chapter  9
7 Pages

War with Afghanistan

The climax came in the summer of 1878 when, at the insistence of Britain, Germany and Austria, a Congress was held at Berlin designed to pressure Russia to forego many of the gains she had made as a result of her war with Turkey. The Tsar had already, prior to going to war, held a conference to decide what action to take should the British intervene.1 The outcome was that he accepted Miliutin’s recommendation that they should be threatened in Central Asia. A full-scale invasion of India was neither necessary nor desirable, but a demonstration towards Afghanistan should prevent them from intervening in support of the Turks.2 It was hardly surprising that, under pressure at Berlin, Russia should have had recourse to just such a ‘diversion towards India’ in order to strengthen her negotiating hand. The basis for the operation was a plan drawn up by General Skobelev,3 who recommended that three forces should be concentrated on the Caspian Sea, at Samarkand, and at Marghilan, north of the Pamirs; and that meanwhile an embassy should be sent to Kabul, to draw Sher Ali into an alliance and open up communications with dissident elements in India. The Samarkand force would then advance via Bamian to Kabul, the Caspian force via Meshed to Herat, and the Marghilan force southwards towards Chitral and Kashmir. The campaign would be conducted in two phases, the first a quick advance towards Kabul and the second a ‘waiting game’, during which relations would be established with India and ‘mass Asiatic cavalry’ organised to descend on it. At that point the further role of the Russian forces would be decided. The project was discussed by the Council of Ministers, and in June 1878 General N. G. Stoletov was appointed to head the mission to Kabul. His orders, which he received from the Tsar in Livadia,4 were to encourage the Afghans to resist British attempts to establish themselves in Afghanistan. He should assure Sher Ali that the Russians would support him and assist him with financial aid. He should seek permission for Russian troops to pass through Afghanistan and he should offer his own services in a military role.5