THE history of Afghanistan has been dominated by the geographical fact that it lies on the route of invasion to India. Cyrus and the Persians, Alexander and the Macedonian phalanxes, the barbarian Scythians, free-booting Turanian knights -- all these passed through the land of the Afghans to reach the fabulous wealth of the Indian peninsula. They plundered freely, for such was the nature of their expeditions. So great were their ravages that when in the seventh century the Arabs conquered the land in the name of Islam there truly was nothing left to despoil. A period of comparative peace and tranquillity followed. The invasions of the Mongol hordes of Jenghiz Khan at the beginning of the thirteenth century marked the beginning of another unfortunate era. Tamarlane, Babur, who was the founder of the Mongol Empire in India, and Nadir Shah, the Persian brigand, ravaged the land through which they passed leaving behind them death and destruction.

In modern times Afghanistan has been a pawn in the contest for empire between the British and the Russians. The British were determined that Afghanistan should remain a buffer state between India and the northern colossus. At times they endeavored to conquer the Afghan kingdom. At other times they were content to support a puppet emir there. In the fifty years prior to 1914, Britain allowed the various emirs to consolidate their realm, introduce western methods, and even to strengthen their armies. But Afghan foreign policy remained a monopoly of the British Government of India. The country had no ambassadors of its own and its attitude towards its neighbors was determined exclusively by Britain. Until the World War it was British rather than Russian influence which was predominant at Kabul.

The situation was reversed in the years following the war. British influence waned and Russian influence increased. In 1919 the Emir of Afghanistan, Habibullah, was murdered, supposedly because of his pro-British sympathies. His son, Amanullah, succeeded to the throne and at once proclaimed the independence of Afghanistan in matters of foreign as well as domestic policy. This inevitably meant war with British India. The occasion was propitious. Disappointment that India had not received dominion status as a result of its loyalty during the World War had caused considerable unrest there and, in a few provinces, rebellion. Hoping, therefore, to be joined by their Indian brothers, the Afghans boldly opened hostilities. The ensuing war was as disastrous as it was brief. The British were everywhere triumphant.

Great Britain nevertheless realized that the new Afghan ruler was a man of determination and that it was better to have a friendly neighbor than a hostile ward. The armistice of Raval Pindi, signed in July 1919, announced the independence of Afghanistan. Hardly was the armistice signed when Moscow hastened to recognize the independence of the new state. An exchange of ambassadors was also proposed. Soviet imperialism was following the course formerly pursued by the Tsars, flattering the nationalism of adjoining Asiatic states and endeavoring to draw them within the Russian orbit.

One of Soviet Russia's first steps was to foster an Asiatic bloc consisting of Turkey, Persia and Afghanistan. The latter countries were apprehensive of Britain's predominant position in Asia after the war. British forces of occupation were in Constantinople, Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, Caucasia, Trans-Caspia, and Persia. Although Turkey, Persia and Afghanistan had no desire to substitute a Soviet for a British hegemony, the latter seemed more immediately dangerous. Fully conscious of the abyss that separated their political régimes from that of Soviet Russia, they nevertheless signed various treaties with that country, exchanged diplomatic representatives, and multiplied their consular posts.

Soon the Bolshevists organized on their own territory -- at Tashkent, and later at Baku -- various congresses for the peoples of the East. At these reunions they launched flaming proclamations to "enslaved" peoples, to whom they presented themselves as liberators. Their appeal was heard. This did not mean that the dictatorship of the proletariat had any chance of success in Central Asia, where there was no industrial life and no proletariat.

In its rôle as protector of "the oppressed nations of the Orient," Soviet Russia henceforth dreamed of resuming her forward march towards the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. There are several possible routes in the realization of this goal. The classical route of invasion is by Termez, Bamian and Kabul, passing through the Hindu Kush mountains at a height of about 4,000 meters. Enlarged and improved in recent years by the Afghan Government, it is the most frequented route for travellers from Russia to India. A second way lies by Kushka and Herat, leading on from the latter point along another classic route to Kandahar and thence across the Indian frontier to Quetta. To the west, another route, from the Caucasus southward through eastern Persia, passes through the region called Seistan (on the Persian-Afghanistan frontier) and thence reaches the Gulf of Oman near the Baluchistan border. A route further east, through the Pamir Mountains, leads to the heart of India; but those mountains are well-nigh impassable. Still further east, a Russian army might also invade India via the Chinese province of Sin-kiang. Several of these routes are fed on the Russian side by railroads which have a clearly strategic character. In very recent years, an additional means of invading India has become possible, i.e. through the air. An airplane service now functions between Moscow and Kabul.

In 1920 Russian officials at Tashkent made new studies as to how to invade India via Afghanistan. But information received from reliable sources showed that the Indo-Afghan frontier was jealously guarded and strongly fortified. Attention was turned to other routes. The following year, in 1921, under the inspiraton of General Broussiloff, a new plan was elaborated. This time it was a question of establishing a base in southern China and attacking India across the weakly-fortified India-Burma frontier. But Soviet diplomacy in China failed, and Moscow returned to its original idea of passing through Afghanistan. The Bukhara-Termez railroad line had just been constructed, and an airplane route from Tashkent to Kabul had been established, with a landing field at Termez. Russia strengthened her army in Turkestan; and after issuing considerable revolutionary propaganda seemed prepared to take the offensive.

To faciliate the march of the Red Army, Moscow made use of Soviet diplomacy, at that time very powerful at the court of the Emir of Afghanistan. By the terms of the Russian-Afghan treaty of February 1921 the Soviets recognized the independence of Afghanistan. The treaty also contained a clause stipulating that neither of the two contracting parties would conclude a political or military alliance with any state dangerous to the other. The third article granted the Emir a subsidy of one million gold rubles, which England had formerly paid to Afghanistan but which had been stopped after the war. Thus Afghanistan was drawn into the orbit of Soviet influence in Asia.

The Afghan Government, however, energetically resisted the dissemination of Bolshevik propaganda in its own territory. This propaganda, issued by the agents of the Third International, was directed against Britain rather than Afghanistan, as is borne out by the revelations made by the former Russian agent, Agabekov. According to Agabekov, Kabul became a center of communist propaganda for active radicals in India. The first task set was to weaken British authority among the warlike people of the frontier, to arouse these people, and to set them up in opposition to the domination of Britain and the local governing classes supported by Britain.

The Bolsheviks, at the beginning of the reign of Amanullah, were strongly aided by the Indian revolutionary, Partap, who enjoyed great favor both at the court of the Emir and with the quondam German mission at Kabul. During the World War, Partap had offered his services to the German mission headed by Major Niedermayer. The latter, with a small group of soldiers, had slipped into Afghanistan for the purpose of arousing Afghan frontier tribes against the English. In 1919, at the time when Moscow and the radical revolutionaries of India decided that the moment for action had arrived, a Government of the People of India was constituted at Kabul. At its head was Partap. In 1924 Agabekov found Partap still in Kabul, and again Russia made use of his services. Moscow also had many other agents in Afghanistan. All were in communication with the chiefs of the tribes of India, notably with Moulk Bachir and Padcha Goulem. The former, according to Agabekov, received £500 sterling from Moscow every three months. This perhaps shows the importance which the Soviet leaders gave to this propaganda. They also distributed money among the police of Kabul.

The invasion of India being temporarily impossible, the Soviet Government none the less continued its propaganda. This activity, it is true, was somewhat diminished during the years 1922 and 1923 because of the unrest among the Russians of Central Asia. Shortly after, however, it was resumed and bore its first fruits with the activities of the Red Shirts in India, which for a while caused anxiety to the British Government.

Russian influence in Afghanistan was weakened rather than strengthened by the events of 1928-1929. During the 1920's King Amanullah had sponsored the growth of western institutions in his kingdom. Had he been content with a slow process of westernization, he probably would have succeeded. But in 1928 he visited Europe and returned home fervently determined to put an abrupt end to many backward features of his country. The example of Mustapha Kemal Pasha in westernizing Turkey stirred him to do the same for Afghanistan. But the reforms which Amanullah proposed were more drastic, the opposition which he encountered was greater, and premonitory warnings should have convinced him that he could not succeed. In December 1928 a north Afghan budmash, Bacha Sakao, raised the standard of revolt; and Amanullah, with the family jewels, fled the country. Bacha Sakao proclaimed himself ruler of Afghanistan under the name of Habibullah Khan. But he was without experience, money, or a trained army; and it was obvious that the situation was not a permanent one.

The Soviet press at once assumed the initiative and unanimously defended Amanullah. It accused England of desiring to check the course of national liberation in Afghanistan and of having aroused the border tribes against their former king. The Pravda accused Colonel Lawrence of having plotted the whole uprising. The Soviet Government soon adopted a positive rôle and gave its aid to Amanullah in his struggle against the usurper. It was decided that a detachment of 800 men of the Red Army should be sent to Afghanistan, where they were to be equipped by Amanullah's partisans. It would be commanded by the ambassador of Afghanistan in Moscow, and it would fight for the restoration of the former king. Its early successes in the north were interrupted by the news of the definite abdication of Amanullah. The Soviet detachment was recalled and the Afghan ambassador returned to Moscow.

Russian intervention was perhaps inspired as much by a desire to create a sovietized Afghan state as to give Amanullah back his throne. According to dispatches appearing in a Russian newspaper printed in Paris, a military and political conference under the presidency of Bouline was held at Tashkent between January 14 and 16, 1929. Bouline was the chief representative of the Political Direction of the Army and was expressly sent by Moscow.

The conference drew up an elaborate scheme for political intervention in Afghanistan with the aim of influencing the course of events in a direction favorable to Russia. A communist party would be created by sending to Kabul special agents trained in schools of propaganda at Tashkent and other cities of Asiatic Russia. The communist party would not at first engage in actual combat but would bide its time until the new rival to the throne, Nadir Khan, who had formerly been minister of war and Afghan minister to Paris, had exhausted his army and resources. Then, however, it would take an active rôle and proclaim a Soviet régime. Special measures were adopted not to irritate the population by offending local customs and the Moslem prejudices. The Soviet Republic, once proclaimed, would receive aid from Tashkent against any British-Indian opposition. To this end, Russia must increase her military supplies in Central Asia to assure adequate resources of one month for an army actually at war.

During 1929 the anger of Soviet imperialists towards Britain was given violent expression. Izvestia, in an issue dedicated to the tenth anniversary of Afghan independence, warned its readers that above the Indo-Afghan frontier "hovers the spirit of Disraeli, which dreams of extending the frontier of India to the Hindu Kush and then to the Amu-Daria River in the heart of Central Asiatic Russia." The writer continued: "We are at present watching the realization of the highly aggressive plans of British imperialism in Central Asia. The program of Beaconsfield and Curzon is now being realized by Stanley Baldwin, who has just declared: 'The world will soon see with jealousy a new diamond in the crown of the Emperor of India.' No one doubted that Baldwin had in mind Afghanistan, and it is as a reply to the English Prime Minister that Amanullah declared, when asked the goal of his journey: 'I am going to show Europe that Afghanistan can occupy its proper place in the world.'"

For ten months Afghanistan was a prey to the rival armies of Bacha Sakao and Nadir Khan. On October 10, 1929, the forces of Nadir Khan, under the command of his brother, then Afghan minister to Paris, entered Kabul. Five days later Nadir Khan became king and shortly afterwards pronounced a sentence of death on his late rival, Bacha Sakao.

Again there were mutual press recriminations on the part of Russia and Britain. In both countries the newspapers printed doubtful reports which often were hardly better than rumors, and to authentic news they gave a partisan interpretation. The Russian press accused England of having furnished arms and subsidies to General Nadir Khan and of having urged the turbulent tribes along the Indo-Afghan frontier to give him their support. The Indian newspapers, especially those printed in English, pretended that Russia had continued to support Bacha Sakao after the abdication of Amanullah.

The assurances given by the new king, Nadir Khan, that his government would continue to follow the same foreign policy as that of his predecessor, Amanullah, satisfied the two neighboring powers, Britain and Russia. Izvestia probably expressed the official Soviet attitude when it said "The government will be stable and will lead the country back to peace if it has profited by the lessons of civil war, if it takes a decisive stand against the feudal and clerical reaction, if it gives satisfaction to the immediate needs of the peasants, if it guarantees the rights of its national minorities, and if it adopts in its foreign policy a conduct which will systematically and surely lead to the complete independence of Afghanistan." But Izvestia saw many obstacles in the realization of stable government in Afghanistan. The treasury was empty, the national economy was disorganized, the peasant population had been ruined by civil war; there was disunion among the tribes, a growing feudal and clerical reaction and the threat of British aggression from the Indo-Afghan frontier. Should, however, the government of Nadir Khan try to meet these obstacles, the true friends of Afghanistan would rally to his cause. These true friends, of course, were the U. S. S. R., Turkey and Persia. Their collaboration would be a most important guarantee for peace in Central Asia.

Soviet Russia's relation to the new Afghan government was well defined. By making Nadir Khan realize the weaknesses of his position and the dangers which threatened him from India, it hoped to become the protector of Afghan independence. But Nadir Khan, who had now adopted the title of Nadir Shah, was not a man to be intimidated. The country was, it is true, in a condition bordering upon anarchy, and there was grave uneasiness among the tribes, some of which were in open conflict with the central government at Kabul. It was necessary to begin immediately the work of reconstruction, of rehabilitating the devastated regions, and of restoring tranquillity and authority among the frontier tribes. The task was difficult but not impossible. The military and moral prestige of Nadir Shah gave promise of lasting results. But destiny willed otherwise. In November 1933 Nadir Shah was assassinated after four years of wise and firm government. He left his country and his throne to a son hardly twenty years old.

With the advent of the new king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, the partisans of Soviet Russia, who had been held in check by the late king, believed the moment propitious for a rapprochement with Moscow. But the Anglophile party, which has always been strong at Kabul, outwitted them. Mohammed Zahir Shah was wise enough to adopt the only sensible policy for a country where a period of renaissance was well under way, namely to strengthen his position as much as possible with both Russia and Britain but without subordinating himself to either.

The question of Russian émigrés from Turkestan, always a cause of concern to the Soviet Government, seems to have been resolved to general satisfaction. Moscow has often proposed that these émigrés should be sent back to their homes, but Kabul has always refused because of public sympathy with the émigrés, who are considered to be persecuted on account of their fidelity to Islam. Under pressure from Moscow, the Afghan government has now agreed to transfer to more southern provinces those of the émigrés who had settled close to the Russian frontier. Britain, on its side, has obtained satisfaction in the matter of closing the Afghan frontier to Indian rebels, and in the promise made by the Kabul government to prevent Afghan tribes along the Indian border from participating in acts hostile to British authority.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • JOSEPH CASTAGNÉ, student of Central Asian affairs, contributor to French historical and geographical reviews.
  • More By Joseph Castagné