The Birth of Modern Afghanistan

To understand the politics of Afghanistan in 2021 it is necessary that we understand the country’s relationships with the Great Powers. These powerful states have intervened in Afghanistan’s civil wars throughout the 20th Century and their interference began much earlier. Our investigation will begin with the contest between two European colonial empires.

The Great Game

The colonial rivalry of Britain and Russia began in Central Asia after the French Restoration. Russian generals conquered khans and emirs along the boundaries of Siberia and the Syr Darya. British agents and forces moved north from India, jealously guarding the routes to Britain’s crown jewel.

Between these European colonial powers was the Emirate of Afghanistan. The Emir led a Pashtun-majority people, joined with Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara, and other minority peoples. We might call it a feudal society, but that’s a eurocentric approximation and only useful for a general idea. 

The British army at Urghundee, Afghanistan, during the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839–42). From Britannica.

In the contest between the great powers Afghanistan was attacked twice by the British, who forced a Protectorate on Afghanistan in 1879. Many conquerors have treated Afghanistan as the strategic axis on which Asia turns. Britain held this position for the rest of the century.


By the turn of the 20th Century Germany had become an important player in Asia. The Empire’s rising industries were eclipsing those of Britain and they demanded new export markets. Having few colonial possessions, acquired late in the game, Germany could act as a neutral third party in many contested areas. The Ottoman Empire turned to Germany for help in modernization; German firms were permitted to build a railway to the Persian Gulf; Germany courted the Shah of Persia; Afghanistan, caught between Russia and Britain, could turn to Turkey and Germany for aid.

The Niedermayer-Hentig Expedition was a German-Turkish mission to Afghanistan from 1915-16, trying to recruit Afghanistan into the Central Powers.

During the first World War the Emir maintained official neutrality and resisted calls from Turkey to join the war against Russia and Britain. Turkish and German missions were still received in Afghanistan during the war, though Britain had formal authority over the Emirate’s external affairs. After the Armistice the Emir was refused a seat at the Versailles conference and the British formally refused to grant Afghanistan independence as a reward for its neutrality. The Emir was assassinated shortly afterwards in 1919.

Emir Habibullah was succeeded by his son, Amanullah Khan. He is described as a “Germanophile.” Amanullah continued and accelerated the modernization drive of the country, following in the German model: an absolute sovereign, a centralized bureaucracy managed by the Sovereign’s Ministers, and a military-driven economy. The modernization of the military demanded industrial development, and the cities were transformed to suit the needs of industry. 

Amanullah Khan as Shah of Afghanistan. From Wikipedia.

In the course of modernization Amanullah took the title of Shah and made Afghanistan into a kingdom, in 1926. In 1927 he set out on a grand tour of Europe; he departed via Karachi in British India; met with the King of Egypt; King Victor Emmanuel III and PM Benito Mussolini of Italy in Rome; Pope Pius XI in the Vatican; the President of France; King Albert of Belgium; President Hindenburg of Germany; King George V of the UK; and First Marshal Józef Klemens Piłsudski of Poland. 

Resistance against Eurocentric Modernism

During Amanullah’s tour an anti-modernization revolt had broken out in the eastern provinces of Afghanistan. They were joined by the Saqawwist bandits led by Habibullah Kalakani, a decorated deserter from the Royal Army’s Model Battalion, who had put down an earlier anti-modernization revolt in 1924. These revolts resisted the changes to law, custom, and lifestyle demanded by Amanullah: modernization and industrialization also meant Europeanization. Civil war had broken out, forcing Amanullah to return to Afghanistan. However, the Saqawwists had already captured Kabul, and Amanullah was forced to abdicate. 

Habibullah Kalakani, leader of the Saqqawi, became Emir of Afghanistan after capturing Kabul from Amanullah Khan. From Russia Beyond.

The civil war continued as a rival branch of the royal family, the five Musahiban brothers, gathered tribal support on the British side of the border. Muhammad Nadir Khan was the second-oldest of the brothers and in 1929 he led their capture of Kabul, becoming the new King of Afghanistan and ending the civil war. Nadir Shah revoked the most controversial of Amanullah’s reforms in order to placate traditional and tribal opposition to the kingdom. He maintained reforms that aimed at material development of the economy and military, which were hampered by intermittent uprisings. Nadir Shah pacified the conflict with his new constitution in 1931 which protected religious and sectional rights. In that year he also founded Kabul University and by the end of his life had initiated a banking system and economic planning. 

Assassinating the Two Eldest Musahibun

Strange things happened in 1933. Nadir Shah had trusted his older brother, Sardar Mohammad Aziz Khan, with important diplomatic missions. He had gone to Moscow in 1930 as a special envoy, and in 1932 arrived in Berlin as envoy Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary. The relationship with Germany was historically vital to the modernizing Kings of Afghanistan. 

Sardar Mohammed Aziz Khan. From Wikipedia.

On June 6 1933 (6/6/1933) an Afghan named Sayed Kamal, who had been studying engineering at the Technical University in Berlin, entered the Afghan Embassy. He intercepted Aziz Khan as he was leaving the building and shot him just above the heart with a revolver. Aziz Khan died in hospital and Kamal was arrested by the Gestapo. The Gestapo released a confession by the killer, claiming the act as revenge for the Shah’s recent friendly overtures to Britain. They refused to extradite the assassin and executed him in 1935 without having been questioned by Afghan authorities. 

On November 8 1933 Mohammed Nadir Shah was attending a high school graduation ceremony in Kabul. There he was shot in the mouth, heart, and lung by Abdul Khaliq, a 16 year old Hazara seeking vengeance for his people’s oppression under the King. The boy was tortured and executed by quartering, and his family and friends massacred by the state. Muhammad Nadir Shah would be succeeded by his 19 year old son, Mohammed Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan.

Mohammed Nadir Khan, Shah of Afghanistan. From Wikipedia.

[ Go To Part 2: New Politics, New Classes, New Struggles ]

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