The Afghan Question


The Afghan Question is a pamphlet containing the text of a speech given by Thomas George Baring, first earl of Northbrook (1826–1904), in Winchester, United Kingdom, on November 11, 1878. Northbrook was a prominent Liberal politician who served as viceroy of India from 1872 to 1876. As viceroy, he opposed the suggestions increasingly voiced in London that Russian expansion in Central Asia be countered by British efforts to secure the northwestern approaches to India, possibly even by expansion into Afghanistan. In the speech, Northbrook reviews the history of British policy toward Afghanistan since 1840 and the end of the First Anglo-Afghan War in 1842, and in particular his own policy as viceroy of not pressing for the establishment of a British resident mission in Kabul or insisting that the ruler of Afghanistan receive British officers at his court. He then reviews the controversy that had arisen since the summer of 1878, when it was learned in London that a Russian mission had arrived in Kabul on July 22. The British authorities immediately decided to send a mission of their own to the Afghan capital, which on September 21 was denied entrance to the country by Afghan officials at the Khyber Pass. The British then issued an ultimatum to the ruler of Afghanistan, Amir Sher Ali Khan, containing certain demands which, if not met, would result in the commencement of war on November 20. Northbrook chides the government for doing little to ascertain the intentions of either the Russians or the Afghans, failing to communicate adequately with the amir, and in effect using the controversy over the missions as a pretext to launch a war. He ends the speech by asking “whether the war is just, and whether it is necessary,” and concludes that “upon these two essential questions, I am sorry to say, it is quite impossible for me, in the present state of the information before the public, to pronounce a decided or positive opinion.” Northbrook remained a critic of the war and, when the Liberals returned to power under William Gladstone in April 1880, advocated for complete and rapid withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan.

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National Press, London


Title in Original Language

The Afghan question

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46 pages


  1. David Steel, “Baring, Thomas George, first earl of Northbrook (1826‒1904),” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2004).

Last updated: July 27, 2016