The Reign of King Amanullah, 1919-29

The Reign of King Amanullah, 1919-29

On February 20, 1919, Habibullah was assassinated on a hunting trip. He hadnot declared a succession, but left his third son, Amanullah, in charge inKabul. Because Amanullah controlled both the national treasury and the army, hewas well situated to seize power. Army support allowed Amanullah to suppressother claims and imprison those relatives who would not swear loyalty to him.Within a few months, the new amir had gained the allegiance of most triballeaders and established control over the cities.

Third Anglo-Afghan War and Independence

Amanullah's ten years of reign initiated a period of dramatic change inAfghanistan in both foreign and domestic politics. Starting in May 1919 when hewon complete independence in the month-long Third Anglo-Afghan War with Britain,Amanullah altered foreign policy in his new relations with external powers andtransformed domestic politics with his social, political, and economic reforms.Although his reign ended abruptly, he achieved some notable successes, and hisefforts failed as much due to the centripetal forces of tribal Afghanistan andthe machinations of Russia and Britain as to any political folly on his part.

Amanullah came to power just as the entente between Russia and Britain brokedown following the Russian Revolution of 1917. Once again Afghanistan provided astage on which the great powers played out their schemes against one another.Amanullah attacked the British in May 1919 in two thrusts, taking them bysurprise. Afghan forces achieved success in the early days of the war as Pashtuntribesmen on both sides of the border joined forces with them.

The military skirmishes soon ended in a stalemate as the British recoveredfrom their initial surprise. Britain virtually dictated the terms of the 1919Rawalpindi Agreement, a temporary armistice that provided, somewhat ambiguously,for Afghan self-determination in foreign affairs. Before final negotiations wereconcluded in 1921, however, Afghanistan had already begun to establish its ownforeign policy, including diplomatic relations with the new government in theSoviet Union in 1919. During the 1920s, Afghanistan established diplomaticrelations with most major countries, and Amanullah became king in 1923.

The second round of Anglo-Afghan negotiations for final peace wereinconclusive. Both sides were prepared to agree on Afghan independence inforeign affairs, as provided for in the previous agreement. The two nationsdisagreed, however, on the issue that had plagued Anglo-Afghan relations fordecades and would continue to cause friction for many more--authority overPashtun tribes on both sides of the Durand Line. The British refused to concedeAfghan control over the tribes on the British side of the line while the Afghansinsisted on it. The Afghans regarded the 1921 agreement as only an informal one.

The rivalry of the great powers in the region might have remained subdued hadit not been for the dramatic change in government in Moscow brought about by theBolshevik Revolution of 1917. In their efforts to placate Muslims within theirborders, the new Soviet leaders were eager to establish cordial relations withneighboring Muslim states. In the case of Afghanistan, the Soviets could achievea dual purpose: by strengthening relations with the leadership in Kabul, theycould also threaten Britain, which was one of the Western states supportingcounterrevolution in the Soviet Union. In his attempts to unclench Britishcontrol of Afghan foreign policy, Amanullah sent an emissary to Moscow in 1919;Lenin received the envoy warmly and responded by sending a Soviet representativeto Kabul to offer aid to Amanullah's government.

Throughout Amanullah's reign, Soviet-Afghan relations fluctuated accordingAfghanistan's value to the Soviet leadership at a given time; Afghanistan waseither viewed as a tool for dealing with Soviet Muslim minorities or forthreatening the British. Whereas the Soviets sought Amanullah's assistance insuppressing anti-Bolshevik elements in Central Asia in return for help againstthe British, the Afghans were more interested in regaining lands across the AmuDarya lost to Russia in the nineteenth century. Afghan attempts to regain theoases of Merv and Panjdeh were easily subdued by the Soviet Red Army.

In May 1921, the Afghans and the Soviets signed a Treaty of Friendship,Afghanistan's first international agreement since gaining full independence in1919. The Soviets provided Amanullah with aid in the form of cash, technology,and military equipment. Despite this, Amanullah grew increasingly disillusionedwith the Soviets, especially as he witnessed the widening oppression of hisfellow Muslims across the border.

Anglo-Afghan relations soured over British fear of an Afghan-Sovietfriendship, especially with the introduction of a few Soviet planes intoAfghanistan. British unease increased when Amanullah maintained contacts withIndian nationalists and gave them asylum in Kabul, and also when he sought tostir up unrest among the Pashtun tribes across the border. The British respondedby refusing to address Amanullah as "Your Majesty," and imposingrestrictions on the transit of goods through India.

Country Studies main page | Afghanistan Country Studies main page