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Chapter 6

The Last Kings of Afghanistan: 

Reform and Lost Opportunity 1901-1978


By David Loyn


A memorial to optimism stands in Kabul, rather forlornly nowadays, where cars grind slowly through the dust as the road is funnelled between the mountains to the south of the centre of the city. Unauthorised mud houses cling to the precipitous hillsides above it, and few cast it a second glance, but King Amanullah’s obelisk remains intact, promoting the virtues of wisdom over ignorance – its promise unfilled. It was put there in 1924, after Amanullah had successfully quelled an uprising of the Mangal tribe and it marks a victory – but not in the normal sense. It was a victory of reason, progress, and modernisation over entrenched, backward ways.  

Too many of the foreigners who have come into Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 have made the mistake of believing that they were starting from scratch, building a new society from the ruined, brutalised world they saw. But it was not always like that. Many Afghans remember a time when things were opening up to the modern world, and there was even progress on women’s rights: a country of contrast and change where people were deeply traditional and bound together by ties of clan and faith, but wanting change, in the cities at least, where some girls wore miniskirts; a country where highways linked the main towns, with cafes under orange trees along the way where travellers could eat the best pomegranates in the world; a country with a savage beauty echoed in the grace of buzkashi players and the sound of the rubab; a country famous not for violence but for dried fruits and karakul skins; a country with 50,000 Indians1 living in Kabul and Jalalabad, and a stable Jewish population, mostly in Kandahar (one of the last Afghan Jews is a prominent economic adviser to President Karzai.) 

Much has gone, but much survives in the memory of those who lived through the 20th century. Amanullah’s attempt at securing progress in the 1920s was the first of two movements for reform before the Soviet invasion in 1979. Both were terminated violently by rural conservative interests who were opposed to reform, and particularly against more rights for women. And the collapse of the second reform movement, in the chaos of the 1970s before the Soviet invasion, opened the door to an Islamist world-view that would turn its back on reform. 

Amanullah was the third son of the Amir Habibullah, who fell to an assassin’s bullet while out hunting near Jalalabad in 1917. Habibullah had amiably ruled Afghanistan since the death of his father Abdur Rahman the “Iron Amir” in 1901,–- the only non-contested peaceful handover of power from one Afghan leader to another since the founding of the modern nation in 1747. (This dismal record will be broken if President Karzai steps aside to allow a fair presidential election to take place in 2014.) 

According to his English doctor, Habibullah was “five feet five inches, 17 stone, very fat, prone to gout. Good shot, good humour, even at himself. Does not drink or smoke.”2 He made the first tentative steps towards reform, rolling back some of the more repressive laws of his father’s reign and founding the Habibia school in Kabul which educated generations of Afghan men destined for high office, including Hamid Karzai. And like all Afghan leaders since the First Anglo-Afghan War in the 1840s, he had to steer a course between competing foreign powers. Britain had drawn Afghanistan’s borders and still controlled its foreign policy, in exchange for big subsidies. But unlike his predecessors, who had been squeezed only between Russia and Britain, Habibullah also had Germany to deal with during the First World War.

He played this hand with skill, always looking to Britain to provide him with weapons, military advisers and court staff – doctors and governesses for his many children – while allowing Germany to open a mission in Kabul. Germany’s alliance with Turkey, home of the caliph, the ancient seat of power for many of the world’s Muslims, was central to this new alignment. Germany has the distinction of being the first foreign country to exploit Jihad for its own ends in South Asia (a strategy deployed with more far-reaching and tragic consequences in the short-sighted US support for the mujahedin in the 1980s.) During the First World War, German agents spread an extraordinary rumour that the Kaiser had secretly become a Muslim, so joining Germany’s war against Britain was now an act of Jihad. One German spy held meetings in villages, claiming to have the Kaiser on the other end of an open two-way radio circuit while he negotiated with tribal elders, offering them extravagant gifts in return for support. 

Habibullah even allowed Germany to sponsor the office of a “Provisional Government of India” run by insurgents opposed to British rule in Delhi. But his balancing act – trying not to be too partial to any foreign power, intended to encourage Germany while not provoking Britain – began to wobble as the First World War dragged on and several members of his family, and other leading Afghans, formed a “War Party” opposed to the continued connection with Britain. 

By 1916 Britain believed that another war with Afghanistan was inevitable.3 British attempts to settle the northwest frontier of their Indian empire were a constantly sapping battle of wits against a shadowy enemy who was at ease in the mountains. Putting down the worst outbreak of violence, the 1897 frontier uprising, Britain fielded the largest army sent out under a single general in Asia during the colonial period. In that campaign Britain detected a new kind of Islamic fanaticism, inspired by Wahhabi fundamentalist ideology. The uprising was led by Mullah Sadullah in Swat, known, in the less fastidious terminology of the day, as the “Mad Mullah”. And among the most fanatical of his fighters were religious students, even then known by the British as “talibs”. The young Winston Churchill, who had taken leave of absence from the Indian Army to work as a war correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, described a bloodthirsty impulse in Islam, writing with an extravagant disregard for what would later be called political correctness: “The Mahommedan religion increases, instead of lessening, the fury of intolerance. It was originally propagated by the sword, and ever since, its votaries have been subject, above the people of all other creeds, to this form of madness. In a moment the fruits of patient toil, the prospects of material prosperity, the fear of death itself, are flung aside. The more emotional Pathans are powerless to resist. All rational considerations are forgotten.”4

But the 1897 campaign did not pacify the frontier, and skirmishing continued. Young officers became used to “the sudden alarm, the long dust-choked ride through the stifling heat of a July night, clattering out to the stony glacis of the frontier hills, and away forty miles before dawn only to find as often as not that the birds had flown, leaving a trail of death and destruction behind them.”5 The raids were known in the army as General Willcocks’s Weekend Wars after General Sir James Willcocks, who waged them to the satisfaction of himself and of the government of India.”6

The commissioner in the North-West Frontier Province, Sir George Roos-Keppel advocated a far tougher policy during the First World War. He was opposed to brief, ineffective raids – then known as “butcher and bolt.” What was needed was for the whole of the region to be crushed – the tribes needed to be militarily defeated “for their own good”. “I do not advocate the crushing and disarming of the tribes and the occupation of their country in any spirit of revenge – far from it – I look upon it … mainly in the interest of the tribes themselves – in fact as a scheme for the reclamation of a fine, manly and courageous people capable of great development and of becoming a source of strength instead of weakness to the Empire.”7 This scheme, he thought, would be especially effective in Waziristan, “the plague spot of the whole frontier.” A century later, North and South Waziristan have still not been “crushed”, and remain the haven of the most intractable of the insurgents fighting in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. 

Afghanistan had a claim on the frontier tribes and the border region east of the mountains, and during the 1897 uprising, while assuring Britain of his support, the Amir Abdur Rahman sent one of his best generals to advise the insurgents  and wrote a book fomenting Jihad against the British.8 Passed from hand to hand on the frontier, this was as bloodthirsty as anything later written by Osama bin Laden and quoted from the same passages of the Qur’an used by bin Laden in his statements, instructing Muslims to put the demands of Jihad over their family, tribe or property – a significant call for Pashtuns, who put their loyalty to family and tribe above all else. 

War with Britain finally came after Habibullah was assassinated. Amanullah had been in the “War Party”. He had a strong dislike of Britain, wanting  to unify the country behind a common enemy, and divert the attention of the tribes in case they blamed him for the death of Habibullah. After stirring up the frontier, and issuing a proclamation of Jihad in Peshawar, a joint force of Afghan troops and irregular tribal levies poured down the Khyber Pass, crying “death or freedom”, and engaging British forces. 

Exhausted by the First World War, Britain found it hard to mobilise. Thousands refused the order to move up to the Khyber and remained under canvas in a mass protest that was little reported at the time. Those who would fight were often young and inexperienced, but within a week they had reversed Afghan gains in the Khyber Pass and pushed forward onto the plain toward Jalalabad. There was mass desertion from British forces by frontier-recruited troops, but Afghan attempts to foment a more widespread revolt on the frontier failed. 

On 9 May 1919, south Asia saw its first air raid, as two Sopwith Camels dropped bombs on Afghan forces at Dakka. They did not have enough power to clear the surrounding mountains, so had the disconcerting experience of being shot at from above as they flew along the Khyber Pass. The planes had some psychological value, since tribesmen would flee from them, but the conditions were very tough. One plane mistook a dust storm for the ground and landed on top of a tent; no one was hurt but the plane was destroyed. The only large bomber available, a Handley-Page, bombed Kabul once. A convenient east wind blew it over the Khyber mountains and by good fortune changed course to assist it homewards after the raid. 

Britain was wary of entanglement, not wanting to make the mistake of occupying Afghanistan again, and stopped its advance east of Jalalabad. Towards the end of May, less than a month after beginning the war, the Amir sent envoys pleading for peace, but there would be three more months of fighting before the tribal regions were pacified. Over several rounds of peace talks, Amanullah won the freedom he wanted. Britain’s long and costly control of the foreign policy of a country where it could not even send its troops came to an end. The talks were prolonged while Britain sought a treaty to prevent Afghanistan falling straight into the hands of the new Soviet Union. 

But the Afghanistan that Amanullah wanted to build did not look to Britain or Russia – certainly not to communist Russia. Amanullah courted other European powers, in particular Germany, Italy and France, and his biggest inspiration was Turkey. The guiding hand behind his reform movement was Amanullah’s father-in-law, Mahmoud Tarzi, who became his first foreign minister. Tarzi had travelled frequently to Turkey and was inspired by the spirit that infused the Young Turks around Kemal Ataturk, an anti-colonial movement that spread across much of the Islamic world. Turkey established a secular nationalist state, abolished the caliphate and drew up the contours of a different global Islam – a pan-Islamic vision dressed literally in modern clothes. 

Although Tarzi spoke many languages, he deliberately did not learn English – being pro-Turkish then meant being anti-British. From 1911 to 1918 his magazine Siraj ul-Akhbar (Light of the News) tied together nationalism, religion and progress, kick-starting the modernisation of Afghanistan.9 His magazine promoted technological progress on roads, railways and telegraphs. And it campaigned for more chemist shops, equality for women and raising the age of  marriage for girls. 

New laws allowing women more choice in marriage, weakening the power of rural mullahs by imposing central control and enforcing military conscription provoked a tribal revolt in 1924. The mullahs in Khost, who led the rebellion, campaigned with a Qur’an in one hand and a copy of the new constitution in the other, asking people which they would choose. But the army was loyal and the rebellion swiftly crushed, strengthening Amanullah’s hand. The obelisk mentioned above was put up to mark the victory. He signed agreements with most European countries for technical support, education and help to investigate Afghanistan’s archaeological sites. There was even a special tax raised to fund museums.  

Amanullah’s most active period of reforming followed his first foreign trip. He left in 1927 and drove himself back across the border from Persia the following year, at the wheel of a Rolls Royce. A man who had always been proud to call himself a revolutionary now forced the pace of modernisation. He planned a model new town at Paghman near Kabul, where some of Europe’s most progressive architects were hired to build an opera house and to provide clean water for Kabul. Whole factories were bought from abroad to be reassembled in Afghanistan. These plans on their own would have been tolerated, but his other reforms antagonised every conservative vested interest in Afghanistan, provoking a rebellion that would see him fleeing across the border again little more than a year after he had returned with such high hopes. 

In an effort to reform Islamic practice and reduce the influence of the mosques, he introduced education for mullahs and cut their government subsidies; a secular school of law was set up to replace Islamic judges; and in a direct assault on the Wahhabi tradition, any mullah trained in an Indian Deobandi college was disqualified from preaching. 

Women were now given complete freedom of choice in marriage and there was support for women’s associations. Extravagant spending on weddings was discouraged and a minimum marriage age of 18 was stipulated for girls. There was education for girls and primary school classes became mixed up to age 11 years. Amanullah prohibited the payment of blood money in criminal cases, raised new taxes for the army and for libraries, waged a vigorous anti-corruption campaign, abolished ancient titles, designed a new national flag, and planned hospitals, clean water, adult literacy classes, foreign language teaching and new newspapers. Slavery was banned and commerce encouraged.10 

The new reforms were outlined in a four-day speech at Paghman, culminating in a decree that women should not be veiled when in the court. At this point, Queen Soraya tore off her veil and was followed by some, but significantly not all, other women in court. As so often, Western clothing, and in particular women’s clothing, was the fault line between Islam and the modern world. In Turkey, Ataturk, the founding spirit of the movement to modernise Islam, led the move to wear Western clothes, banning women from wearing veils in government offices. Shah Reza in Persia followed suit, taking on entrenched rural interests with homburg hats and Western-style jackets. In both Turkey and Iran, the legacy of the formal fashion imposed in the 1920s lingers on into the 21st century, but amid the poverty of Afghanistan it was not as easy to impose this so strictly. Visiting tribal leaders from outside Kabul were given Western suits when they arrived for meetings, suits that were solemnly reclaimed from them and folded up as they left town, to be given to the next visitor. 

When the rebellion came, once again it was the frontier issue that provided the spark. Hazrat Mojadidi, leader of a clan that traditionally comprised the kingmakers in Afghanistan, had supported Amanullah at the start but believed he was too keen to send back criminal suspects who had fled across the border to escape British justice, and that Amanullah had failed to prevent British military actions in Waziristan. He engineered a petition signed by 500 mullahs opposed to the new reform programme and was arrested fleeing to India after refusing to back down. He was gaoled and his leading supporters executed but more widespread protests began, sanctified as a Jihad, led by mullahs who held pictures of Queen Soraya, bare-armed in an evening gown alongside men in Europe to show the depths of depravity of Amanullah’s government. Amanullah had tried to reform Afghanistan too far and too fast. Mahmoud Tarzi explained the revolt by saying: “Amanullah had built a beautiful monument without a foundation. Take out one brick and it will tumble down.”11

Habibullah Kalakani, a Tajik bandit known as Bacha-i-Saqao (son of a water carrier), united tribal opposition to Amanullah and threatened Kabul. In an incident that entered Tajik folklore as a demonstration of Pashtun perfidy, Bacha-i-Saqao phoned Amanullah pretending to be an emissary who he knew had been sent from Kabul to try to persuade the rebel leader to give himself up. He claimed to have Bacha-i-Saqao surrounded and Amanullah ordered that he should be killed – so Bacha-i-Saqao then knew his true intentions. Amanullah had few supporters left and after he fled the country collapsed into disorder, which General Nadir Khan and his two brothers, Wali and Hashem, attempted to reverse. Nadir had played a significant role in the war with Britain in 1919. The first attempts to unite the eastern tribes against Bacha-i-Saqao failed. Britain kept out of the war, not believing that he could govern Afghanistan but not trusting Nadir. After some discussion, they quietly permitted “their” tribes to cross the border and assist in the assault on Kabul, led by Nadir’s brother Wali, which came on 27th September. (By eerie coincidence, the Taliban took Kabul from another Tajik leader, Massoud, on 27th September in 1996). Bacha-i-Saqao came back to Kabul on a promise of safe passage, and was promptly hanged. 

Nadir Khan was forced to stand back and watch as the tribal leaders who had supported him looted the state treasury, and it was some months before order was restored and he was confirmed as king. He did not make the same mistake as Amanullah in pushing for swift reforms, but had a similar desire to modernise Afghanistan, opening a military academy and a medical school, which became the nucleus of Kabul University. And he began modest administrative reforms to empower the Majlis-i-Aiyan, the Senate, as a legislative assembly. But Nadir’s reign was cut short in 1933 when he was shot at a graduation ceremony for students who had gathered at his palace. His son Zahir, less than 18 years old at the time, saw the shooting and fell to the ground but was picked up roughly by his uncle, Nadir’s brother Shah Mahmud, telling him that it was no time for weeping. The family put Zahir on the throne. 

Zahir Shah was a modest man, more interested in organic farming than the machinery of government, but he holds the distinction of leading Afghanistan with no significant internal revolts and at peace with its neighbours for longer than any other leader. This was no small achievement, given the violence that preceded and succeeded Zahir, and the fact that he ruled during the turbulent years of the Great Depression and the Second World War, when he expelled hundreds of German, Japanese and Italian citizens in order not to antagonise his neighbours. For the first half of his reign, Nadir’s brothers continued to hold most of the major offices of state – handing on to the next generation of the royal family when Daoud became prime minister in 1953. 

Relations with the outside world were not easy. Afghanistan had relied for a long time on British subsidies – as late as 1929 Britain gave 146,000 rifles to assist Nadir’s fight against Bacha-i-Saqao. Turkey provided technical military assistance in the 1930s, but it was not the same as hard cash. And in a mood of negligence that hardened into official policy, the US failed to fill the gap. In 1948, after several official requests had been turned down, Zahir’s uncle Shah Mahmud, now prime minister, went to Washington in person. He was asked by the US Secretary of State George Marshall, “Who’s the enemy?” when he asked for military aid.12 Afghanistan was the only country to oppose the entry of Pakistan to the United Nations, after it secured independence from Britain, because of the border dispute over the Durand Line. But as the Cold War divisions solidified in the early 1950s, the US had thrown its weight behind the fledgling Pakistan, sending copies to Pakistan of its rejections of military assistance to Afghanistan. 

The US ignored Afghan pleas that if it did not receive aid from Washington it would have to turn to Moscow. Afghan officers had been trained in the Soviet Union since the 1920s, and in January 1955 Afghanistan received its first $100 million military assistance loan from the US. Two years later the US began to offer training for Afghan army officers, but it was too late to exert influence. A National Security Council report concluded that: “Afghanistan has incurred so huge a burden of debt to the communist bloc as to threaten its future independence.”13 

By the time of an International Fair in Kabul in 1959, Soviet domination was clear and Afghanistan felt closed to the West. A rare visit by a US journalist to Afghanistan was not complimentary about his country’s modest exhibit compared to the stands from Russia and China: “The overall effect of this first International Fair in Afghanistan was of a Communist bloc enterprise with some Free World entries.” In December 1959, President Eisenhower made a five-hour stopover in Afghanistan – the only trip to the country by a US President until George W. Bush in 2004. A few months after Eisenhower, the Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev comfortably showed his superiority by staying for three days. 

While Zahir may have stayed on the throne for 40 years without a war, critics of his reign say that he did not allow democracy early enough, and did not do enough to encourage economic growth. The economy was state-led, with most of the levers of economic power in the hands of a small privileged elite. Until relaxation in the 1960s, the government enforced a monopoly in all trade except for sugar and cotton processing. Dried fruit and karakul skins accounted for three-quarters of foreign exchange earnings – much of the trade going to the Soviet Union to service a growing debt burden. 

Afghanistan may have exported more dried raisins than California, but this was a narrow base of products of marginal value in international trade with which to build an economy in a landlocked country. Agricultural income was not growing as fast as the population, and people were vulnerable to sudden shocks, such as drought, in a country where more than 90 percent of the land is mountain and desert. The dams built with US support on the Helmand and Arghandab rivers never fulfilled their economic promise. And now the world was competing for influence. China built an irrigation system to channel the water from melting snow in the Hindu Kush onto the Shomali plain north of Kabul. Germany built hydroelectric dams on the Kabul river, providing three-quarters of the power generated across the whole country. 

Demands for reform were led by families who had been lucky enough to travel abroad for education when the window had briefly been opened during Amanullah’s reform period of the 1920s. By 1960 there were 500 Afghans with foreign university degrees.14 A subversive underground movement swapped American rock and roll records in secret parties, behind closed gates with trusted guards keeping watch. They were tame by Western standards – but this was the only opportunity for married couples to meet and talk with others. 

In November 1959 the royal family made a small stride for progress. There was an electric atmosphere and audible gasps from the crowd when the Queen and the wives of leading cabinet members appeared on the balcony in front of the palace with their heads uncovered. There was no compulsion. Zahir remembered what had happened to his predecessor Amanullah in the 1920s. He made a brief speech. “Here is my family. We believe this is right, and we will back this up. But we are not forcing anyone to change. It is not a decree, but entirely voluntary. So those families who want to keep their women in purdah can remain as they are. But I will support those families who want them to come out.”15 

The effect was not instantaneous, but gradually some women dared to walk outside with their heads uncovered, risking abuse or worse. As the government grew, more women worked in offices, opening up jobs beyond traditional occupations as nurses or teachers. Nancy Hatch Dupree, a long-term resident in the region, said that the important thing about the change was that it was not forced and did not disturb the basic values of society. Her husband, the anthropologist Louis Dupree, was in the crowd in front of the palace when the royal family emerged unveiled, and Nancy said that the announcement was “not highly politicised as it would be today.”16 Women worked it out for themselves: “It developed. When they first came out they wore a uniform – long coat, gloves, and scarf around their head. As they years went by those coats disappeared. We had short skirts, and hotpants. But it happened naturally in the way it should.” In 1972 there was a Miss Afghanistan competition – the only year it was possible. 

But since the competition demanded brains as well as beauty, there were only a few thousand girls in Afghanistan who would have been eligible. Even in the relatively liberated period of the late 1960s and early 1970s, education for girls beyond the most basic level was pursued only by a small rich urban group. The view of most Afghans was described by one observer in these terms: “Women are considered weak, vain, frivolous, dependent, incapable of hard work, and in possession of smaller spirits.”17 A survey of girls in secondary education in Kabul showed that even among the privileged elite most expected to have arranged marriages, probably with a first cousin.18

The country opened up to foreigners, encouraging tourism for the first time – there were 8,000 tourists in 1965 and 63,000 in 1968.19 Thousands of young Westerners spent long periods enjoying the cheap lifestyle (and cheap drugs,) changing the atmosphere in Kabul. Grain silos were built in strategic locations to alleviate the risk of price spikes and an attempt was made to put religious authorities under central control, hiring mullahs as teachers, to isolate the more reactionary fundamentalist opponents of reform. 

Amid this social and economic change, momentum for political change was unstoppable and Zahir sacked his cousin Daoud as prime minister in 1963. Daoud had promoted economic modernisation, but never encouraged political representation, preferring to move towards a one-party state, and now stood in the way of progress. The reform programme he had promoted “created the conditions in which his type of rule had become anachronistic, obsolete, dysfunctional to the further evolution of Afghanistan as a nation state.”20

Removing his cousin, Zahir Shah said mildly “The royal family can lay down its burden of a generation and let the Afghan educated class run the government.”21 He allowed a new constitution to be drafted by a group including some vociferous critics of the government. The constitution was progressive. It limited royal powers and defined Afghans as citizens with individual rights for the first time, not as members of a tribe. Sharia law was to be treated as a guide, only where there were no other laws, with the aim that it would be gradually replaced. The cabinet would not sit in Parliament, but ministers would need to be endorsed by it – a measure that would lead to paralysis in the gathering storm of the late 1960s. After the constitution was ratified by a loya jirga, Zahir held a picnic in Paghman, handing out commemorative medals to all present. He had not wanted reform too quickly, remembering the fate of Amanullah. But by the time he acted, he took the lid off a seething cauldron, bottled up until now. Rural conservative elders, the new urban political elite and students would compete on the constitutional stage he had built. Communists and Islamic fundamentalists were sparring off-stage, waiting for their turn. The parliament, established with such decorum in the glades of Paghman, never operated as it should. It was fated from the start when Zahir failed to ratify a law to establish political parties. The first parliament in 1965 met amid confusion, with competing interests inside and riots outside. 

Opposition to the new constitution did not come from the conservative countryside, who dominated the new parliament; it came from urban left wing parties who said the reforms had not gone far enough. The constitution had been put together by a coalition united only against Daoud. That coalition shattered as rural power-brokers, of the kind who would later be warlords, competed for influence in the new system. In 1965 Afghanistan’s first communist party, the PDPA, was formed. It was called “Khalq”(masses), although it never had mass support. The Khalq leader Babrak Kamal orchestrated protests against the new government that blew into a full-scale riot, put down by the army with some casualties. He would emerge later as the first communist leader of the country after the Soviet invasion in 1979. Khalq was tolerated and even won a handful of seats in parliament, but its activities were kept under close watch and its newspaper banned. Its supporters were mainly rural Pashtuns, and in 1967 a faction of mainly urban intellectuals, more interested in reform than revolution, split from the party to form “Parcham” (flag). 

Amid gathering chaos, governments were formed and fell quickly in the late 1960s. The 1969 election returned a parliament with even more desire to control events than before. It was more right wing, with fewer communist members, and was dominated by rural interests. The government talked of an open society, encouraging private newspapers, but while the new urban intelligentsia played politics, the traditional rural elite blocked action at every turn, refusing to ratify ministers. Nur Ahmad Etemadi, who had been the first prime minister after 1965, was appointed again with the slogan Khoda, Watan, Shah (god, nation, king).22 But he failed to be endorsed as parliament exercised the one power that it had. The sense of crisis deepened, and two years of drought were followed by a severe winter with very heavy snow in 1971-1972. Tribal rebellion may have become fruitless since Daoud’s modernisation of the military, but rural elders had been given new power to block central government in the 1964 constitution – and they used it.23 

On 17 July 1973, while his cousin Zahir Shah was in Italy for an operation, Daoud staged a coup, calling it “revolutionary action”. After securing the palace with scarcely a fight, he appeared on Kabul radio speaking in Pashtu. He had significant communist support, and the backing of the elements of the army he needed to make it a peaceful handover. He abolished the 1964 constitution, declaring a republic and governing with the assistance of an appointed loya jirga. Afghanistan was on a slide towards chaos and civil war. Zahir Shah would not return to Afghanistan until after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. 

One of Daoud’s first acts was to clamp down on Islamic fundamentalism. In Kabul university, where a young Pashtun Gulbuddin Hekmatyar learnt his political trade, and in the polytechnic, where the Tajik Ahmed Shah Massoud studied engineering, Islamist activists were developing a new political ideology to compete with what they saw as the godless communism of their opponents. The intellectual basis for this came from teachers such as Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani, who had studied in Cairo and been inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood. Rabbani was later president during the chaotic days in 1992 after the fall of the Russian-backed government, and was killed by a man posing as a Taliban peace negotiator in 2011. Another inspiration was Mohammed Attaullah Faizani, who lived an extreme ascetic life and preached fiery sermons against moral decay, “one of the most interesting and enigmatic figures in contemporary Afghan history”.24 

Student politics were raw and violent. Students had been the shock troops for the gathering chaos that paralysed parliament in the late 1960s, learning from their contemporaries demonstrating and rioting in Paris, London and across the US. The new Islamic fundamentalists complained that as Kabul modernised, their rights were not respected. Hekmatyar later said: “Nobody could keep the fast, nobody could have a beard in the colleges, not even in the Faculty of Islamic law.”25 Claiming persecution, the Islamists recruited and organised students to fight back. Hekmatyar spent 18 months in gaol for his part in the murder of a Maoist student, and as so often in the Islamic debate with the modern world, women’s clothing became a battleground. Miniskirts on the streets of Kabul were violently opposed, and Hekmatyar’s followers would throw acid in the faces of girls who went out with their heads uncovered. Twenty-five years before the Taliban were internationally condemned for insisting on strict clothing for women, Islamist reactionaries were out on the streets of Kabul enforcing a cover-up. The difference was that the Taliban were violently opposed, but the earlier generation of Islamists would be financed and armed by the US in their fight for power in the 1980s – with Hekmatyar receiving the lion’s share of US funding. 

After Daoud’s coup the Islamic fundamentalists went underground and most student leaders, including Hekmatyar and Massoud, fled into exile in Pakistan where they began to receive training as guerrillas. These were the men would later emerge as key commanders in the mujahedin war against the Soviet occupation. Daoud rejected offers from the Saudi government to pump some of its colossal new oil wealth, gained in the price hike of 1973, into Kabul University. He knew it would come with Wahhabi strings attached, and wanted no part of it. The Saudis took their oil money to Pakistan instead, providing a fresh injection of cash to the fundamentalist system of education in Wahhabi madrassas, where boys learn the Qur’an by heart to the exclusion of almost all other teaching. 

Pakistan quickly recognised the potential of the disaffected Islamists, recruiting and training them to fight against Daoud when he played the Pashtun nationalist card. Daoud was trying to gain domestic support by reigniting the old dream of Pashtunistan, which pushed the Afghan border east across the mountains as far as the Indus. The issue of the frontier still lay like rough sandpaper between the two sides, as much a cause of friction at the end of the 20th century as it had been 200 years before, with a new twist now that the Durand Line was almost 100 years old. Afghan Pashtun nationalists interpreted clauses in the 1893 deal that made it look as though it was designed to expire after a century. 

Afghanistan’s long unfinished nightmare began here, five years before the Soviet invasion, as the men the United States ultimately backed against the Soviet Union took up arms to oppose the social reforms of the Daoud government. Within a year of his training and still four years before the Soviet invasion, Massoud had returned home to the Panjshir, a long valley to the north-east of Kabul surrounded by mountains, hoping to exploit rumblings of discontent against the president’s reforms, particularly in relation to women. At 10 am on 7th June 1975, Massoud, leading 25 followers, burst into the garrison in a village called Rukha, waking six rather bemused soldiers and taking it easily. 

His father was one of the most prominent people in the valley. He told an interested crowd who gathered outside that the government would fall. After he had held the building for several hours, local people attacked, and Massoud and his men were forced to flee, firing as they went. His uprising was a disaster that failed to attract popular support. More than 100 of Massoud’s followers were arrested, and many were executed. The plan had called for simultaneous uprisings in several provinces. But none of the other Islamist student revolutionaries did what they had said they would, although there were several suicide attacks on police stations across the country. 

It is said that Massoud never spoke to Hekmatyar again, blaming him for the failure of the uprising. The deep divisions between the mujahedin that would later cause so many Afghan deaths began at that time. Hekmatyar formed his own party, Hezb-i-Islami, the party of Islam, and a year later had Massoud arrested in Peshawar on charges of spying. Massoud was released, but a close friend was tortured and killed. The Panjshir uprising gave Daoud the excuse he needed for a much wider crackdown on Islamism. A radical mullah was executed, and Professor Rabbani, the leader of the secret underground Islamist network, fled to join his ex-students in Pakistan. He would not return until the chaotic post-communist days of 1992, when he emerged as president of Afghanistan. 

The Soviet Union looked on at the mounting chaos with increasing concern. There had been Soviet military advisers in Afghanistan for many decades. The Afghan officer corps, pilots and tank drivers all trained in the USSR, the technical language of the military was Russian, and when Daoud ousted the last king of Afghanistan, he did it with Soviet help. But, as the British Empire had discovered, buying guns for Afghanistan did not buy absolute loyalty. Daoud tried to play the Great Game as his predecessors had, playing neighbours off against each other. When Daoud sought better links with Western countries, the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev called him to Moscow for a personal warning. 

In response, Daoud told the Soviet leader that his demand that Afghanistan break ties with other countries was an unacceptable intervention in Afghan internal affairs. “We will never allow you to dictate to us how to run our country and whom to employ in Afghanistan.” His face was “hard and dark”, according to a Soviet witness, and he had to be reminded to shake Brezhnev’s hand on his departure. 

As the window had closed on Amanullah’s reforms in 1929 with a tribal uprising, now the window slammed firmly on the second period of social reform in the 1960s and 1970s. In the Saur revolution in April 1978, Daoud was murdered in his palace along with most of his family. He had come to power in 1973 backed by the Parcham faction of the communist party, and was forcibly removed by troops loyal to the Khalq faction. Although the two wings had formerly reunited in 1977, they split again three months after the Saur revolution, and the Khalq leader Babrak Kamal went abroad as an ambassador.

Although there was significant violence in the downfall of the Daoud government, this did not feel like a revolution – more a desire to continue a reform programme. Some who witnessed the event, such as Louis Dupree, said that the coup leaders were not extremists: “Eleven of those named to cabinet posts had held government jobs at the time of the coup: three were in the military; two were on the faculty of Kabul University; one was a staff member of Radio Afghanistan; and five were civil servants in various ministries (two as physicians). There were three unemployed poets and journalists, two unemployed physicians, two lawyers, two educators, and one person described as a landlord”.26 

But the government had made too many enemies to be able to bring stability, and it antagonised vested interests by imposing what felt like alien reforms. The flag was changed to a near copy of the Soviet red flag, schools painted red and Islam discouraged as the state became atheist. The new government demanded equal rights for women, and abolished payment for brides – causing more anger, although the new rules were mostly ignored. The reform that provoked the biggest opposition was an attempt to redistribute land and cancel rural debt, leading to deep anger in the countryside as landlords felt robbed, and a fall in food production as landless peasants could not secure new loans to plant seeds or buy animals. The chaotic cancellation of rural debt backed by the use of force provoked an insurgency led by rural landlords that spread across the countryside. The repressive response of the government sparked a worsening cycle of violence. 

Some estimates put the number of Afghans killed in fighting during the year before the Soviet invasion as high as 50,000. These reports may have been exaggerated by Moscow to justify its intervention – in the chaos no one was keeping a tally. A Soviet witness spoke of “mass arrests, shooting of undesirables, and the shooting of Muslim clergy”. Dozens of leading officials in the previous reform regimes were executed, including the first prime minister after 1965, Etemadi, who was called back from abroad where he had been serving as an ambassador. The revolution even began to devour its own children. Nur Muhammad Taraki, the first communist leader of Afghanistan after the death of Daoud, and architect of the land reform programme, was murdered on the orders of his successor Hafizullah Amin in September 1979. (Amin himself was murdered on Soviet orders in the invasion three months later.) Hundreds of men in Kunar in the east were killed in one massacre, while others were thrown into the Oxus and drowned in reprisal for an uprising in a village. The revolution had split the army, where loyalties were severely challenged as the violence worsened. There was a mutiny at the Bala Hissar fortress in Kabul, while outside Kabul some military units were down to one-third of their normal strength. 

The Islamist guerrilla forces trained by Pakistan now had a clear target and a simple message. To them, both Daoud’s gradualist approach and the shock tactics of the communists came to the same thing: a threat to their way of life. They went to war to defend traditional Afghan rural conservative values against democracy, progress, the education of girls and godless communism. 

Hekmatyar led the first successful raid by the new mujahedin in January 1979, almost a year before the Soviet invasion, attacking the fortress at Asadabad north of the Khyber Pass. A force of about 5,000 men under Hekmatyar’s command left Pakistan via the pass and penetrated the Kunar Valley, the route used by Alexander the Great. There was no battle. In a pattern repeated often during the long war that was to come, the commander of the fort went over to the side of the mujahedin. 

As events spiralled toward the Soviet invasion and a wider war in 1979, the most serious single uprising, in Herat, began with the deaths of several Soviet advisers and their families, killed when a group of army officers took control, dividing the government forces. Several thousand people were killed during the ground and air assault on the city to retake control for the government. One of the rebel army officers who fled when order was restored was Captain Ismail Khan, who later emerged as the key mujahedin leader in the West of the country in the fight against the Soviet occupation. 

Hundreds of thousands of technocrats, intellectuals and political moderates fled the country. Afghanistan was condemned to the ignorance opposed so eloquently on Amanullah’s monument as 90 percent of university teachers joined the exodus, as did Miss Afghanistan, the remaining members of the royal family and the elite that had depended on them. Afghan progress was crushed between the twin pressures of Communism and Islamism.

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