Al-Ahram Weekly Online
8 - 14 November 2001
Issue No.559
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Afghani figures


A Diwan of contemporary life (415)

Dr YunanAfghanistan, a country much in the news these days, was also the focus of a series of articles in Al-Ahram in 1927. At that time, attention was drawn to the country on the occasion of a visit to Egypt by the king of Afghanistan. A four-part series published by the newspaper dealt with Afghanistan's geography, history, relationship with neighbouring countries and its local political system. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* presents an ancient land now under intense present-day scrutiny

Land of mountains and warfare

On 25 December 1927, Afghanistan's King Amanullah Khan Al- Ghazi arrived in Suez by ship on an official visit that lasted until 3 January. As was its custom on such occasions, Al-Ahram covered the visit, sending a reporter to accompany the royal Afghan entourage every step of the way. More important, however, was the study on Afghanistan that the newspaper presented its readers. Appearing in four articles, the study was taken from the manuscript of an "invaluable book, unparalleled in Arabic or in any foreign language, by the brilliant young Egyptian scholar Badran Zeidan." Al-Ahram went on to acknowledge that the work had not yet been published. Nor is it certain that it eventually did appear in print.

Because Afghanistan is still as mysterious as it was to the newspaper's readers over seven decades ago, we believe that the articles will be useful in enlightening today's readers, for which reason we have decided to reprint them largely as they appeared in the original.

Al-Ahram, 24 December 1927: In ancient times the area now known as Afghanistan was called Khorasan. However, because the Afghan tribes, which inhabited the Ghot mountains to the east of Khorasan, were the dominant ethnic group, the name of their area -- Afghan -- was given to the entire country. In the past, Afghanistan was divided into two major regions. The first was the mountainous region of Kabul, or Kabulistan, as it was then known, and the second was Kharastan, or Zabilistan, on the plains adjacent to Iran, which is now separated from Afghanistan by the Sistan Desert.

The borders of Afghanistan continued to shift according to the fortunes of tribal raids until 1884, when a joint Russian-British commission drew up the borders of the country. However, the border between Afghanistan and Iran remained in dispute until 1903, when Colonel McMahon was charged with negotiating the borders and resolving the matter. His success in this task, and then the 1919 Treaty with Britain, brought Afghanistan -- parts of which were recognised as independent -- under the British sphere of influence.

The area of Afghanistan is 250,000 square miles. There are no precise figures for the population, although it is estimated at 10 million. Apart from the dominant Afghan element, the population also consists of Turkmens, Mongols and Persians.

In the 19th century, the Russians planned to invade the independent Kaverstan plateau, in the northeast of the country, in the hopes of advancing from there on to India. In response, the British sought to occupy the area in order to repel the Russians. However, Emir Abdel- Rahman Khan, the grandfather of King Amanullah, beat the powers to the punch by occupying the area himself and converting its people to Islam He renamed the area Nuristan, or the "country of light." Abdel-Rahman also succeeded in seizing Badikhstan from the British, thereby securing control over the only passage between Afghanistan and Tibet, Sino-Turkistan and East Ukham.

Afghan Turkistan, which comprises two-thirds of the kingdom, consists of several provinces, the most important being Balukh. The monuments there tell of the province's former magnificence, destroyed by the tyrant Genghis Khan during his ravage of the East, leaving only relics to attest to the grandeur of the civilisation that once existed there.

A Mongolian emperor once described Afghanistan as the mountain kingdom. Many of the country's mountains remained snow- capped throughout the year. The highest, at 26,629 feet, is Tajabriat, or "bare mountain," followed by Mount Suleimat at 17,000 feet and Mount Safid at 15,000 feet. The mountains, interspersed with passes and valleys, are subject to frequent earthquakes and some are volcanic. Climatic conditions range from extreme heat in the valleys to extreme cold on the peaks.

Because of the heavy winter snowfall, Afghanistan has many rivers, some of which do not reach the sea, but flow into the desert or feed into the rivers of India. They contain few fish, perhaps the most famous variety being the omasia, which can weigh up to 40 pounds apiece.

Because there is no irrigation system or dams, Afghans depend on rain for agriculture. However, in recent times they have begun to study ways of benefiting from irrigation. There are many regions in Afghanistan that are very fertile, but most are unproductive due to the lack of development. The exception is the Turkistan plains.

There are two agricultural seasons: summer and autumn. The most important crops are wheat, beans, onions and pulses. Of secondary importance are cotton, sugarcane, rice, corn, fruits and tobacco. Sugarcane is exported to India; the most famous tobacco is from Qandahar and there are more than 20 kinds of grapes. The Afghans excel in fruit preservation.

Horses are found in large numbers and the Waziri tribes are keen breeders of them. There are also camels, of the two-humped variety, and mules are used for transport in the mountains. In the eastern part of the country there are many man-eating tigers.

Geologists say Afghanistan is rich in minerals, including fossilised coal, iron, gold, rubies, sulphur, saltpetre and mercury. However, there is no industry of value. They extract iron to manufacture spears and knives and in Kabul there is a wool-weaving factory. Homes have few decorations in them. Most of the people's commercial dealings are with Bukhara, India, Iran and Britain, but they are increasingly dealing with China, France and Italy.

The government has recently introduced telephone and telegraph lines and started to pave roads. Mail is exchanged with India twice a week.

Al-Ahram, 25 December 1927: Little is known about the history of Afghanistan until the advent of Islam and the appearance of the Caliphate of Omar when, in 18 AH (640 AD), Al-Ahnaf Bin Qais conquered Khorasan and took the cities of Kabul and Herat. In the caliphate of Othman, the Afghans rebelled but were suppressed, and when Muawiya became caliph he had to send troops to keep them in check. Indeed, throughout the period of Ummayad rule Afghan insurrections continued uninterrupted, contrary to the situation under the Abbasids, until the age of the Caliph Ma'mun. At this point control began to disintegrate. Ya'qub Bin Al-Laith founded the Saffarid dynasty in Khorasan and Afghanistan. Then the country fell under the rule of the Samanid, named after Saman whom the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mu'tamid Billah appointed to rule the province in 361 AH.

In 376 AH, the governor of Khorasan under the Samanids took advantage of disturbances to seize Ghaznah and founded a small, independent government there. When he died in 386 AH he was succeeded by his son, Abu-Ishaq, who was so tyrannical that the people of Ghaznah rallied and transferred power to Sabaktigin Nassereddin who founded the Ghaznavid dynasty and who extended his rule from Khorasan in the west to Punjab in the east. The most famous Ghaznah ruler was Sultan Mahmoud, who fostered the spread of science and knowledge, constructed mosques and schools and transformed Ghaznah into a centre of learning and architectural splendour. Following Mahmoud, the Ghaznah state deteriorated and was overtaken by the Ghurid dynasty, which was based in Ghur in the north of Afghanistan.

In 1223 AD, following the death of Shihabeddin Al-Ghuri, the eighth ruler of the Ghurid dynasty, Afghanistan was raided by the hordes of Genghis Khan. Hardly had it recovered from that calamity than it fell, in 1398 AD, to one of the grandsons of Timur Lank (Tamerlane), "The Lame," the famous Mongolian commander who terrorised all of Asia in the late 14th century. In 1501, the country was seized by Babarai "The Tiger," a descendant of Genghis Khan whose tomb is found in present-day Kabul. Afghanistan then fell under the control of the Mogul Empire in India. At the end of the rule of Jahangir, Iran seized most of the western parts of Afghanistan, while the eastern part remained under Mogul rule until Shah Abbas the Great seized Qandahar. In 1747, the Afghans rebelled against the Iranians who were eventually defeated by Ahmed Khan Al-Abdali in 1818. The Abdali Afghans were then supplanted by the Barkazi regime in the early 19th century.

It was at this time, too, that Napoleon and the Czar of Russia agreed to follow a unified policy in Asia, leading to the Russian occupation of Turkistan in the second half of the 19th century. The British, fearing that the Russians planned to advance southwards to occupy Afghanistan, gave Shah Shuga'a, who had fled Afghanistan to India, a powerful army under British command, enabling him to conquer Qandahar in 1839. After appointing a British governor over the city, the shah advanced on Kabul and conquered it as well. The British thought they had Afghanistan under their control. However, in 1843, the Afghans rebelled and succeeded in cutting off the route between India and Afghanistan and defeating the British army, forcing the British to agree to withdraw from Qandahar, Ghaznah, Kabul and the rest of the country, and undertake not to interfere again militarily unless invited by the Afghan people. The British forces also pledged to hand over half their arms and ammunitions to the Afghans. After that, the Afghans fought among themselves until Emir Shir succeeded in suppressing the rebels.

In 1878, the czar sent an emissary to Shir in order to convey his sympathy and show his good intentions. Again suspicious of Russian designs, the British sent the Shir a letter intended to intimidate him. When he failed to respond, the British declared war on him, but he died shortly afterwards in 1879.

Ya'qub Khan, who succeeded Shir, attempted to make peace. However, when the British ambassador died after his house was set on fire, the British sent in an army to capture Khan and bring him to India. At this point, Abdel-Rahman Khan advanced into the country from Samarqand and succeeded in rallying the support of the Afghan people. On 22 July 1880 the British officially recognised him as the emir of Afghanistan.

Abdel-Rahman Khan was the greatest emir to emerge in the country. The son of Mohamed Afdal Khan, he was born in Kabul in 1844. A talented horseman, he perfected his cavalry skills under a British commander by the name of Campbell. Following the departure of the British from the country, Abdel-Rahman turned his attention to suppressing insurrection, moving first against Qandahar which he conquered. Then he defeated all the other tribes and princes, one by one. After having quelled those rebellions, he feared that the Russians, who had just occupied Al- Pamir, intended to advance on Kaverstan, so he mounted a campaign against this savage tribe in Kaverstan, which liked cows more than women, and conquered them. Abdel-Rahman later turned his attention to domestic reforms, founding a rifle factory, a soap and candle industry and a health authority. The first hospital in Afghanistan was founded in 1894 under his rule. In short, this emir can be considered the father of Afghanistan.

Following his death in 1901, he was succeeded by his son, Emir Habibullah, who continued the reform policies of his father, introducing a Shura (consultative) Council of notables and Islamic legal scholars, a military academy, a number of schools and a newspaper called Sirag Al-Akhbar. When World War I broke out in 1914, Habibullah declared his country's neutrality. However, it was rumoured he was actually supporting the British and surrendering the rights of his county, a rumour that drove a fanatic youth to assassinate the emir in his bed on 20 February 1919.

Shortly after his son, Amanallah Khan, took the throne, war began between Afghanistan and the British in India, in the course of which the Afghan forces succeeded in capturing several strongholds in the vicinity of Khost. On 8 August 1919, the Afghans and British signed a peace treaty which established the mutual respect of independence, diplomatic representation and Afghanistan's right to trade with India. The British had formerly allocated 120,000 in aid to Afghanistan annually. This aid was cut off after the treaty.

Amanullah also concluded a treaty with Russia, establishing diplomatic relations, and then sent a delegation to Europe and the US to notify those nations of the treaty and to conclude political and trade agreements with them.

Al-Ahram, 27 December 1927: In spite of Afghanistan's treaty with Russia, now under the Soviets, not all border problems between them were resolved, particularly with regard to Tashkent. Therefore, an Afghan delegation travelled to Moscow, where a second treaty was signed on 28 February 1920. In the treaty's first article, each party recognised the other's independence and pledged not to conclude any political or military pact that could harm the other. Russia pledged to guarantee the freedom of passage to Afghan traders and to give Afghanistan a million rubles in financial assistance in the form of gold, silver and brass coins.

While in Moscow, the Afghan delegation met with a Turkish team and agreed to conclude a treaty between the two countries. The preamble of the treaty stated: "Whereas the two sovereign states, Afghanistan and Turkey, are so genuinely bound by feelings of mutual affection and sympathy that neither can live without the other, they have decided to manifest the spiritual unity that exists between them in the form of an official agreement, a treaty which will serve as a prelude to good relations and a key to the happiness of all peoples of the Orient."

The treaty addressed commercial and trade relations, called for the establishment of a postal service between the two countries and committed them to exchanging information on their political, scientific and commercial conditions. In addition, Turkey pledged to send a corps of academics and military officers to assist Afghanistan for a five-year period.

In April 1920, the government of Afghanistan sent another delegation to predominantly Shiite Iran and concluded a treaty of friendship and loyalty with that government. The preamble of this treaty states, "The two neighbouring Islamic governments which embrace a single religion have signed this treaty to consolidate their good relations." In addition to calling for the exchange of ambassadors between the two nations, the treaty also contained a provision on the extradition of criminals, another in which they pledged not to support in any manner a power hostile to the other party and a third that stipulated that should the signatories find themselves unable to resolve any dispute arising between them through direct negotiations, they would bring their dispute before international arbitration.

Al-Ahram devoted the rest of this article to the ceremonies surrounding the conclusion of the Afghan-Russian and Afghan- Iranian treaties.

Al-Ahram, 7 January 1928: When King Amanullah gained independence for his country he immediately set about building the new Afghanistan. The first focus of this great king's reforms was the army. It used to be that when the Afghans wanted to wage war they would organise their ranks and then appoint commanders to lead the soldiers. When Abdel-Rahman assumed power, he initiated a new voluntary system. Every group of eight men would select one of their number for military service, the period of which was three years. Abdel-Rahman then selected commanders who excelled in warfare and strategy and enhanced the quality of military education and constructed an armaments factory in Kabul to manufacture cannon and other arms. His son, Habibullah, followed in his father's footsteps and founded a military academy in the capital to teach the art of war and foreign languages. King Amanullah Khan reorganised the army and its system of training and established bases in Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Qandahar and Jalalabad. He reformed the military academy in Kabul, appointing as its director Gen Mahmoud Sami, an Arab officer from Baghdad who had immigrated to Afghanistan in the days of Emir Habibullah. He also permitted non-Muslims in Afghanistan to join the army, thereby giving them a share in the honour of defending their country. The Afghan soldier is well- known for his obedience, courage, patience and endurance.

In old times, most Afghan soldiers lived in tents; permanent houses were few. It was Abdel-Rahman who first built military barracks and increased soldiers' pay to 10 rubles per month. Under Habibullah the pay was raised to 12 rubles and under King Amanullah to 20 rubles for military service and 30 rubles for service in the royal guard. It was not until King Amanullah that the Afghan army had clearly defined ranks as we know them today.

Until the Afghan warriors came into contact with the Iranians and Indians, their weapons had been the bow and arrow and spear. They did not use rifles until Abdel-Rahman appeared on the scene. Today, however, they are equipped with the latest in arms, artillery and aircraft. The people of Afghanistan, even women, are avid purchasers of weapons, and in some tribes weapons and ammunition are given as dowry.

Afghanistan has its own flag -- black with a minbar or mosque pulpit emblem. Its troops have long marched to the strains of military bands and since Amanullah's reforms, they have been reviewed in modern fashion.

King Amanullah also devoted himself to government reform. Before he took over, the country had been divided into separate independent provinces, or khans, until they came under the authority of the emirs of Kabul. The government of Afghanistan was despotic, although Abdel-Rahman, and then his son, introduced reforms into the civil service. When Amanullah assumed power, he divided the government into separate ministries and departments, creating the ministries of war, foreign affairs, interior, finance, education, trade, security, agriculture and postal, telegraph and telephone authorities. The prime minister is appointed by royal decree and ministers have executive authority within the scope of their jurisdiction. According to the law, the king presides over the cabinet and every year convenes an assembly of the ministers and directors of the government departments to deliver a report on their progress, expressing his gratitude for good performance and counselling those who have shown failings or negligence.

Administration in the provinces is organised as follows: the governor, termed a deputy of the government, is subordinate to the Ministry of Interior, yet has broad powers. He presides over a special provincial council which advises him on administrative matters and other affairs of the province. Provinces are divided into kilans, which are equivalent to governorates in Egypt. These are further divided into departments. The governors of kilans are assisted by a chief of finances, inspectors of agriculture, customs and postal services and a police commandant. There are appointed members of the governorate Shura Council, other members of which are elected by the people. Governors are of three ranks; the top two are appointed by the king while the third is appointed by the Ministry of Interior.

Under the constitution, village and tribal chiefs have certain powers, privileges and duties. Keen to spread the spirit of cooperation and consultation throughout the country, King Amanullah introduced, in 1919, the 21-member Shura Council. Its opinions are heeded in all important matters such as administrative and judicial reforms. Under King Amanullah, too, Afghanistan was given its first constitution. Consisting of 73 articles, it stipulates that Afghanistan is an independent nation with its capital in Kabul, that its official religion is Islam and that all citizens are equal under the law. Also under the constitution, all permanent residents in Afghanistan are considered subjects and are entitled to civil freedoms. The country enjoys a free press within the bounds of the relevant ordinances, although there are restrictions on foreign newspapers. Foreigners are not permitted to open schools; forced labour is prohibited and primary education is compulsory.

Although Badran Zeidan's articles ended here, two more points are noteworthy. Within two years of King Amanullah's visit to Egypt, he was overthrown and the country succumbed to civil strife. In 1929 his uncle, Mohamed Nadir Shah, succeeded in restoring order and sought to institute new reforms until he was assassinated in 1933. Succeeding him was his son, Mohamed Zahir Shah, aged only 19 at the time, who ruled the country for the next 30 years and who, today, is living in exile in Rome.

There remains a point about diplomatic relations between Egypt and Afghanistan which officially began with the exchange of diplomatic representatives in 1930. The first Afghan diplomatic representative to Egypt was Mohamed Sadeq Mujadadi Khan, described in confidential British Foreign Office archives as "traditional, fanatic and reactionary, and viewed by Egyptians as a joke because he wears a turban and frock coat over a shirt without its collar."

The names of various places mentioned in this article are spelled phonetically from Arabic.

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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