Does Afghanistan need to reconcile its past?

This month, Afghanistan celebrated its 100th independence anniversary or 'Victory Day'. On August 8th 1919, the Third Anglo-Afghan war ended after three months of fighting between the forces of British-India and the army of Afghan King Amanullah Khan.

Afghanistan was ultimately created as a national entity and became a neutral state while the British protectorate in Kabul was brought to an end. The country's independence has been commemorated on August 19th since.

King Amanullah Khan, celebrated as an Afghan patriot and an anti-imperialist hero, came out as history's victor. However, a closer look reveals a different picture.

Tired of World War I, the British noticed quickly that the war could take a positive turn for them if they sign a deal with  Amanullah. On the other side, the Afghan king knew that he could not fight forever.

Large parts of his army were poorly equipped, many did not even have shoes. His only strong force, well-trained Pashtun tribal warriors, were not an endless resource either. It was also the first time in history that Afghanistan was bombarded from the air. But in this third war between the Imperial Crown and the Afghans, it was the Afghans who attacked first.

After taking over the throne in Kabul a few months before the war started, Amanullah was plagued with many internal problems, including the question regarding his involvement in the death of his predecessors, his uncle and his very own father. Many Afghans see Amanullah's attack on the hated British colonisers as a patriotic step, but it could also be regarded as a good distraction from domestic issues.

When the war was over, and more than 1,000 Afghans dead, Amanullah agreed to sign a pact – the Treaty of Rawalpindi –  that defined the borders of Afghanistan as a nation-state.

Unsurprisingly, the borders were not drawn by the Afghans themselves but by the British colonisers. One of these borders was the infamous Durand Line, which was already created in 1893 and named after a British diplomat, Mortimer Durand. Back then, the British installed Emir Abdur Rahman Khan, Amanullah's grandfather, in Kabul. As a gift, the emir agreed to the creation of the Durand Line as an official border between Afghanistan and British-India.

However, the new border, which today also separates Afghanistan from Pakistan, divided millions of people in the Pashtun tribal areas. The emir was not concerned about his brethren and sold them out to take power.

After the war, Amanullah Khan reaffirmed the legality of the Durand Line, which was a big success for the British.

Many Afghan Pashtun nationalists, including former presidents, claim that Pakistan – a state, created years later – has to return parts of the provinces of Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA to Afghanistan.

Ironically, the very same nationalists tend to forget that it was Amanullah Khan, a Pashtun himself and a man who is celebrated heavily by them, who accepted the colonial border. On the other side, Pakistan always feared Kabul-based Pashtun nationalism, which was one of the reasons why Islamabad prefers to support Afghan militants against central governments.

Colonised minds and elitism

Like in other post-colonial states that faced national liberation struggles, the colonisers emerged victoriously. This was not just because of the border that they drew, but also because their political legacies lived on.

Amanullah Khan might have prevented a military colonisation of Afghanistan, but their minds remained colonised. The king was a westernised modernist and a strong supporter of secularism.

Kemal Ataturk and Reza Pahlevi were among his close friends, and he wanted to transform Afghanistan in a manner similar to Turkey and Iran. For that reason, Amanullah pushed for many reforms. He appeared suited with his unveiled wife, tried to ban the chadori (also known as burqa) and focused on educational reforms. But at the same time, the king was alienating himself from his people.

He lived in his own privileged, aristocratic bubble. Once, for example, he demanded from all participants of a loya jirga, a nation-wide tribal gathering, to change their clothes. Instead of turbans and Afghan bloomers, they were forced to wear Western suits.

Amanullah Khan adapted many political ideas that originated from Europe, especially his ideas surrounding nationalism and secularism. He was convinced that the Western notion of a nation-state would also work in Afghanistan. For that reason, Amanullah tried to enforce his ideas on his people, becoming more authoritarian and ethnocentrist. This came as no surprise. In many states that found themselves in a situation similar to Afghanistan, the ruling class tried to create new identities to replace existing ones.

In Afghanistan, the ruling class mainly consisted of Pashtuns from the Mohammadzai tribe. Critics often claim that Amanullah and his proteges tried to define an all-embracing Afghan Pashtun identity by erasing or reducing the identities of other ethnic and social groups.

Amanullah did try to improve the situation of the Shiite Hazara minority, as Niamatullah Ibrahimi wrote in The Hazaras and the Afghan State, who were previously considered as “unpeople” and mainly served as slaves. He outlawed slavery through a decree in 1921 and by a constitutional provision in 1923. Additionally, Hazaras found representation in the country's national assemblies.

An open wound

But through his modernisation policies, Amanullah Khan and urban Pashtun elites alienated themselves from rural Pashtuns, who are, until today, more conservative and traditionalist. In fact, their efforts were also the main reason why Amanullah won the war against the British.

As a result, many of them joined the revolt against the king that was led by Habibullah Kalakani, a Tajik from the northern regions of Kabul, scornfully also known as “son of the water carrier”.

Kalakani and his supporters were able to topple the throne, and for the first time in hundreds of years, Kabul was not ruled by a Pashtun but by a Tajik. In the meantime, Amanullah and his family left Afghanistan for British-India. Embittered and disappointed by his people, the former king died in exile in Europe in 1960.

Kalakani did rule in Kabul for a few months. In the end,  Nadir Khan, Amanullah's second cousin, took the throne and executed Kalakani and all of his close supporters although he had sworn on the Holy Quran not to harm a single one of them if they surrender.

Until today, Pashtun ethnocentrists consider Kalakani as an illiterate thug while many Tajik ethnocentrists portray him as some kind of pious Robin Hood. Both sides describe their heroes as a “ghazi”, a title which is deeply tied to Islam.

The highly charged debate around Aghanistan's history continues today and reveals that Afghan society has not fully recovered from its past. Instead of a real accounting of the past, the debate is often dominated by mystification and one-sided narratives.

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