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Ahmed Shah Durrani (1722-1772) was the founder of modern state of Afghanistan. After nine-days of deliberation by Jirga, the participants agreed to crown him as the emir of Afghanistan in 1747[i]. With this decision, Durrani Pushtuns were to rule Afghanistan until the fateful Marxist coup of 1978.Although a state was formed but its power to administer and territorial configuration kept on varying. Islam which plays a vital role in the lives of Afghanis, have always proved to be unifying force in resistance to foreign occupiers. But, In spite of this display of unity against the invaders, infighting within the ruling clan, between different ethnic groups and resistance to state power also marked the modern history of Afghanistan. Knowledge of the ethnic diversity and plurality of Afghan society helps in understanding these conflicting tendencies. Afghan rulers who tried to centralize power always confronted violent opposition from people of different clan and ethnicity. This insurrectionary tendency has a profound lesson for the major powers involved in the ongoing conflict in the region. As plural a country as Afghanistan is, it requires an extra-ordinary understanding of demographic realities in an attempt to produce a viable political solution for Afghanistan.
According to CIA figure, current population of Afghanistan is approximately 28,396,000. For centuries people from different ethnic background have come and settled in the country. By 15th century, major ethnic groups had settled in the regions where they happen to live today. Inhabiting the region to the south of Hindu- Kush Mountains, Pushtuns make up 42 percent of the population. Ghilzais and Durranis are two major Pushtun tribes. The latter have remained the rulers of Afghanistan since 1747 with control of the government fluctuating between Sadozai [Ahmad Shah Durrani (r1747-1772), Timur Shah (r1772-93), Mahmud Shah (r1800-03, 1809-18) Shah Shuja (r1803-9,r1839-42) Ali (r1818-19)]and Barakzai clan [ Dost Muhammad (1826-39),Muhammad Afzal (1866-67)Abdur Rehman Khan(1880-1901)Habibullah Khan (1901-1919), Amanullah Khan (1919-29) ][ii].On Northern side of Hindu-Kush lives the Tajiks, historically more urbanized than the Pushtuns. They speak Dari and with 27 % of the whole population, they are second largest ethnic group of Afghanistan. Tajiks are credited with the flourishing of Sufism in Afghanistan. Tajik Kart dynasty, which was given responsibility of ruling Herat and western Afghanistan, once the first wave of Mongols invasion ended, by the Persian ruler in 1245, played a tremendous role in flourishing art and Sufism in the country. Northern-Central region is inhabited by Uzbek and Turkic people who collectively make up 12 percent of the whole population. Cultural affinity exists between these ethnic groups and people of Central Asia. Empires from Central Asia have ruled Afghanistan ever since the time of Persian Samanid in 10th century, based in Bokhara and Samarkand .Hazaras who are 9 percent of total population are descendents of the Mongols and are Shiites. They are located in Central Afghanistan and have been subjected to persecution in the past time and again.
After assuming the throne, Ahmad Shah Durrani started expanding his empire. He increased his territorial control to as far Amu Darya, bordering Central Asia, thus bringing Uzbeks and Turkmen living there under his control. Weakening Mughals failed to be the match for Ahmad and ceded Peshawar and substantial territory west of Sindh river to the ruler of Afghanistan. But infighting weakened the territorial control once Ahmad Shah Durrani died. Timur Shah (r 1772-93) could not hold on to the expanding empire. He had to put down the Pushtun insurgency in the east. His five sons ruled until 1826 when inter-tribal feud brought the Barakzai family to the throne. The feuds were primarily driven by jealousies, lust for power and control. Dost Muhammad became emperor in 1826 after an uprising by Barakzais in order to avenge the death of his brother Fateh Khan who was killed by Mahmud Shah(r1800-03, 1809-18). Mahmud Shah considered Fateh Khan a threat as he had successfully suppressed an uprising in Herat. Power struggle led to the fall of Sadozai family. This tribal infighting continued until the scene was set for first Anglo-Afghan war while the territorial gains by Ahmad Shah Durrani beyond the frontiers of that of contemporary Afghanistan which had united all of the Pushtuns were lost.
The English had always been anxious about weak Afghanistan which could lead to Russian encroachment. Their first alliance with Afghan ruler was with Sadozai’s Shah Shuja (r1803-1809, r1839-42). As the infighting between Sadozai and Barakzai clan led to the elevation of Dost Mohammad to the throne, the British afraid of losing Afghanistan to the Russians ,as the Emir in Kabul received the latter’s envoy, invaded the country in 1839 on the pretext of installing the legitimate ruler of Afghanistan to the throne. Within 8 months they occupied Kandahar, Ghazni and then eventually Kabul. Sporadic resistances were squashed and the British succeeded in installing Shah Shuja on the throne of Kabul. For three years, Shah Shuja tried to prove himself an effective ruler but in vain. Unwilling to accept even the indirect rule of the foreigners, riots broke out in 1842 which resulted in, until then the biggest humiliation for the British Empire. Commander of forces in Kabul, Sir William Macnaghten was massacred along with his companions. General William Elphinestone, who succeeded him, decided to withdraw from Kabul. Of 4500 troops and 12000 civilians who left the Balla Hissar fort, only 1 Englishman and 20 Afghan supporters of Shah Shuja were able to make it Jalalabad a week later[iii]. In spite of this humiliating defeat, the English kept on targeting Pushtun tribes. Between first and second Anglo-Afghan war, 100 such attacks were launched against the tribes on either side of the border[iv].
The second Anglo-Afghan war broke out in November 1878. Sher Ali(r 1863-66, r1868-79) had avoided stationing British military observers in his country. Russians presence in the Constantinople had rung alarm bells in Britain and in order to entrap the English empire, a plan had been hatched by the Russians to invade India through Afghanistan[v]. Peace was concluded between the two empires but the presence of Russian envoy in Afghanistan and humiliation felt by the English as they were denied any such privilege, thus increasing their insecurity, resulted in an invasion on 22nd of November,1978 . Sher Ali fled to North. Initially victory seemed confirm but the presence of foreigners yet again united the Afghans as people from different tribal and ethnic background rose up against the foreign invaders. British envoy Louis Cavnagri was massacred along with 75 other men by Afghans. More British troops were sent to Kabul to control the situation and Martial law was imposed. Arrests and executions ensued. Such actions could not keep the Afghanis off from showing resistance. Fierce fighting broke out in Kabul which resulted in huge no. of casualties although more on Afghan side. Undeterred, another attack was launched from Herat under the leadership of Sher Ali’s son Muhammad Ayub Khan who massacred over 1000 of British army personnel in Kandahar thus forcing them to retreat to Kabul. In order to secure a safe way out, English searched for credible leader which they found in Abdur Rehman (1844-1901), nephew of Sher Ali.
The reign of Iron Emir, as Abdur Rehman was known, was marked with terror. He followed the legacy of Sher Ali of national consolidation but his manner was brutal. By transferring population within the country he disturbed the demographic realities. The brutal suppression of Hazaras in the north was followed by an uprising lasting three years from 1891-93. The people of Hazaras refused to surrender and were reduced to enslavement while their land was given to people from other ethnic groups. Tension that still persists between Hazaras who are mostly Shiites and other ethnic groups can be traced back to this brutal policy of Iron Emir. Pagans in the northeastern mountains, known as Kafiristan, were forcefully converted. Uzbeks also rose up against the Emir in 1888 and were dealt heavy handedly. He had to face 40 revolts during his reign as his policies violated the autonomy of other tribes and ethnicities. He was succeeded by Habibullah (r 1901-19).Habibullah’s (1872-1919) reign can be regarded as mixture of conservative and modernist policies. He introduced new ways of communications, shunned by his father, and provided opportunity to the tribal chiefs to have their say in government policies. Integration of tribal chiefs into national affairs had the dual advantage. It not just respected their so cherished autonomy but also provided them legitimate platform where they could express their disagreements. Modern educations and amenities were introduced, although limited to urban areas, but not as swiftly as to disturb the sensitivities of Afghan people. His successor Amanullah (r1919-1929), credited with introducing the first secular constitution of the country, failed to observe such caution. Bent on introducing radical reform, in his effort of imitating Ataturk’s Turkey, he was overthrown by the Traditionalist in 1929. After Zahir Shah (1914-2007) took over, his more experienced prime ministers Muhammad Hashim (1884-1953) consolidated the Afghan state through his authoritarian tactics. Shah Mahmood (1888-1959) who succeeded him introduced political and social liberties. This was the time of radical activism of both Leftist and Islamist. Disenchanted from the government, both wings tried to promote their own views and at times ended up in violent clashes on Kabul university campus. Muhammad Daoud further advanced the social reformist agenda and by the end of his first Prime Minster-ship, high enrollment in schools and women participation in social life could be regarded as an achievement. But his pro-Pashtunistan policy, i.e. to claim the land beyond the Pakistan’s frontier inhabited by Pushtuns, led to Pakistan’s support for the dissident Islamist elements who loathed the progressive stance of the government. Domestic political conflict led to the Marxist coup of 1978. Afghanistan being a highly unsuitable country for Marxist revolution because of its diversity and religious and cultural sensitivities rose up in revolt[vi]. Soviet fear of Islamic uprising within its own domain led to the fateful December 1979 intervention. Afghanistan was once again united against the foreign invaders though ethnic division was conspicuous in the formation of resistance groups. The matters got worse once the Soviets left and these groups started fighting each other to form their own central government. Monarchy which had been able to give Afghanis a symbolic unity was long dead[vii]. The ill-fated policies of states such as USA and Pakistan also complicated matters. Disunity among Afghan resistance groups had initially been deemed favorable by Pakistan as to avoid any future threat of guerilla movement causing her trouble[viii]. But once the Soviets left, this disunity could not be undone. Civil war ensued and neighboring countries started supporting their chosen proxies. Pakistan’s favorite was Gulbuddin Hikmetyar Hizb-Islami but later she switched its support to incipient movement of Taliban. Taliban’s uncompromising conviction of imposition of Shari‘at in Afghanistan by controlling the central state increased the momentum of civil war. Pakistan supported this view for her own strategic purposes and also thwarted any effort by the government of Burhanudin Rabbani to bring Afghan factions together once the Taliban threat became clear[ix]. Eventually once Taliban were able to advance as far as to Kabul, the ethnic divide manifested itself in sheer bloody manner. Offenses in Mazar Sharif in 1997-98 resulted in huge no. of casualties as Pushtuns and Non-Pushtuns, now united in their opposition to Pushtun Talibans, committed ethnic cleansing. During all these years of civil war, Iran, Russia and Central Asian states supported anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Ethnic cleansing of an extent, never occurred in Afghanistan history ever before, horrified the international community. Ahmed Shah Masud’s forces, who was Tajik by ethnicity, massacred Hazara’s in 1995 whereas Hazara’s massacred Taliban in 1997 and were slaughtered by them the following year. Along with this division on ethnic-line, divisions within the Taliban Pushtuns also surfaced. Taliban’s shura was dominated by Durrani-Pushtuns and this centralization of power was resented by Ghilzais Pushtun who had dominated Afghan Jihad.
As Taliban resorted to guerilla warfare after the fall of Kabul in 2001 and with the increase of insurgency in recent years, peace in Afghanistan seems a distant reality. Two lessons that are to be learnt from Afghan history are totally ignored by the actors involved. Afghans have never succumbed to the foreign invaders. Their mutual hostility to occupation has always brought them together. Although majority of current insurgents are Pushtuns, this Pushtun and non-Pushtun divide in resistance is also result of policies for which no rationale Afghan history can provide. Diversity of Afghanistan does not allow any room whatsoever for one ethnic group to have an absolute authority over the whole country. Tribal-society by nature, centralization of power by one clan, tribe or ethnic group does not provide suitable model of government for Afghanistan. A strong central state would require compromises of autonomy by the other clans and ethnicities which is anathema for Afghanis. Regional countries that have over the time supported the proxies in Afghanistan should learn this lesson for their own good. The conflict will not subside unless an all inclusive government with representation from all ethnic groups is formed. As US forces are not going to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely, it’s the regional actors who have to decide whether they are going to keep playing the dirty game in Afghanistan or will respect the plurality of Afghanistan by stop waging proxies war in this unfortunate country.
[ii] Wahab S and Youngerman B, A brief history of Afghanistan, 2nd Ed, Infobase Publishing 2007.
[iv] Ahmed E and Barnet j R. A reporter at Large. Bloody Games . They New Yorker, April 11. 1988 p.44
[v]Wahab S and Youngerman B, A brief history of Afghanistan, 2nd Ed, Infobase Publishing 2007.
[vi] Ahmed E and Barnet j R. A reporter at Large. Bloody Games . They New Yorker, April 11. 1988 p.44
[viii] Rashid, Ahmed (2000). Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia. London: I. B. Tauris