Afghan historians have dealt, rather superficially with the events that shaped the country and the nation early in the 20th century. The ten-year reign of King Amanullah (l9l9-l929) has not received the kind of favorable mention that it rightfully deserves. Events of that period have either been omitted on purpose or for fear of reprisal, or merely to gain favors. One outstanding work, Afghanistan Dar Maseere Tareekh by Mir Ghulam Mohammed Ghobar, somehow, found its way through the Government Press in the l960’s, but its dissemination was banned. It was kept under lock and key until the late seventies. Ghobar, it seems, risked adverse consequences when he presented events as he perceived them, and offered his opinions on them. He was especially open, sometimes even critical of the attitudes and actions of those in authority during the late l9th and early 20th centuries as they pertained to Afghanistan.
I am no historian. Anything I say about this period is influenced by what I have heard directly from people involved, or by what I have read in the works of scholars from abroad.
Ameer Amanullah sat on the Afghan throne on February 22, 1919. Only three days later he proclaimed the Independence of Afghanistan before a multitude of citizens gathered at the Muradkhani Square in Kabul.
The British India Government immediately mobilized its armed forces against Afghanistan. The Amir took similar measures and dispatched three units of his Central Army to the eastern, southern and southwestern borders. Unfortunately the leader of the Eastern Army was injured and was urged to leave the Eastern Front prior to any serious engagement with the enemy. The Kandahar Front army took a long time to reach that city. But the southern army Front, commanded by Sardar Mohammed Nadir Khan faced the enemy and, forcefully caused the retreat of the British army at Thal in the “Tribal Zone”. Nadir Khan was eager to pursue the enemy into British India proper, but was stopped by an order from the Ameer. Britain had already contacted the Ameer and had conceded Afghanistan her freedom after formal talks between the two sides, somewhere in India.
That war, known as the Third Anglo-Afghan War, was short (about one month in duration). The Afghans named it the War of Independence. It officially ended after two years of protracted negotiations between the two sides when the representatives of Afghanistan and Britain signed it on November 22, 1921. Under that treaty “Britain recognizes Afghanistan’s independence and there is to be an interchange of Ministers in London and Kabul. On their part the Afghans promise that no Russian Consulates will be permitted in the Ghazni, Jalalabad and Kandahar areas. Both governments promise to tell the other beforehand of any major operations they may find necessary to keep order along the frontier.” (Longman Chronicle of the 20th Century, 12-1921).
The Ameer rewarded Nadir Khan by making him Sepahsalar (the Supreme Commander) of the Afghan Army and, later still, by having his name mentioned respectfully on the monument honoring Afghan independence erected just outside the east gate of the Royal Palace in Kabul.
This monument was later called the Independence Monument. In the early years of Ameer Amanullah’s reign, there were some figures sculpted by a couple of Austrian artists then visiting Afghanistan and placed on the four sides of the Monument. To the north, a big bear represented the Soviet Union. To the south there was the figure of a lion representing the British presence in India. To the east and west there were two more figures representing China and Persia respectively. The ensemble, after completion, gave the impression of Afghanistan bravely forging ahead on the road to progress in the face of possible threats from her neighbors. One of the figures around the monument was later demolished in a surge of religious zeal basically aimed against the Ameer whose only ambition was to lead his independent country forward. His enemies dubbed him heathen, purporting that the sculpted figures were a sign of his relinquishing Islam, which frowns upon human sculptures. The remaining figures were replaced by an ensemble of cannons and cannon balls around the Monument. The cannons were actually the ones used in the war against the British.
While a prince, Amanullah circulated among a group of young men who called themselves the Young Constitutionalists. They, like him, wanted to see the establishment of a free Afghanistan with a constitutional monarchy. His grandfather and father had both acquiesced to British authority over Afghanistan’s foreign relations and her defense. In return, the British India Government had given them a meagre annuity of several hundred thousand Indian Rupees, barely enough to maintain a small army. This army was unable to do anything other than protect the Ameer. In l886 and l89l Afghanistan lost substantial pieces of territory to the Russians. All Ameer Abdurrahman, Amanullah’s grandfather, could do was to lament the loss of Panjdeh and Merv and other lands north of the Amu Darya.(See his Memoirs). The British “handled” the matter between London and St. Petersburg without any recourse to the Ameer of Afghanistan.
Earlier still in 1872 Afghanistan had lost about a third of the territory of Seistan to Persia (now Iran), her neighbor to the west, as a result of a dispute with Persia arbitrated by the Englishman, General Sir Frederick Goldsmith.
Afghanistan also lost territory along her eastern and southern borders when the British forced the Durand Line on her in the early l890s.
In 1904, another arbitration by another English arbitrator, Sir Henry McMahon, resulted in the loss to Afghanistan of more territory and a substantial amount of the water of the Helmand River, as well as the very historic Afghan name of Seistan. These arbitrations were forced upon Afghanistan by the British who then controlled the foreign relations of Afghanistan. The rulers of our country never did have a say in any of these decisions. Neither did they actively resist the forces that implemented these changes in our boundaries.
The Young Constitutionalists considered these losses very serious. They deemed it a dire necessity of their Time to change the Afghan position vis-a-vis the British at the first opportunity.
World War I offered such an opportunity. There were signals of assistance from India and elsewhere in case the Afghans took the initiative for freedom from the British colonialism. But the British, perhaps anticipating trouble, secured a definite promise from Ameer Habibullah, Amanullah’s father, to remain strictly neutral and keep peace in his country and with India for the duration of the War. It is not clear whether Ameer Habibullah expected a reward of independence for his country or some form of monetary gain for his compliance, at war’s end. But he did assure the British not to worry on his people’s account. He did keep his promise in the face of alienating not only his son who was the crown prince but also a number of his court officials.
Various theories have been forwarded on the assassination of Ameer Habibullah on February 21, l9l9, away on a hunt in Laghman, eastern Afghanistan. No clear proof exists that the Crown Prince or any of his Young Constitutionalists were involved. Prince Amanullah was in the city of Kabul at the time and vehemently stated he would seek out, and bring to justice, the assassin whoever he might be. But no culprit could be found.
Prince Amanullah proclaimed himself the new Ameer of the Kingdom of Afghanistan in Kabul while his uncle Sardar Nasrullah Khan stated in Jalalabad that he would replace his martyred brother on the Kabul throne. His young nephew, however, prevailed and was acclaimed as the new Ameer by the Courtiers, government officials, the army and the people of the Capital, and later, the whole nation.
One of the more important measures that the Ameer took in the field of international relations was to despatch a high diplomatic mission abroad. Its main aims were to make the independence of Afghanistan known throughout the world and to invite various governments to establish diplomatic and trade relations with Afghanistan on a mutual basis. This mission, consisting of three of the Ameer’s trusted courtiers, Mohammed Wali Khan, Faiz Mohammed Khan and Ghulam Siddiq Khan, was warmly received everywhere and foreign embassies began to be established in Kabul. It visited the United States of America and met President Harding on July 20,1921. Even though the delegation was offered a degree of cordiality by the then Secretary of State Hughes, the US established diplomatic relations with Afghanistan only after World War II.
The first country to recognize the new independent kingdom of Afghanistan under the new Ameer was Russia. Evidently it was because Afghanistan was the first country to break loose from the yoke of British colonialism. Russia of the Bolshevik days was looking upon Britain as an enemy who was then helping the White Russians to overthrow it. The freedom of Afghanistan was, therefore, greeted by the Russians more as a defeat for Britain than the coming into existence of a free Islamic Kingdom. Were this not so, then why did the Bolsheviks attack and occupy, for all time, the Islamic Kingdom of Bokhara — merely a year after Afghanistan’s independence — thereby completing its conquest of all the Muslim territories to the north of the Amu River in Central Asia?
Any outward display of goodwill by the Bolsheviks toward Afghanistan was, in reality, a measure undertaken for a completely different intent. As far back as l925, a member of the Russian legation in Kabul had told his counterpart in the Italian Legation that “Soviet policy in Afghanistan could be summed up in a single word: ‘Revolution’.” (Fire in Afghanistan–Rhea Stewart).
Ameer Amanullah Khan soon set out on his reform programs for his country. Chief among these were the establishment of regulations regarding the functioning of the government and social, educational and economic aspects of life in Afghanistan. These measures covered, practically, the entire period of the Ameer’s ten-year rule.
Some were implemented earlier and some later. There were some that never materialized outside the pages of the documents they were written on.
Also, due to foreign interference and the increasingly negative reaction of the aristocracy, tribal chiefs, and religious leaders, the Ameer was forced, more than once, to abandon some of his progressive measures in order to appease them. These opponents were the Mohammedzais and other tribal Pukhtoon leaders who lost their hereditary stipends, Khans and village chieftains who lost their substantial incomes from the poor farmers and the religious leaders who lost their special privileges and freedoms as a result of the Ameer’s reforms.
The Ameer has been blamed variously for not taking into consideration the mental and psychological attitude of the masses in his kingdom and for brazenly going ahead with laying the foundation of a constitutional monarchy in Afghanistan. Some say that the bitter fact of his people’s backwardness in comparison to other nations moved the Ameer to undertake measures immediately that would have been actually better implemented if they were instituted gradually over a period of years. It is said that his failure was really brought about by the strong reaction of his people who were more tribe-minded than nation-minded and who would stick steadfastly to tribal mores and unwritten codes of conduct rather than to follow the decrees of a king and a central authority.
There are those who say that Afghanistan really became Afghanistan because of some very authoritarian rulers firmly set against the city-state system existing prior to l747. Central rule or rule within the family line in all major population centers, kept authority within the family and in the hands of the one strong man sitting on the Afghan throne in Kandahar or Kabul.
Given their choice, some critics say the various tribes of Afghanistan would rather feel at home in their traditional habitat, whether a village, a desert encampment, a town or several towns and their own elders, more as peace makers than as political leaders.
Before Ameer Amanullah, other Ameers had their wills obeyed by force. but, Ameer Amanullah was not the authoritarian ruler who would force his way or will upon his people through the power of the sword– a role that his grandfather had so successfully made use of only a few years ago. Ameer Abdurrahman Khan would leave his people no choice at all in matters of state. He was well aware of the Afghans’ respect for the might of the sword. But Ameer Amanullah Khan wanted a democratic rule, a rule through a Council of Elders, a Parliament if you will, and not one by the sword.
Admitting a grain or two of truth in some of these views, it is unfair to think of the Afghan nation as completely unaware of nationhood. Granted also that Ahmad Shah Baba gave the nation its most recent name–Afghanistan–in l747 A.D. But the nation–constituted, as it was, from numerous tribal communities– existed from the times that its name was Aryanaweju some four thousand years before Christ to when it was the Kingdom of Bakhdi (Balkh), to Seistan, to Ghor and to Ghazna when its borders were far beyond the present ones.
It is unfortunately the historians who find it easy to name the cities which were the seats of the government of those ancient kingdoms in connection with the nations’ past history and not the nation itself whenever the kingdoms of Seistan, Ghor and Ghazna or Balkh are mentioned. Those kingdoms had, at times, included other conquered kingdoms. True also, that the rulers of the past kingdoms established provinces in larger centers of population and appointed their kith and kin or other trusted men as governors to rule on their behalf. But the handicaps of family rivalry, poor communication — the curse of Afghanistan over many centuries — and the geographically-induced poor economy, made things work against continued stability for long periods of time. As a result, there were periods when governors turned into autonomous rulers and divisions occurred in the great kingdoms of the nation until again a new ruler emerged and re-established central authority in a new population center of the realm. In the process, some conquered territories were lost but the nation always remained intact and was governed from a new Capital within its confines. This is not un-precedented in other societies under more or less similar circumstances. Therefore, to say that Afghanistan was a country where tribalism, regionalism and lack of regard for a central government, or a lack of the sense of nationhood were the regular patterns of life, is unfair.
To say that Ameer Amanullah should have been a dictator to remain a sovereign over his “unruly tribes” is also unjust. Afghanistan is composed of a nation of many tribes. Pukhtoon, Tajik, Uzbak, Turkman, Hazara, Baluch and Nooristani are among the main tribes.
If one were to contend that tribal loyalties came first and tribal leaders held positions of high esteem, then as no single tribal leader could also be the leader of other tribes, inter-tribal problems would manifest themselves at all times and result in feudalism of yore. Ameer Amanullah Khan did not want this. He wanted to do away with any chance of division or duality in the country. The creation of elected representatives of all the tribes from all over Afghanistan, making laws for a just and fair rule by the government with him at the helm, was what he planned for a united Afghanistan. It was the establishment of just such a system that was the main goal of the Young Constitutionalists, with Amanullah the Prince, as a member during his father’s reign. Amanullah the Ameer, brought that goal and that dream to reality when he drew up a constitution for Afghanistan and had members of an Afghan Loya Jarga (Grand Assembly) discuss and pass it.
Thus was the first National Assembly created in the country.
He knew everything about the governing methods of his grandfather Ameer Abdurrahman Khan and his father Ameer Habibullah Khan. He did not like their ruling methods and did not choose to follow in their footsteps. He knowingly did not want to be a dictator, a tyrant, a warlord of his nation. He saw the welfare of his people in a constitutional monarchy. He gave them one. The nation, too, welcomed it. What transpired later, was not a by-product of tribalism but rather the result of the adverse propaganda of his foreign enemies to the effect that he had become an infidel, that he had given up Islam. Unfortunately a segment of his nation, which per force of geography, had the least contact with the Capital, and which, like all the Muslims, had easier access to the local mulas than to the king, believed that propaganda and, obeying the Sharia, revolted against him. The Ameer’s enemies knew this fact and used it to their advantage. To this segment of his people, the biggest proof of the Ameer’s infidelity was a photo of the Afghan king and his queen, taken with President von Hindenberg and Mrs. Hindenberg in Berlin during the royal visit to Europe in l928. Copies of the photo were circulated all along the Afghan-India border and the mulas were coaxed to misinform and inflame the religious population that it was against the principles of Islam for the wife of a Muslim king to be seen in public without purdah. Later on, it is said that “a composite photograph had been circulated in the eastern mountainous regions which showed Queen Sorayya’s head superimposed on the body of a nearly naked woman. “Public opinion hints at British involvement in this wicked, unfriendly act. Consequently the religious people, led by the mulas of the Eastern Province, some of whom were intentionally misguided, rose in revolt against King Amanullah. This was the beginning of the end for him.
Those who blame the British for the revolt, claim so because, the British, even after agreeing to full independence, wanted the Ameer to be advised in the conduct of his foreign relations especially as it related to his northern neighbor. But the Ameer (who incidentally took up the title King after his European tour of 1928 and which was not recognized by the British) would not be influenced. This increased the British dislike of King Amanullah, the rightful king of independent Afghanistan.
The British saw in the person and the successes of King Amanullah, a threat to their continued rule over India. The Indians had already shown signs of great approval and admiration for the Afghan king and recognized him as the liberator of his people from British colonialism. They wanted the same for themselves. This was what the British did not want to happen. Hence, their dislike and opposition to King Amanullah. Also, when the Shinwaris were made to rise against the King in the Eastern Province, they issued a proclamation — definitely prepared by the British in India if not in London — which made a very peculiar demand: “…All embassies in Kabul should be closed except for the British embassy. (Fire in Afghanistan pp.433-434)”. This meant that the King should go, all the foreign diplomatic missions should go, except for the British Legation, to pursue its goals and schemes in Afghanistan.
Some of the King’s actions during the later years of his reign such as protecting his own nationals from being prosecuted outside Afghanistan, were termed “uncivilized” by the British. And when in order to prove his being “civilized”, he ordered the death of one of two suspects and exiled another two of the Sangu Khel shinwar tribesmen for the purported killing of some British nationals inside the British-controlled tribal territory, his ever dissatisfied enemies used even this act against him and incited the Afghan tribesmen to revolt (FIA op. cit. pp240-250.)
Of the numerous positive measures of the King’s reign I will mention only a few to show the actions of a concerned leader of a free nation for his people:
The Amaniah (later renamed Istiqlal), the Amani (later renamed Nejat), and the Ghazi high schools were established in Kabul where French, German and English were the compulsory foreign languages respectively.
Groups of students, both boys and girls, were sent abroad to France and Turkey for higher education. Educational ties with France led to archeological work in Afghanistan by the French resulting in the establishment of the Kabul Museum, the first, in Afghanistan.
Provincial administration was reformed following the pattern established for the central government in Kabul which was set up in the form of Ministries responsible for policy formulation and implementation. Only directorates performed the duties of the Ministries in the provinces. Governors were the highest authorities for the welfare of the provinces and were appointed by the King. The Constitution of April 9, l923, was perhaps the most important thing that King Amanullah gave his country. In it, the Afghans were considered as one nation without any discrimination as to religion, tribal or regional origin. All subjects of Afghanistan had equal rights in matters of Sharia and government laws. All forms of torture were abolished. Personal freedom and a person’s home were made immune from all forms of violation except through an order by a Sharia court or in accordance with the provisions of appropriate laws. Slavery was completely abolished. Press freedom was granted in accordance with the press law. Free education was guaranteed and elementary education was made compulsory where feasible. All taxes were to be regulated. Personal and real property was protected. No real property could be taken by the government unless it was for a public cause and then only after a fair price was paid the rightful owner. Confiscation of property and goods, as well as, forced labor, was absolutely prohibited. The responsibilities and duties of courts were clearly defined. Provincial administration was reformed taking decentralization of authority, delineation of duties and determination of responsibilities into account.
Security of personal correspondence was made one of the rights of all citizens except under a court order when the post office might inspect someone’s mail. Judicial authority maintained its position of respect as per the Constitution but judges were no longer free to arbitrarily determine punishment. (This act, unfortunately, was quite instrumental in causing the ire of the judiciary who saw in it a lowering of their age-old prestige.)
The institution of Parliament and giving it its rightful authority was the most singular act of the King. By doing so, King Amanullah took the unprecedented measure of relinquishing a power that was only the King’s up to that time. He submitted to the will of the elected representatives of his people. The latter, however, misused this authority and dealt a crippling blow to the very instrument which could have led the Afghan nation to achievements far ahead of its neighbors.
Much has been made of the removal of purdah system (the system of covering the faces of women in public so that non-family members may not see them) during the reign of King Amanullah Khan. The King never forced the unveiling of women all over Afghanistan by law or decree. He, however, did encourage women in the Capital, Kabul, to go out and join the work force as nurses, teachers, medical doctors, etc. without being encumbered by the common chaderi or burqa. He also encouraged his officials to wear western dress made mainly from home-spun and domestic material.
The lifting of the Purdah or veil in the provinces was, at all times, left to personal and family discretion. In actual fact, the farming and herding communities generally wore no veil and sufficed by wearing large Chaders ( headcloths), with which they covered their faces during chance encounter with strangers.
The King established diplomatic relations with several countries and tried to expand contact with other nations in educational and economic fields.
He was very much impressed by Turkey and tried to emulate Ghazi Mustafa Kamal, ‘Ata Turk’, in many ways, short of severely treating the Islamic clergy. Chief among such measures was the reform of the military system of Afghanistan. This, in a way, reflected negatively upon the person of the King as some of the older military leaders and experienced military personnel were alienated from him and he lost their services at a time when he desperately needed them.
These remarks are not meant to enumerate everything that King Amanullah did for Afghanistan. These are merely passing observations of some of the measures to show the reader that the King had nothing but the good of his nation on his mind. If only his good intentions did not clash with the interests of others, he might have lived to make our country the envy of our region of the world.
Lamentably the enemies of Afghanistan relentlessly pursued their incitement of the masses against the king through false and malicious propaganda against his reforms calling them un-Islamic and heathen in origin, claims easily misconstrued and accepted as true by the illiterate masses of the Afghan nation, all the way up to the day when he finally abdicated (January l4, l929), left Kabul and, eventually, the Afghan soil (May 23, l929) for ever.
Years later, during the reign of King Mohammed Zahir, his remains were brought back to Afghanistan and were buried in Jalalabad near the grave of his father, Ameer Habibullah.