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Habibullah Khan - 1901-1919

Habibullah KhanHabibullah, Abdur Rahman's eldest son but child of a slave mother, kept a close watch on the palace intrigues revolving around his father's more distinguished wife (a granddaughter of Dost Mohammad), who sought the throne for her own son. Although made secure in his position as ruler by virtue of support from the army which was created by his father, Habibullah was not as domineering as Abdur Rahman. Consequently, the influence of religious leaders as well as that of Mahmoud Beg Tarzi, a cousin of the king, increased during his reign. Tarzi, a highly educated, well-traveled poet and journalist, founded an Afghan nationalist newspaper with Abdur Rahman's agreement, and until 1919 he used the newspaper as a platform for rebutting clerical criticism of Western-influenced changes in government and society, for espousing full Afghan independence, and for other reforms. Tarzi's passionate Afghan nationalism influenced a future generation of Asian reformers.

The boundary with Iran was firmly delineated in 1904, replacing the ambiguous line made by a British commission in 1872. Agreement could not be reached, however, on sharing the waters of the Helmand River.

Habibullah wanted full Afghan independence and Great Britain’s assistance in an attempt to regain lands taken by the Russians. “Britain far more interested in the European power struggle and the defense of India through an Afghan buffer state was uninterested in such a scheme.”

Like all foreign policy developments of this period affecting Afghanistan, the conclusion of the "Great Game" between Russia and Britain occurred without the Afghan ruler's participation. The 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention (Entente) not only divided the region into separate areas of Russian and British influence but also established foundations for Afghan neutrality. The convention provided for Russian acquiescence that Afghanistan was now outside this sphere of influence, and for Russia to consult directly with Britain on matters relating to Russian-Afghan relations. Britain, for its part, would not occupy or annex Afghan territory, or interfere in Afghanistan's internal affairs.

During World War I, Afghanistan remained neutral despite pressure to support Turkey when its sultan proclaimed his nation's participation in what it considered a holy war. Habibullah did, however, entertain a Turco-German mission in Kabul in 1915. After much procrastination, he won an agreement from the Central Powers for a huge payment and arms provision in exchange for attacking British India. But the crafty Afghan ruler clearly viewed the war as an opportunity to play one side off against the other, for he also offered the British to resist a Central Powers from an attack on India in exchange for an end to British control of Afghan foreign policy.

The Ameer of Afghanistan was a saturnine and quick-tempered gentleman named Habibullah Khan, considerably below average height, bullnecked, broad-shouldered, inclined to stoutness, customarily wearing a long frock-coat and a high cap of black lambskin, to which was uniformly affixed an enormous star of diamonds. Habibullah Khan was, as Afghan rulers go, an enlightened and progressive monarch. The people over whom he ruled were, on the contrary, probably the fiercest, most cruel, and most reactionary folk on earth. The most fanatical of all the Mohammedans, they would not ride on European saddles because they are made of pigskin. It was only to be expected, therefore, that they would view the progressive and proBritish tendencies of the ameer with suspicion.

That "the Lamp of Faith and Nation," therefore, as Habibullah was accustomed modestly to sign himself, should have his clothes made by an English tailor, introduce European table manners into the court life of Kabul, and go roaring up and down the narrow mountain roads in a great red motor-car which stampeded the camel caravans was, in the view of these haughty and pious followers of the prophet, incompatible with his position and with the teachings of the Koran. The resentment of his subjects was still further heightened when he accepted an invitation to visit the Viceroy of India at Calcutta. Habibullah returned from that visit, his baggage filled with Western novelties and his head with Western ideas.

On February 20, 1919, Habibullah was assassinated on a hunting trip. His courtiers expressed their disapproval by setting upon him and hacking him to pieces with their long Afghan knives. They buried him upon the golf-course, for they argued that the most effective way of insuring that it would not again be used for golf was to turn it into a royal cemetery. It was a fitting ending for a golfer. He had not declared a succession, but left his third son, Amanullah, in charge in Kabul.

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Page last modified: 08-10-2012 19:53:11 ZULU