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Durrani Empire - 1747-1772

From Nadir Shah's death in 1747 until the communist coup of April 1978, Afghanistan was governed--at least nominally--by Pashtun rulers from the Abdali group of clans. Indeed, it was under the leadership of the first Pashtun ruler, Ahmad Shah, that the nation of Afghanistan began to take shape following centuries of fragmentation and exploitation. Even before the death of Nadir Shah, tribes in the Hindu Kush had been growing stronger and were beginning to take advantage of the waning power of their distant rulers. Two lineage groups within the Abdali ruled Afghanistan from 1747 until the downfall of the monarchy in the 1970s--the Sadozai of the Popalzai tribe, and the Muhammadzai of the Barakzai tribe.

Contrasting the former power, and extended authority of the Durani empire, with its feeble condition and limited sway in the early 19th Century, cannot but impress the observer with humble ideas of earthly prosperity. The sword which had triumphed in many a conflict on Persian and Indian soils which had wrested the fairest gem from the diadem of the vanquished descendant of Taimur, and which even was supposed to menace the existence of European power in Hindostan, was drawn only within the contracted limits of a few spared provinces, and in inglorious intestine commotions. The dependent states, whose chiefs obeyed the behests of the Shah of Afghanistan, and heaped his coffers with tributary gold, were independent, or reduced to subjection by Ranjit Sing, who once appeared a suppliant vassal, with closed hands, in the presence of the unfortunate Shah Zemart.

The Durani was founded by Ahmed Shah, a soldier of fortune, and required a series of sovereigns equal to that illustrious chief in character and energy to have sustained it. Although the sovereign belonged to the tribe, the most respected perhaps of the various Durani clans, there were many others much more powerful and numerous, the heads of which conscious of their stength, approached the throne rather with a feeling of equality than of respect. If a request were denied or a rebuke given, they retired to their castles, drew out their followers, and became rebels. It was evident that an aristocracy so turbulent and puissant, could only be restrained, and kept in due obedience, by a monarch of great personal qualities, who could both command and compel their homage. In short, it became necessary that the prince, in all splendid endowments should surpass his nobles. Ahmed Shah was such a prince, but he was followed by successors of inferior ability, the consequence of which was that the kingdom was rent by rebellion, and broken up.

In 1747 Ahmad Shah and his Abdali horsemen joined the chiefs of the Abdali tribes and clans near Qandahar to choose a leader. Despite being younger than other claimants, Ahmad had several overriding factors in his favor. He was a direct descendant of Sado, eponym of the Sadozai; he was unquestionably a charismatic leader and seasoned warrior who had at his disposal a trained, mobile force of several thousand cavalrymen; and he possessed part of Nadir Shah's treasury. One of Ahmad Shah's first acts as chief was to adopt the title "Durr-i-Durrani" ("pearl of pearls" or "pearl of the age"), which may have come from a dream or from the pearl earrings worn by the royal guard of Nadir Shah. The Abdali Pashtuns were known thereafter as the Durrani.

Ahmad Shah began by capturing Ghazni from the Ghilzai Pashtuns, and then wresting Kabul from the local ruler. In 1749 the Mughal ruler ceded sovereignty over Sindh Province and the areas of northern India west of the Indus to Ahmad Shah in order to save his capital from Afghan attack. Ahmad Shah then set out westward to take possession of Herat, which was ruled by Nadir Shah's grandson, Shah Rukh. Herat fell to Ahmad after almost a year of siege and bloody conflict, as did Mashhad (in present-day Iran). Ahmad next sent an army to subdue the areas north of the Hindu Kush. In short order, the powerful army brought under its control the Turkmen, Uzbek, Tajik, and Hazara tribes of northern Afghanistan (see Ethnic Groups, ch. 2). Ahmad invaded India a third, then a fourth, time, taking control of the Punjab, Kashmir, and the city of Lahore. Early in 1757, he sacked Delhi, but permitted the Mughal Dynasty to remain in nominal control as long as the ruler acknowledged Ahmad's suzerainty over the Punjab, Sindh, and Kashmir. Leaving his second son Timur in charge, Ahmad left India to return to Afghanistan.

The collapse of Mughal control in India, however, also facilitated the rise of rulers other than Ahmad Shah. In the Punjab, the Sikhs were becoming a potent force. From their capital at Pune, the Marathas, Hindus who controlled much of western and central India, were beginning to look northward to the decaying Mughal empire, which Ahmad Shah now claimed by conquest. Upon his return to Qandahar in 1757, Ahmad faced Maratha attacks which succeeded in ousting Timur and his court in India.

Ahmad Shah declared an Islamic holy war against the Marathas, and warriors from various Pashtun tribes, as well as other tribes such as the Baloch, answered his call. Early skirmishes ended in victory for the Afghans, and by 1759 Ahmad and his army had reached Lahore. By 1760 the Maratha groups had coalesced into a great army. Once again Panipat was the scene of a confrontation between two warring contenders for control of northern India. The Battle of Panipat in 1761 between Muslim and Hindu armies who numbered as many as 100,000 troops each was fought along a twelve-kilometer front. Despite decisively defeating the Marathas, what might have been Ahmad Shah's peaceful control of his domains was disrupted by other challenges.

The victory at Panipat was the high point of Ahmad Shah's--and Afghan--power. Afterward, even prior to his death, the empire began to unravel. By the end of 1761, the Sikhs had gained power and taken control of much of the Punjab. In 1762 Ahmad Shah crossed the passes from Afghanistan for the sixth time to subdue the Sikhs. He assaulted Lahore and, after taking their holy city of Amritsar, massacred thousands of Sikh inhabitants, destroying their temples and desecrating their holy places with cow's blood. Within two years the Sikhs rebelled again. Ahmad Shah tried several more times to subjugate the Sikhs permanently, but failed. By the time of his death, he had lost all but nominal control of the Punjab to the Sikhs, who remained in charge of the area until the British defeat in 1849.

Ahmad Shah also faced other rebellions in the north, and eventually he and the amir of Bukhara agreed that the Amu Darya would mark the division of their lands. In 1772 Ahmad Shah retired to his home in the mountains east of Qandahar, where he died. Ahmad Shah had succeeded to a remarkable degree in balancing tribal alliances and hostilities and in directing tribal energies away from rebellion. He earned recognition as Ahmad Shah Baba, or "Father" of Afghanistan.

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