UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Abdur Rahman Khan "The Iron Amir" - 1880-1901

Abdur Rahman KhanAbdur Rahman was a most remarkable man, greatly resembling his grandfather Dost Mahomed in strength of character and faculty for dealing with men. In 1863 Dost Mohammad retook Herat with British acquiescence, but a few months later, Dost Mohammad died. Sher Ali, his third son, and proclaimed successor, failed to recapture Kabul from his older brother, Mohammad Afzal (whose troops were led by his son, Abdur Rahman) until 1868, after which Abdur Rahman retreated across the Amu Darya, placed himself under Russian protection, and bided his time.

With British forces occupying much of the country, Sher Ali's son and successor, Yaqub, signed the Treaty of Gandamak in May 1879 to prevent a British invasion of the rest of the country. According to this agreement and in return for an annual subsidy and vague assurances of assistance in case of foreign aggression, Yaqub relinquished control of Afghan foreign affairs to the British. British representatives were installed in Kabul and other locations, British control was extended to the Khyber and Michni passes, and the Afghanistan ceded various frontier areas to Britain. Yakub Khan felt that further rule in Afghanistan was impossible and thereupon spontaneously abdicated.

His abdication was welcomed by the Indian Government as likely to assist it in carrying out the most important parts of its policy. For the present the future of Kabul or of the Oxus provinces could not be decided. But Kandahar was to be finally separated from Kabul, and Herat might be handed over to Persia. Shere Ali Khan was installed at Kandahar in April 1880, but no suitable candidate for the throne of Kabul was then forthcoming. Abdur Rahman had been almost twelve years in Russian exile. Abdur Rahman, Shere Ali's nephew, was at last allowed by Russia to try his fortunes in Afghanistan. The Russians, fully aware of the British difficulties and of their willingness to accept any strong candidate for the throne of Kabul, probably thought that, by sending forth Abdur Rahman, they were welding a useful instrument for future use. In this they were woefully mistaken.

Abdurrahman, left Russia, concluded a treaty with the Indian Government, and succeeded to the Kabul throne in July 1880. The kingdom upon which he thus entered he subsequently trebled in size by the successive annexations of:—Herat, which was under Ayoob, son of the late Amir, Shere Ali; Kandahar, which was placed under Sirdar Shere Ali Wali of Kandahar by the British; Hazarah J at, which for four centuries had been independent of Afghanistan; and Kafiristan, which had never before been annexed to Afghanistan since the time of Alexander the Great. These extensive dominions he has succeeded in reducing to a condition of peaceful order previously unknown in the history of Afghanistan, and has established throughout them a uniform administration of government.

As far as British interests were concerned, Abdur Rahman answered their prayers: a forceful, intelligent leader capable of welding his divided people into a state; and he was willing to accept limitations to his power imposed by British control of his country's foreign affairs and the British buffer state policy. His twenty-one-year reign was marked by efforts to modernize and establish control of the kingdom, whose boundaries were delineated by the two empires bordering it. Abdur Rahman turned his considerable energies to what evolved into the creation of the modern state of Afghanistan.

He achieved this consolidation of Afghanistan in three ways. He suppressed various rebellions and followed up his victories with harsh punishment, execution, and deportation. He broke the stronghold of Pashtun tribes by forcibly transplanting them. He transplanted his most powerful Pashtun enemies, the Ghilzai, and other tribes from southern and south-central Afghanistan to areas north of the Hindu Kush with predominantly non-Pashtun populations. Finally, he created a system of provincial governorates different from old tribal boundaries. Provincial governors had a great deal of power in local matters, and an army was placed at their disposal to enforce tax collection and suppress dissent. Abdur Rahman kept a close eye on these governors, however, by creating an effective intelligence system. During his reign, tribal organization began to erode as provincial government officials allowed land to change hands outside the traditional clan and tribal limits.

In addition to forging a nation from the splintered regions comprising Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman tried to modernize his kingdom by forging a regular army and the first institutionalized bureaucracy. Despite his distinctly authoritarian personality, Abdur Rahman called for a loya jirgah (jirgah--see Glossary), an assemblage of royal princes, important notables, and religious leaders. According to his autobiography, Abdur Rahman had three goals: subjugating the tribes, extending government control through a strong, visible army, and reinforcing the power of the ruler and the royal family.

Abdur Rahman also paid attention to technological advancement. He brought foreign physicians, engineers (especially for mining), geologists, and printers to Afghanistan. He imported European machinery and encouraged the establishment of small factories to manufacture soap, candles, and leather goods. He sought European technical advice on communications, transport, and irrigation. Nonetheless, despite these sweeping internal policies, Abdur Rahman's foreign policy was completely in foreign hands.

The first important frontier dispute was the Panjdeh crisis of 1885, precipitated by Russian encroachment into Central Asia. Having seized the Merv (now Mary) Oasis by 1884, Russian forces were directly adjacent to Afghanistan. Claims to the Panjdeh Oasis were in debate, with the Russians keen to take over all the region's Turkoman domains. After battling Afghan forces in the spring of 1885, the Russians seized the oasis. Russian and British troops were quickly alerted, but the two powers reached a compromise; Russia was in possession of the oasis, and Britain believed it could keep the Russians from advancing any farther. Without an Afghan say in the matter, the Joint Anglo-Russian Boundary Commission agreed the Russians would relinquish the farthest territory captured in their advance but retain Panjdeh. This agreement on these border sections delineated for Afghanistan a permanent northern frontier at the Amu Darya but also the loss of much territory, especially around Panjdeh.

The second section of Afghan border demarcated during Abdur Rahman's reign was in the Wakhan Corridor. The British insisted Abdur Rahman accept sovereignty over this remote region where unruly Kirghiz held sway, he had no choice but to accept Britain's compromise. In 1895 and 1896 another Joint Anglo-Russian Boundary Commission agreed on the frontier boundary to the far northeast of Afghanistan, which bordered Chinese territory (although the Chinese did not formally accept this as on a boundary between the two countries until 1964.)

For Abdur Rahman, delineating the boundary with India (through the Pashtun area) was far more significant, and it was during his reign that the Durand Line was drawn. Under pressure, Abdur Rahman agreed in 1893 to accept a mission headed by the British Indian foreign secretary, Sir Mortimer Durand, to define the limits of British and Afghan control in the Pashtun territories. Boundary limits were agreed on by Durand and Abdur Rahman before the end of 1893, but there is some question about the degree to which Abdur Rahman willingly ceded certain regions. There were indications that he regarded the Durand Line as a delimitation of separate areas of political responsibility, not a permanent international frontier, and that he did not explicitly cede control over certain parts (such as Kurram and Chitral) that were already in British control under the Treaty of Gandamak.

The Durand Line cut through both tribes and villages and bore little relation to the realities of topography, demography, or even military strategy. The line laid the foundation, not for peace between the border regions, but for heated disagreement between the governments of Afghanistan and British India, and later, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

With the advantage of an assurance from the British Government that he would be aided against foreign aggression, he was able to establish an absolute military despotism inside his kingdom, by breaking down the power of the warlike tribes which held in check, up to his time, the personal autocracy of the Kabul rulers, and by organizing a regular army well furnished with European rifles and artillery. Taxation of all kinds was heavily increased, and systematically collected. The result was that whereas in former times the forces of an Afghan ruler consisted mainly of a militia, furnished by the chiefs of tribes who held laud on condition of military service, and who stoutly resisted any attempt to commute this service for money payment, the Amir had at his command a large standing army, and disposed of a substantial revenue paid direct to his treasury. Abdurrahman executed or exiled all those whose political influence he saw reason to fear, or of whose disaffection he had the slightest suspicion; his administration was severe and his punishments were cruel; but undoubtedly he put down disorder, stopped the petty tyranny of local chiefs, and brought violent crime under some effective control in the districts.

The clearest manifestation that Abdur Rahman's had established control in Afghanistan was the peaceful successor of his eldest son, Habibullah, to the throne on his father's death in October 1901. Although Abdur Rahman had fathered many children, he groomed Habibullah to succeed him, and he made it difficult for his other sons to contest the succession by keeping power from them and sequestering them in Kabul under his control.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 08-10-2012 19:53:09 ZULU