The Siege of Herat 1837-1838
By: John Carl Nelson, 1976
Chapter 8: Intrigues in Afghanistan 1834 - 1837
Of all the territories once ruled by Ahmad Shah, by 1835 only Kabul, Kandahar, and Herat remained, each under a different ruler. Economic ruin accompanied anarchy, and the population of Herat and Kandahar declined 60-70% in the years since the fall of Zaman Shah. Kabul was better off but was barely holding its own. The only significant result of Shah Shuja's invasion of 1834 was that it left the Sikhs in control of Peshawar. Ranjit Singh's rule now extended all across the Indus up to the edge of the mountains. He had deprived the Durranis of their richest provinces and the loss was acutely felt. Responsibility for defense against the Sikhs and recovery of lost land now fell on Dost Mohammed. In May 1835, he faced the Sikhs in battle at the mouth of the Khyber pass. Some of his key leaders deserted however, and he retired, defeated, to Kabul. Next Dost Mohammed tried diplomacy. In May 1836, he wrote to the new Governor-General, Lord Auckland, congratulating hin on his appointment and expressing the hope that the British might restrain the aggression of the Sikhs. Auckland replied that it was "not the practice of the British Government to interfere with the affairs of other independent states".
Getting nothing from the British, Dost began to look elsewhere. Early in 1837 he wrote to Mohammed Shah of Persia complaining about all his troubles and asking for Persian aid. He even made the gesture of admitting Persian sovereignty, and stated that if Persia did not help him he would have to turn to the British. In return for Persian help against the Sikhs he would aid the Shah against Herat. Since there was little that Persia could do to harm the Sikhs at this point, Dost Mohammed was apparently trying to use the threat of turning to Persia to gain help from the British. In the absence of a response from India however, his feelers to the Shah took on more significance.
While extending these diplomatic feelers, Dost made another try with his army. In April 1837 his son, Mohammed Akbar Khan, led the army out of the Khyber pass and defeated the Sikhs. But he failed to take any of the Sikh forts, much less Peshawar itself. Ranjit Singh poured in reinforcements, determined to hold Peshawar at all costs, and Akbar was forced to retreat. Dost Mohammed was bitter over this frustrating campaign and even more determined to succeed another time. Afghan-Sikh relations were worsening at a most crucial time.
This conflict upset the calculations of those in charge of the forward policy. For trade to flourish there had to be peace between Afghans and Sikhs. The British were thus confronted with the problem of how to make peace between the two when neither would consider it unless he held Peshawar. At this point Auckland sent Alexander Burnes on another mission to Kabul. This was ostensibly a commercial mission to arrange for trade, but the Peshawar problem was at the heart of the matter since Dost wanted British support on that score before granting any concessions. Burnes' mission also took on another dimension as, while he was making his way to Kabul, the Persians were marching on Herat.
Herat was almost in ruins at this time. Struggles among the Sadozais, Persian threats and invasions, tribal raids and feuds, and cholera had reduced the population of the city from 100,000 to 40,000 since 1810. The traditional industries collapsed as the people either died off or simply moved away. That Herat had survived at all as an independent principality is a comment on its enemies. Shah Mahmud died in 1829 and Kamran, his son, once he succeeded to the title, abandoned affairs of state to his vizier, Yar Mohammed Khan. Yar Mohammed followed a policy of strengthening Herat while undermining Kamran and he soon had complete control in his own hands.
Herat would probably have fallen to the Persians in 1833 but for the death of Abbas Mirza. Yar Mohammed made an agreement with Mohammed Mirza to pay tribute but as soon as the Persian army was gone he promptly forgot all about it. During the next few years Yar was busy building up his power. In 1834 he established a measure of control over Seistan, which had gone its own way since the death of Ahmad Shah. This was a direct challenge to both Kandahar and Persia since they both claimed Seistan. Yar was also successful in controlling, or at least gaining the cooperation of the tribes surrounding Herat. He repaired the city walls, built up his army, and conducted purges of possible pro-Persian people in his territory. By 1837 the vizier was in complete control, and Kamran was reduced to a mere puppet, in fear for his own life. Kamran continued to be useful however, as a scapegoat to blame oppression and misfortune on.
The strengthening of Herat was particularly threatening to Kandahar. Kohendil Khan, who ruled the city after his older brothers died in 1829, was afraid of the Sikhs and jealous of his brother, Dost Mohammed, the British were far away, so the only ones he could turn to for help against Herat were the Persians. In July 1836, Kohendil sent an ambassador to the Shah proposing that Kandahar submit to Persia, retaining only internal autonomy. Kandahar was then to help Persia against Herat in return for aid against Dost Mohammed and the Sikhs. Persia was agreeable because it could use the help against Herat, and also because Kandahar had once belonged to the Safavis and even its nominal submission would be an accomplishment.
Notes to Chapter 8
- Gregorian, pp.52-58.
- Sir Olaf Caroe, The Pathans 550 B.C. - A.D. 1957 (London: Macmillan, 1958), pp. 312-314; Ferrier, p. 204<./li>
- Correspondence Relating to Persia and Afghanistan, Dost Mohammed to Auckland, May 31, 1836; Auckland to Dost Mohammed, August 22, 1836, pp. 395-397.
- Correspondence, Dost Mohammed to Mohammed Shah, pp. 27-28.
- Caroe, Pathans, pp. 314-315.
- Norris, pp. 90-113, 118-123.
- Ferrier, pp. 173-174; Gregorian, pp. 43, 424n.
- Correspondence, Ellis to Palmerston, December 30, 1835, p. 6; Ferrier, 175-176.
- Correspondence, McNeill to Macnaghten, January 22, 1837, p. 26; Ferrier, pp. 76-77.
- Correspondence,Ellis to Palmerston, April 1, 1836, p.11; Ferrier, p. 193.