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32 HISTORY •• Experiments in Modernisation


The First Anglo-Afghan War is remembered for the calamitous retreat of the British army from Kabul, a withdrawal that turned into a frozen death march that has passed into Afghan folk history. The army was led by the incompetent William Elphinstone, a feeble and perpetually sick general

on the verge of retirement, who was bullied by both his subordinates and Macnaghten, the British representative to Shah Shuja. As Kabul rioted after the murder of Burnes, Elphinstone dithered. His camp was far from the city and immediately fell under siege, a position made far worse by the decision to keep the camp supplies outside the perimeter wall. Attempts to break free were half-hearted and quickly squashed. As more tribes joined the revolt,

Afghan sharpshooters with their superior jezails (long-barrelled muskets) steadily picked off the British. Macnaghten tried to broker a double-dealing plan with Dost Mohammed’s son, Akbar Khan, which only led to his murder at a parley and his body being strung up in the bazaar. Elphinstone eventually agreed to abandon Kabul, and left the families of the married officers as hostages in return for safe passage to the Indian border. On 5th January 1842, 4500 soldiers and their families and 12,000 camp followers headed into the harsh winter. Almost immediately they were set upon and discipline collapsed. As the Ghilzai tribes snatched at the train of the column, the march turned into a rout. Akbar claimed it was impossible to restrain the wild Ghilzai, and demanded more hostages for protection. Elphinstone acquiesced. The hostages were the lucky ones – in the first five days of the march over 12,000 lives were lost to raids and the freezing winter. As British numbers dwindled, the raids became bolder. The tattered army made its last doomed stand at Gandamack. On January 13, army surgeon Dr William Brydon limped into the garrison at Jalalabad on a half-dead pony, the only officer to carry the British shame and disaster back to the empire.

collected. The Iron Amir forged modern Afghanistan through blood and determination. There was a price to pay for this state-building. Feeling Afghanistan had

‘How can a small power like Afghanistan which is like a goat between two lions, or a grain of wheat between two strong millstones of the grinding mill, stand in the midway of the stones without

being ground to dust?’


tasted enough foreign interference, Abdur Rahman promoted an isolation- ism bordering on xenophobia. Modern developments like the telegraph and railways were firmly rejected, and foreign traders rebuffed. The coun- try went from being at the heart of Asia to an inward-looking backwater. Nonetheless, the amir held to his commitments to the British. When the Russian army advanced to the Afghan border near Herat in 1885, provoking the ‘Panjdeh Crisis’, he stuck firm to London’s line, even to the point of allowing Herat’s renowned Musalla Complex to be levelled to give defenders a clear line of fire at any advancing Russians. When war was averted, he allowed the British to settle his northern border with Russia two years later. In 1893 he further allowed the drawing of the Du- rand Line, the border between Afghanistan and British India that sliced through the Pashtun region – a border so contentious no subsequent Afghan government has yet to formally accept and demarcate it.


Abdur Rahman was succeeded by his son Habibullah in 1901 – a rare peaceful passing of the crown. Habibullah saw the need to modernise Afghanistan. He set up schools teaching modern curricula and built roads and factories. A major influence was Mahmud Beg Tarzi, the founder of the country’s first newspaper and a key reformist and nationalist thinker. Anti-imperial and pan-Islamist ideologies were beginning to gain mo-


Kafiristan forcibly converted to Islam and renamed Nuristan


Durand Line between Afghanistan and British India plotted

HISTORY •• The Afghan Communists 33

mentum in the British empire and seep into Afghanistan. Habibullah re- jected the 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention that designated his country as a formal buffer zone between the empires, without even consulting him. After the outbreak of WWI, Habibullah flirted with a German-Turkish delegation aiming to take the war into India, and sought relations with newly Soviet Russia. An assassin’s bullet found him in early 1919. Habibullah’s brother Amanullah took the throne, and drove even harder along the modernisation road. Almost his first act after becoming king (the title of amir wasn’t suitably 20th century for Amanullah) was to provoke the British into the Third Anglo-Afghan War. It lasted barely the month of May 1919, and brought Afghanistan’s first experience of air war, with the bombing of Kabul and Jalalabad by the RAF. But the British were weary from the exertions of WWI and sued for peace. A treaty granted Afghani- stan full control over its diplomatic relations. After a century of the Great Game, Amanullah had won Afghanistan back its independence. He set about the country with a modernist’s zeal, and wowed Europe with an eight-month grand tour. But at home resentments bubbled away with each story of his top hats and motor cars. More scandalous still, Amanullah had allowed Queen Soraya to appear in public unveiled and wearing a sleeveless dress. Rumours abounded that he was allowing the Europeans to import machines that made soap from human corpses. The country rose in revolt, and Amanullah’s army had been fatally weakened by the loss of his British subsidy. In early 1929 he fled into exile and the throne was snatched by Bacha Saqao, the first Tajik to rule Afghanistan. Not that he lasted long. General Nadir Khan toppled him in less than a year and made himself him king. He wasn’t related to Amanullah, but at least he was a Durrani Pashtun, and he immediately put the brakes on the more overt forms of modernisation. Nadir Khan barely lasted four years before his murder in 1933, to be

succeeded by his teenage son Zahir Shah. Under his rule Afghanistan cau- tiously made progress with stepwise introduction of education reform, the wearing of the veil made voluntary, and the 1964 constitution that made the country a constitutional democracy. The most imaginative reforms were overseen by prime minister Mohammed Daoud, the king’s cousin. Like his forbears, Daoud played the Afghan game of courting several imper- ial powers, inviting both the USA and USSR to bring trade and aid to the county, as well as rattling sabres at Pakistan over the Durand Line. Briefly dismissed by the king, in 1973 he sidestepped his cousin and declared himself president, backed by a loya jirga and a rewritten constitution.


Although Daoud had close relations with the Soviets, he sought to deepen Afghanistan’s neutrality and made approaches to the USA and Iran. The Soviets bit back. They had invested heavily in training the Afghan army, as well as encouraging the embryonic Afghan communists, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. Even at this stage the PDPA had split into two bickering factions, Khalq (‘The People’) and the mainly Pashtun Parcham (‘The Banner’). In April 1978 soldiers stormed the Presidential Palace and killed Daoud and his family. The Khalq leader Mohammed Taraki proclaimed himself president of a revolutionary Marxist regime.


Third Anglo-Afghan War results in independence


King Amanullah attempts modernist reform programme, resulting in tribal rebellion

The dispute over their common British-drawn border meant that Afghanistan was the only country to vote against Pakistan’s accession to the UN in 1947.

American aid to Afghani- stan up to the 1970s focussed on the Helmand Valley scheme, aimed in large part at repairing the damage done to south Afghanistan’s irrigation system by Genghis Khan and Timur. Page 1  |  Page 2  |  Page 3  |  Page 4  |  Page 5  |  Page 6  |  Page 7  |  Page 8  |  Page 9  |  Page 10  |  Page 11  |  Page 12  |  Page 13  |  Page 14  |  Page 15  |  Page 16  |  Page 17  |  Page 18  |  Page 19  |  Page 20  |  Page 21  |  Page 22  |  Page 23  |  Page 24  |  Page 25  |  Page 26  |  Page 27  |  Page 28  |  Page 29  |  Page 30  |  Page 31  |  Page 32  |  Page 33  |  Page 34  |  Page 35  |  Page 36  |  Page 37  |  Page 38  |  Page 39  |  Page 40  |  Page 41  |  Page 42  |  Page 43  |  Page 44  |  Page 45  |  Page 46  |  Page 47  |  Page 48  |  Page 49  |  Page 50  |  Page 51  |  Page 52  |  Page 53  |  Page 54  |  Page 55  |  Page 56  |  Page 57  |  Page 58  |  Page 59  |  Page 60  |  Page 61  |  Page 62  |  Page 63  |  Page 64  |  Page 65  |  Page 66  |  Page 67  |  Page 68  |  Page 69  |  Page 70  |  Page 71  |  Page 72  |  Page 73  |  Page 74  |  Page 75  |  Page 76  |  Page 77  |  Page 78  |  Page 79  |  Page 80  |  Page 81  |  Page 82  |  Page 83  |  Page 84  |  Page 85  |  Page 86  |  Page 87  |  Page 88  |  Page 89  |  Page 90  |  Page 91  |  Page 92  |  Page 93  |  Page 94  |  Page 95  |  Page 96  |  Page 97  |  Page 98  |  Page 99  |  Page 100  |  Page 101  |  Page 102  |  Page 103  |  Page 104  |  Page 105  |  Page 106  |  Page 107  |  Page 108  |  Page 109  |  Page 110  |  Page 111  |  Page 112  |  Page 113  |  Page 114  |  Page 115  |  Page 116  |  Page 117  |  Page 118  |  Page 119  |  Page 120  |  Page 121  |  Page 122  |  Page 123
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