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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 57

I.—Passive Defence Behind The Indus.*

page 12

I.—Passive Defence Behind The Indus.*

In favour of the defensive being restricted to the line of the Indus, it is argued—
I.—That it is the least costly.
II.—That we require no vast preparation of transport.
III.—That railways enable us to meet amidst our resources an enemy who has advanced a long distance from his.
I.—With reference to the cost of the defence, it has been urged elsewhere that that defence which promises the greatest security is the cheapest: an empire cannot afford to gamble in cheap markets or to effect its chief insurances in an office of straw such as the Afghán nation most assuredly is: it must be its own insurer; and an active, self-reliant defence, history teaches to be the best.
II.—Operating actively by means of railways, the transport difficulty is reduced to a minimum.
III.—Pushing railways in the wake of the army will cause these advantages to apply equally to an active defence and indeed increases them, supplies being drawn to the iron-road from all sides and massed to the front. The case of an enemy operating through Afghánistán from its primary bases of Turkistán and the Caspian and its secondary base, the railroad from Kizil Arvat viâ. Merv to the Oxus, is not here considered; the only case considered is that in which Russia may have been permitted to acquire one or more of the provinces of Afghánistán and shall have been allowed to consolidate her power and to push railways through them, say to the foot of the Hindú Kush and to the vicinity of the Halmand, and to open roads over the Hindú Kush and through the Paropamisus range, the Kúh-i-Bábá and its now difficult branches of the Tir-band-i-Turkistán to the north, the Safíd Kúh in the centre, and the Síáh Kúh to the south and in such manner to have overcome all initial difficulties of food, transport and communications.

With communications so organized the invader will also operate amidst his own resources, increased by the acquisition of fertile valleys growing corn and barley, and rolling grassy downs, the home of nomad races, food producing for both man and beast, the sinews of war. On which side will the advantage then lie?

Its disadvantages are—
(i)the large front on which the enemy can perplex the defence; and
(ii)that a reverse throws us back on India.

With reference to (i): doubt, perplexity and scattered forces behind a veil of mountains are on the side of the defence, and certainty of purpose, power to make feints and concentration of action on that of the attack; and as regards (ii), India as a theatre of war, General Jacob thus wrote in 1856:—"A war within our own territory might be ruinous to our reputation, and might entirely undermine our strength, although that strength might have sufficed successfully to meet a world in arms beyond our own boundary. The evils page 13 even of successful war are terrible, and such evils are undoubtedly most severely felt, are most intolerable in fact, in those countries the most accustomed to regular civilization and uniform, undeviating routine of civil administration.

"A severe struggle within our established and long settled limits with a powerful invader, although attended with immediate success to us, might shake our power in India to its very foundation; might certainly for a time overturn all our civil arrangements, destroy our revenue and render it necessary to maintain large armies in the field in the interior of our dominions for a protracted period, in order to restore that internal tranquillity which might not be in the least disturbed even by many battles fought beyond our frontier.

Advocates of a defensive line behind the Indus trust much to the difficulties of the Suleiman range fronting the frontier from Peshawar to Dera Gházi Khán; these difficulties are confined to a narrow belt of hills, and to the west of them lie elevated valleys and plateaux affording good manoeuvring grounds, fair pasture land and fertile valleys, and they perhaps forget that war will alter the physical features of its selected theatre and suit it to its needs.

It is acknowledged to be impossible to occupy the crests of the passes. They will fall to the occupation of the enemy, who will see, without being seen, and behind an impenetrable screen make his preparations.

To imagine that a mountainous frontier can be defended by positions in rear of it alone, and to think that because you can see nothing that therefore you are not seen, are, it is maintained, thoughts equally vain and erroneous, and that to seriously entertain and act upon them would be to enact the height of folly and to display the utmost recklessness.

The reasons for this opinion, adverse to placing too much confidence in the powers of a series of fortresses to defend a frontier, are given in detail below under Case II.

Let all who think that a frontier line bristling with a double row of fortresses is impregnable read the history of the campaign of 1814, and ask themselves whether the numerous forts held by Napoleon's troops on the Rhine and the Mozelle hindered the Capitulation of Paris or even delayed it, notwithstanding that they were backed by a field army of 70,000 men under the most able of commanders operating in a theatre which gave full scope to his superior military ability.

* N.B.—In each case that part of Afghánistán not considered to be occupied by the British is taken to belong to Russia, and when Afghánistán is mentioned, in it are included the border tribes to the Suleiman range and our border. With Afghánistán as a bulwark, India needs no defence, and it is the case in which it ceases to be such that is here considered, i.e., when occupied by or is in alliance with Russia.