Ahmad Shah and the Durrani Empire

Ahmad Shah and the Durrani Empire

From Nadir Shah's death in 1747 until the communist coup of April 1978,Afghanistan was governed--at least nominally--by Pashtun rulers from the Abdaligroup of clans. Indeed, it was under the leadership of the first Pashtun ruler,Ahmad Shah, that the nation of Afghanistan began to take shape followingcenturies of fragmentation and exploitation. Even before the death of NadirShah, tribes in the Hindu Kush had been growing stronger and were beginning totake advantage of the waning power of their distant rulers. Two lineage groupswithin the Abdali ruled Afghanistan from 1747 until the downfall of the monarchyin the 1970s--the Sadozai of the Popalzai tribe, and the Muhammadzai of theBarakzai tribe.

In 1747 Ahmad Shah and his Abdali horsemen joined the chiefs of the Abdalitribes and clans near Qandahar to choose a leader. Despite being younger thanother claimants, Ahmad had several overriding factors in his favor. He was adirect descendant of Sado, eponym of the Sadozai; he was unquestionably acharismatic leader and seasoned warrior who had at his disposal a trained,mobile force of several thousand cavalrymen; and he possessed part of NadirShah's treasury.

One of Ahmad Shah's first acts as chief was to adopt the title"Durr-i-Durrani" ("pearl of pearls" or "pearl of theage"), which may have come from a dream or from the pearl earrings worn bythe royal guard of Nadir Shah. The Abdali Pashtuns were known thereafter as theDurrani.

Ahmad Shah began by capturing Ghazni from the Ghilzai Pashtuns, and thenwresting Kabul from the local ruler. In 1749 the Mughal ruler ceded sovereigntyover Sindh Province and the areas of northern India west of the Indus to AhmadShah in order to save his capital from Afghan attack. Ahmad Shah then set outwestward to take possession of Herat, which was ruled by Nadir Shah's grandson,Shah Rukh. Herat fell to Ahmad after almost a year of siege and bloody conflict,as did Mashhad (in present-day Iran). Ahmad next sent an army to subdue theareas north of the Hindu Kush. In short order, the powerful army brought underits control the Turkmen, Uzbek, Tajik, and Hazara tribes of northern Afghanistan(see Ethnic Groups, ch. 2). Ahmad invaded India a third, then a fourth, time,taking control of the Punjab, Kashmir, and the city of Lahore. Early in 1757, hesacked Delhi, but permitted the Mughal Dynasty to remain in nominal control aslong as the ruler acknowledged Ahmad's suzerainty over the Punjab, Sindh, andKashmir. Leaving his second son Timur in charge, Ahmad left India to return toAfghanistan.

The collapse of Mughal control in India, however, also facilitated the riseof rulers other than Ahmad Shah. In the Punjab, the Sikhs were becoming a potentforce. From their capital at Pune, the Marathas, Hindus who controlled much ofwestern and central India, were beginning to look northward to the decayingMughal empire, which Ahmad Shah now claimed by conquest. Upon his return toQandahar in 1757, Ahmad faced Maratha attacks which succeeded in ousting Timurand his court in India.

Ahmad Shah declared an Islamic holy war against the Marathas, and warriorsfrom various Pashtun tribes, as well as other tribes such as the Baloch,answered his call. Early skirmishes ended in victory for the Afghans, and by1759 Ahmad and his army had reached Lahore. By 1760 the Maratha groups hadcoalesced into a great army. Once again Panipat was the scene of a confrontationbetween two warring contenders for control of northern India. The Battle ofPanipat in 1761 between Muslim and Hindu armies who numbered as many as 100,000troops each was fought along a twelve-kilometer front. Despite decisivelydefeating the Marathas, what might have been Ahmad Shah's peaceful control ofhis domains was disrupted by other challenges.

The victory at Panipat was the high point of Ahmad Shah's--and Afghan--power.Afterward, even prior to his death, the empire began to unravel. By the end of1761, the Sikhs had gained power and taken control of much of the Punjab. In1762 Ahmad Shah crossed the passes from Afghanistan for the sixth time to subduethe Sikhs. He assaulted Lahore and, after taking their holy city of Amritsar,massacred thousands of Sikh inhabitants, destroying their temples anddesecrating their holy places with cow's blood. Within two years the Sikhsrebelled again. Ahmad Shah tried several more times to subjugate the Sikhspermanently, but failed. By the time of his death, he had lost all but nominalcontrol of the Punjab to the Sikhs, who remained in charge of the area until theBritish defeat in 1849.

Ahmad Shah also faced other rebellions in the north, and eventually he andthe amir of Bukhara agreed that the Amu Darya would mark the division of theirlands. In 1772 Ahmad Shah retired to his home in the mountains east of Qandahar,where he died. Ahmad Shah had succeeded to a remarkable degree in balancingtribal alliances and hostilities and in directing tribal energies away fromrebellion. He earned recognition as Ahmad Shah Baba, or "Father" ofAfghanistan (fig. _, Ahmad Shah Durrani's Empire, 1762).

By the time of Ahmad Shah's ascendancy, the Pashtuns included many groupswhose origins were obscure; most were believed to have descended from ancientAryan tribes, but some, such as the Ghilzai, may have once been Turks (seeEthnic Groups, ch. 2). They had in common, however, their Pashtu language. Tothe east, the Waziris and their close relatives, the Mahsuds, had lived in thehills of the central Suleiman Range since the fourteenth century. By the end ofthe sixteenth century and the final Turkish-Mongol invasions, tribes such as theShinwaris, Yusufzais, and Mohmands had moved from the upper Kabul River Valleyinto the valleys and plains west, north, and northeast of Peshawar. The Afridishad long been established in the hills and mountain ranges south of the KhyberPass. By the end of the eighteenth century, the Durranis had blanketed the areawest and north of Qandahar.

Ahmad Shah's successors governed so ineptly during a period of profoundunrest that within fifty years of his death, Afghanistan was embroiled in acivil war. Many of the territories conquered with the help of Ahmad Shah'smilitary skill fell to others in this half century. By 1818 the Sadozai rulerswho succeeded Ahmad Shah controlled little more than Kabul and the surroundingterritory within a 160-kilometer radius. They not only lost the outlyingterritories but also alienated other tribes and lineages among the DurraniPashtuns.

After the death of Ahmad Shah's successor, Timur, the three strongestcontenders for the position of shah were Timur's sons, the governors ofQandahar, Herat, and Kabul. Muhammad Zeman, governor of Kabul, was in the mostcommanding position and became shah at the age of twenty-three. Hishalf-brothers accepted this only by force majeure--upon being imprisoned ontheir arrival in the capital for the purpose, ironically, of electing a newshah. The quarrels among Timur's descendants that threw Afghanistan into turmoilalso provided the pretext for the intervention of outside forces.

The efforts of the Sadozai heirs of Timur to impose a true monarchy on thetruculent Pashtun tribes and to rule absolutely and without the advice of theother, larger Pashtun tribes' leaders were ultimately unsuccessful. The Sikhstoo, were particularly troublesome, and after several unsuccessful efforts tosubdue them, Zeman made the mistake of appointing a forceful young Sikh chief,Ranjit Singh, as his governor in the Punjab. The "one-eyed" warriorwould later become an implacable enemy of Pashtun rulers in Afghanistan.

Zeman's downfall was triggered by his attempts to consolidate power. Althoughit had been through the support of the Muhammadzai chief, Painda Khan, that hehad come to the throne, Zeman soon began to remove prominent Muhammadzai leadersfrom positions of power and replacing them with men of his own lineage, theSadozai. This upset the delicate balance of Durrani tribal politics that AhmadShah had established and may have prompted Painda Khan and other Durrani chiefsto plot against the shah. Painda Khan and the chiefs of the Nurzai and theAlizai Durrani clans were executed, as was the chief of the Qizilbash clan.Painda Khan's son fled to Iran and pledged the substantial support of hisMuhammadzai followers to a rival claimant to the throne, Zeman's older brother,Mahmud. The clans of the chiefs Zeman had executed joined forces with therebels, and they took Qandahar without bloodshed.

Zeman's overthrow in 1800 was not the end of civil strife in Afghanistan butthe beginning of even greater violence. Shah Mahmud reigned for a mere threeyears before being replaced by yet another of Timur Shah's sons, Shuja, whoruled for only six years, from 1803 to 1809. On June 7, 1809, Shuja signed aTreaty of Friendship with the British which included a clause stating that hewould oppose the passage of foreign troops through his territories. Thisagreement, the first Afghan pact with a European power, stipulated joint actionin case of Franco-Persian aggression against Afghan or British dominions. Only afew weeks after signing the agreement, Shuja was deposed by his predecessor,Mahmud, whose second reign lasted nine years, until 1818. Mahmud alienated theMuhammadzai, especially Fateh Khan, the son of Painda Khan, who was eventuallyseized and blinded. Revenge would later be sought and obtained by Fateh Khan'syoungest brother, Dost Mohammad.

From 1818 until Dost Mohammad's ascendancy in 1826, chaos reigned in thedomains of Ahmad Shah Durrani's empire as various sons of Painda Khan struggledfor supremacy. Afghanistan ceased to exist as a single nation, disintegratingfor a brief time into a fragmented collection of small units, each ruled by adifferent Durrani leader.


Country Studies main page | Afghanistan Country Studies main page