirit which animated a newly-raised battalion of Gurkhas who, not long ago, deserted in a body when they found they were not to be led at once against the Russians, is the spirit of the whole Indian army to a greater or less extent. We are afraid of Russia. They are not. Like the Japanese Minister, they would claim that fear of Russia is one of the things they are not prepared to share with us. Long before the Russians had done with Afghan Turkestan, we ought to possess an Indian army quite equal to any quasi-European army that Russia could raise. But, once again, it will be said that we must have a European force to fight a quasi-European foe. This is a matter of sentiment, but it involves to a certain extent the implication of a mistrust of Indian troops. This is obviously not the place to discuss the relative merits of British and Indian soldiers; but let me say, at least, that I trust that the silly nonsense which is sometimes talked about 'stiffening' the native army with British bayonets is a thing of the past. They want no stiffening. I am fully convinced that there would be no difficulty in raising the strength of the native armies of India to 500,000 men if India was in peril of invasion, and to this force we could surely add 150,000 British troops to take the field chiefly on the Herat-Kandahar line.

What could Afghanistan do? At a very moderate computation the Amir could put a force of 150,000 men of all arms into the field, including excellent light infantry and artillery for mountain work, as well as a fair contingent of serviceable and irregular cavalry—cavalry, that is to say, better mounted and equipped than the average Cossack, but not so amenable to discipline.

At present Afghan troops, however excellent the raw material may be, want discipline, drill, and leading; and that they can only obtain by the importation of instructors from outside Afghanistan. These they will probably get, either in the form of British or Japanese officers, but time will be required for such outsiders to get on good terms with their men, and for the men to understand their instructors. The young British officer is unmatched in the world for his capacity to turn raw material into good fighting stuff; and here probably is foreshadowed the chief difficulty in the solution of the frontier problem. Where are officers to come from? The supply which a few years ago seemed to be inexhaustible already shows signs of failing. The spirit of unrest and discontent which now pervades the service in India is such as has never before been known, and it is ominous of future difficulty in filling up vacancies which will rapidly occur. Indeed, there are not wanting symptoms on all sides that it is the ranks of the officers, rather than those of the men, that are likely to fall in numbers.

If, then, we can ensure troop enough, and guns enough, to meet any problematical force that Russia can put into the field, what should be our military policy for the defence of our frontier? Should we resist à outrance the first violation of Afghan territory? Should we wait till Russia has consolidated her position in Afghan Turkestan—which does not much interfere with us—or should we wait still further till she has overcome Afghan opposition, and is threatening our own borders? All military authorities who know and understand the frontier and the nature of frontier people alike condemn a waiting policy. We must take action from the very first, and there should be a sound understanding with the Amir as to what that action will be. This is necessary for many reasons, but not because we are afraid of a rising in India. There would be no rising, no agitation, even, of much consequence induced by a forward movement on the part of Russia, provided that we made proper use of our power of control over the native press. India generally is essentially loyal, and believes that nothing good is to be expected from Russian rule. It would take a series of very severe reverses to shake the confidence of the native troops in the British 'izzat.' Those who talk about a 'rising' should remember that, even in the dark days of the Mutiny, there was no rising of India generally, or we should not have been there now. Nevertheless, our prestige would demand action, and it is not difficult to forecast what that action would inevitably be. There is not much choice about it. The occupation of Afghan Turkestan would be resisted by the Afghans ineffectually. It would stir up the fiercest spirit of outraged independence amongst the Afghan people, and we should run the risk of snaring more or less the general obloquy if it were not made absolutely clear to them beforehand that we should not, and could not, under any circumstances support a campaign so far removed from our own frontier as Afghan Turkestan. We could, however, and we should, give the Afghans all the support possible south of African Turkestan—such, for instance, as the services of British officers supplementary to those appointed as instructors; and even a contingent of native troops specially trained in mountain warfare, such as the Gurkhas, to form and hold strong positions of defence in the Hindu Kush, and to harass and worry the line of advance on the side of Herat. An advance in force on our part to Kandahar and Jalalabad (the latter place is the most important strategical position on the Khyber route to Kabul, for it dominates more than one route Indiawards) with railway communication completed to those important centres would also form part of the practical reply to Russia's movement forwards. No such reply on our part would be resented in Afghanistan. On the contrary, if we were to sit still and do nothing, we should run the risk of rousing the fiercest indignation amongst the warlike races of that country. Knowing something of the temper of the Afghan people, both in the east and west, I have no doubt about the necessity of such preliminary action. Whether we should advance in force further than Kandahar or Jalalabad, as Russian movements developed, would depend on so many variable factors in the situation that it would be absurd to offer a decided opinion. We should certainly assist in repelling any attempt to cross the Hindu Kush, if such an attempt were obviously serious; and we might find much better positions beyond Kandahar than are offered by that fortress for delaying, or finally staying, advance on that side. On the whole, I am inclined to think that we should have to move in force, and that we should find little difficulty in doing so. If British officers are to be associated with Afghan troops in future, it is obvious that they cannot be withdrawn at the time when they are most needed. The damage done to our prestige by recall would be too serious to contemplate; and if our officers were involved in an anti-Russian campaign, our soldiers would expect to be asked to support them in the field. They would not commit suicide like the Japanese because they were not allowed to go to the front They would do worse: they would become actively, and perhaps mischievously, discontented.

And what would the end be? If we did not succeed in forcing Russia back to the Oxus, there would be nothing left for our military politicians but the partition of Afghanistan with the Hindu Kush as the buffer land—the long-contemplated conclusion to the Frontier Question in Asia. As to our remaining on our own borders, quietly awaiting the time when Russia, having conquered Afghanistan and absorbed its fighting races, should attempt the invasion of India from the Indus Hills, it is not to be contemplated by any sane politician who has the smallest acquaintance with the geographical configuration of the Indian trans-frontier and the temper of its fighting races.

If Japan has not, however, settled the Frontier Question for us, she has, at least, deferred its practical solution by force of arms sine die. Russia has not gone completely mad. With her huge army badly beaten in defensive tactics, it is beyond belief that she should contemplate aggressive action against another host which, we may confidently predict, would be her equal in numbers, and her superior in national cohesion, if not in scientific resource. Who can tell what may occur in the next quarter of a century? Japan and China may create an absolutely new phase in Asiatic politics, and we may find the means at last of effecting an agreement with Russia on such a basis of mutual advantage that it will no longer be worth her while to break the peace. Such an agreement, we are told, is outside the pale of practical politics. It is difficult to understand why this is so—but that is another question. It may be answered sooner than we expect by a reconstituted and reorganized Russian Government.