The city of Herat in 1837 and 1838 was the focal point of a number of pressures and conditions which, in conjunction made the siege a significant event. These ranged from personal and tribal jealousies, through the imperial pretensions of tribal states, to the global policies of great empires. In the end each of the military efforts to influence the situation failed and on the surface nothing was changed, but these failures only masked the reality of a much different situation.
An essential precondition to the importance of the siege was the state of economic exhaustion and political anarchy that prevailed in Iran in the 1830's. The great empires of the seventeenth century had collapsed and in the wars that followed, the prosperity of the area was destroyed. The weakness of the tribal states, Persia and Afghanistan, that arose out of the ruins was a constant source of instability that invited both internal revolts and outside influences. There was a power vacuum and powers on the outside inevitably became involved in what was going on within.
The immediate motive for the siege was the desire of Persia to restore its vanished empire. Seen in this regard the campaign of 1837 was but the latest in a long series of attempts to regain lost territory in the east. Herat had been the main objective of these efforts since control over Mashad was established in 1803. Whenever there was peace in the west, and no political crisis at hand, there was a Persian move to retake Herat.
The opportunity for Persia to achieve this goal was created when the tension between Sadozai and Mohammedzai finally tore apart the fragile structure of the Afghan state. Herat was cut off from the rest of Afghanistan and would appear to have been easy pickings for any of its numerous enemies if they could make a serious effort to take it. If these had been the only factors, the siege of Herat would have had only local importance but there were two more.
There was the worldwide expansion of the British. The growth of the British economy fueled this expansion and the British were constantly searching for new markets and supplies. More importantly the British were the rulers of a great empire in India and were concerned for its defense. A keystone of this defense was a buffer on the Northwest frontier. The state of Ranjit Singh provided this buffer for a time but when a greater threat was perceived it was felt that a stronger buffer was needed.
This greater threat was the apparent Russian domination of Western Asia. After 1828 and more so after 1833, it appeared as though the Tsar had gained control over Persia and Turkey and was using them to extend his power. The British were particularly afraid of the effect a Russian presence on the Indian border would have on the internal peace of India. The Russian position was not as pervasive or as sinister as the British imagined, but it was to some degree real and the Russians were concerned to preserve it.
Each of the parties involved saw Herat from a different perspective. To Mohammed Shah of Persia, Herat was an integral part of the Persian empire. Historically, religiously, ethnically and in all respects it belonged to Persia even though it was temporarily detached. The reconquest of Herat was a long- standing goal of his family and he was committed to it as a matter of personal honor. There was no question in his eyes as to the rightness of his cause.
The Afghan chiefs each had different ideas about the position of Herat. To Kamran it was the last refuge of the Sadozai dynasty. For Yar Mohammed it was a place he had seized upon where he could establish his own power. These two had nowhere else to go. To Kohendil Khan on the other hand Herat was a mortal enemy that must be destroyed and if possible added to his own possessions. There was also a debt to pay for the destruction of Painda and Feteh Khan. Dost Mohammed also had this blood feud but he was less concerned with Herat. When the occasion arose however, he saw that Herat might be a useful bargaining point to accomplish other ends.
Herat had long been known as the "Key to India" and the city retained that image in the eyes of the British. It was not that they felt they should have it in their own hands but that it had to be kept out of the hands of strong or unfriendly powers. Persia qualified as one of these after 1828. The British did not really fear a direct invasion but whoever held Herat was in a position to influence Afghanistan and the forward policy made Afghanistan part of the Indian defense system. The internal peace of India was always the prime concern of the British and their interest in Herat varied as threats to this peace came and went.
To the Tsar and his ministers Herat was probably just another of the small principalities that dotted Iran and Central Asia. However they were no doubt aware of its importance to Persia and its relationship to British India. After the wars of the early 1830ís it was apparent that Persia and Britain were at odds concerning the position of Herat. The Russians were in an excellent position to exploit this difference to their own advantage and this is the key to the whole affair.
A tentative explanation for the Russianís actions in these years is that they decided to exploit the British fears for the security of their Indian empire in order to enhance Russia's own position in Persia. By encouraging the Persians in their objective of taking Herat, Russia could provoke a complete break between Persia and Britain, leaving the field to Russia. The risks to Russia were minimal, since Persia wanted Herat anyway and seemingly had the means to take it. The British fell for it completely.
Things began to go wrong, however, when the Shah was not able to take Herat right away. This gave the British a chance to seize the initiative and they were quite effective in stalling the Persian effort. At this point Simonich decided that he had to act to counter the British moves. He sent agents into Afghanistan to arrange a coalition against Herat. Possibly he became personally involved in the siege or did not realize the implications of what he was doing. He may even have been acting against orders. In any case his actions and involvement were what touched off the British response.
Those in control of Russian policy realized what was happening and ordered the recall of Simonich in April or May of 1838 to avoid an overreaction by the British. But by the time the word got to Simonich it was too late, the damage had been done. The British saw their frontier defenses in shambles and set armies marching to restore them.
With the departure of the Persian army from Herat the focus of the crisis was lost but the various moves underway went on independently to their conclusion. The British army occupied Afghanistan but could not hold it. The Russians made one attempt to restore their tarnished prestige but failed. The Persians continued to occupy the border fortresses until Herat went through the motions of professing friendship. This cleared the way for a reconciliation of Britain and Persia. The British sent another army back to Kabul to exact retribution but withdrew after doing no more than burning the Kabul bazaar. Only then was it possible to assess what had happened.
In Persia the failure of the siege was followed by a near break-down of the imperial government. The army had to be disbanded, revolts broke out in almost all provinces, and the government was completely bankrupt. There was no improvement during the 1840ís. On a broader scale the siege marks the last attempt of the Persians to restore their lost empire. Before this there had been almost constant and continuous campaigns in the east or the west. The few Persian military efforts during the rest of the nineteenth century were sporadic, half-hearted, and almost totally unsuccessful. The foreign affairs of Persia for the remainder of the century consist mainly of dealings between Russia and Britain.
A more subtle change was also accelerated in Persian society. Symbolic of this, a Persian history written in 1882 concentrates on imperial events up to 1838 but after the siege of Herat is almost exclusively concerned with the affairs of a single province. The decline of Persia had started quite some time before this, but after 1838 the fall was precipitous. The Kajars had failed to restore the empire and people seem to have just lost interest.
The changes in Afghanistan were not quite as profound. Dost Mohammed returned to Kabul after the second British withdrawal. He worked to consolidate and extend his power and by the time of his death in 1863 had reunited Kandahar, and Herat with Kabul. Dost had been impressed with the fact that his power was dependent on British India and he was very careful not to give offense in that direction. The British occupation had also brought lessons in efficient administration which Dost tried to apply as best he could.
Kohendil Khan also returned, to rule Kandahar until his death in 1851. In 1855 Kandahar became subject to Dost Mohammed at Kabul. Yar Mohammed Khan continued at Herat and tried to rebuild his ravaged city. When he died in l853 Herat was briefly occupied by Persia, but the Persians withdrew under British pressure and the city retained a precarious independence until becoming subject to Dost Mohammed in 1863. Dost Mohammedís death in 1863 however set off another round of anarchy which lasted until the 1880ís before the final shape of Afghanistan was attained.
The most significant result as far as Afghanistan was concerned was that it was clearly made part of the British imperial system. Its role was that of a buffer, and it was not ruled directly, but it was strictly controlled. The British would repeat their invasion on two subsequent occasions to enforce this connection. The Afghans derived some small benefit however in that it did ensure the survival of Afghanistan. Russia had risked almost nothing in this affair and had lost only a small amount of prestige. But the Russians had learned some significant things. They had tested the British and discovered the limits beyond which they would react. In the 1860's and 1870's Russia brought all Central Asia and the Uzbeg Khanates under its rule unopposed by Britain but stopped 100 miles north of Herat. Russia also proved to its satisfaction that a real or imagined threat to India could be very useful in dealing with the British. This was the first tine Russia had tried such a move and it would not be the last.
Finally the British had established the outer limit of their Indian empire and the line was drawn at Herat. The Russian conquest of the Uzbegs brought no British response but a threat to Herat sent armies marching. When Russia marched on Khiva in 1839 the British briefly considered moving deeper into Central Asia but as a result of this crisis the limit was pulled back to Herat and never moved again.
The relations of Britain and Russia in Iran were thus defined between 1837 and 1842. Russia possessed a predominant influence in Persia but the British could not be excluded altogether. Afghanistan was a part of the Indian empire but anything beyond Herat was left to Russia by default. Persia and Afghanistan lost the ability to act independently as they had done in the past. After all the numerous crises during the rest of the nineteenth century, and after all the comings and goings of British and Russian agents in what was called the "Great Game," when the spheres of influence were officially drawn by the Anglo-Russian agreement of 1907 they corresponded almost exactly with what was established by the events surrounding the Siege of Herat.
Notes to Chapter 12
Lambton, "Persia, The Breakdown of a Society, Ē The Central Islamic Lands pp. 449-452.
Hasan-e-Fasai, History of Persia under Qajar Rule, trans., Heribert Busse (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1972), pp. xx, 250 ff.