The end game: Britain’s role in Afghanistan 1947–50

From the 1920s to 1940s, Afghanistan acted as a buffer state between the British empire in India and the Russian/Soviet empire. Although not governed directly by Britain, as India was, Britain controlled Afghanistan’s foreign policy and paid the government to maintain stability. Yet in the space of just three years from 1947, Britain’s influence in the country crumbled. Here, Susan Loughhead, author of The End Game: The Final Chapter in Britain's Great Game in Afghanistan, explains why…

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In August 1947, Britain had unparalleled influence over Afghan policies and international relations. British arms manufacturers equipped the Afghan army and air force; British subsidies helped finance the machinery of government; and Britain’s imperial presence in India protected the country from Soviet ambitions in Asia. Nowhere was that status better demonstrated than at its embassy. Built to represent the power and prestige of the Raj after Afghan independence, the embassy had been erected in the 1920s on a 25-acre site three miles outside Kabul on the orders of Lord Curzon, the British foreign secretary. He had reputedly decreed that the ambassador should be “the best housed person in Asia”, equivalent to two or more battalions on the Khyber Pass. Britain’s ambassador took him at his word. Afghanistan may have secured independence from Britain in 1919, but its new diplomatic mission declared to all and sundry that the British were still in business.

In August 1947, Britain had unparalleled influence over Afghan policies and international relations. British arms manufacturers equipped the Afghan army and air force; British subsidies helped finance the machinery of government; and Britain’s imperial presence in India protected the country from Soviet ambitions in Asia. Nowhere was that status better demonstrated than at its embassy. Built to represent the power and prestige of the Raj after Afghan independence, the embassy had been erected in the 1920s on a 25-acre site three miles outside Kabul on the orders of Lord Curzon, the British foreign secretary. He had reputedly decreed that the ambassador should be “the best housed person in Asia”, equivalent to two or more battalions on the Khyber Pass. Britain’s ambassador took him at his word. Afghanistan may have secured independence from Britain in 1919, but its new diplomatic mission declared to all and sundry that the British were still in business.

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A 1970s photograph of the embassy swimming pool, which was built in the 1940s. (Courtesy of Annemarie Wilson)

By 1950, however, Britain’s opinion carried little weight in Afghan affairs. The Afghan government had turned to the United States and others for money, economic investment and armaments, while the embassy had become an anachronism. Meanwhile, many of the seeds had been planted which would contribute to Afghanistan’s subsequent troubled history.

So what had happened?

The turning point was Indian Independence on the night of 14/15 August 1947 and the creation of two new states, India and Pakistan. Prior to that date, Afghanistan had enjoyed a fairly unique relationship with Britain. Britain spent much of the 19th century trying to secure the north-west frontier of its Indian empire from Russian expansionism in Central Asia during the so-called Great Game, using Afghanistan as a buffer state. Two attempts to absorb the country into the British empire had failed, with humiliating defeats for the British army. In a treaty agreed after the Second Anglo-Afghan War in 1880, Britain agreed to give the Amir of Afghanistan an annual subsidy and control over his country’s internal affairs, in exchange for Britain’s right to control Afghan foreign policy.

This suited both parties: the Amir needed resources to strengthen state institutions, including his army, and to impose his will across the kingdom – Britain’s guarantee to protect Afghanistan’s territorial sovereignty against Russia was therefore invaluable. Meanwhile for Britain, a strong and stable Afghan state shored up the north-west frontier of British India. This was reinforced when Sir Mortimer Durand agreed the limits of Afghan territory along the frontier – the so-called Durand Line – in 1893. The formation of the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution in 1917 and Afghan independence in 1919 did not fundamentally shift the central tenets of this relationship of mutual dependency.

In the run up to Indian Independence, Afghanistan sought and secured Britain’s continued commitment to protect the country from Soviet expansionism. They had seen Soviet occupation of eastern Europe and northern Persia after the Second World War ended in 1945, and were concerned they would be next. Five weeks after Indian Independence, on 22 September, Ernest Bevin, the British Foreign Secretary, reassured the Afghans that their country’s security against the Soviet Union was still of the utmost importance to Britain, but added a new factor – that Britain would now work hard to encourage India and Pakistan to ensure this. The Afghans spotted a contradiction in Britain’s position and started to worry. They wondered about the extent to which Britain intended to hand over responsibility for their security to India and Pakistan, and if so, wanted guarantees that Britain would continue to protect their interests, especially as things had already got off to a bad start with Pakistan.

British trade unionist and Labor politician Ernest Bevin (1881 - 1951) wears a three-piece suit and sits behind a desk in this portrait from the late 1940s. Bevin served as Minister of Labour and National Service in the coalition government during World War II in which position he had almost total control of the economic and industrial aspects of the war effort. In 1945 he was named Foreign Secretary by Clement Attlee. (Photo by Frederic Lewis/Getty Images)
Ernest Bevin, late 1940s. (Photo by Frederic Lewis/Getty Images)

High-risk policy

The Afghan government had taken the opportunity of Indian Independence to reassert their historic claim to Pashtun tribal territories across the Durand Line – including in North West Frontier Province and the city of Peshawar – all of which were now part of Pakistan. The inhabitants, they argued, should be allowed to decide whether to join Afghanistan or Pakistan, or indeed become an autonomous region called Pashtunistan. Then, in the autumn, Afghanistan became the lone voice in the United Nations rejecting Pakistan’s membership application. This policy was high risk. As a landlocked country, Afghanistan was dependent on the flow of trade through British India and now Pakistan. If relations with Pakistan broke down over the Pashtunistan question and the border closed, they would be forced to turn to the Soviet Union for supplies. The stakes were high, and they inevitably looked to Britain to solve the problem.

They had miscalculated, however. After six years of war, Britain lacked both the capacity and the willingness to help. The country had a £3.8 billion debt and was overcommitted internationally. British diplomats were involved in intense discussions with the United States and the Soviet Union to help frame the peace settlements with Germany, Italy, Austria and Japan. Britain’s military were part of the occupation force in Germany and Austria, and deployed in Egypt, Libya, Cyprus, Somaliland, Sudan, the Far East and Jamaica. They were also supporting the Greek army in the Greek civil war and Turkey against Soviet incursions, and were trying to maintain peace in Palestine in accordance with their post-First World War mandate in the Middle East. On top of this, the government was also managing the transition of power to the newly independent states of India, Pakistan, Burma (now Myanmar) and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

The communist threat

Meanwhile, events on the international stage were taking a new turn. By 1947, Britain and the United States feared that the world now faced a new threat – the onward march of a global communist movement that seemingly threatened the free world. This ranged from the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe and the rise of communism in France, Italy and South-East Asia, to Mao Zedong’s growing influence in China.

Britain announced in early 1947 that it was withdrawing from Greece and Turkey – to relieve itself of two commitments – and President Truman stated that the United States would thenceforth “support free peoples who are resisting subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures” worldwide. Within a year, British resources were stretched even further, running an airlift of food and essential supplies to Berlin after land routes were cut off by the Soviet Union. By April 1949 the North Atlantic Treaty (NATO) had been signed, and six months later, British and American troops were heading to South Korea to repel a Soviet backed invasion from the north.

Harry S. Truman signing Greece-Turkish Aid Bill. (Photo by Yale Joel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

President Truman signing the Greece-Turkish Aid Bill. (Photo by Yale Joel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

In view of this, Britain simply could not afford to take on any additional political, financial or military commitments unless Afghanistan was still a foreign policy priority. There were two critical questions: firstly, Was Afghanistan seriously threatened by the Soviet Union right now, and secondly, if so, would other countries, and especially Pakistan and India, take on Britain’s erstwhile role since they had most to lose if Afghanistan became unstable or fell to the Soviets? The United States was an option too, but was swiftly rejected as an outlier because it had only opened an embassy in Kabul in 1943 and lacked Britain’s extensive knowledge of regional affairs. There was an unwritten third question too: was it possible for Britain to withdraw gracefully without losing prestige and status, and above all, influence?

When the British reviewed Soviet policy they concluded that the Soviets had little to gain from invading Afghanistan and would experience the same challenges in invading and occupying the country as the British had done in the 19th century. Moreover, Soviet communism was unlikely to spread among Afghanistan’s mainly illiterate and unorganised rural population. If the Soviet embassy in Kabul could be taken as a weather vane of the USSR’s intentions, then its relative inactivity during this period suggested no imminent plans were afoot either. Once this matter was put to bed, the British were left with the seemingly straightforward issue of ensuring that Pakistan, and to a lesser extent India, took over their role. Unfortunately, they had not appreciated how toxic the nexus between Afghanistan, Pakistan and India would soon become, and how swiftly their own capacity to influence the course of events would be eroded.

Lost credibility

Over the next two years, British diplomats tried, and failed, to solve the Pashtunistan dispute, finally announcing in the House of Commons in July 1949 that Pakistan was Britain’s successor state in the tribal areas, not Afghanistan. Thereafter, Britain lost its credibility with the Afghans as an impartial negotiator, and to this day the Durand Line has remained a bone of contention in Afghan-Pakistan relations. Afghanistan soon paid a heavy price for its policy when Pakistan closed the border to petrol supplies in early 1950, the first of many such instances.

Meanwhile, surplus arms supplies from arsenals in British India, which had been promised to Afghanistan in a lucrative five-year deal in 1946, soon failed to materialise. After independence, India refused to allow further shipments, fearful they would be captured by Pakistan en route to Afghanistan and used against themselves. Whitehall refused to play ball too, unconvinced that Afghanistan was a foreign policy priority. When Afghan military training opportunities in British India were curtailed, the Air Ministry refused to subsidise their training in the UK on the grounds of cost. Although the Foreign Office continued to be sympathetic to repeated Afghan requests for loans to help them address their economic challenges, the Treasury said ‘no’ time and again. In their opinion there were no commercial advantages to be gained and that was that. The British were eventually forced to step aside and let the Americans arrange a loan in 1949. This was tied to completing an American commercial contract to irrigate the Helmand river valley, which had well nigh bankrupted the Afghan government.

By 1950, Britain’s attempts to steer a smooth transition to a new world order in Central Asia during the early years of the Cold War lay in tatters, while her reputation in Afghanistan had been irrevocably damaged. Any residual capacity to influence the course of future events was marginal thereafter. Meanwhile, the Afghans were already starting to reframe their international alliances, leaving Britain well out of the picture. The country’s long-shared border with the Soviet Union inevitably drew it ever deeper into the super-power rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States. They tried to play the Soviet Union and America off against one other, and to turn the hostility between India and Pakistan to their own advantage. In 1950 they signed a trade deal with the Soviet Union to reduce their dependence on trade through Pakistan and a Treaty of Friendship with India, which effectively left Pakistan encircled by ‘hostile’ neighbours. As for the United States, it eventually decided to back Pakistan in the Cold War, not Afghanistan, leaving the door open for Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, to sign a huge arms and trade deal with Afghanistan in 1955 – the first of many.

Nikita S. Khrushchev, Soviet Communist Party leader, in May 1955. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Nikita Khrushchev, May 1955. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Britain’s embassy in Kabul became part of the story too, as first India, then Pakistan sought to take it over on the grounds that it had been built and maintained by the British government in India, and not in London. Between 1947 and 1950, British diplomats in Kabul and officials in the Foreign Office confronted the imminent loss of this monument to imperial power and sought to save it at all costs. If Britain’s actual power was waning, what better way to disguise that fact than to retain this symbolic embodiment of past glory and prestige?

In the end, the embassy remained in British hands until 1994 [the British left in 1989 when security began to crumble in Kabul, but it remained staffed by visiting diplomats from Islamabad] – not through any skillful diplomatic manoeuvres however, but rather through the subsequent breakdown in relations between Pakistan and India. It is now the Pakistan embassy, while the current British embassy is situated close to the site of Britain’s first cantonment in Kabul in the 1830s, and from which the British army started its ignominious retreat during the First Anglo-Afghan War in 1842.

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Susan Loughhead is author of The End Game: The Final Chapter in Britain’s Great Game in Afghanistan (Amberley Publishing, 2016). Susan worked at the British Embassy in Kabul from 2010 to 2013.