The first day of my visit to Jalalabad is drawing to an end. After returning from a walk about the city, my interpreter asks me, while timidly shuffling his feet, to take some time off for the next namas (“prayer”). During his absence, I continue my promenade within the yard around the mosque. A distorted mumbling is audible as small children on prayer rugs are heard to be practicing their memorization of surahs from the Koran. A bit leftwards are four tombstones; I wonder who is buried here. Ordinary people are usually not interned in such places.
As I find out later on, one of the tombs belongs to an Afghani emir, Amanulla. I remember images from an old Soviet documentary called “Mission to Kabul”.
Here he is sitting under a canopy, a young man with dark mustaches, holding up his proud head, which is topped with a fez adorned with a diamond agrafe. On his chest are aglets and a constellation of medals, while his shoulders bear epaulets. His hand squeezes the hilt of a saber. In front of him a cavalry procession passes by, kicking up dust as it goes, and is followed by proudly pacing elephants with armored backs – the triumphant ruler is receiving a victory parade during the third Anglo-Afghani War. Behind him a crowd has tightly gathered. This is the nascence of his rule. His face is without even a single jaded wrinkle, which later became apparent in a photo taken while in Rome. At that time, nobody could even consider Amanulla would finish his life in exile abroad.
Even Amanulla’s grandfather, Emir Abdurakhmon, had already set the aim of creating a strong, centralized state. In his foreign policy, he tried to find a middle ground between Russian and British interests. However, in 1893 while threatened by the prospect of unavoidable war, he was forced to sign an agreement on territorial concessions prepared by the British representative, Mortimer Durant, the term of which was to last a hundred years.
One should admit that none of the later rulers of Afghanistan ever acknowledged this agreement. More than that, some contemporary Afghani politicians are inclined to believe the Northwest Border Province of Pakistan is not legally part of that country. At present, about 16 mln Pushtus reside in that Pakistani province, while another 9 mln live in Afghanistan. Both Pakistani and Afghani Pushtus believe it is impossible to “divide water with a stick”, and consider the border as a mere formal necessity. This issue is one of those disputed points in Pakistani-Afghani relations. The issue was raised at the most recent Loya Djirge (People’s Congress) in Afghanistan, at which was announced the formation of a special committee on the review of this issue.
With regards to internal policy, Abdurakhmon directed all of his efforts toward improving administrative management. He reformed the army, built new cities and developed old ones, and contributed to the prosperity of trade and production in every possible way. To this end, he utilized a tactic involving the gradual breaching of the rights of the tribal nobility and clergy. Avoiding such measures would have been impossible. Overall, Abdurakhmon was one of the most energetic and active monarchs in the whole of the history of Afghanistan.
There is a belief that Islam does not have a hierarchy comparable to that of Christianity. In reality, the clergy is structured in accordance with strict protocols. At the top of the pyramid is the recognized power: ulems, who are theologians; imams of large mosques; sheiks; heads of the Sufi orders; and judges of Shari’ah law. At the base of the pyramid are the most conservative and numerous categories: mullahs; talibans, who are students at lower-tier mosques and madrasah; and malangs, who are street preachers.
After setting fixed salaries, or hokuk, for clergymen, Abdurakhmon assigned them the same status as public officials. By depriving them of the basis of their wealth – the right to receive income from voluntary offerings, which included imamati, vakuv and shukran – he made the clergy directly dependent on him. His son, Emir Habibulla, continued this practice of intermixing state and religious affairs.
The Thunder of Victory
Amanulla and Abdurakhmon had one thing in common – dislike of the English. On 2nd February 1919, Habibulla sent a letter to viceroy of India, with an ultimatum to acknowledge the independence of Afghanistan. De jure Afghanistan had never been a colony, but its buffer status made it dependent on Great Britain and Russia. A very quick answer followed, and on the night of 21st February, Habibulla was assassinated. His successor was Emir Amanulla.
The first firman, or order, of Amanulla read as follows: “With a heavy heart, I take upon myself the burden of imam (religious head of a territory, or imamate) and emir (political head of a territory, or emirate).” A week after this statement was issued, the government of Afghanistan proclaimed the country’s independence. In response to this demarche, on 6th May England proclaimed war against Afghanistan. Not much time passed before the country’s cannons, which had been built locally based on German technology, were forcing the British into retreat. On 3rd June, a ceasefire was concluded. And on 8th August, a peace treaty was signed in Ravalpindi. England recognized the independence of the freedom loving Afghanis. The clergy was the organizing force in mobilizing the people of the country in the war against colonizers.
A very fragile peace, full of worry, was in place. The Afghani government has found itself at a crossroad. Either to utilize the assistance of Soviet Russia, and in so doing take advantage of its support, continuing the policy directed toward enhancing the anti-British sentiment among the tribes existing on the territory to the south and southeast of the Duran line. Or, maintain the status quo, and forego Soviet assistance. The opinions of the Amanulla and his defense minister (and uncle), Muhammad Nadir-shakh, were to dominate in the decision process.
In a conversation with the Russian diplomat, Ya. Surits, Amanulla stated, “Kabul is ready to support the revolutionary movement in India, and all covert operations along the Indo-Afghani border.” In 1921, a Russo-Afghani treaty was signed, which included articles relating to military cooperation. In accordance with this agreement, any military or political alliances with third parties were excluded.
In 1923, the first Afghani constitution was accepted. It contained articles pertaining to certain civil rights. A consultative body, the State Council, was formed, which included 150 members. After taking the title of padishakh (“supreme ruler”) in 1928, Amanulla set off for an extended diplomatic trip. He visited Egypt, Iran, India, Turkey, certain European countries, and the USSR. For the monarch, Afghanistan’s backwardness became obvious, and he saw the need for modernization.
At the Kremlin, Amanulla signed a number of agreements dedicated to the strengthening of trade, economic and political ties. In accordance with these, he took measures not to allow the basmach (those wealthier people from Central Asia, who did not recognize Soviet authority) onto the territory of Afghanistan. This step resulted in the former Bukhara emir, Said Alimkhan, becoming an enemy of Amanulla. The religious leaders of Afghanistan considered this step as a treachery against the interests of Muslim unity.
A Time of Unrest
London became quite worried about the strengthening cooperation between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. British Intelligence received a directive to topple the padishakh by any means necessary. Thomas Edward Lawrence, the famous “Lawrence of Arabia”, who had made such efforts in defeating the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, arrived at the border fortress of Miram-shakh in the disguise of mullah Pir Karam-shakh. He acquainted himself with the prevailing situation, and then set up a network of agents in coordination with those opposing Amanulla. Having almost limitless financial resources, Mr. Lawrence began weaving a conspiracy against the padishakh. Mr. Alimkhan suggested that he approach a former noncommissioned officer from the Afghani army, Bachai Sakao, an ethnic Tajik known as a person of uncontrolled passions, who in a fit of rage had killed his father, wife, and village mullah.
Being a supporter of equal rights, Amanulla, the self-titled “King of Islam”, had ordered Afghani women not to wear the chador (the traditional Muslim headscarf), as well as having refused to utilize the traditional Islamic lunar calendar. The orthodox clerics considered these decisions as blasphemy. Islamic purists began to consider Kabul, where men wore European-styled clothing and shaved off their beards, and women studied and worked, as a bastion of vice and turpitude. The emir also had begun sending youths, including young women, to Europe in order to receive an education.
Not paying attention to increasing opposition, Amanulla adopted a number of resolutions that seriously damaged the special privileges of religious officials. He stopped the practice of spiritual mentoring, and tried to cancel the ikhtisab (the Shari’ah code of morality). More than that, members of the clergy were required to pass an exam under a special qualifying commission for the testing of knowledge. A ban was enforced on the entrance of madras graduates to “Dar ul Ulume” (“House of Knowledge”), located in Dioband, India, which had become the center of resistance against Amanulla’s reforms. Within the framework of reforms to the court system, developed under the personal supervision of the emir, four types of courts legal proceedings were introduced, which divided cases into two broad categories – civil and divine jurisdiction. While implementing land reform, he earned many influential enemies within the tribal and ethnic aristocracies.
The growth of antigovernment sentiment within society became obvious, and under the threat of civil unrest, Amanulla published a firman, canceling many of his own reforms. However, it was already too late. Mr. Lawrence’s agents had been at the bazaars disseminating pictures of young women who looked like Afghans, sitting on the laps of European men. In his dispatch, Mr. Lawrence cited his own proclamations, “All of us Muslims declaim Amanulla, and recognize ourselves as subjects of emir Bachai Sakao, according to God’s will, as well as instructions of the Great Prophet. We voluntarily recognize him as the ruler of Kabul. Those who do not wish eternity for the new padishakh should be exterminated.” The Royal Air Force (RAF) began reconnaissance flights over Afghanistan. The Daily Mail newspaper wrote, “Mr. Humphries, the English envoy, assisted Mr. Sakao in achieving power in Afghanistan.” The “Great Prophet” was quite satisfied.
Amanulla, broken by his failures, announced his abdication. A Soviet detachment under the command of Primakov, which had been hurrying to provide assistance to the padishakh, was forced to withdraw from Mazari-Sharif, retreating to the other side of the Panj River. Meanwhile, the son of a water carrier had achieved the throne under the name of Habibulla-Gazi Kalakani. The first attempted at modernizing the country ended in utter failure.
Caliph for an Hour
Mr. Nadir-shakh, then head of the diplomatic mission in Paris at that time, returned to Afghanistan. Appealing to the historical right of Pushtus for the supreme power in the country, he succeeded in mobilizing his fellow tribesman in the fight against Mr. Sakao. In an attempt to prevent his own downfall, the new emir tried to gain the support of the Khazar tribal chiefs, but the idea failed. The upset leader issued a fatwa permitting the use of assassination. The carnage began. After completion of his task, Mr. Lawrence made his exit.
The “eternity” for Habibulla-Gazi Kalakani turned out to be very short. Following the defeat of his supporters’ detachments, he and his brother were hung. Some of Amanulla’s close followers were also among those executed. Hundreds of officials were dismissed on suspicion of dissent. The clergy and nobility restored their lost positions. Peace returned to the country. In 1933, the former assistant of the reformer assassinated Mr. Nadir-shakh. His son, Muhammad Zakhir-shakh, succeeded him in the throne, ruling from 1933-73. He was to be the last king from the Muhammadzai dynasty.
His reign was the longest, and possibly the most peaceful, in the history of Afghanistan. The Afghanis themselves refer to it as the “golden period”. All transformations and reforms were introduced cautiously and gradually. A parliament was formed, political parties were formed, and an independent mass media appeared. Despite the fact that reform was implemented quite slowly, one cannot say this process was smooth. In 1959, Mr. Zakhir-shakh had to suppress a rebellion inspired by orthodox clergymen.
Yet in neighboring countries, the speed of modernization was significantly faster. Changes in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Egypt, and the “White Revolution” in Iran became points of reference for the educated elite. On the night of 16th July 1973, during a visit of Mr. Zakhir-shakh to Italy, the former prime minister, Muhammad Daud, supported by army officers, held a successful coup d’etat. The irony in this is the fact that on the day before, Mr. Zakhir-shakh had met with Amanulla, and the next day the Afghani diaspora in Rome gained one more monarch.
A secular republic was proclaimed, and a course for speeding up modernization was proclaimed. Agrarian reform was implemented, while the largest enterprises in the country were nationalized. The first seven-year plan was developed, which included a six-times higher investment into industry, the construction of irrigation systems, and the cascade building of hydroelectric power stations, However, none of these measures was ever realized. Mr. Daud’s opponents considered the reforms as too moderate, and their implementation process too slow. Many of those surrounding him were put off by his authoritarian style of governance. In 1975, in its turn the conservative part of society rebelled against the “negative influence that modernization, in its opinion, had on traditional Islamic values”. During the Saur Revolution, Mr. Daud was killed. Power was seized by radical supporters of optimizing the development process.
Optimization of the Process
The “epoch of upheaval” began. Taraki, Amin, Karmal, and Nadjibula all tried without success to introduce “political and socioeconomic models” into the country. Despite the fact that the model was close to the social orientation of Islam, there were still diametrically opposed ideas concerning private property. As per Islam, private property is rightful.
As I am leaving Afghanistan I see two yachts rusting on the high bank of the Panj River. These were the gift of some European ruler to Amanulla. They had never been put into the water. For the shallow river, their drafts turned out to be too great. A thought occurs in my mind that this is symbolic. Of the 11 supreme rulers of the country [in modern times], seven had been assassinated. Two ended their lives in exile. Out of all the characters described in the present article, only the “father of the people”, old Zakhir-shakh, who returned home after many years as an emigre.
But, “the holy seat will never be vacant”. Sponsored by the West, Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s current president, has sat on implementation of reforms. Many of these are in the interests of the educated elite, and diverge from the interests of the Muslim community. The circle closes again.
Judging by the membership of the new cabinet of ministers, a balancing of interests has yet to be achieved. There is an impression that this done with a purpose. By raising the positions of some, while pushing off others, Mr. Karzai instilling disunity in the communities of ethnic minorities. The local Uzbek head, general Dustum, has again begun speaking on a proposed federal structure for Afghanistan. The supporters of Masoud, who are Pandjher by ethnicity, have seen their representation in the cabinet minimized, which has forced them into joining the opposition. Notable is the fact that some ethnic leaders become more flexible after they have been visited by the U.S. Ambassador, Zalmai Halilzada. This was especially noticeable during the country’s elections.
But disunity is being introduced not only among ethnic minorities. Some Pushtus support the president, while others consider themselves as opposition to him. The idea of restoring a constitutional monarchy is still popular among some Pushtus. While speaking with some people, I have come to the conclusion that for some of them it is irrelevant as to who is in power, so long as he is a Pushtu. Mr. Karzai’s lasting opposition has been embodied in Mr. Hekmatiar. Mr. Saiyaf, a conservative who supports the restoration of the morality police, has taken a holding pattern. Detachments of Talibs still wander about the country.
In Jalalabad, I listened to a tirade directed at me, “In our time, we have washed Shuravi with our blood. Soon your turn will come.” As soon as that person understood that he had been mistaken in how he had identified me, he profusely apologized. This is merely a small detail, but one can note how anti-American sentiment is seen everywhere. The Afghanis themselves call the tight circle around Mr. Karzai, who returned from a long stay abroad, as the “cleaners of dogs”.
Squaring the Circle
The global mass media has reported that armored weaponry is being withdrawn from Panshir. During the partisan war, such weapons were only a burden. With regards to rifles, grenades and other light weaponry, the decommissioning process has almost become stuck. New roads, bridges and electrical lines are being built in the country. Factories that had been destroyed are being restored. The realization of plans drafted in Daud’s time is occurring. And, branches of foreign banks are being opened.
At a rapid rate, new mosques are being built, while older ones are being repaired. I remember the words of Niematullo Shakhrani, the famous theologian that had been head of the commission on the adoption of a constitution, and is currently minister of education, who said, “The absolute majority of population voted for Afghanistan to be an Islamic country.” This was reflected in the primary document, meaning that the generally accepted economic and practices of Afghanistan may remain unacceptable as regards the situation in the country, since the layer of society interested in secular development is still too small. Everything is happening in this manner despite the fact that the highest members of the clergy are inclined toward cooperation and compromise, although this is not true of the most conservative category of the Afghani clergy, the village mullahs. Among this group is from where the Taliban movement began.
Looking at the hulks of rusted metal, I am trying to answer the following question, “Is rapid modernization possible in the [middle] East, along with the simultaneous introduction of Western democracy?” To be honest, I am very skeptical on this issue. What to do? There is a necessity for implementation of the ideas, but society is not ready. Terror is a radical answer to changes in the Islamic world. And, the religion itself is only an instrument in the fight against change. Is the West ready to pay for the process not only with somebody else’s, but their own blood as well? Will the West follow through until the end, or retreat like the Soviet Union?
I remember a meeting in Kabul with two young teenagers who had just received the title of “kori” in the city of Dioband. The title is awarded to those who learn the Koran by heart. The two teenagers decided to devote themselves to medicine, despite their grandfather’s expectations. What will be their further destiny? Has Mr. Karzai learned the lessons of the past? History is repeated for those who do not recall its tutelage.