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The Prospects of the Anglo-Persian War[251]

Frederick Engels

It is the question of the possession of Herat, an Afghan principality, but lately occupied by the Persians[252], that has given occasion to the occupation by the English, acting in the name of the East India Company, of Bushire, the principal Persian port on the Persian Gulf. The existing political importance of Herat is derived from the fact of its being the strategical center of all the country intervening between the Persian Gulf, the Caspian Sea and the Jaxartes on the west and north, and the Indus on the east; so that in the event of a great struggle between England and Russia for supremacy in Asia—a struggle which the English invasion of Persia may tend to precipitate—Herat will form the chief object of contention, and probably the theater of the first great military operations.

That the importance ascribed to Herat is not unfounded, must be apparent to all who understand its geographical position. The interior of Persia is formed by an elevated plain, surrounded on all sides by mountain chains, allowing no egress to the waters flowing down into it. These waters are not of sufficient importance to form one or more central lakes; they either lose themselves in vast morasses, or gradually vanish in the arid sand of the great desert which fills up by far the greater portion of the Persian plateau, and forms an almost impassable barrier between Western and Northeastern Persia. The northern boundary of this desert is formed by the hills of Khorassan, stretching along from the south-eastern corner of the Caspian almost due east, the connecting link between the Elburz and the Hindoo-koosh Mountains; and it is just where these hills send a branch to the south dividing the Persian desert from the better watered regions of Afghanistan that Herat is situated, surrounded and supported by a valley of considerable extent and exuberant fertility. To the north of the Khorassan hills we find a desert similar to that at their southern foot. Here, too, mighty rivers like the Murghab are lost in the sand. But the Oxus and Jaxartes are powerful enough to traverse it, and in their lower course form valleys capable of cultivation and of large extent. Beyond the Jaxartes the desert-gradually takes the character of the steppes of Southern Russia, in which it is finally lost altogether. Thus we have three distinct seats of comparative civilization intervening between the Caspian Sea and British India. First, the towns of Western Persia: Shiraz, Shuster, Teheran, Ispahan; secondly, the Afghan towns: Caboul, Ghazna, Candahar; thirdly, the towns of Turan: Khiva, Bokhara, Balkh, Samarcand. Between all these there is a considerable intercourse, and the center of all this intercourse is necessarily Herat. The roads leading from the Caspian to the Indus, from the Persian Gulf to the Oxus, all meet at that city. Between Caboul and Teheran, between Shiraz and Balkh, Herat is the half-way house. The line of oases marking the great caravan route across the Persian desert by Yezd and Shehustan, debouches in a straight line on Herat; and, on the other hand, the only road leading from Western to Eastern and Central Asia, avoiding the desert, is that through the Khorassan hills and Herat.

Thus Herat is a point which, in the hands of a strong power, can be used to command both Iran and Turan—both Persia and Transoxiana. It gives to its possessor, in the very highest degree, all the advantages of a central position, from which radiating attacks in all directions can be made with greater facility and chance of success than from any other town in either Iran or Turan. At the same time, the difficulties of intercommunication between any two of the towns of Astrabad, Khiva, Bokhara, Balkh, Caboul and Candahar are so great that a combined attack upon Herat, even from all of them, would have but little chance of success. The various columns, once marching upon Herat, would have scarcely any chance of communication with each other, and could, by an active general at Herat, be fallen upon and defeated one after the other. Still, in such a case, columns coming from Candahar, Caboul and Balkh, would certainly have a better chance than an attack concentrating from the starting points of Astrabad, Khiva and Bokhara; for the attack from the side of Afghanistan would descend from the mountains into the plain, and completely avoid the desert, while the attack from the side of the Caspian and Araxes would have only one column (that from Astrabad) avoiding the desert, while all the remainder would have to pass it, and thereby altogether lose their communications one with the others.

The three centers of civilization which have their common center in Herat, form three distinct groups of States. On the west is Persia, which the Treaty of Turkmantchai[253] has converted into a vassal of Russia. On the East are the States of Afghanistan and Beloochistan, the most important of which, Caboul and Candahar, we may class for the present with the vassal States of the Anglo-Indian Empire. On the north are the Khanats of Turan, Khiva and Bokhara, States nominally neutral, but almost sure, in the case of a conflict, to go with the conquering party. The actual dependence of Persia on Russia, and of Afghanistan on the English, is proved by the fact that the Russians have already sent troops into Persia, and the English into Caboul.

The Russians hold the whole of the western and northern shores of the Caspian. Baku, 350 miles, and Astrakhan, 750 miles from Astrabad, offer two capital points for the establishment of magazines and the concentration of reserves. With the Russian fleet on the Caspian in command of that lake, the necessary stores and reinforcements can, with great facility, be brought down to Astrabad. The points on the eastern shore of the Caspian, whence start the roads to Lake Aral, are occupied by Russian forts. Further north and east, the line of Russian forts marking the line of the Ural Cossacks had been advanced, as far back as 1847, from the river Ural to the rivers Emba and Ulu Turgai, some 150 or 200 miles into the territory of the tributary Kirghiz hordes, and in the direction of the Lake Aral. Since then, forts have actually been established on the shores of that lake, which, as well as the river Jaxartes, is at this moment plowed by Russian steamers. There have been rumors even of an occupation of Khiva[254] by Russian troops, but they are at least premature.

The line of operations the Russians have to follow, in any serious attack on Central or Southern Asia, is pointed out by nature. A land march from the Caucasus around the south-western corner of the Caspian would find great natural obstacles in the hills of Northern Persia, and would take the invading army over 1,100 miles of ground before the chief object, Herat, was reached. A land march from Orenburg toward Herat would have to pass not only the desert in which Perowski's army, on its expedition to Khiva[255], was lost, but two more deserts quite as inhospitable. The distance from Orenburg to Herat is 1,500 miles as the crow flies, and Orenburg is the nearest place which the Russians, advancing from that direction, could take as a base of operations. Now, both Russian Armenia and Orenburg are places all but cut off from the center of Russian power—the first by the Caucasus, the second by the steppes. To concentrate in either of them the material and men necessary for the conquest of Central Asia, is entirely out of the question. There is but one line remaining—that by the Caspian, with Astrakhan and Baku for bases, with Astrabad, on the south-eastern border of the Caspian for the point of observation, and with a march to Herat of but 500 miles. And this line combines all the advantages that Russia can wish for. Astrakhan is to the Volga what New-Orleans is to the Mississippi. Situated at the mouth of the greatest river of Russia, the upper basin of which actually, forms Great Russia, the center of the Empire, Astrakhan possesses every facility for the transmission of men and stores to organize a grand expedition. In four days by steam, in eight days by sailing vessels, the opposite extremity of the Caspian at Astrabad can be reached. The Caspian itself is undisputably a Russian lake; and Astrabad, now placed by the Persian Shah at the disposal of Russia, is situated at the starting point of that only road from the west to Herat which, by passing through the Khorassan hills, totally avoids the desert.

The Russian Government acts accordingly. The main column, destined in the case of further complications to act against Herat, is concentrating at Astrabad. Then there are two flank columns, the co-operation of which with the main body is at best but problematical, and each of which has, therefore, a definite object of its own. The right column concentrating at Tabreez is destined to cover the western frontier of Persia against any hostile movements of the Turks, and eventually to march toward Hamadan and Shuster, where it covers the capital, Teheran, both against Turkey and the English troops landing in the Persian Gulf at Bushire. The left column, starting from Orenburg and very likely intended to receive reinforcements sent from Astrakhan to the western shore[a] of the Caspian, will have to secure the Aral country, to march on Khiva, Bokhara and Samarcand, to secure either the passivity or the assistance of these States, and if possible, by a march up the Oxus to Balkh, menace the flank and rear of the English at Caboul or near Herat. We know that all these columns are already on the road, and that the central and right columns are already at Astrabad and Tabreez. Of the progress of the right[b] column we shall probably not hear anything for some time.

For the English, the country of the upper Indus is the base of operations; and their magazines must be fixed at Peshawur. Thence they have already moved a column on Caboul, which town is distant four hundred miles from Herat as the crow flies. But in a serious war they must occupy, beside Caboul, Ghazna and Candahar, as well as the mountain forts guarding the Afghan passes. In this they will scarcely find any more difficulty than the Russians have done in occupying Astrabad, for ostensibly they are supporting the Afghans against Persian invasion.

The march from Caboul to Herat will offer no insuperable difficulties. There will be no need of any detached flank columns, for neither of the Russian flank columns will be able to come up; and if, after a couple of campaigns, the Orenburg column should debouch from Bokhara toward Balkh, a strong reserve at Caboul would soon give a good account of it. The English have this advantage, that their line of operations is comparatively short; for, though Herat lies exactly half-way between Calcutta and Moscow, yet the English base, at the confluence of the Caboul. and Indus rivers, is but 600 miles from Herat, while the Russian base at Astrakhan is 1,250 miles off. The English, at Caboul, have got the start of the Russians at Astrabad, by a hundred miles, as far as Herat is concerned; and so far as the country is known, they pass through a better cultivated and more populous district, and by better roads than the Russians would find in Khorassan. As to the two armies, that of the English is undoubtedly the better so far as standing the climate is concerned. Its European regiments would undoubtedly act with the same unflinching steadiness as their comrades at Inkermann and the sepoy infantry[256] is by no means to be lightly spoken of. Sir Charles Napier, who saw them in many a battle, had the highest opinion of them, and he was a soldier and a general, every inch of him. The regular Indian cavalry is worth very little, but the irregulars are excellent, and under their European officers decidedly preferable to the Cossacks.

It is, of course, quite useless to speculate any further on the chances of such a war. There is no possibility of guessing at the forces that may be put in motion on one side or the other. There is no way of anticipating all the accidents which may happen if such important events come to pass as now seem to be drawing nigh. One thing only is certain, from the tremendous distances either party has to traverse, that the armies which will decide the contest at Herat, the decisive point, will be comparatively small. A great deal will also depend upon diplomatic intrigues and bribery at the courts of the various potentates grouped around Herat. In these matters the Russians are almost sure to have the best of it. Their diplomacy is better and more Oriental; they know how to lavish money when it is required, and above all, they have friend in the enemy's camp[c] The British expedition into the Persian Gulf is but a diversion which may draw upon it an important portion of the Persian army, but which, in its direct results, can accomplish but little. Even if the 5,000 men now at Bushire be tripled, they could at the utmost march only to Shiraz, and there halt. But this expedition is not meant to do more. If it gives the Persian Government an idea of the vulnerability of the country on the seaside, it will have attained its object. To expect more, would be absurd. The line on which the fate of all Iran and Turan must really be decided, leads from Astrabad to Peshawur, and on this line the decisive point is Herat.

Written late in January-early in February
Reproduced from the newspaper 1857
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4941, February 19, 1857 as a leading article


[a] Most probably a misprint in the original. Should read "the eastern shore".—Ed.

[b] Must be "left".—Ed.

[c] An allusion to Palmerston.—Ed.

[251] This article was written by Engels on Marx's request, made by him in the letter of January 23, 1857: "I should be grateful if you should let me have by Tuesday ... a military article on Persia" (see present edition, Vol. 40, p. 98). There is no evidence that the article was sent on the following Tuesday, January 27. However, it must have been sent not later than February 6, because after this date Marx temporarily stopped sending articles to the Tribune; this can be seen from his letter to Engels of February 6, 1857 (present edition, Vol. 40, p. 99).

[252] The object of the Anglo-Persian war of 1856-57 was to establish British influence in Persia, pave the way for further colonial expansion in the Middle East and Central Asia and prevent the Shah of Persia from establishing his power over the independent principality of Herat. When Persian troops occupied Herat in October 1856, Britain used this as a pretext to open hostilities. The war took an unfavourable turn for Persia. However, the national liberation uprising that flared up in India in 1857 and continued up to 1859 compelled Britain to conclude a peace treaty with Persia in all haste. Under the terms of the treaty, signed in Paris in March 1857, Persia repudiated her claims to Herat, which, in 1863, was incorporated into the possessions of the Afghan Emir.

[253] The Treaty of Turkmanchai, which ended the Russo-Persian war of 1826-28, was signed on February 22, 1828. Under this treaty Russia received the territories of the Erivan and Nakhichevan khanates (Eastern Armenia), and Russia's exclusive right to have a fleet in the Caspian Sea was confirmed. Persia was to pay war indemnities (see also K. Marx, Lord Palmerston, present edition, Vol. 12, pp. 355-56).

[254] The Khanate of Khiva acknowledged its dependence on Russia only as a result of the treaty signed by Russia and Khiva on August 12, 1873. Between 1853 and 1857 V. A. Perovsky, Military Governor of Orenburg, erected a number of fortifications on the Syr-Darya River.

[255] The Russian expedition to the Khanate of Khiva in November 1839 was undertaken under General Perovsky. His 5,000-strong detachment, with artillery and a food convoy, proved unprepared for a winter march through the barren steppes and lost half its men through epidemics. Perovsky failed to reach Khiva and was forced to return to Orenburg.

[256] At the Battle of Inkermann on November 5, 1854, during the Crimean war of 1853-56, the Anglo-French forces defeated the Russian army. Engels described the battle in detail in his article "The Battle of Inkermann" (see present edition, Vol. 13, pp. 528-35).

Sepoys—mercenary troops in the British-Indian army recruited from the Indian population and serving under British officers. They were used by the British to subjugate India and to fight the wars of conquest against Afghanistan, Burma and other neighbouring states.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 15 (pp.194-199), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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