The Panjdeh incident of 1885 was a diplomatic crisis between Britain and Russia caused by the Russian Empire's expansion southeast toward Afghanistan and India. After nearly completing their conquest of central Asia the Russians captured an Afghan border fort. Seeing a threat to India, Britain came close to threatening war. Both sides backed down and the matter was settled by diplomacy. The effect was to stop further Russian expansion in Asia, except for the Pamirs, and to define the northwest border of Afghanistan.
After the bloody Battle of Geok Tepe in January 1881 and the annexation of Merv in March 1884 Russia held most of what is now Turkmenistan. South of Merv towards Herat in Afghanistan the border was not clearly defined. The British were concerned because the line Merv-Herat-Kandahar-Quetta was a natural invasion route to India. Further, the Russians were beginning to build a railroad from the Caspian which would allow them to bring men and supplies to Merv and beyond.
Most of Turkmenistan is desert, but irrigation supports a fairly dense population on the north slope of the Kopet Dag (Geok Tepe and Ashgabat). East of this are the oases of Tejend and Merv. Merv was always one of the great cities of central Asia, while Tejend was much smaller. South of Tejend and Merv is a grassy region sometimes called Badghis which is bounded by the Hari-Rud river on the west and the Murghab River on the east. The Hari-Rud flows north along the current Iranian border, enters Turkmenistan and spreads out forming the Tejend oasis before drying up in the desert. The Murghab flows north through what is now Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, reaches Yoloten and spreads out forming the Merv oasis. Where the Murghab crosses the current border was the irrigated area of Panjdeh or ‘Five Villages’. Badghis was about 100 miles across and somewhere between 75 and 150 miles north-south, depending on where the boundaries are set. South of Badghis is the important Afghan city and border fort of Herat.
At the time of the Panjdeh incident it was generally agreed that the northern frontier of Afghanistan started from the Persian border at Serakhs and ran about 270 miles east-northeast to meet the Oxus at a place called Khoja Sale. Khoja Sale is an old name for the point where the Oxus now leaves Afghanistan. This border had never been properly defined.
In 1882 Britain and Russia began discussing the Afghan boundary. In the summer of 1884 they agreed to form an Afghan Boundary Commission, the commissioners being Generals Zelenoi and Sir Peter Lumsden. They were to meet at Serakhs in October, but both were delayed. Meanwhile, the Russians were doing all they could to push the border south before it became fixed. General Komarov, who was governor of the Transcaspian Oblast, went south to Serakhs and expelled a Persian garrison in the east side of the Hari-Rud. They then occupied Pul-i-Khatun 40 miles south in Afghan territory. Later they occupied the pass or canyon at Zulfikar and a place called Ak Robat about 50 miles east. On the east side, the Sarik Turkomans of Yoloten submitted in May 1884 but their kinsmen at Panjdeh refused, saying that they were subjects of the Amir of Kabul. In response the Afghans sent troops to Bala Murghab and in June began building a fort at the north end of Panjdeh at the mouth of the Kushk River which they called Ak-Tepe or White Hill. (This is probably the old fort visible from space at ). The Russians thought the British encouraged the Afghans to do this. The British and Afghans claimed that the people of Panjdeh had always paid tribute to the Afghans or whoever controlled Herat. The Russians claimed that Panjdeh had never been garrisoned and that its people were part of a tribe that had submitted to Russia. On November 8 Lumsden arrived at Serakhs with 250 Sepoys and 200 Bengal Lancers, having crossed little-known country in Baluchistan. Komarov avoided meeting him, having more serious things to do. In mid-November Komarov made a threatening movement up the Murghab toward Panjdeh and more Afghan troops were moved up. Russia built an advanced post at Sanduk Kuchan (Sandykgachy?) on the Murghab. Alikhanov went to talk to the Ak Tepe commander but was driven away with threats. The Afghans sent a detachment to occupy Sary Yazy ten miles south of the Russian outpost.
1885, Russian Attack, and After
Things remained quiet for a few months. In February 1885 the Russians occupied a post 3 miles south of Sary Yazy. Lumsden advised the Afghans to withdraw further south. Russia next built a fort at Kazyl Tepe (‘Red Hill’) about 2 miles south of Ak Tepe and a mile south of Pul-i-Khishty (“Brick Bridge”) across the Kushk. On March 25 General Komarov arrived at Kazyl Tepe with 1500 men. Two days later they advanced, apparently trying to provoke the Afghans into firing first. On March 30, 1885 they captured Ak Tepe with a reported loss of 900 Afghans and 11 Russians. The news reached England on April 7 and preparations for war were begun. On April 27 Gladstone asked the Commons for a credit of 11 million pounds (4.5 for Sudan and the rest for Russia). Alexander III of Russia suggested arbitration and negotiations, which the British accepted. The crisis was partly averted by the wisdom of the Amir of Afghanistan who was then at Rawalpindi talking to the British. Having no wish to see two foreign armies fighting in his country, when told of Panjdeh he pretended to see it as a mere border skirmish. In mid-summer Lord Salisbury replaced Gladstone, which may have made British threats more credible. By September 10 it was roughly agreed that Russia would keep Panjdeh, give up Zulfikar and that the border would be approximately where it is now. The border commissioners started at Zulfikar on November 10, reached the Murghab by Christmas and went into winter quarters. In 1886 the line was run from the Murghab to the Oxus. Some minor problems had to be cleaned up by diplomats and the final protocol was signed on July 22, 1887. Persia somehow retained the Atak country northwest of Serakhs into which Russian patrols had penetrated.
Britain did not aid Afghanistan as was required by the Treaty of Gandamak, leading the Amir to believe that he could not rely on the British in the face of Russian aggression. Tensions between Russia and Britain were eased when Russia's foreign minister Nikolay Girs and its ambassador to London Baron de Staal set up an agreement in 1887 which established a buffer zone in Central Asia. Russian diplomacy thereby won grudging British acceptance of its expansionism.
In 1890 Russia founded Kushka or Serhetabat at the south end of the new territory and in 1901 connected it by rail to Merv. Kushka remained the southernmost settlement in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.
The 1921 Afghan-Soviet Treaty of Friendship was the first international agreement made by the Soviets. Under its terms, "the Soviets agreed to return to Afghanistan, subject to plebiscites, territories in the Panjdeh area ceded under duress by Afghanistan to Russia or Bukhara in the nineteenth century...". This was not done.
- "An Indian Officer", Russia's March towards India, 1894, Chapters XVIII and XIX
- Charles Thomas Marvin, The Russians at the Gates of Heart, 1885 (stops at November 1884)
- Kuropatkin, Zavoevanie Turkmenii, page 217 gives 42 Russians and 500 Afghans killed and wounded.
- Conflict in Afghanistan: A Historical Encyclopedia By Frank Clements. ABC-Clio, Santa Barbara, California 2003. p198
- Raymond Mohl, "Confrontation in Central Asia" History Today 19 (1969) 176-183
- Afghanistan: The First Five Years of Soviet Occupation by J. Bruce Amstutz, Pg. 12