Chapter 6
The Development of
the Forward Policy

The Russian victories of 1828 and 1829 first called Britain’s attention to Russia’s dominance of Western Asia. At the same time old fears of an invasion of India by a European power, this time Russia, were revived. Longstanding concern for peace on the Northwestern frontier plus the new need to keep Russian predominance from spreading towards India, led Great Britain to develop what may be called the "Forward Policy. In its earliest form this consisted of a plan to open up the Indus river basin and the adjacent mountains to trade. British commerce would bind the area together and tie it to Britain. 1 This was essentially an expansion of the buffer policy as well as a solution to the conflicts in the area. Trade would be the local pacifying influence, with the extra advantage of offering new markets for British goods and thus stimulating the home economy.

Lord Bentinck, then Governor-General, took the first steps in implementing the new policy. Ih the first place the commercial possibilities of the area had to be explored. To this end a young British officer, Alexander Burnes, made his way in 1832 to Kabul, Bukhara, and back to India through Persia on a fact finding mission. 2 The next step taken was the opening of the Indus river to navigation. The Emirs of Sind were opposed to the idea until the British hinted that they might allow Ranjit Singh to expand at Sind's expense. Sind promptly agreed while Ranjit Singh himself was entirely agreeable to the plan. 3

The events of the early 1830's convinced the authors of the forward policy that they were correct in their analysis of the situation. With the Persian threat to Herat in 1833, Bentinck decided that a more active policy was necessary to protect the Indian frontiers. The British were always afraid of the unsettling effect the presence of a strong or unfriendly power on the frontiers would have on the internal peace of India. Whoever held Herat could directly influence Kandahar and Kabul, and the forward policy made Kandahar and Kabul part of the Indian defense system. Since Persia was presumed to be under Russian control after 1828, a Persian Herat would bring Russian influence to the borders of India with possibly dire consequences. The British therefore decided to prop up Afghanistan in the hope that it would become strong and united under a ruler friendly to Britain. Shah Shuja was available and eager to cooperate. After the Persians withdrew from Herat however, Shuja's failure did not seem so serious and nothing further was done for the moment.

The forward policy, originally developed by the Tory government, was adopted by the succeeding Whig government after 1830. The Whig Foreign Secretary, Viscount Palmerston, originally had no policy with respect to Western Asia, and he had allowed the forward policy to be carried out from India on its own momentum. But after the treaty of Unkiar-Skelesi in 1833, the need to counter Russian influence became one of his main considerations. Palmerston went a step further and began to work towards displacing Russian influence, not just blocking it. 4

The years following 1833 saw a change in British public opinion which came to regard Russia as the chief threat to world peace. Russophobia was accompanied by an outpouring of anti-Russian propaganda which pointed out how Russia was tightening its hold on the east and how this threatened British interests, especially in India. Russophobia however, was only the surface manifestation of the worsening relations between England and Russia, reflecting the declining importance of Anglo-Russian trade, the contrast between liberal England and reactionary Russia, increasing knowledge of Russia which left unfavorable impressions, and the poor image of Nicholas I in Britain. Deeper was the vague and in-tangible, grand geopolitical conflict between Russia, expanding in the heart of Eurasia, and Britain, expanding around the periphery of Eurasia. 5