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"The Jamskii Otryad and the Origins of the Second Afghan War"

Public Lecture, Alexander Morrison

Oct 22, 2014
from 12:00 PM to 01:30 PM

Andrews Conference Room (2203 SS&H)

Professor of Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan

See Dr. Morrison's own summary of his talk:

At the crossroads of Sary-Kul, near the village of Jam, at the south-western edge of the Zarafshan valley in Uzbekistan, there is a obelisk built of roughly-squared masonry, with a rusting Orthodox cross embedded near the top. The worn inscription on a marble tablet at the base records that the monument was erected in 1913 as part of the 300th anniversary celebrations of the Romanov dynasty, to commemorate the men of the ‘Jamskii Otryad’ (Jam force), ‘who fell victim during the expedition to India.’

    The existence of this monument raises a number of interesting questions: firstly, how did it manage to survive into the 21st century, when almost every other Tsarist memorial in Central Asia was obliterated in the Soviet period? Secondly, what was this ‘expedition to India’? Is this some sort of proof that British paranoia regarding Russian intentions towards India was justified, as the hackneyed ‘Great Game’ narrative would have us believe?
    I do not yet have an answer to the first question – but this paper will provide an answer to the second. Many Russian soldiers did die at Jam – not from enemy action, but from cholera. In 1878 they formed one of three columns ordered to march towards the Afghan frontier at Kerki. This was part of an operation designed to threaten and alarm the British by staging extensive troop movements in Russian Turkestan, conceived by the War Minister, D. A. Miliutin, as revenge for the humiliation Russia had suffered at the Congress of Berlin in July, where the spoils of her victory over the Ottoman empire in 1877 had been snatched away. Conceived in a fit of pique, the operation quickly ran into difficulties. These were partly logistical, also because Miliutin quickly got cold feet: well before they reached the Afghan frontier, he ordered the Turkestani forces to halt, and as they waited for further orders, disease took hold. Meanwhile Miliutin ordered Colonel N. G. Stoletov to lead a Russian embassy to Kabul to reassure the Amir, Shir ‘Ali, that Russian movements were not directed at him. This was to have some very unexpected consequences.
    Drawing on published documents and research in Russian, British and Indian archives this paper will explain how this hasty attempt to put pressure on the British India unintentionally triggered the second Afghan War. This has often been seen as a masterstroke by the Russians, a cunning ploy to embroil the British disastrously in Afghan affairs, leading to the massacre of their delegation at Kabul, and the eventual installation of ‘Abd al-Rahman Khan, hosted for many years by the Russians in Samarkand, on the Afghan throne. Examining documents from the Russian side, it becomes clear that in fact the Russians did not foresee any of this – they did not anticipate that their embassy would provoke the British to invade Afghanistan, and were horrified when it happened. Far from having been ‘installed’ in Kabul by his Russian patrons, ‘Abd al-Rahman seized his opportunity and secretly escaped from Russian territory without informing his erstwhile hosts, who were extremely put out by his behaviour. His subsequent seizing of the Afghan throne owed nothing to Russian support, and everything to British desperation as they cast about for someone to whom they could hand over power before retreating.
    Thus what at first seems like a classic ‘Great Game’ episode – great power competition in Central Asia, troop movements, embassies, derring-do in the passes – turns out to have been a tale of blundering and unintended consequences on both sides, with the only decisive role played by a Central Asian ruler.