Persia and Afghanistan during the Great War
The Entente and Central Powers compete for Persia and Afghanistan
author Paul Boșcu, December 2016
During the Great War Germany, with some Turkish assistance, tried to ally with Afghanistan in order for that country to instigate a potential revolt in India, an important British possession at the time. In Persia the Germans tried to eject the British and Russian influences in that country in order to gain access to its rich oil resources. In both cases Germany failed to achieve its objectives.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, Britain had made it abundantly clear that it took very seriously any threat to India's northwest frontier. The defense of India was a military responsibility and could not rest solely on Britain's major bulwark, the Royal Navy. Since the Germans did not possess mastery of the seas, they were unable to threaten India from the coast. The chances of revolution from within the subcontinent diminished as British rule solidified. The Germans therefore focused their attention in 1914 towards Afghanistan, trying to provide incentives to the locals to invade India.

Responsibility for suggesting that the threat to India might be directed through the Khyber Pass belongs not with anybody in Germany but with Enver Pasha. In August 1914 the Ottoman minister of war spoke in extravagant terms to Hans Freiherr von Wangenheim about the Islamic fervor of Habibullah, the Emir of Afghanistan. He implied — falsely, the Germans subsequently concluded — that officers of the Turkish army were already in contact with the Emir and with Muslims in the subcontinent.

The German foreign office collected a group of fifteen people to form a German mission to Afghanistan. They arrived in Constantinople disguised as a travelling circus. Enver was not impressed: the decline in Turkish enthusiasm for the scheme can be charted from this moment. The only member of the party who was a Persian speaker was Wilhelm Wassmuss, who had been an interpreter and a fomentor of anti-British tribes in Bushire, southwest Iran.

A word to Emir Habibullah would be sufficient to unleash an Afghan invasion of India. The German foreign ministry was almost totally devoid of expertise in, and information on, Central Asia. But those whom they consulted endorsed Enver's encouraging scenario.

In December Wangenheim appointed Oskar von Niedermayer to the command, in Wassmuss's stead. But Niedermayer regarded himself as the leader of an independent military force, answerable to the general staff and not the foreign office; to Berlin and not to Constantinople.

The conflict as to the ultimate responsibility, whether it was the army's or the foreign office's, and the friction between the leading personalities at the local level were exacerbated in April 1915 when Berlin decided on a second mission. Mohamed Barkatullah, an Indian revolutionary, presented himself at the German consulate in Geneva. Barkatullah claimed a friendship with Emir Habibullah's brother, Nasrullah. The Germans agreed to send a group of Indians, including Barkatullah and Kumar Mahendra Pratap, under the management of Werner Otto von Hentig to Kabul in order to foment rebellion across the frontier.

Pratap — considered by his German companion to be 'fanatical, moody and egocentric', and convinced that he himself was the real leader — took delight in stoking the Germans’ disputes. Ultimately, the issue became that of the subordination of the military to political control. But, even on ostensibly neutral territory, practicality gave the weight to the former, not the latter. Whatever the achievements of the mission to Afghanistan were, the credit is Niedermayer's.

Hentig was a diplomat who had served in Tehran. As the emissary of the Indian committee in Berlin, Hentig's party was clearly the foreign office's pigeon, not the general staff's. But in June 1915 Hentig and Niedermayer met in Tehran and agreed to proceed together. Nobody could decide who was the senior. The foreign office preferred to treat the two as independent. All those in the joint expedition took sides in the ensuing squabbles.

The German expedition to Afghanistan successfully evaded the Russians of the eastern cordon and crossed the frontier. Hentig wore a cuirassier's white tunic and helmet to enter Herat; the governor of the town was polite but unenthusiastic. Now the Germans found themselves virtual prisoners while the governor awaited instructions as to whether they could proceed. After the expedition reached the Afghan capital, here too their status was that of captive guests; they were not allowed into the city and their activities were circumscribed. Furthermore, the Emir was away at Paghman, his summer residence.

Habibullah was astute, realistic, and hard-headed. He was guided by practical politics and not by religious fervor. His aim was to use the German mission to regain Afghan sovereignty. The German expedition became a pawn in his efforts to exact these concessions from Britain.

In 1880, after the Second Afghan War, Britain had taken control of Afghanistan's foreign policy. This treaty had been renewed in 1905, and in 1907 Russia had accepted that Afghanistan was outside its sphere of interest. The advent of Germany enabled Afghanistan, like Persia, to exploit its position as a buffer state in pursuit of its own independence. Habibullah wanted weapons, money, and a seat at the peace conference.

Habibullah’s aim was not simply to extract further concessions from Delhi. He had also to counter a pro-German lobby within his own court, headed by his brother Nasrullah and supported by the Young Afghans, a small nationalist and constitutionalist movement founded in 1908 in emulation of the Persians. In itself this radical fringe was weak, but it had the potential to rally the more traditional sectors of society, the religious establishment and the frontier tribes. The only Afghan newspaper, Siraj al-Akhbar, embodied this fusion, appealing to pan-Islam, pro-Ottomanism, and Afghan nationalism.

German intentions were known in Delhi by December 1914. Thereafter intelligence on Niedermayer's progress was full and reasonably up-to-date. British intercepts enabled Britain's policy in Kabul to anticipate that of Germany. In July 1915 Hardinge forewarned the Emir of the German arrival, and emphasized British friendship for and protection of Islam.

Under the terms of the treaty, Britain had no direct representation in Kabul; its diplomacy on the empire's most volatile frontier was likened by one observer to 'navigating a ship in a fog'. Hardinge, as viceroy of India, was not unduly worried. The Afghans and Emir Habibullah were frightened that the Russians would use the war as an excuse to invade; the British could argue that their alliance was security against that.

The Germans were granted their first audience with Habibullah. The Emir stalled. By mid-December both Hentig and Niedermayer had concluded that their mission had failed and that they should return home. The danger of losing his lever on Britain prompted Habibullah to summon the Germans once again. He told them that Afghanistan had decided to seek a treaty with Germany before it declared war; the terms of the treaty were to include a guarantee of territorial integrity, a seat at the peace conference, £10 million, 100,000 rifles, and 300 guns.

Nasrullah encouraged Niedermayer to think that if Germany would give sufficient aid to Afghanistan, instead of just expecting Afghanistan to sacrifice itself for Germany, the chances of an agreement would be good.

Niedermayer now felt justified in exercising his military skills. He asked Germany to immediately send £1 million and large quantities of arms. He drew up plans for an Afghan army 70,000 strong, with officer schools and a demonstration company; he initiated training in musketry and tactics.

At a durbar (Indian court), Habibullah announced Afghanistan's neutrality. The Germans thought this might be another tactical ploy, but the Afghans knew of the collapse of Germany in Persia. Niedermayer developed a plan for contacting the Russians in Meshed in order to propose a joint German-Russian advance on India; his respect for the status of Afghanistan had become secondary to the local balance of power. He also spoke of organizing a coup in Kabul. The British intercepted Niedermayer's communications and informed Habibullah. The negotiations were at an end.

Habibullah said Afghanistan would not enter the war unless two prior conditions were met — that there should be revolution in India, and that at least 20,000 German or Turkish troops should attack Balochistan. Both sides knew that both conditions were impossible.

Hentig argued that, as he had been offered terms by Kabul, his diplomatic mission was fulfilled. Niedermayer wanted to stay in order to foment action in India. The Emir would have no truck with this. A weakened German mission would incur danger without diplomatic advantage. Both made their own way home.

Desultory communications between Kabul and Berlin were relayed through Kermanshah. A forward German base was maintained in Herat until October 1917, but by then its members had heard nothing from Germany for eight months and they decided to leave. The Central Powers' representation in Kabul devolved onto the Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war who had escaped Russian captivity. They had formed the potential nucleus of Niedermayer's fantasy army, but their real desire was to avoid the war and marry the local women. Their amorous inclinations posed sufficient threat to the domestic order of an Islamic society to result in their imprisonment.

In the autumn of 1914 German policy focused on Afghanistan, not Persia. The German ambassador in Tehran had not encouraged General von Moltke's proposed alliance with the Shah: Persia was a country 'without patriotic energy and for the moment powerless'. It therefore became the high road to Afghanistan, not an end in itself.

Germany's assessment of Persia's weakness was well founded and widely shared. Revolution in 1906 had destroyed the traditional bases of authority without creating a substitute. The Shah had accepted the election of an assembly (the Majlis) and the creation of a constitutional monarchy. But the liberalizing inclinations of the Majlis upset Islamic interests, and the two groups which had united to effect the revolution — the commercial classes and the ulema (Muslim scholars) — burst apart. Mohammad Ali, who succeeded as Shah, exploited the clash to close the Majlis.

The Shah’s successor and son, Ahmad, was a minor: he was crowned in July 1914, aged 17. Power, therefore, remained divided. Ahmad's regent drove many educated liberals into exile; the authority of the mullahs waxed as that of the nationalists waned; and beyond the purlieus of Tehran, especially to the south, tribal independence multiplied.

Those democratic nationalists who escaped his purge rallied in Tabriz, the capital of Azerbaijan and the center of liberal as well as commercial activity. The siege of Tabriz was ended by Russian intervention. But the popular guard of Tabriz sallied forth along the Caspian shore, in an advance on Tehran. Simultaneously, the Bakhtiari tribe seized Isfahan and then marched on the capital from the south. The two forces converged, and the Shah fled to Russia.

As early as October 1914 the German charge d'affaires in Tehran began to argue for the resuscitation of Moltke's proposed alliance. He was persuaded that feelings in Persia towards Germany were so positive that only money and munitions were required to trigger a rising. The Germans promised 50,000 marks to fund the rebellion and an exiled Persian prince, Salar ad-Daula, to lead it. In Constantinople, Wangenheim and the Turks knew Salar ad-Daula for what he was, an opportunist who had forfeited all credibility in his homeland.

After the Ottoman Empire declared war against the Entente, the enthusiasm of the German embassy in Tehran for rebellion waned and its hopes of persuading the Shah to reconsider increased. More logically, the Turks turned away from the Shah and became keener on an uprising. But they nonetheless imprisoned Salar ad-Daula when he arrived in Constantinople.

Throughout the nineteenth century Persia had served as, and profited from being, a buffer between Russian expansion into Central Asia and Britain's defense of India. But in 1907 the two powers, while formally recognizing Persia's integrity, had allocated each other spheres of interest: Russia to the north and Britain to the south. A central band remained unapportioned. In the decade between the revolution and the World War, Russia became the most consistent authority in northern Persia. The Shah's powerlessness in the south prompted the British to make independent bargains with local leaders.

In addition to 5,000 troops who remained in Azerbaijan, Russian officers led the Persian Cossack brigade in Tehran. Aided by their railway to Tabriz, Russian economic interests came to dominate Persia. In 1913-14 Russia's imports from Persia were five times those of its principal rival in the region, Britain, and its own exports to Persia were double.

When Persia struck out for independence by calling in a neutral American, Morgan Shuster, to reform its finances, Russia once again intervened in force, ensuring his dismissal and precipitating the dissolution of the Majlis. In June 1914 Sir Edward Grey described northern Persia, and specifically Azerbaijan, as 'a Russian province ruled by Russian officials'.

India's security made Britain's interest in Persia, however long-standing, indirect. But in the years immediately preceding the war, commercial considerations began to mesh with strategic, thus making British involvement more immediate. Britain owned the Imperial Bank of Persia and printed Persia's money. Britain was granted the oil concessions for all of Persia except the five northernmost provinces.

The Shah's cabinets were, therefore, seen as the tools of foreign powers. And indeed Russia and Britain constantly intervened in order to fashion a cabinet favorable to Entente interests. The result was chronic governmental instability. Sixteen cabinets were formed during the war. Nonetheless, the clique through whose hands power rotated was small. Three prime ministers held office more than twice, and Mustaufi ul-Mamalik did so four times.

In a literal sense, the Triple Entente was born out of an agreement over the country: the Anglo-Russian Accord of 1907 had been negotiated and signed between London and St. Petersburg due largely to French insistence. France was the fulcrum of the alliance, both in that her own defensive agreements with Russia and England predated the accord between the other two powers, and in the more basic sense that, since 1871, her enmity with Imperial Germany was the fundamental constant of European diplomacy.

The Shah responded to Turkey's entry to the war by declaring Persia neutral. In reality, the statement was meaningless before it was issued. The Shah lacked an army able to ensure his country's integrity. Russia refused to withdraw from Azerbaijan. Britain, for all its attempts to get its ally to comply with Persian requests, was guilty of a double standard. It had undertaken punitive action against the Gulf tribes, and had stationed small bodies of Indian troops at Bushire and Bandar Abbas.

The Russians justified their refusal to withdraw from Persia by arguing that the most accessible Turkish route into Transcaucasia lay though Azerbaijan rather than across the Caucasus mountains. The Turks, naturally enough, responded by pointing out that the Russians in Tabriz constituted a threat to their flank.

The Russians appointed the former governor of Tabriz, Shuja ud-Daula, exiled as a result of his corrupt administration and disregard for the Shah's government, governor-general of Azerbaijan. His task was to form a force under Russian auspices. The Shah's protests at Russia's high handedness were interpreted as evidence of Persia's pro-Turkish inclinations. Therefore the Persian government, in a bid to regain control of the situation, declared that the task of Shuja's troops was to defend Persian neutrality.

Shuja was defeated south of Lake Urmia by the Kurds, who then advanced on Tabriz and entered it on 8 January 1915. Enver saw the opportunity to offset the defeat of his pan-Turanian offensive at Sarikamish. He followed up the Kurds' success with the Turkish divisions, commanded by his uncle, Halil, which had arrived from Mesopotamia too late to take part in the battle in the Caucasus. Tabriz was retaken, and the Turks driven back across the frontier.

In March 1915 Britain and France agreed that Russia should have control of Constantinople and the straits after the war. In exchange, the Brits secured a tightening of control in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. The partition of Persia was thus complete: Russia was given a free hand in its northern zone, but all the rest, including the erstwhile neutral belt in the center, was allocated to Britain. It would be wrong to say that Russian and British policy in Persia then proceeded in tandem, but direct competition and covert hostility were ended.

The British ambassador in Tehran, Sir Walter Townley, was infuriated by Russia's forward policy. Britain's high moral stance, that it had entered the war to defend the neutrality of small states, was being undermined by the behavior of its ally. The effect of Russian policy might be to drive Persia into the hands of the Central Powers, and so help construct an Islamic bloc from Constantinople to Kabul. Such an alliance would increase the pressure on India's Muslims to challenge British rule.

Enver's proposal was to renew the attack in Azerbaijan first. Colmar von der Goltz, who had just arrived in Constantinople, supported him: Azerbaijan was the key to Persia and commanded the route to Tehran. Halil’s force of 12,000 men concentrated on Bitlis, south of Lake Van, and took Dilman, at the northern end of Lake Urmia. But a rising of Armenians at Van to their rear, and the overawing of the Kurds by the Russians in front of them, compelled the Turks to fall back.

Subsequent activity in the region in 1915 was sustained not by Turkish force of arms but by Omar Nadji and his contacts with Emir Asian Khan Choiski.

The Russians landed a detachment at Enzeli, on the Caspian Sea, and then pushed it forward to Kazvin. The Russians said they were relieving the troops already at Kazvin; the Persians detected a threat to Tehran. Throughout the summer the Russian and British ministries advocated further Russian intervention; by September 1915 both deprecated the policy of drift favored in London and Delhi, arguing that only an ultimatum to Persia could check the increase in German influence.

The Russian military build-up constituted a gradual and sustained threat rather than a sudden and decisive attack. Its effect on the Perso-German exchanges was to increase the German sense of urgency while strengthening the Persian ability to negotiate. Mustaufi ul-Mamalik pointed out to the Germans that if Persia declared war, its richest provinces were those that could be most quickly seized by the Entente powers.

In the autumn of 1915, recognizing that the Russians could get to Tehran, the Germans decided that military action should replace negotiation, and urged the Persian Cossack brigade to turn against its Russian officers and escort the Shah and his government from the capital. The Russians got wind of the plan. The brigade was paraded, declared its loyalty to the Tsar, and the Russians threatened to restore Muhammad Ali, Ahmad's deposed father. The German attempt to seize control of the Persian government had failed. Its major ally, the nationalist lobby of the Majlis, had dissipated. Tehran remained an Entente enclave for the rest of the war.

The German mission, its supporters, and most of the democrats had already fled to the holy city of Qum. The Shah was due to follow, but without the pressure of the Germans or the nationalists, his resolve weakened and he decided to stay. The nationalists established a rump parliament, the committee of national defense, in Qum. But without arms the Persians could not and would not turn against the Russians.

The effect of the attempted coup was to leave the capital clear for the Entente powers. The Persians agreed to a policy of benevolent neutrality on condition that the Russians halted 32 kilometres from Tehran. Farman Farma, an Anglophile, came in as minister of the interior, and he formed his own cabinet. His policy was to seek an alliance with Britain and Russia. The Shah was anxious to make amends, even suggesting his own abdication but accepting instead an allowance as an indication of his dependence. The Cossack brigade was increased to 10,000 men under Russian officers.

The German and the nationalist retreat, to the fringes of western Persia, initiated the collapse of much of the German strength in central and eastern Persia. In November the Germans staged a coup in Shiraz, only to lose control again in December.