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Bijan Omrani

This is an electronic version of an article published in Asian Affairs, Volume 38, Issue 2, 2007, Pages 145 157. The article is available online at the Asian Affairs website.

It was Lord Curzon who said If the Central Asian Society exists and is meeting fifty or a hundred years hence, Afghanistan will be as vital and important a question as it is now.(1) But even he might have been amazed by the parallels between Afghanistan then and now. When we now survey Afghanistan, we see a country that has been ravaged by conflict, and torn by ethnic strife; its infrastructure, which had slowly and tentatively been built up, left in ruins and devastation; and a newly-established central government struggling to project its authority beyond its central heartlands of Kabul.

Yet, as the Preacher says, there is no new thing under the sun. The same assessment would have been just as valid in 1993, as indeed, it would have been in 1929, 1880, 1856, or 1842. It seems that ever since its inception in 1747, the state of Afghanistan has been unable to escape from a vicious cycle, where unity is unobtainable, or else little more than a passing illusion, and when progress is made towards development, it seems ultimately to drive the country apart, and leave it in a worse state than before.

On the face of it, this inability to develop infrastructure and institutions of government seems contrary to expectations. The land of Afghanistan sits at the heart of a number of trading routes, East-West and North-South; for much of its existence, it has been flanked by two great powers the Russian Empire in Central Asia and the British Empire in India who in their own ways did much to bring about development in their own spheres of influence. And, in only the 15th century, the city of Herat in the west of modern Afghanistan was one of the greatest cities in the Islamic world, the head of a large empire the Timurids at the forefront of trade, the arts, one of the most dynamic places in the world of ideas about science and government. Anyone who hopes to establish a stable and progressive government in Afghanistan today needs to ask why these advantages and glories of earlier times evaporated; why Afghanistan has been unable to develop and escape the curse of disunity ever since; why the Amir Yakub Khan, one in a long line of deposed rulers, once bitterly exclaimed I would rather be a grass-cutter with the British than King over Afghanistan. I cant pretend to offer answers to the problems of government in Afghanistan, but I can describe the attempts made by previous rulers to bring about unity and development, what measures were successful, and why, in general, their efforts were reduced to failure.

I should like specifically to look at three periods in the history of Afghanistan: the early period in the 18th century, with the foundation of the country; the work of the Iron Amir Abdur Rahman, ruler from 1880-1901; and the period of rapid development under King Amanullah, ruler from 1919-1929.

We should first consider the formation of the state of Afghanistan. After the collapse of the Timurid Empire at the beginning of the 16th century, the region of Afghanistan was divided between the three neighbouring emergent powers the Uzbeks, to the north of the Hindu Kush, and the Safavid Persians and the Indian Mughals to the south. It is the southern region to which we should pay the closest attention; it is the original heartland of the Pashtun tribes, who were responsible for the construction of the Afghan state. The origins and early history of the Pashtun tribal confederations is by no means clear, but we do know that by the time they passed under the authority of the Persian Mughals and Indian Safavids, they were regarded by their neighbours as warlike, unruly, and somewhat dangerous. Their propensity to endemic inter-tribal feuding, their unwillingness to acquiesce lightly to external control, and the danger they posed to the more stable regions beyond their own territories were well understood. The policy objectives of the Safavids and Mughals towards the Pashtuns were therefore not so much to govern them, as to control them. The Pashtun lands were the frontier territories between the Safavids and the Mughals; the only objectives of both empires were to keep the roads open to the cities, to ensure that the Pashtuns under their control didnt ally with the opposing power, and to keep the number of revolts to a minimum. In this, they generally gained success over the course of time by pursuing what we would call a policy of containment bribing or subsiding tribal chiefs to be compliant, giving them posts at court, and playing upon rivalries between tribes in order to prevent them from turning their energies outwards. Only in more difficult cases were tribes attacked, or else transplanted away from their original territories to break their power and independence. Beyond this, the great empires had no particular interest in interfering in the region; they might maintain governors and garrisons in the cities, but beyond that, they had no detailed concern with the internal affairs of the tribes.

This policy changed on the Persian side with the accession of Shah Soltan Hosein to the Safavid kingship in 1690; the consequences were to be momentous. This new king was very much under the thumb of Persias Shia clergy, and having enacted such measures as the prohibition of wine-consumption and kite-flying, he decided on a policy of forcible conversion of all Sunni Muslims within his empire to Shia Islam. Also paranoid that the Indian Mughals were intriguing with the Pashtun tribes against him, he sent a new strongman-style governor to Kandahar, named Gurgin Khan. The policy of containment and conciliation was reversed, and repressive, interfering measures were enacted. The eventual result: Pashtun uprisings in Kandahar and Herat after 1709, which the Persians were unable to quell; later, in 1722, a Pashtun army sallied into the heart of Persia, laying siege to and destroying the capital Esfahan, the power of the Safavid empire, and bringing about 25 years of virtual anarchy in Central Asia; already, we can see what kind of a taste the Pashtuns had for the strong hand of central government.

By 1747, the situation had so resolved itself that the Pashtuns were the masters of an independent entity in the region of southern Afghanistan, and, at a grand assembly of tribal leaders (Loya Jirga) one of their number, Ahmad Shah of the Pashtun Durrani tribe, was proclaimed King. Ahmad Shah found himself at the head of a small nation, neither wealthy, nor with the means of generating wealth. In order to guarantee his authority, he was in desperate need of money. He moreover realised that military prestige and the prospect of plunder for his followers were vital to consolidate his position. Therefore, he led a force of 12,000 men mainly Durranis and Beluchis first against rival Pashtun tribes including the formidable Ghilzai, and then into foreign territory: Sind, the Punjab, Lahore, and then westwards towards Herat, and Mashhad, adding all of these to his control. Ahmad Shah was a talented general, and was also fortunate that India and Persia were weak whilst he was in the ascendant. By the time of his death in 1772, he had put together an empire, led by the Pashtuns, which embraced a variety of different ethnic groups Tajiks, Hazaras, Beluchis, Uzbeks, Turcomans, Sikhs and whose fertile and wealthy provinces, including Peshawar and Kashmir, were able to subsidise the Afghan treasury.

This formative period tells us much about attitudes in Afghanistan towards the role of central government. The Kingdom of Afghanistan was an Empire of the Pashtuns over the other territories and ethnic groups; the role of its King and government was only to govern the foreign, non-Pashtun territories it had captured, but not the Pashtun territories themselves. The internal affairs of the Pashtun tribes were solely a matter for their own chiefs and tribesmen, not of the King or government. The matter is excellently summarised by the 19th century authority, Mountstuart Elphinstone:

Ahmed Shah had to found a monarchy over a warlike and independent people, by no means attached to that form of government; those most accustomed to be governed by a king, had only felt his power in the means which were used to compel them to pay tribute to a foreign state, and had ever regarded him as a powerful enemy, rather than a magistrate by whom they were protected, and to whom they owed loyalty and attachment. They had never been united under a native King; and, from the love of equality so conspicuous in their character, they were likely to view the exaltation of one of their own nation with even more jealousy than the tyranny of a foreign master. (2)

Thus, amongst the Pashtuns, Ahmad Shah could do little more than conform to the earlier pattern of the Safavids and Mughals, and be nothing more than a primus inter pares. If he overstepped the role of a leader in war and a very gentle revenue collector in peace, he was liable to be deposed. More than this, he, and indeed every following Afghan leader, was dogged by the necessity of finding a constituency: a basis of support on which he could rely to uphold both the person and the institution of the monarch. He therefore distributed lucrative offices in the court and state to various influential chiefs in the Durrani tribe to hold as hereditary possessions. He remitted land taxes on many members of the Durrani tribe, allowing them to provide men and horses, in feudal fashion, in lieu of money. He was careful to conciliate members of other Pashtun tribes, particularly the powerful Ghilzais, declining to intervene in their internal affairs. He also pursued the same policy with the independent and influential clergy, declining to interfere in their business, and leaving their waqfs, or religious endowments which paid for their upkeep, undisturbed.

The result of all this was that Ahmad Shah Durrani wore a very hollow crown. He could not change the way that the Pashtun tribes were run. His voice was only slight, or even inaudible, at the many assemblies, or jirgas, held at tribal, sub-tribal or clan level to determine loyalties, and the shifting intricacies of inter-tribal politics. He could do little to change or enforce the law. The tribal and clan jirgas also acted as courts to try criminal and even many civil cases, not according to Islamic Sharia law (which ultimately overlooks and militates against tribal distinctions between Muslims), but according to Pashtunwali, or the usage of the Pashtuns: a code of law designed ultimately to ensure the survival of the tribes. Although in tribes living near the cities, his writ might run with greater force more tax might be collected, the chiefs and Islamic judges might have more authority than the jirgas further away, the opposite was the case. The more distant regions would be, in a sense, more democratic, with even the jirgas having less authority, and the individual tribesmen living according to their will: little or no revenue was collected; honour killings and vendettas were endemic both between people, families, clans, and tribes, as was robbery, and theft on the highways. Over this, the King had scarcely any ability or authority to act.

All this might have been sustainable had India, Persia, and the Central Asian states continued weak. But not only were they resurgent as the 18th and 19th centuries went on; they were resurgent with the backing of the western powers, the British, the French, the Russians, who were bringing to them new technologies and infrastructure, both civil and military, that were putting them into a different league of power. Yet the Afghan Kings, who became aware that they had to centralise power in order to modernise and compete with their neighbours, were paralysed, and unable to do anything of the sort. Despite several attempts using primarily non-Pashtun elements loyal only to the crown, they were unable to establish a proper standing army controlled from Kabul; such forces in any case collapsed under military pressure in the 1st and 2nd Afghan Wars, but in terms of state structure they were inherently a source of weakness, not of strength, because they threatened the Kings basic constituency, the Durrani tribal chiefs. The Kings therefore lacked an instrument that could be used to bring about unity and centralisation.

There were further problems. The old trade routes were in terminal decline; the East India Company held a monopoly on Indian trade, and many goods, including those from China, were being transported to the west by sea, cutting out Afghanistan altogether. The prosperous Afghan cities, whose lifeblood was trade, fell precipitously into decay. Their populations, who were detribalised, mercantile, well-connected to the outside world, and perhaps more forward-looking, moved out to the countryside to live as agricultural small-holders and short-distance nomads. Thus, a powerful segment of the population who might have supported any modernising and centralising reforms of the king were lost to the side of the tribal chiefs. The cities brought in less revenue to the royal treasury, and as a result, the kings increased the taxes on artisans and merchants, driving many more of them into the countryside, or else out of Afghanistan, to Central Asia or India. A further consequence of this decline in trade was that Afghanistan became more parochial. In earlier times, many people, particularly the clergy whilst in training, were accustomed to travel around much of the Islamic world. With the collapse in trade and the movement of people, Afghanistan became intellectually cut off, more insular and xenophobic. Although there might not have been hostility to individual Christians until after the 1st Afghan War, there was a very great suspicion especially on the part of the clergy towards foreign innovations, technologies, concepts of education, infrastructure and reforms. It would not, therefore, be too much of an exaggeration to say that Afghanistan has been stuck in a sort of time-warp, saddled with all of these problems and attitudes towards central government which have lasted very much into the 21st century.

The first King to make any serious headway towards reform and unity was the Amir Abdur Rahman (1880-1901). He came to the Afghan throne in the aftermath of the 2nd Afghan War. He was not the most favoured candidate: he was a nephew of one of the earlier kings, had been in exile in Russian Central Asia for a number of years, and had no power base within the Durrani tribe. He came to the throne having been given rifles by the Russians, and subsidies and support by the retreating British, thinking him the least worst option. Immediately, he had to ally with non-Durrani Pashtuns to fight for the kingship against another contender who had the backing of the Durrani tribes. Besides this, the country (as often happened at the time of succession) was in pieces; the rich provinces of Mashhad, Kashmir, Sindh, the Punjab, Peshawar, had long gone, but many even of the cities within the modern borders of Afghanistan would not answer to him; and what rudimentary infrastructure of government had been laid down by the previous rulers had been destroyed in the recent conflict. And yet, within 20 years, at the end of his reign, the country was a unity, possessing a standing army, institutions of central and local government, a civil service, a tax collection system; the roads were safe, the tribes generally obedient, and the writ of government ran far more deeply into the lands of the tribes than had ever been the case before. Although he was not universally successful there was little substantive development of trade, education, social conditions his methods should be understood; and although in general they cannot now be copied for his instrument was tyranny there is much in his method of which we should take note.

He was the first to change the idea of kingship in Afghanistan. Earlier, as we have seen, the king was a first among equals, elected at the sufferance of tribal assemblies, and liable to deposed, or at least ignored, should they will it. Abdur Rahman changed this utterly. He saw that for centralised government, there had to be a single, strong leader. His means of changing the conception of kingship was by religion. Kingship came not from jirgas, he said, but from God. A king in an Islamic polity held the throne by divine right. His role was to defend and uphold religion, the honour and welfare of the people, and keep the state safe from the attacks of infidels. Rebellion against the king, therefore, was not just treason, but the act of an unbeliever, a rebellion against God. He drew an analogy between the construction of a state, and the construction of a building. As the latter was built under the direction of a single architect, assisted by qualified masons and ordinary workmen, so a state should be built by the controlling intelligence of a king, assisted by an army, and the ordinary people. There was no place for middlemen tribal chiefs, rich landowners, mullahs, village headmen and the like who set themselves up as opposing centres of power to the will of the king.

And so, Abdur Rahman set out to put his philosophy into practice. He had no belief in the old notion, as expressed by the Afghan traveller Sir Alexander Burnes, that the best way to rule Afghanistan is not to infringe the tribes and their autonomy. At the beginning of his reign, when he had little in the way of an army, he would seek to exploit tribal rivalries, allying with one tribe to subdue another. He did not fear to use sectarian differences for example calling a Sunni jihad against the Shia Hazara heretics to galvanise men into action. In order to pacify the tribes, he used the means of terror. Those who rose against him were killed as a matter of course, their property seized, their crops and villages burnt, their forts destroyed, their trees cut down, their women dishonoured; pyramids of skulls would be raised in the rebellious areas, in the traditional eastern fashion. Other tribal groups might even be utterly uprooted from their native lands, and transplanted to far distant parts of the country. Lands might be assigned from vanquished tribes to those who assisted the king, and even, in the case of the Hazaras, slaves. As for the elders who refused to be compliant, who refused to submit to his demands for tributes and taxes, if not killed, they would certainly be led away to Kabul in chains. They were replaced by obedient successors, appointed at the bidding of the Amir, who swore to uphold the nation and state. Their sons might also be held as hostages in Kabul for good measure. As tribes were pacified and began to pay taxes, Abdur Rahman enforced on them conscription, usually taking one young man of every eight for military service, using these to build up a centrally controlled standing army. As the army grew, from 43,000 in 1883, to 60,000 in 1890, to perhaps 100,000 at the end of his reign, he continued to use it to carry on the work of pacification, subduing such areas as the Hazarajat and Nuristan, which had never before properly answered to central control.

It should be said that he did not hope to eradicate tribalism, but rather to generate a new and direct relationship between the individual and the state above it, whilst also using it as a tool wherever possible to ensure order. Therefore, the regiments he raised were not mixed, but would each only contain the members of one tribe; and these, having been raised, were transplanted about the country, far distant from their native territories. Thus on the one hand, it was difficult for them to intrigue with their own tribal chiefs at home, along with the consequence that tribal unity and cohesion were weakened. On the other hand, they were amongst peoples of a different ethnicity to themselves, and therefore, would be motivated to keep them subdued. It cannot be emphasised enough that the role of the army was not so much the external defence of Afghanistan, but rather as the primary means of ensuring unity.

Abdur Rahmans philosophy of kingship was also apparent in the constitution of his government. He once said that the King should be regarded as a master, and the Kings ministers his slaves. He had no love for the western style of parliamentary assembly, and once commented that he imagined the House of Commons to be no better than a gossip-filled Turkish bath. He did have a bicameral council, made up of hand-picked chiefs, mullahs, and in some cases elected elders (nonetheless approved by himself); yet this was a powerless cipher, whose only real task was to acquaint him gently with the public mood. There was also the added advantage that keeping the chiefs at his pleasure in Kabul for much of the year detached them from their tribes, and limited their ability to cause mischief.

Similarly, he promulgated reforms in local government. In former times, Afghanistan had been divided into four great provinces, Kabul, Herat, Kandahar and Afghan Turkestan (the region north of the Hindu Kush). The governors had often wielded as much power as the King, and the posts were frequently held by the Kings sons and close relatives over long periods of time. Very often, this allowed them to build regional power bases against the king, and allowed them to pitch for the throne at the time of succession; always a time of confusion and crisis, intensified by the absence from Islamic tradition of the principle of primogeniture. Abdur Rahman split the four great provinces apart, and then sub-divided these into smaller administrative districts. The powers of the governors and their officers were lessened, so that they dealt only with smaller tasks of administration, and were charged to submit all but the slightest matters to Kabul for the personal attention of the King. No official was permitted to bear both civil and military authority, and Abdur Rahman chose for these positions men he considered to be of little ambition, and moved them around frequently, even going so far as to confiscate their wealth if his suspicions in any respect were aroused.

Abdur Rahman created a new and extensive bureaucracy to administer the collection of revenue, customs, trade affairs, expenditure; each department was charged with keeping extensive records, and fearful punishments were threatened against any who tampered with or falsified them. Officials were recruited to travel throughout the country, charged with the business of assessing and gathering taxes, their work being supported by the army, who would threaten armed reprisals for non-compliance. As for the offices in Kabul itself, many of the junior clerks were drawn from Hindu and Persian families; such was a necessity, as standards of education were still poor in Afghanistan. Their salaries were low and irregularly paid, and as a result the officials were drawn towards inefficiency, embezzlement, and bribe-taking. The only means of advancement in the service was to wait for ones senior to be convicted of corruption, and the process was often initiated by the official seeking promotion. On this account of all of this, the Amir kept a careful eye on the bureaucracy, imposing draconian penalties harsh prison terms, blinding, or even death for the slightest of irregularities. Moreover, every single cheque that the government issued had to be countersigned by the Amir.

This overarching and obsessive attention to detail, and determination to keep a hold on every aspect of the governments work is also apparent in the Amirs establishment of an extensive spy network throughout the country. The system was based on that which he had observed whilst in exile in Russia, and which he had grown to admire. The claim, often made, that one in four Afghans were involved in espionage for the Amir is perhaps exaggerated, but every day reports poured into the capital from all parts of Afghanistan, with details not only of the behaviour of officials, but also of every clan and tribe, and eminent person. Very often, servants, who by custom would sit with their masters, were paid for information about the company they kept, and what had been said. The Amir would read these reports late into the evening, and often respond by cutting down to size anyone whom he considered a threat arbitrary disappearances, as a result, were certainly not uncommon.

Abdur Rahman oversaw a great increase in the extent of the official legal system throughout Afghanistan. Before his time, disputes and crimes in the greater part of the country were resolved by customary rather than Islamic law, put to the arbitration of tribal jirgas, or else the vendetta. Abdur Rahman, however, understood that a standardised legal system was a necessity not only for the unity of the country, but also to lower the appalling rate of murder, robbery and other crimes. He favoured the use of Islamic law, and worked hard to swell the number of qualified judges and Sharia courts, enlarging their remit to look after areas of the country where centrally-controlled Islamic courts had never before been able to operate. However, he became impatient of many of the Islamic judges, who were often unwilling to impose harsh sentences. A short while into his reign, he removed the responsibility for trying many criminal and capital cases from the Sharia courts, saving a great deal of this work for his own attention. This was one of the primary means whereby he was able to terrify the country into unity and obedience. Beatings and torture were commonly used, both for the purpose of examination and evidence-gathering, as well as punishments. Imprisonment, which had hardly been known in Afghanistan, became common, and the best figures suggest that the prison population increased from 1,500 in 1882 to 20,000 in 1896. The figures should be treated as an understatement however; the conditions of Afghan jails were utterly appalling, according to contemporary accounts, with no provisions made at all for sanitary arrangements, or even for basic cleaning. Food rations were limited to two pieces of naan bread one in the morning, and one for the evening and unless a prisoners family was on hand to augment these supplies, one was doomed to starvation. It is thought that 60-80 % of prisoners died in custody, and small numbers were executed every day, it appears, for the sake of making space. Amongst the incarcerated were political prisoners, those suspected of rebellion or charged with spying for the British, embezzlers, those who had levelled false accusations or supplied false information to the government. Prisoners both old and young were kept without distinction, and of both sexes, but girls of respectable families would be transferred to a harem for the benefit of the Kings family.

Executions were also public, and the methods, varied. Aside from the more conventional hanging with exposure of the body as an example, offenders might be blown from a gun, and others particularly robbers exposed in cages by roadsides and left to starve. Adulterers were treated most severely. Abdur Rahman once said that the honour of a Kingdom resided in its women, and this was reflected in his punishments for adultery. Women might be bayoneted in a sack whilst the men were hung above it, or worse: a witness records in one case that a woman was boiled to a broth which was then fed to the man before his execution; cannibals, according to Islam, are incapable of Paradise. Other lesser punishments for other offences included the cutting off of hands or tongues, the sewing up of lips, blindings, or the pouring of boiling oil on scalps. Collective punishments were also employed. If a robbery was reported on the roads and the offenders not found, every village within a radius of ten miles of the crime scene was forced to pay a fine of 10,000 rupees, and should they fail to do so, a regiment of soldiers would be quartered on them until the money was forthcoming. This policy was notably effective.

Attention should also be paid to Abdur Rahmans policy towards religion. It had always been the intention of previous kings to appeal to Islam as one of the few factors which might unite the disparate peoples of Afghanistan, whilst also trying to keep the clergy under control. None of them succeeded as well Abdur Rahman. He assumed control of all religious endowments (waqfs), making the clergy financially dependent on the state. Later, he made it necessary for all clerics to be tested in their knowledge of the faith, giving him control over who was able to practise. As with other prominent people in the state, he had no qualms about cutting down those clerics who opposed him, even, in 1881, strangling with his bare hands an eminent mullah who declared him an infidel for receiving subsidies from the British. Likewise, he would finance those who supported his rule, preached obedience to the state, and championed his attacks on wayward and rebellious tribes. Styling himself the vice-regent of God and vicar of the Prophet, he made himself the final authority in matters of doctrine, and arrogated solely to himself the authority to call a jihad, thereby preventing anyone else from causing mischief in this respect, as they often had in the past. The Amir was also concerned, however, to increase the knowledge of Islam amongst the ordinary people something which was, aside from the ordinary customs of the faith, exceedingly slight and thus he paid for qualified preachers to travel about the country teaching in mosques, and enforcers of public morals to test people on the spot; those who could not recite their prayers, who were disdainful of the faith, or who caused some breach of public decency, for example by swearing, were beaten. The Amir himself wrote many pamphlets on Islam, which were distributed widely throughout the country; they particularly emphasised the necessity of following the call to officially-sanctioned jihad, and played upon the xenophobia and isolation into which Afghanistan had fallen, reminding the people that they were a pure Muslim nation surrounded by the powers of the infidel, the British and the Russians.

Although at his death in 1901, Abdur Rahman left a state that was centralised, free from foreign interference, and at peace, there is much that he did not achieve. He might have sewn the seeds of unity, but he was unable to reap the benefits. Standards of living did not improve. Although there were some improvements in the road network, and the development of a fast postal service (mainly for the benefit of the government and intelligence system), transport throughout the country was still an arduous business. Aside from some government workshops put together for the manufacture of weapons, and other goods of use to the army, industry was not developed. Despite the Amirs lament for the lack of knowledge in Afghanistan, next to nothing was done for education; neither for healthcare. And although the Amir passed a small number of measures for the benefit of women allowing them to repudiate forced childhood betrothals and allowing widows complete freedom in remarriage little else was done to improve their position. Abdur Rahman had to pay for unity at the cost of development. His relentless taxes on all manner of people the poor agriculturalists, the artisans, the merchants, the confiscations of money from the wealthy which he levied in order to pay for the army, drove away trade and stifled business; tax revenues declined as he sought even more money, and he had very little in the way of funds to commit to other things. He feared to seek foreign investment to develop industry or exploit Afghanistans natural resources, believing that foreign investment would lead to foreign influence and foreign interference; and that were the natural resources exploited, mines opened, agriculture developed, it would make Afghanistan a target for attack and break-up. For the same reason, he declined to allow the building of railways and a decent road network, which would have on the one hand helped with foreign trade, but on the other made the transit of foreign troops should they enter the country an easier affair. And most of all, he feared the threat to stability posed by social change. If there were greater education, particularly that in a Western style, it might have been better for Afghanistans economic prospects; but on the other hand it would have fuelled the desire of the people to participate in politics, and encouraged them to question the whole basis on which he had placed the Afghan monarchy, not to mention the received customs and traditional notions on which the whole of society was based something which very much would have upset society in general, and the clergy in particular. Abdur Rahman might have hurt and alienated many with his un-Afghan despotism, but had he gone any further to change or uproot the more fundamental order of its traditional society, it is unlikely that his reign would have survived for long. In short, despite his energy and ability, he was unable to bring about development and unity at the same time; he was unable to break Afghanistans vicious cycle.

One of Abdur Rahmans successors, King Amanullah (1919-1929), presents an almost perfect contrast. Amanullah came to the throne following the assassination of his predecessor, Habibullah, a ruler who had scarcely deviated from the policies of Abdur Rahman, and whose only major innovation was to introduce golf to Afghanistan. On his accession, Amanullah immediately broke with the earlier policy of strict neutrality, launching an attack on the British North-western Frontier with the immediate object of winning full independence for Afghanistan (since 1880 Afghan foreign policy had been controlled by Delhi), and perhaps with the intention of winning the long lost regions of Peshawar and the Punjab back to Afghanistan. Although in the latter he failed, his success in the former (this was the 3rd Afghan War) won him considerable kudos, and augured well for the start of his reign. However, his affairs were set for a rapid decline.

In Kabul, with the establishment of a bureaucracy, and a very small number of schools to cater for it producing around only 150 graduates a year in the first decade of the 20th century there grew up a small and educated elite. These were augmented by the return of a number of rich Afghans who had gone into exile at the time of Abdur Rahman. They were educated primarily in Turkey or the Levant, acquainted directly with western ideas, and also the manner in which they might be reconciled with Muslim traditions. These people formed the kernel of a movement for modernisation in Kabul. Their leader was Mahmud Tarzi, the editor of Afghanistans first periodical, Siraj ul-Akhbar. They were bitterly conscious of the gap between the West and Afghanistan in the standard of living, institutions of state, technology, infrastructure, the public wealth. They lamented the utter lack of education amongst the general population; the intellectual apathy and complacency which Afghanistans detachment from the outside world had engendered; the negligence of the clergy, stifling free-thought, parroting the Quran and accusing others of heresy to hide their own ignorance. They attacked the traditional Afghan concept of freedom: they said that true freedom should be life in a civil society, rather than the utter absence of authority. They argued that western institutions, not just technology, should be imported; that the church should play no role in the state; that faith was a matter for the personal sphere; that the introduction of western ideas would not mean the end of Muslim morality; that women should be able to unveil, and participate in the world of professional work. They also argued that these reforms would not harm the monarchy, and be ultimately beneficial for the health of the country.

King Amanullah was a believer in these ideas; his wife, Queen Soraya, was the daughter of Mahmud Tarzi, the pioneering editor mentioned before. He initiated a programme of reform, slow at first, but sharply accelerated after he went on a grand tour of Europe (1927-28) and properly understood at first-hand the difference between Afghanistan and the West. Early on, he founded a number of secondary schools in Kabul, three of which taught their courses in foreign languages, French and German. There were also teacher training, vocational and administrative colleges. Dozens of the most promising students were annually sent abroad to university courses in Europe, Turkey and Persia. Girls schools were also founded; by 1928, there were 800 girls in secondary schools in Kabul, and throughout the country 40,000 pupils of both sexes were in primary education, learning from a moderately secular curriculum. Legal reforms and a new penal code were also promulgated, with the object of taking as many activities as possible out of religious jurisdiction. The use of the death penalty was heavily scaled back, torture was outlawed, and a culture of rehabilitation was introduced into prisons. The punishment for various crimes, including the use of alcohol and adultery between unmarried people, was also lessened. In the field of industry, a number of foreign experts were brought into the country, charged with improving Afghanistans manufacturing capacity, transport and telecommunications systems, mining and power industry. Hotels were built, and the foundations were laid for a new western-style capital on the outskirts of Kabul. The calls for reform were even more vigorous after Amanullah returned from the grand tour in 1928. A bi-cameral, democratically-elected Parliament should be established in Kabul. Tribal chiefs should lose all influence at Court. National Service should be made compulsory for all men from the age of 17-20, with all over the age of 15 to be taxed for the cost of it. Primary education for boys and girls from 6-11 should be compulsory for all. Women should be treated equally, allowed to unveil, and even to cut their hair short (formerly a mark of shame). Western dress only should be worn in Kabul. And the age of marriage should be raised to 18 for women, and 20 for men.

The result: decline, followed by disaster. Huge sums of money were diverted from the army into the social and industrial reforms, grievously weakening its capacity. The industrial investment was badly spent, on projects which produced little return or which werent seen through to completion; white elephants abounded, and machinery which the Afghans didnt know how to use gathered dust in packing cases. Taxes were increased even further on all classes, especially the rural agriculturalists, but the benefits in education, quality of life were solely confined to the urban centres, and the higher echelons of society. The idea of social reforms seemed, to most people outside these circles, irreligious, disruptive and unnecessary. Those constituencies which were needed to support the monarchy especially the army, the Pashtun chiefs and the clergy were either neglected or actively alienated, whilst those constituencies which would immediately benefit from the changes, were slight in numbers indeed. The show began to unravel in 1925, with a tribal uprising near Khost; the men were outraged at the prospect of womens education and other measures of female emancipation. The weakened army was unable to deal with the problem, and the old-fashioned method of calling upon rival tribes to crush the rebels was resorted to a measure which demonstrated the weakness of the centre, and reminded the tribes of their ultimate power. As Amanullah departed on the Grand Tour, reports and rumours began to sweep Afghanistan: that Queen Soraya had been seen unveiled abroad, and photographed in the newspapers; that the King had drank alcohol, eaten pork, secretly converted to Roman Catholicism at an audience with the Pope. After his return, and announcement of his intention to increase the number and rapidity of his reforms, a number of the Pashtun mountain tribes rose in revolt, closing the major roads in the east. The army began to lose confidence in the king, desertions began, and before long a Tajik bandit leader, Bacha-i Saqao, supported by the clergy, made an audacious attack from the north of Kabul, and was able to capture the capital, as well as the throne. As Amanullah fled towards Kandahar in his Rolls Royce (a gift of the UK), and thence into exile, Kabul descended into an orgy of looting and violence; beyond, the Pashtuns, outraged that a Tajik had seized the crown, girded themselves for war, and the country began to split up into its component parts.

At the beginning of this article I said that I wouldnt pretend to offer any answers on how best to run Afghanistan; and after this overview of the work of three of its kings, and the three different ways they went about the task all equally unsatisfactory that is perhaps more understandable. The best one can say is very simple: to keep the support of the people in the work of unity and development, one needs to be careful, and one needs to be slow.

1. In 1908, at the Societys Annual Dinner.
2. Mountstuart Elphinstone, An Account of the Kingdom of Caubul, and its Dependencies
in Persia, Tartary, and India
, London, 1815, pp. 5434.