Friday 13 November 2009

A common enemy

As we left our continuing romp though the history of Afghanistan, we had seen the death of the "Iron Amir", Abdur Raḥman, in 1901. From his bloody reign, we see the continuation of the tribal rivalry, the oppression of the Ghilzai by a Durrani ruler from the "new" capital of Kabul, bolstered by Tajik and other northern tribes.

We also see the enforced resettlement of Ghilzai Pashtuns north of the Hindu Kush, areas which have now become foci of Taliban activity, and we also saw the active intervention of the British which not only supported this despot, but honoured him with the insignia of the highest grade of the Order of the Star of India. The British thus became part of the problem.

There is also another dynamic, the importance of which is difficult to assess. Through the reign of Amir Rahman and his predecessor Sher Ali, British policy changed from one of laissez faire under the Liberal Gladstone, to the interventionalist policy of Disraeli and then back to laissez faire as Gladstone resumed office in 1880.

Whether the precise nature of these policy shifts were understood by the Afghan political élites is not clear, but the effects were certainly evident. When Sher Ali wanted support from the British against Russian encroachment, under Gladstone's laissez faire it was not forthcoming. But, when he treated with the Russians in an attempt to resolve the issue, he then fell foul of an interventionalist Disraeli, suffering the invasion and occupation of his county.

When the policy changed again during Abdur Rahman, one can only guess at the impression left of him and successive Afghan rulers. However, it takes little imagining to venture that the British acquired a reputation for inconstancy – to the extent even that they could not be relied upon. If that is the case, one wonders whether this reaches out to influence the current incumbent of the Afghan "throne", Hamid Karzai.

Thus far, then, we have identified a number of elements which essentially poison the political terrain in modern Afghanistan, and we are only partially though our historical exploration. The next instalment starts with the new Amir Ḥabiballah Khan, the eldest son of Abdur Rahman.

Unusually, there was an orderly succession – the previous succession had seen a brutal 6-year civil war – and, having ascended the throne without opposition, in 1905 he renewed the personal accord which tied the Amir of Afghanistan to the British government. And he governed with the same authoritarian methods as his father, a fact that cost him the hostility of a small constitutional party and a series of assassination attempts, the third of which was successful on 21 February 1919.

During the period of his reign there had grown two, antagonistic "modernising" factions. The first was the constitutionalist party, known as the "Young Afghans", who were anti-British and pro-Turk. The second was led by members of a family from the Moḥammadzai, strongly influenced by Anglo-Indian ideas.

Eventually, it was the nationalist "Young Afghans" faction which prevailed, conspiring in Ḥabiballah's assassination. He was replaced by Amanallah, one of his sons, Close to the "Young Afghans" faction, the new Amir set out to put their programme into practice, aware that, without their support, he stood little chance of staying in power. He thus demanded from the British full sovereignty in all matters concerning foreign affairs.

Confronted with British hesitations, and with the majority of the Indian Army still overseas in the aftermath of the First World War, he launched a jihad on the British and in May 1919 invaded India, starting the third Anglo-Afghan war. With an indifferent army, against still superior British forces, which by then were also able to deploy the power of the RAF (pictured), Amanallah stood little chance of victory.

Of very great interest to our analysis, however, he was aided considerably by the Waziri and Mashud tribes, now in Indian territory on the "wrong" side of the Durand line. They had last rebelled against the British in the "Mad Mullah" uprising of 1897, and it was their involvement which turned the tide.

Although the British easily contained the invasion and launched a counter-attack on Jalalabad and even launched an aerial raid on Kabul, the prospect of a new war on the heels of the 1918 armistice did not appeal to the British, and they feared a full-scale Pashtun tribal uprising along their borders. After a month of fighting, they agreed to sign an armistice and later the Treaty of Rawalpindi on 8 August 1919.

It is from then that the Afghanis date their independence, which they used to send Afghan missions to Europe and the Soviet Union, and sign several bilateral treaties with Turkey, Persia, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union. In June, 1926, Amanallah symbolically completed this process by abandoning the less important title of Amir for the more prestigious one of Shah.

In between, Amanallah had been forced to put down a violent revolt of the Mangal of Paktia, between 1924-25 but this did not dissuade him from embarking on a series of far-reaching reforms, which included the suppression of polygamy, the improvement of the position of women, a battle against corruption and family patronage, and the secularisation of public affairs.

But he was not given time to enact his reforms. A minor revolt of the Shinwari tribe on the Northwest frontier in November 1928 triggered a violent campaign by religious leaders against him. In a few weeks all of eastern Afghanistan was in revolt and the royal garrisons were defeated one after another. In this atmosphere of civil war, a Tajik adventurer by the name of Habibullah-e- Kalakani attacked Kabul at the head of a band of Kuhestani tribesmen from the mountainous area north of Kabul. He eventually succeeded in taking the town on 15 January 1929 and the royal palace on the following day, proclaiming himself Amir.

Amanallah, who had abdicated on 14 January in favour of his half-brother, fled to Kandahar and tried to raise a counter-offensive on Kabul. But his appeals to the injured Pashtun sense of honour were heeded only by the Durrani of southern Afghanistan. As he started marching towards the capital, he was attacked by Ghilzai tribesmen who obliged him and his men to turn back on 19 April 1929.

Crushed by this resurgence of the old antagonism between the two main Pashtun confederations, the powerless king and his family sought refuge in India before going to Italy, where he lived forgotten until his death in 1960.

The take-over in Kabul meanwhile triggered a series of uprisings throughout the country. Hazaras in Ghazni, Dayzangi, Behsud, and Daykundi joined forces and started to fight against the new Amir. The Shinwaris, however, allied themselves with the new Amir to fight against loyalist Amanis in the Logar valley. In the North, Turkmens started attacking Hazaras around Mazar-e-Sharif.

To the rescue came Nadir Khan a distant cousin of Amanallah. Aided and financed by the British Government, he appealed to the Pashtun tribes to overthrow the Amir, on the basis that Pashtuns should not accept a non-Pashtun ruler, persuading the Mangal and Jaji tribes in Paktia to capture Kabul from the Tajiks.

Marching on Kabul, Nadir Khan briefly entertained the idea of a national government in concert with the Tajik usurper but, with the help of Waziri and Mashud reinforcements, captured and sacked the capital on 13 October 1929, arresting Habibullah-e-Kalakani and his supporters, later to have them shot. On 16 October he was proclaimed Amir by his troops.

Nadir and his loyal Pashtun tribes then attacked Northern Afghanistan, killing, raping and looting. They expropriated the fertile lands belonging to Tajiks and Uzbeks and distributed them to the Pashtuns. He then attacked Hazarajat region in central Afghanistan, where he massacred thousands of innocent Hazaras.

Nadir Khan then proceeded to reverse the liberalisation measures introduced by his predecessor. The successors of the "Young Afghans", who had joined the opposition, were tracked down and assassinated. Nadir's reign degenerating into a series of tribal feuds which led to his own assassination on 8 November 1933, by a sixteen-year-old boy as the Amir handed out prizes at a high school graduation.

The events of this turbulent period have been compared with 1996, when the Taliban took power, in the context of a Tajik ruler in power, with a similar breakdown in public order.

In this brief period of Afghan history, though, there were a number of issues which have direct application to modern Afghanistan. Going back to 1929 and the beginning of the rein of Nadir Khan, an underlying theme which was beginning to exert its influence with increasing force was the battle between religious conservatism and modernity.

In pursuing modernity, his predecessor Amanullah had attempted a wide range of reforms, which included adopting the solar calendar, requiring Western dress in parts of Kabul and elsewhere, discouraging the veiling and seclusion of women, abolishing slavery and forced labor, introducing secular education (for girls as well as boys); adult education classes and educating nomads.

His economic reforms included restructuring, reorganizing, and rationalizing the entire tax structure, anti-smuggling and anti-corruption campaigns, a livestock census for taxation purposes, the first budget (in 1922), implementing the metric system (which did not take hold), establishing the Bank-i-Melli (National Bank) in 1928, and introducing the afghani as the new unit of currency in 1923.

In following him, Nadir Khan was faced with the strength of the religious and tribal leaders and, to maintain their support, was forced to abolished most of Amanullah's reforms. Yet still there was pressure for modernisation and, though his reign, he initiated a programme of road construction, driving the Great North Road through the Hindu Kush, introduced radio broadcasting, and helped establish Afghanistan's first university in Kabul, which first admitted students in 1932. He also paved the way for a modern banking system, and instituted a system of long-range economic planning to his government.

Alongside this were other pressures, from, over the border, where Indian nationalism was on the rise, the British in 1919 instituting reforms which gave an element of political authority to most of the provinces of India, notably excluding the Northwest frontier, where it was considered "singularly inappropriate" that the warring Pashtuns should be allowed even a small element of self government.

This led to the development of a political opposition within the frontier area, which allied itself with the Indian National Congress, the party fighting for its own national independence. From that emerged a new impetus for a united "Pashtunistan" which led to a major uprising in 1930 in Peshawar, which had British armoured cars turning their machine guns on brick-throwing crowds, requiring martial law before order was restored.

Another dynamic which Nadir Khan had to confront was the pressure of financing the ongoing campaign to keep rebellious tribes in order, leading him to accept a substantial grant from the British and a gift of 10,000 Enfield rifles. This in turn led to accusations – aired in the Indian press – that he had become a puppet of Delhi.

Anti-British sentiment, Pashtun nationalism and the forces of conservatism all had in common a strong attachment to Islam and, therefore, Nadir Khan found it necessary to pursue an overt Islamophile policy, simply to keep opponents on-side. Thus, reforms could proceed only very slowly, and co-operation with the British over the border question often had to be disguised behind a wall of Islamic and nationalist rhetoric.

Broader issues also emerge from the period from 1901 to 1933, when we see several more elements that may have a resonance in modern times. Firstly, as with the recovery of national sovereignty in the 1919 Anglo-Afghan War, the Pashtun tribes were prepared to unite against a common enemy, in this case the British – burying temporarily traditional tribal enmities.

Secondly, we see how easily attempts at liberalisation and secularisation – in this case by Amanallah – attracted the opposition of religious leaders, resulting in the collapse of the government and a period of civil war. What is striking also is how quickly the country degenerated into war.

Then we see the intolerance of the Pashtuns for a leader other than one of their own – and their violent character when dealing with other ethnic groups. But we also see how the rivalries between the Durranis and the Ghilzai are so strong that, even when a Tajik had taken power in Kabul, the Ghilzai were still not prepared to set aside historical enmities, treating the Durrani as the greater enemy.

Finally, it is perhaps noteworthy that, after the take-over of Kabul, Amanallah should flee to Kandahar, the historic capital of Afghanistan, in order to seek aid.

All of these elements, it seems, are capable of replication – as indeed is claimed for 1996, and could presage the fate of Afghanistan in the event of the withdrawal of coalition forces. Civil war is not a remote possibility in Afghanistan – even its recent history suggests that, without a strong central authority, it is a racing certainty.