British Agents in Afghanistan


British Agents in Afghanistan is a pamphlet by Sir Owen Tudor Burne that was privately printed in London in 1879 and formed part of the British debate over the origins of and justification for the Second Anglo-Afghan (1878‒80). Burne was an army officer who, after military service in India during the Sepoy Rebellion (1857‒59), held a number of posts in the government of India, including as private secretary to Earl Mayo, viceroy of India from 1869 to 1872, and to Lord Lytton, the viceroy from 1876 to 1880. The proximate cause of the British invasion of Afghanistan was the reported refusal of the amir, Sher Ali Khan, to receive a delegation of British officers after he had received a Russian mission in the summer of 1878. Critics of the war argued that the Conservative government of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and the viceroy, Lord Lytton, had provoked the war by changing the previous British policy under which Sher Ali, they contended, was not to be pressured to accept resident British officers or agents in Afghanistan. British Agents in Afghanistan presents a detailed argument that such criticisms were incorrect. Burne bases his argument on the existing documentation and his recollections of meetings with Afghan officials at which he was present. He takes as his starting point a letter in the London Times by the Duke of Argyll (1823–1900; secretary of state for India, 1868–74) in which Argyll states that Lord Mayo had promised to the amir “that no European officers would be placed as Residents in his cities.” This pledge reportedly was made at a meeting with Sher Ali at Umballa (present-day Ambela, Pakistan) in 1869. Burne argues that it was only intended as an “intermediate” policy, not to be adhered to permanently, and that it was premised on Russian non-involvement in the affairs of Afghanistan. He also argues that the amir was mainly concerned about the stationing of British officers in the capital of Kabul, and that he would have gladly accepted British residents in Balkh, Herat, or Kandahar. Burne’s autobiography, Memories, published in London in 1907, contains additional information about his involvement in British policy toward Afghanistan in this period.

Last updated: August 17, 2016