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On November 21, 1864 a circular issued by the Russian Foreign Minister, Prince Gorchakov justified his country’s conquests as a responsibility of “civilized” nations to tame the violent primitive areas in their immediate vicinity. He indicated, however, that his country had no intention to make further advances. “The position of Russia in Central Asia,” he wrote, “is that of all civilized states which are brought into contact with half-savage nomad populations, possessing no fixed social organization.” The circular basically addressed to the European nations argued that the Imperial Russia was long targeted by pillaging nomadic forces within its frontiers and as it punished and repressed the nomadic hordes more plunderers emerged from the depth of the region that attacked the pacified ones. In dealing with unstable areas in the frontier, the Prince made a comparison of the Russian effort to the actions by other civilized states saying “such has been the fate of every country which has found itself in a similar position. The United States in America, France in Algeria, Holland in her colonies, England in India – all have been irresistibly forced, less by ambition than by imperious necessity, into this onward march, where the greatest difficulty is to know when to stop. Such, too, have been the reasons which have led the Imperial Government to take up at first a position resting on one side on the Syr-Daria, on the other on the Lake’ Issyk-Kul, and to strengthen these two lines by advanced forts, which, little by little, have crept on into the heart of those distant regions, without however succeeding in establishing on the other side of our frontiers that tranquility which is indispensable for their security.” Therefore he concluded that Russia intends to carry its frontier “to the limit where the indispensable conditions are to be found.” [1]

Russia’s railway

These Russian strategic views were soon followed by military action extending the influence of Russia further and further to the south. A counter memorandum by the renowned British politician-orientalist, Sir Henry Rawlinson (1810-1895), who had served as political agent in Kandahar in 1840-1842, was circulated in 1865 within the British policy-making centers warning about the threat of Russian advances into Central Asia and beyond. In his memorandum, Rawlinson expressed alarm regarding the dangers of Russian southward expansion. Although he stopped short of recommending a military advance into Afghanistan, he strongly suggested an extension of British authority. “The remedial measures recommended for adoption in the present state of the Central Asian question,” he wrote, “may be briefly recapitulated. They are few, but not unimportant. Sher Ali Khan should be subsidized and strengthened at Kabul, our position at that capital being rendered as secure and paramount as would have been Burnes’ position at the Court of Dost Mohammad Khan in 1837, if he had been supported by the full weight of Lord Auckland’s authority and resources. The next step should be to recover our lost ground in Persia, so as to prevent the possibility of Russia making use of that country as an instrument to facilitate her own advances towards India. Locally also our communications with the Afghan frontier, considered especially as military lines, should be completed and improved. It is a crying reproach to us that up to the present day no progress should have been made in laying down a railway from Lahore to Peshawar, and that we should still be dependent on the dilatory and uncertain Indus navigation for our communications between Multan and the sea.”[2]

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(Excerpts from Jalali’s A Military History of Afghanistan from the Great Game to the Global War on Terror)

[1] Circular, St. Petersburg : November 21, 1864 signed by Gorchakov cited in Causes of the Afghan War, PP. 222-227,

[2] Causes of the Afghan War being a Selection of the Papers Laid Before Parliament with a Connecting Narrative and Comment, Chatto & Windus London, 1879, PP. 11-12

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