Kabul 1841-42: Battle Story by Edmund Yorke

Kabul 1841-42: Battle Story by Edmund Yorke

Author:Edmund Yorke
Language: eng
Format: epub
ISBN: 9780752481302
Publisher: The History Press
Published: 2012-08-14T04:00:00+00:00

Our troops had now lost all confidence; and even such of the officers as had hitherto indulged the hope of a favourable turn in our affairs began at last to entertain gloomy foreboding at to our future fate. Our force resembled a ship in danger of wrecking among rocks and shoals for want of an able pilot to guide it safely through them … it seemed as if we were under the ban of Heaven.

Eyre, Kabul Insurrection, p. 174

The Political Debacle

The fate of the military now lay firmly in the hands of MacNaghten and his advisors. The stage was set for the inexorable, final, political tragedy. Since the outbreak of the insurrection on 2 November MacNaghten had pursued clandestine negotiations with the insurgent Afghan chiefs, adopting a classic but extremely risky policy of divide and rule. Such a strategy had certainly succeeded in the situation of overwhelming British force as had pre-existed in 1839–40 but, with British power now clearly deeply compromised, it would cost him not only his life but those of thousands of his countrymen and allies. His aim was simple – in the words of historian Durand: ‘to create discord amongst the rebels and thus break up the league against Shah Shooja and his allies’ (Durand, First Afghan War, p. 363). Unfortunately, much of this was to be done in secrecy, with even Elphinstone and leading military officials left in ignorance. The intermediary was Mohan Lal, a key British collaborator. He had earlier miraculously escaped the Burnes massacre on 2 November, ultimately finding asylum in the house of a Kuzzilbash chief and erstwhile British ally, Khan Sheereen Khan, in the ‘Persian quarter’ of the city. He was therefore considered to be ideally suited to carry on negotiations or intrigues with those and other chiefs willing to work for MacNaghten. Working alongside Lt John Connolly, the envoy’s political assistant, he commenced negotiations in early November with the Kuzzilbash (modern term, Quizilbash) chiefs, the minority Shia ethnic group usually loyal to the British cause and who had continued to remain relatively neutral since the disturbances began. Thus on 6 November, Sale remarked in her diary: ‘Sir William has given one of the Kuzzilbash chiefs fifty thousand rupees to raise a diversion in our favour and has promised him two lakhs more if he succeeds’ (Sale, Journal, p. 66).

Up to 13 November, at least some limited success had been achieved with this strategy when, for instance, the Khojah Meer of Bemaru ‘sent his salaam to know our pleasure’. But this only reflected the limited military success against nearby forts on 10 November. As the military slowly lost ground and Kuzzilbash support slowly evaporated, MacNaghten’s strategy deliberately or by default changed from negotiation to a far higher-risk policy which included even the assassination of selected rebel chiefs. MacNaghten’s role in this remains disputed; he later vehemently denied any part in a policy of assassination and it may have simply been a misreading of his aims by Mohan Lal or other Afghan collaborators.


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