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THE FRONTIER QUESTION
THE frontier question is like the frontier country. Toilfully surmount one branch of it — and it is commanded and controlled by another. Struggle through the pass of one problem — and it opens on to a worse tangle of others.
Take a typical case — Chitral. At the first reconnaissance nothing could be simpler. Obviously, for a host of reasons, we ought to keep clear of Chitral. An invasion of India in anything like force from that side is all but inconceivable. The country, as well as the country between it and India, is infernal, the inhabitants devilish. Before we began to meddle they were content to exercise their devilishness upon each other. Our interference has brought us two costly and profitless wars already; it threatens a fresh one every spring when the Chitral garrison is relieved. It clogs our finances with the permanent expense of the Chitral and Malakand garrisons and of the Malakand movable column, which is necessary to cover the reliefs by threatening the tribesmen's villages; for we no more hold the road to Chitral than we do the road from the Cape to Cairo. Our interference hampers our policy by the consciousness of a perpetually vulnerable point. Decidedly we ought never to have gone to Chitral; ought never to have stayed there; ought, if we must stay there, to have communicated with it, as originally, from Gilgit. The whole business is a palpable, costly, ghastly blunder.
Thus triumphantly we crown that height. And then, unfortunately for our comfort of mind, we begin to observe fresh heights to be crowned above us. As, for instance, the following. It is quite true that India could never be assailed in force, especially by an army bringing guns and transport, from Chitral. Yet it has a strategical importance — contingent, but, assuming the contingency, vital. From Chitral down the Chitral and Kunar valleys a comparatively easy road runs to Jellalabad. Therefore, if we were fighting Russia, as many think we should do, along the Kabul-Kandahar line, even a small force descending that valley from Chitral could turn our flank, work round our rear, break up our whole position. That for one point. For another: we had to go to Chitral, because if we had not Russia would have put an agent there, who would have made it his business to stir up the tribes against us; so that we should have had the wars of '95 and '97 just the same, only worse. For another point: even though we thought it was wrong to go to Chitral, and though Sir George Robertson was wrong to meddle with its dynastic quarrels, could you leave him to be cut up? For another: even though Lord Rosebery was prudent in refusing to hold Chitral or make the road from the Malakand, can you, having once advanced against Asiatics, safely retire?
The more you look at it, the more it mazes you — point topping point, and argument crossing argument. And that is only the very tiniest fraction of the whole frontier question. There are a dozen places like Chitral, each with a tangled problem of its own; and above all are the greater questions — the influence on India proper, the defence against Russia — with all their branches. And the peculiarly exasperating feature of these difficulties is that every action we take seems to leave them more confounded than before.
We went to Kabul in 1840-42 and 1878-80, each time with great expense and loss. Yet you find men in India firmly convinced that we must go to Kabul again when the Amir dies, and again when the next Amir dies, and so on to an infinity of dynasties. What policy could be more heroic or more impotent? You know not whether to call it bravery or despair; and there are other men who, recognising this, say that the next time we go to Kabul we must stay. It comes to this: we went there twice to preserve a buffer against Russia; and now, the third time, we are to destroy that buffer by our own act. It is precisely thus that the frontier lures you on.
Similarly with the recent war. When you speak of "the war" in India now, you can only mean one war — the Tirah-Mohmund-Mamund-Swat-Bajaur-Buner campaign of '97 and '98. There is a great deal of disappointment and a little bitterness in India about "the war." Civilians, as a rule, execrate it root and branch; soldiers feel that perhaps the most difficult campaign in history, and deeds certainly never surpassed for endurance and valour, have been scantily recognised at home, where popular applause and official reward have been reserved for the luckier heroes of easier enterprises. The feeling is most natural; but the blame, if there is any, lies not with the British Government nor the British public. They inevitably reward and applaud campaigns, not according to their difficulty, but according to their results. When "the war" was over, what was there to show for it — for the greatest exertions of the largest force which the empire has put into the field for a generation? Only the prospect of more, and similarly inconclusive, wars in the near future. If more could have been done with the force, then any blame must lie with the generals. If all was done that man could do, then the blame is with the Indian authorities who embarked so huge a force on an enterprise which could never justify its employment.
Yet that is not quite fair either. For the great campaign, though nobody pretends that it achieved results commensurate with the force squandered upon it, did at least issue in some tangible gain. The tribes did not come out of it so well as they seem to have done. Probably they suffered less loss in men than we did; certainly, though there was a hollow pretence of disarmament, they were not disarmed. Yet, in one way, they were vastly impressed. The Afridis, for an example, had always held themselves invulnerable in Tirah; a British force marched through their valleys, destroying crops and villages at will.
Briefly, we proved that at any time we choose we can exterminate the Afridi nation. We can occupy their valleys in unassailable force, destroy everything, and drive men, women, and children into the winter snows to starve and freeze to death. The knowledge of that — and they know it well enough — is a warning even to their levity against more than ordinary misbehaviour in the future. But then — another height to complicate the position — the extermination of the Afridis is just what we do not want. Setting aside the atrocity of it, we want to keep the Afridis for our own use. The fighting races of India proper are even now, in some opinions, falling off; with settled government and canals, with just taxation and courts of appeal, they are certain to deteriorate in the long-run. In the recent war, say many good judges, by far the best of our soldiers were Afridis fighting against their own people; and as long as they stick to the national industry of rifle-stealing and mutual murder, they are likely to remain so.
But now — it will make your head ache — comes another dominating height. Will the Afridis stick to the industries that foster their present martial qualities? Already firearms of precision are so common among them that private war is becoming more than a joke. With a jezail it was a question of stalking your man and bringing him down with a long, long aim at 500 yards. With a Lee-Metford you sit in your tower, and as soon as your enemy comes out to cut a cabbage in his garden — bang! you get him easily at i000. Even Afridis will find life impossible under these conditions in the long-run.
Meantime, since we do not wish to exterminate the Afridis, and it is poor fun fighting them on their own ground in their own style, the course appears to be to treat them well, and, if possible, enlist the whole nation of them. Training in our army will not make them any more dangerous at their own style of warfare — they are perfect at that already; if anything it will put them more on terms with us. So far so good; but there are a thousand little folds in this ground also — as what relations we are to maintain with them and how, what we are to do for the safety of the Khyber route, and so on, and so on. We might easily lose ourselves in these — so perhaps we had better not venture in.
At the back of everything remains Russia. You may reply that Russia could not invade India, that never were we on better terms with Russia, that Russia proposes disarmament, and many other things. All that — forgive me — is childish nonsense. Russia knows quite well that we shall not invade Central Asia, that the Amir will not invade Central Asia; yet at this moment she has just finished a railway that brings her within a week of Herat. If that road is not for aggression, what is it for? Trade? Partly, perhaps, but the trade will never pay the working expenses. For the sake of trade it is even proposed that we shall agree to couple up our Indian railways with Russia's Central Asian. Russia and Germany link railways at the frontier, you say; why not Transcaspia and India? Simply because Russia and Germany are approximately equal in military force, and are bound to respect each other. Our military force is out of proportion inferior to Russia's, and we must redress the balance with every advantage of position we can keep or take.
Then, what to do? The whole question turns on where you intend to fight; though it is astonishing how few people in India, even soldiers, are clear on that point. Russia could not invade India through Afghanistan at present: difficulties of transport would be insuperable. Therefore, if you advance to the line of the Helmund to meet her — through difficult country and savage tribes — you are wantonly throwing away your only good card in the game. On the other hand, if you elect to fight along the border mountains, Russia can swallow Afghanistan piecemeal. First, she can establish herself and accumulate stores, supplies, and beasts to carry them, in the valley of Herat; next in the valley of Kabul; then suddenly she is at the gate of India, and once more you have discarded your winning ace.
One more complication: while we are fighting Russia in front, what would be happening in our rear? We must fight on the Helmund, they say, because a defeat on the present frontier would mean revolt in India. But a defeat on the Helmund could no more be hushed up than a defeat on the Indus: it would only take a few hours longer to reach the bazaars. But then, they answer, the danger is in letting the disaffected know the Russians are so near. The reply is that if we were beaten on the Helmund they would very soon be equally near, and that the only way to keep them out is not to be beaten at all. Therefore we should fight where we are likest to win.
The best way out of the tangle is to make it clear that the moment Russia goes to Herat we fight. We fight as best we can. If Russia comes straight for India we should beat her; if not, we try to wear her down elsewhere; in no case do we make peace till she retires to her old boundary beyond Herat. But will the British people fight to the death for Herat, seeing that it is not theirs, and they do not know where it is? Accustom yourself to the thought, O British people! For in the long-run it is a choice between this, — conscription for service in India — and how would you like that? — or else the loss of India altogether.