6 MARCH, 1919: Dangerous Liaisons

You’ll notice I’ve slowed the pace with Poppycock, scaling down from about once a week to about twice a month.  This is partly because I’m busy with other things, partly because the world is less crammed with easy-hit centenaries than it was during the previous four years, and partly because I feel the need to ease down, use the advent of relative peace and quiet to reflect a little on the big picture, and identify some of those details that may have been overlooked amid the Great War’s information overload.

A century ago in Versailles, peace negotiations between the victors were approaching their first fruition, and they’ll merit a rant or two in the near future, as will the global panoply of wars, revolutions and geopolitical shake-ups I’ve been referencing during the last few months.  Not today though, because I want to talk about Afghanistan.

One of the world’s most high-profile modern trouble spots, Afghanistan has long been a victim of geographical misfortune because, like Poland, it has sat on the frontiers of powerful, competing empires.  Its existence as a political entity, though not as a sovereign state, dates from the late nineteenth century.  The British Empire, anxious to prevent the neighbouring Russian Empire from approaching India’s Northwest Frontier, had invaded the territory of Afghanistan in 1839 and did so again in 1878, leaving occupying forces in place until 1880, when they withdrew and left a puppet ruler in charge.

Emir Abdul Rahman Kahn ruled from Kabul and performed the role required of him by the British, relinquishing control over foreign affairs in return for an annual subsidy of 1.2 million rupees (roughly £150,000).  Given a fifty percent raise for good behaviour from 1893 (when he agreed a new frontier with what was then part of  India, known as the Durand Line), and technically an absolute ruler, he silenced or exiled any and all opposition to his regime, refused offers of foreign investment in Afghanistan and did little, beyond the construction of a few roads and boys’ schools, to upset the country’s traditional way of life.

After Abdul Rahman’s death in 1901 his eldest son, Habibullah Kahn, became Emir and maintained arrangements with the British, but made important modifications to his father’s internal policies. Though he remained aloof from foreign investment, he relaxed border regulations to encourage regional trade, he allowed some criticism from within his extended family and tribal grouping, and he let some of those exiled by his father come home.  They included committed modernizer Mahmud Tarzi, who returned from Damascus in 1902 to found Afghanistan’s first newspaper, which became a focus for like-minded opposition to the regime’s cautious policies.

Rising tension in Europe generated an Anglo-Russian agreement in 1907 to leave Afghanistan under British influence, but during the next few years Tarzi and an emerging ‘Young Afghan’ movement won the support of the Emir’s oldest son, Inayatullah Kahn, and several other high-rankng family members.  The movement generated some mistrust among British officials, but its influence was largely restricted to the region around Kabul and even there it had little impact on the largely traditional concerns of the tribal council that formed Habibullah’s consultative base.  Secular nationalism had almost no impact on the country as a whole, most of which was still a tribal wilderness by 1914, with no real sense of national identity, few common cultural denominators and minimal connection, infrastructural or emotional, with the central regime.

The broadest unifying influence across Afghanistan was religion. Sunni Muslims formed by far the largest religious group, and by 1914 it included a high-profile strand of support for the pan-Islamic ambitions of the Ottoman Empire’s Young Turk regime.  As soon as war in Europe broke out, Sunni leaders and conservative tribal chiefs – led by the Emir’s brother and prime minister, Prince Nasrullah – joined modernizers in demanding Afghan allegiance to the Central Powers.  British money and solid support from his military and political allies enabled Habibullah to hold his line for neutrality, on the reasonable grounds that declaring war on Britain and Russia would, one way or another, bring invasion and swift conquest.

Emir Habibullah Kahn played nice with the British, but you couldn’t say he enjoyed it.

The Emir probably expected that his fidelity would bring reward from the British, and may have hoped for a post-War grant of full independence, but he had to work to earn either.  Nasrullah retained close contacts with tribal groups near the Indian frontier, and from early 1915 he encouraged regular cross-border raids in conjunction with various anti-British groups, some (like the Muhajidin) sponsored by Indian Moslems.  Although the Emir’s frequent attempts to control local officials did have some effect, and the attacks became less frequent in 1916, sporadic anti-British activity around the frontier would continue in some form throughout the War.

In Kabul, Nasrullah was a major player in conspiracies to turn border raids into a full-scale anti-British uprising, an aim shared by a German diplomatic mission that reached the capital in October 1915.  Though it received a cool reception from the Emir, for which he was rewarded with a £25,000 rise in the subsidy and a letter of thanks from King George V, the mission was in regular contact with anti-British elements.  That no major uprising took place reflected rivalries between the tribes on the frontier, power-struggles among their chieftains and the loyalty of the Afridi people, masters of the strategically important Khyber Pass, to their British paymasters – but the Emir’s political efforts to discredit and divide anti-British elements in and around the capital were also important.

Aware that the Central Powers could not promise direct military support for an alliance, but as anxious as any neutral to avoid antagonising either side, Habibullah played a canny game with the German mission.  He listened to its offers of money and arms, accepted its immediate help with military training and kept up the appearance of indecision.  While stringing the mission along with talks that consistently hinted at the possibility of an alliance, he made it clear in private meetings with British officials that he had no intention of abandoning neutrality.

The balancing act was helped by a letter from the mission to the German minister in Persia, intercepted by Russian forces and passed to Habibullah by the British, that suggested the possibility of a coup d’état in Kabul as prelude to an invasion of British India.  The reveal both undermined Nasrullah’s credibility with anti-British traditionalists, and gave the Emir an excuse to summon a permanent council of tribal leaders to Kabul, where he could keep an eye on them.

The Emir’s position eased during the spring of 1916.  Russian successes on the Caucasian Front in February removed any immediate prospect of Ottoman military intervention in Afghanistan, for or against the regime, and in April a new British viceroy in India, Lord Chelmsford, agreed to an immediate loyalty payment of around half a million pounds, with the same again to follow if Afghanistan was still neutral at the end of the War.  Talks with the German mission then cut to the chase, with Habibullah demanding military support on a scale he knew was impossible.  Not convinced or tempted by offers from both Nasrullah’s traditionalists and modernizers to seize power and invade India, the mission left Kabul on 21 May.

The German mission’s sole aim in Afghanistan, and the basic point Germany’s entire Middle Eastern policy, was to divert British forces from Europe to the defence of India.  As such it failed (although London did transfer four divisions of second-line infantry, a drop in the ocean, to the subcontinent in late 1915), but it still had profound if unintentional effects on Afghanistan’s future.  Apart from providing focus, resources and encouragement for anti-British, and by extension pro-independence elements, its presence and arguments demonstrated to the Afghani ruling elite that the country could function on the world stage without British or Russian sanction, a vital step along the path to its unhappy recent history.

The Emir’s problems were by no means over.  Raids into India by frontier tribes continued, anti-British opposition in Kabul was still demanding allegiance to the Central Powers (on religious grounds or as a step towards independence), and Habibullah faced the constant threat of overthrow.  His position was weakened by the rising price and increasing scarcity of some foods, which was popularly attributed to his inner circle’s undoubted profiteering, and by the Russian revolutions of 1917, which removed the only real possibility of Allied military intervention in Afghanistan and so ruined his best excuse for refusing alliance with the Central Powers.

Tribal raiders, probably armed by Indian independence activists, getting frisky near the frontier of what is now Pakistan but was then British India.

Publication of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points in January 1918 produced a fresh clamour for independence in Kabul, as did the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March, the wording of which guaranteed Afghanistan’s security as an independent state.  The latter also encouraged a belief in Kabul that the Central Powers could still win the War, and created a (theoretically) clear path for Ottoman forces to intervene in Afghanistan.  Meanwhile a fall in the value of the rouble and turbulence along Afghanistan’s former Russian frontiers had contributed to a spike in supply problems and inflation, so that factional and popular opposition to Habibullah were at new peaks by July, when he survived one of several assassination attempts.

The Emir’s regime remained on a knife-edge until armistice put an end to the neutrality debate, and to the opposition alliance between modernizers and religiously inspired traditionalists, but he struggled to regain popularity in its immediate aftermath.  He was hardly helped by continued economic problems or the effects of the influenza pandemic, but his biggest problem was failure to secure a political pay-off that would justify his wartime commitment to the Allies.  It can be argued that Habibullah deserved substantial reward for his four-year tightrope walk on Britain’s behalf, but the only prize that mattered was a shot at independence, and his goose was effectively cooked once the British, as they had done during the War, rejected his demand for Afghan representation at the Paris Peace Conference.

The Emir was assassinated on 20 February 1919, and in the power struggle that followed Prince Nasrullah’s traditionalists lost out to the modernizers, led by Habibullah’s third son, Amanullah Kahn. Amanullah set about attempting to force the British into granting independence by resuming attacks across the Indian frontier in May 1919, but a British bombing raid on Kabul encouraged an armistice in early June, and a peace treaty followed that ended the subsidy but gave Afghanistan control over its foreign policy.

Kabul’s first experience of modern airfare was one of these, an RAF Handley Page v/1500 heavy bomber. On 26 May 1919, the plane – which had just completed a record-breaking direct flight from Britain to India – attacked the Emir’s palace, and a week later the terrified Afghan regime agreed to end its war with Britain.

Treaties with foreign powers followed – including a mutual non-interference pact with the Soviet Union in 1921 and a friendship treaty with Germany in 1926 – and foreign investment was encouraged into the country for the first time, enabling the new Emir to proceed with a radical and rapid programme of infrastructural, industrial and educational modernization.  In a society built on deep religious and cultural traditionalism, this amounted to extremism, and its polarizing effects drove Afghanistan to civil war in 1928, a conflict ended by Amanullah’s abdication in January 1929.  His more gradualist successor, Nadir Kahn, was assassinated in 1933, and although the reign of Nadir’s son, Zahir Kahn, lasted for forty years it can be summed up as a continuous, unresolved struggle between mildly secular reformers and diehard traditionalists.

Emir Amanullah – can you spot his modernising tendency?

Although even I can’t blame the First World War for modern problems that form part of a country’s DNA, there are grounds for guessing that Afghanistan’s future might have turned out better without it.  The crisis in relations with Britain and Russia brought about by the sudden importance of Afghan neutrality in 1914 put the country’s longstanding cultural fault lines on steroids.  The dose was intensified by the presence and promises of the German diplomatic mission, and by clandestine contacts with the Young Turk regime in Constantinople, both of which gave modernizers an irresistible taste of what a developed, secularized economy could produce.  By the time the modernizers seized power in 1919 they had been hot-housed to missionary zeal, a condition history tells us seldom ends well.

Of course Amanullah’s radicals might never had taken power, and Afghanistan might have had a shot at healing its wounds under the moderate, cautious Habibullah, if the British Empire’s DNA had allowed it to grant independence in 1919.  Ah, but that was a very big if, never remotely on the cards, and just another small way in which the nature of the world in 1919 is still stinking up the place today.

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