Strategic Miscalculations and Doomed Collapse

  June 07, 2022   Read time 5 min
Strategic Miscalculations and Doomed Collapse
First in a whole series of fatal mistakes made by the shah was his decision to remain in Isfahan instead of mobilising fresh troops in other parts of the country to combat the Afghans.

It seems that Mahmud did not immediately realise the full extent of the Persian defeat and the demoralisation it entailed. The fact that he had neglected to take the citadels of both Kirman and Yazd during the course of his advance may well suggest that a military engagement with the shah was his major aim, but it does not necessarily imply that he had in mind the destruction of Safavid rule from the very outset of his campaign. At any rate, the victory does not appear to have deprived him of the capacity for making a realistic assessment of the possibilities open to him. It is difficult otherwise to explain why he let three days go by before resuming his march on Isfahan, now only nineteen miles away. On reaching the area south of the Zayandarud, he came upon Sultan Husain's favourite castle of Farahabad. In spite of the existence of defence works, he was able to take it without a fight and set up his headquarters there. The Armenian suburb Julfa was then plundered and a tribute ruthlessly exacted from the inhabitants, to whom — rather than to Persian soldiers — it owed its defence. These actions suggest that the Afghan troops were still very much aware of the fact that they might suddenly have to retreat. Mahmud no doubt saw clearly that the victory of Gulnabad had been won to a large extent thanks to a combination of favourable circumstances; nor is he likely to have forgotten that at one moment during the battle he had been close to accepting defeat and retreating. Finally, he must have realised that in spite of the defeat the shah's military resources were as yet by no means exhausted.

One thing, for the moment at least, that the Ghalzai leader could not be expected to know was the absurd state of affairs that the shah, whenever a decision was required of him, was more or less guaranteed to choose the alternative least favourable or even fatal to his cause. Despite repeated disasters, he remained stubbornly faithful to those counsellors whose advice had constantly proved detrimental, especially the mulla-bashl, Mir Muhammad Husain, grandson and successor of the famous theologian Muhammad Baqir Majlisi, and the royal physician, Rahlm Khan. Each of these men had, as we have seen, acted a evil genius to the ruler at an earlier stage. They were now joined by the vail of 'Arabistan, for whom the shah had a particularly high regard despite his failure in the battle of Gulnabad. He persisted in his opinion when rumours too loud to ignore indicated that the governor was conspiring with the enemy and even when incontrovertible evidence of the fact came to light.

First in a whole series of fatal mistakes made by the shah was his decision to remain in Isfahan instead of mobilising fresh troops in other parts of the country to combat the Afghans. His peace proposal, which probably reached the Afghans as they were advancing on the capital, may more than anything else have given the game away and confirmed them in their intentions. On two occasions he then rejected Mahmud's offers of negotiation, one at the beginning of April, the other at the beginning of August 1722. He imposed a general ban on leaving the city and failed to evacuate the civilian population when it would still have been feasible. He successively dismissed the two royal princes Mahmud Mirza and SafI Mirza from the position of crown prince and from their military functions, merely because of acts of intervention on their part of which his advisers disapproved.1 In addition, he dispatched to Kashan and Qazvln the unreliable Prince Tahmasp, who, instead of raising a relief force and returning with it to the sorely pressed capital as he had been commanded, engaged in dissolute pleasures. Finally, he even dismissed Ahmad Agha, the capable general of the royal squires (qullar-aqasl), because in the heat of the moment his troops had taken revenge on some of the vali's Arab cavalrymen who had left them in the lurch during a sortie.

At the beginning of April Mahmud succeeded in capturing a bridge in the 'Abbasabad quarter and establishing a bridgehead. A little later he was able to link up with contingents based in the east and north, thus making it impossible to either leave or enter the city without risk. Given its size — Kaempfer set its circumference at 57 miles2 — the Afghan troops were unable to encircle the city completely, but Mahmud did establish powerful strong points, between which units of cavalry constantly patrolled.

In the circumstances, living conditions in the city became increasingly difficult. Supplies of food ceased, and to prevent their resumed in future Mahmud ordered all crops in the area to be destroyed. The shah made every effort to obtain relief. The most important fighting force, the Georgians, who could probably have dealt with the Afghans on their own, had to be ruled out when Vakhtang VI refused to come to the shah's aid because he had not yet forgotten the latter's intervention on behalf of the Lezgians. Other contingents such as the Bakhtiyar under Qasim Khan, the Lurs of 'All Mardan Khan or the 10,000 strong force advancing under the command of Malik Mahmud Slstani, the governor of Tun and Tabas, were either repulsed by the Afghans or ultimately had second thoughts, in part convinced by Mahmud of the pointlessness of their enterprise.