A report from 1929 lays out many of the problems facing Afghanistan today.
The rivalry of Russia and Britain for the control of Afghanistan dates back to the Victorian era, when British statesmen thought they heard across India’s northwestern frontier the footsteps of “the bear that walks like a man.” Great Britain has always been convinced that the aim of Russian policy in the East is encroachment on John Bull’s preserve in India, and that Russia therefore is always trying to secure ascendancy at Kabul. That conviction has forced on Great Britain the duty of fighting the Indian battle in Kabul and she has pursued this with deadly earnestness, twice leading military expeditions into the heart of Afghanistan, to down a pro-Russian ameer or to plant a British puppet.
Until the advent of the World War the pendulum of favor at the court of Kabul swung alternately between the English and the Czars. In 1914 Habibullah Khan, then ameer, declared himself neutral, but out of friendship for the British kept Afghanistan a Chinese Wall against all those who tried to foment revolt in India. At the conclusion of the war, Ameer Habibullah was assassinated for his pro-British attitude, or so it was stated openly at the time, and a set of unusual circumstances carried Amanullah Khan, third son of the late ameer, to the throne.
As the Governor of Kabul, during his father’s reign, Amanullah had spent much time studying the problems of administration of his country, and meeting his people. His first thought on coming to power was to make Afghanistan fully sovereign, internally secure, and externally independent. British wars on Kabul and the subservience of Habibullah had placed control of Afghan foreign affairs in the hands of the British government which had utilized this control to isolate Afghanistan from the outside world, and use her as a sort of ditch before the British citadel in India. Amanullah knew it was impossible to regenerate his country without securing freedom from alien interference and control, and forthwith he declared his complete independence.
The third Afghan war was therefore declared in 1919 and, unlike the previous two, was fought by a determined and united Afghanistan against a depleted British Indian army, further weakened by the rebellious discontent with British rule in India. The issue was not long in doubt. The swiftness of General Nadir Khan’s attack on Peshawar and the impossibility of lining up the disloyal Moslem population of northern India compelled Sir Hamilton Grant, British commander, to compromise the English position. A peace was speedily arranged on the basis of the Afghan demand that thereafter England should have nothing to say in the matter of Afghanistan’s relations with foreign countries. The bitter pill had to be swallowed for fear of the loss of the whole Indian empire. And while the Afghan delegates at the peace conference at Mussoorie, India, pulled out their swords in anger each time the British representative, Sir Henry Dobbs, tried to bluff, the Bolshevist regime at Moscow was exchanging diplomatic courtesies and cultivating friendship with Amanullah. Lord Curzon, as Foreign Minister, fought tooth and nail against receiving an Afghan Minister at the Court of St. James’s, while the Soviets acclaimed Ghulam Siddiq Khan as an equal and a brother.
Within a year of his accession to the throne, Amanullah had sent envoys to all European capitals and most Asiatic ones. Even the United States was visited by a Minister Plenipotentiary Extraordinary, and though the Anglophile Secretary of State, Charles Evans Hughes, grudged him due honor, President Harding’s letter of cordial welcome and his recognition of Amanullah were received by the minister on his hasty return to another capital across the Atlantic. Amanullah had put Afghanistan on the map, at least diplomatically. He now set about consolidating his gains. His first problem was at home — the subjugation of unruly tribes.
Only a century ago Afghanistan was a disunited group of independent provinces — Turkestan on the north, Herat in the west, Kandhar in the south, and Ghazni in the east. There was no central authority. The first person who succeeded to any appreciable extent in conquering all the provinces was Ameer Abdur Rehman Khan, the grandfather of Amanullah. But even Abdur Rehman merely managed to make the tribes pay lip homage to him. For all practical purposes, each tribal territory was an autonomous area governed only by the edicts of the chieftains. Taxes, road tolls, justice, education (which in Afghanistan means religious education), and the gliazza (war) — that eternal pastime of the Afghans — were all in the hands of the Sirdars. The Durrani tribe was recognized as the nominal ruler because under the leadership of Abdur Rehman, valiant soldier that he was, it had proved its superiority. Abdur Rehman also had made Afghanistan comparatively secure by his impartiality toward Moscow and London, but through his son’s docility this impartiality yielded to England during the war.
Educated as few Oriental potentates are, and wide awake to the march of progress in the world, Amanullah knew that the most important thing to do was to establish the authority of the central government. He sent governors to the Turcomans of the north, the Persian stocks in Herat, the Israelite Afghans of Kandhar, and the Aryan stream in the east. There was only one rebellion against his rule and that occurred in 1923 in the eastern district of Khost where the Ghilzais dwell. He himself headed a punitive expedition and put down the rebellion. Then he began to weld the Afghans into a nation-conscious, centrally ruled nation of free and peaceful people. He imported from Germany, Russia, Italy, France, and Turkey educators, instructors, advisers, and merchants. He established schools, factories, military colleges, and arsenals. He ordered a national congress of all the tribal delegates to meet at Kabul every year to discuss affairs of common interest to all Afghans, and he presided at those congresses himself, telling the delegates what their rights and duties were. He organized a cabinet and introduced a system of central levy of taxes, road polls, etc. Well-disciplined troops policed the country and protected her independence from external aggression and internal disturbance. And as far as financial resources permitted, he made an attempt to dress Afghanistan in modern garb. A few years later he decided to take a trip to Europe and see for himself how life was lived there and to make contacts which would be of help in making Afghanistan a civilized and modern community. He called the tribes together and announced that for the first time in their history their king was to travel in far lands so that his services might benefit them. They assured him of their loyalty. He sailed from Bombay in December, 1927, and with his Queen visited the European capitals in state, receiving the most lavish acclaim from all the imperialist Powers eager for the concessions for exploitation of natural resources, and orders for manufactures essential to the upbuilding of a medieval country. The keenest rivalry was manifested in London and Moscow. Amanullah discreetly kept silent as to his preferences, even risking the chagrin of the almost indecently hasty Sir Austern Chamberlain, who popped the question of an Anglo-Afghan alliance at the very first reception in London. Amanullah was a true statesman, and knew when to answer with a smile instead of words.
Amanullah’s absence from the country furnished an ideal opportunity for his enemies and they used it to the full. Mullahs and Sirdars had suffered loss of authority and profit through the centralization of government. But disgruntled as they were, they could hardly have organized a successful movement without outside encouragement. Unproved charges (and in the nature of things unprovable) place the blame on the British, more specifically upon “Private Shaw,” better known as Lawrence of Arabia, who was posted at an aerodrome on the Afghan frontier for seven months before Amanullah’s overthrow. Whether true or not, the charges were widely believed. Amanullah issued orders for “Shaw’s” arrest. In India he was burned in effigy, and an innocent man suspected of being Lawrence in disguise was nearly lynched by a crowd in Lahore. Moreover, British-made arms and ammunition were found in the possession of rebels, and British representatives were accused, in the House of Commons, of having been in touch with the rebels before Amanullah abdicated.
On his return Amanullah inaugurated still greater reforms, and following in the footsteps of Kemal Pasha of Turkey began to abolish customs which set apart Afghans from civilized peoples. He forbade the veil, ordained monogamy, imposed universal education on boys and girls alike, and in general introduced changes of a fundamental character. In doing so he ignited the powder magazine which had been prepared for him in his absence. The Shinwari tribes, the strongest in the Eastern Province, revolted. The Khogianis joined them later. Amanullah delayed taking drastic action in the hope of a bloodless pacification. Delay, however, intensified the campaign of the rebels and spread the discontent. Everywhere his anti-Islamic reforms were anathema. And then when he had almost succeeded in persuading or coercing the rebels to surrender on promise of abrogating the more radical laws, out of a clear sky a brigand, nicknamed Bacha Saqao, appeared with five thousand of his Kohistani gangmen from the north, armed to the teeth with British-made arms and ammunitions, and struck at Kabul. A pitched battle was fought between him and Amanullah’s soldiers who were ordered to shed no unnecessary blood. But the brigand-chief had the advantage because of the rebellious state of the East. He won the battle of Kabul, three miles from the city. Instead of further opposing him and shedding more blood, Amanullah decided to put himself out of the way and left the throne to his priestly-brother Inayatullah, himself departing for his home in Kandhar.
The brigand entered Kabul, and declared himself ameer, with the name of Habibullah. He gave the British government authority to fly its airplanes over Afghanistan daily and in any way it chose. He prosecuted the Russians in the service of Kabul, and finally forced the Soviet Minister to leave Afghanistan out of disgust and resentment at the ill-treatment he had received. The snows in Afghanistan were heavy, but with the spring Amanullah resumed his efforts to oust the brigand from Kabul, because hundreds of thousands of Afghans desired him to do so. He started from Kandhar with 30,000 soldiers, 5,000 of them women, for emergency service, and advanced 100 miles, a third of the way to Kabul. His friends in the West and East advanced simultaneously. Then tribal feuds broke out among his followers and they fell back before the now well-disciplined and heavily armed soldiery of Habibullah. Amanullah’s advance checked, new pretenders to the throne arose and half a dozen men declared themselves ameers on the basis of their control of their respective followings. The Ghilzak played false with Amanullah and got on the bandwagon of Bacha Saqao, who saw his chance and began to sweep away all opposition to his rule, defeating the small tribal units one by one. Amanullah, forlorn and discouraged, came to the conclusion that efforts to rally the Afghans at present would be futile. Harassed in the field and worried over the health of his Queen who was about to become a mother he departed from Afghanistan via Bombay. The field is now in more or less complete possession of Habibullah, the waterboy, who has abolished all the laws of Amanullah, reestablished the code of bigoted fanaticism, and set back the hands of the clock. It will be some time before the smoke of the battle clears and sense returns to the people. Then there may be a movement for the return of Amanullah and his reforms. But for the moment, friends of Russia are out, and England is in. And of course Great Britain has been strictly “neutral” throughout this whole affair, confining herself to the humanitarian activity of evacuating foreigners from Kabul, with bombing airplanes, which cruise at will.