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History, An Afghan Empire

Amu Darya river, Hindu Kush mountains, Abdur Rahman Khan, Amu Darya, Ahmad Shah

In the 18th century, Nadir Shah, the king of Persia, employed the Abdali tribe of Pashtuns in his wars in India. Ahmad Shah, an Abdali chief who had gained a high post in Nadir Shah’s army, established himself in Kandahar after Nadir Shah’s assassination in 1747. An assembly of tribal chiefs proclaimed him shah, and the Afghans extended their rule as far east as Kashmir and Delhi, north to the Amu Darya, and west into northern Persia.

Ahmad retired from the throne in 1772 and died in Kandahar, whereupon his son Timur Shah assumed control. The Afghan empire survived largely intact through the next 20 years. He established his capital in Kabul to draw power away from his rivals in Kandahar, as well as to be closer to his richest province, the Punjab of India. Following Timur’s death in 1793, palace rivalries and internal conflicts led to the disintegration of the empire. Two sons of Timur, Shah Shuja and Shah Mahmud, fought over the remnants of the Afghan empire, with Shuja finally going into exile in India and Mahmud withdrawing to Herat, as a number of other small principalities emerged throughout Afghanistan.

Dost Muhammad Khan emerged as the new ruler, or emir, in Kabul by 1826. Among the most pressing problems he faced was repelling the westward encroachment of the Sikhs, who gained control of the Punjab and the region up to the Khyber Pass, including the important trading post of Peshawar. In 1837 Dost Muhammad’s forces defeated the Sikhs at Jamrud, but failed to recover Peshawar. This conflict and the arrival of a new Russian envoy in Kabul made the British, who were allies of the Sikhs, extremely nervous about the security of the western frontier of their growing empire in India. These events played out during the so-called Great Game between the Russian “bear” and the British “lion,” with both empires vying for regional dominance and Afghanistan becoming caught between them. In 1838 Lord Auckland, the British governor-general of India, ordered military intervention in Afghanistan to protect British interests, thereby setting off the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838-1842). With British and Sikh manipulation and support, Shah Shuja returned to Afghanistan to overthrow Dost Muhammad, as a British garrison was established in Kabul and elsewhere south of the Hindu Kush mountains.

A revolt by Dost Muhammad’s son Muhammad Akbar Khan led to the forced withdrawal of the British garrison from Kabul in the winter of 1842. Ambushed during the retreat, nearly all of the some 4,500 British troops and their 12,000 camp followers were killed. Dost Muhammad was able to return to Kabul, from where he spent the next 20 years reunifying parts of Afghanistan until his death in 1863.

Dost Muhammad designated his third son, Sher Ali, as his successor, but civil war erupted as rivals to Sher Ali vied for control. Sher Ali defeated his rivals, notably his brother Afzul Khan, by 1868. At the same time he tried to maintain good relations with the British Raj (British-ruled India). However, the Russian conquests in Central Asia had brought that empire to the Amu Darya river on the northern border of Afghanistan by 1847. The negotiations of a Russian envoy in Kabul renewed the unease of the British, who consequently invaded Afghanistan, instigating the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880). Sher Ali was deposed in 1879, but the British, realizing the difficulties of ruling from within Afghanistan, in 1880 invited a nephew of Sher Ali, Abdur Rahman Khan (Afzul Khan’s son), to rule at their behest. However, the British limited his power beyond the borders of Afghanistan by securing control of Afghan foreign relations.

Known as the Iron Emir, Abdur Rahman recognized the threat from the expansionistic Russians and the defensive British. As a result he allowed the foreign delineation of his borders to encompass a smaller territory than he actually considered to be Afghanistan. The emergence of the present-day configuration of the country, with its narrow panhandle of the Wakhan Corridor projecting to China on the northeast, is an example of the establishment of a classic buffer state, in which to avoid inadvertent conflict, the borders of the Russian and British empires were to have no contact points in common. Similarly, the establishment of the Durand Line, the southeastern border of Afghanistan, divided the territory of the militant Pashtun tribe into two halves, with one half under the control of the British Raj, and the other inside Afghanistan. This divide-and-rule policy allowed some nominal control of a difficult region, but problems related to the tribally unpopular (and for them, unrecognized) border have continued to the present day.

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