Beginning of Triangular Dominance in Modern Afghanistan


1.1 Foundation and Big Powers’ Rivalry

The beginning of modern Afghanistan can be dated back to 1747 when the Afghans in Nadir Shah’s army returned home after his death. Their leader, Ahmad Khan Abdali, entered Kandahar and is elected King of the Afghans in a tribal assembly. He took the title Durr-i-Durran meaning ‘pearl among pearls’ and changed the name of his tribe to the Durrani. Ahmad Shah applied his skills with a large success over the next twenty-five years and for most of his, reign Afghanistan extended from the Amu Darya in the north to the Arabian Sea, and from Herat to the Punjab. However, after the death of Timur Shah, the son, and successor of Ahmad Shah, in 1793, the Durrani throne passed down to his son Zaman Shah followed by Mahmud Shah, Shuja Shah, and others. Once again the Afghan Empire was under threat in the early 19th century by the Persians in the west and the British-backed Sikh in the east. During this turbulent period, Afghanistan had many temporary rulers until Dost Mohammad Khan declared himself emir in 1826 (Tanner, 2009:126). He soon became an accepted leader of the nation and took the formal title of emir from 1837.

About the time, in the period of Dost Mohammad country’s relations with foreign powers became an important factor. Since the time of Peter the Great, in the early 18th century, Russia has been interested in developing a direct trading link with India. This meant the need for a friendly or puppet regime in Afghanistan. The idea of Russian influence in this region with easy access inevitably alarmed London and, as a result, Dost Mohammad found himself courted by both sides. Dost Mohammad ruled at the beginning of the Great Game, a century-long contest for domination of Central Asia and Afghanistan between Russia, which was expanding to the south, and Britain, which was intent on protecting India. During this period, Afghan rulers were able to maintain virtual independence. In line, a British mission was in Kabul in 1837, and while discussions were under way on the issue, a Russian envoy also arrived and received by the ruler. The development made the British immediately break off negotiations and ordered to leave Kabul. The response of the governor-general of India, Lord Auckland, was forceful and taken as a pretext for an invasion. This was the first of three occasions on which the British attempted to impose their political will on Afghanistan.  As a mark of the beginning of the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842), in December 1838 a British army was assembled in India for an Afghan campaign. By April 1839, after an arduous advance under constant harassment from tribal guerrillas, the city of Kandahar was captured. in the course of the war the British deposed Dost Mohammad for a while, he and his family were sent into exile into India, but ultimately in January 1842 the British garrison of some 4,500 troops withdrew from Kabul and as a practical policy, subsequently Dost Mohammad was restored in 1843 and ruled peacefully without further British interference, for another twenty years.

The background for second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1881) was prepared by Sher Ali, third son and successor of Dost Mohammad who was known for his pro-Soviet leanings. Evoking memories of his father’s offense in 1837, he welcomed a Russian mission to Kabul in 1878 and on this occasion he rejected a British one. Sher Ali’s perceived leaning towards Russia again provoked British hostility and in November 1878 three British armies were pushed through the mountain passes into Afghanistan. They took Jalalabad and Kandahar by the end of the year, and a very advantageous treaty was agreed in May 1879 with Yakub Khan, the son of Sher Ali. Under the treaty, Yakub Khan accepted a permanent British embassy in Kabul and the United Kingdom now began to exercise lots of influence after this and even controlled the State’s foreign policy. In 1880 Britain recognized Abdur Rahman as amir of Kabul, and finally, the British troops withdrew in 1881. Thus, the political achievement of two costly wars against Russian interference appeared on the debit side.  However, the British choice of Abdur Rahman Khan got a long regime on the throne by three generations of his family. Abdur Rahman Khan was succeeded in 1901 by his son Habibullah Khan.

The 21-year reign (1880-1901) of Abdur Rahman Khan saw the balancing of British and Russian interests, the consolidation of the Afghan tribes, and the reorganization of civil administration into what is considered the modern Afghan state. During this period, the British secured 2,250- kilometer long Durand Line dividing Afghanistan from British Indian colonial territory to the southeast and sowing the seeds of tension in future over the division of Pashtun tribes. It was established in 1893 by agreement between Sir Mortimer Durand, a British diplomat and civil servant of British India, and Abdur Rahman Khan, the Afghan Amir, to fix the limit of their respective spheres of influence and improve diplomatic relations and trade. Afghanistan ceded various frontier areas to British India to prevent invasion of further areas of the country. Afghanistan was considered by the British as an independent princely state at the time, although the British controlled its foreign affairs and diplomatic relations. The single-page agreement contains seven short articles, including a commitment not to exercise interference beyond the Durand Line. A joint British-Afghan demarcation survey took place starting from 1894, covering some 800 miles of the border. (Khalid, Daily Times, February 2004). The Durand Line cuts through the Pashtun tribal areas and further south through the Balochistan region, politically dividing ethnic Pashtuns,   as well as the Baloch and other ethnic groups, who live on both sides of the other. It demarcates Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Balochistan and Gilgit Baltistan of northern and western Pakistan from the northeastern and southeastern provinces of Afghanistan.

Not only that, Abdur Rahman Khan set a pattern of an authoritarian regime dedicated to the introduction of technology and investment from more developed countries, though the violence and anarchy of Afghan life often frustrated such modernizing intentions. His successor, Habibullah Khan, successfully maintained a policy of strict neutrality during the World War 1. After the war, he demanded international recognition of Afghans full independence. This claim again prompted Britain to start the third ineffectual intervention in Afghan affairs. A month of fighting between British and Afghan forces remained inconclusive and rapidly led to a treaty signed in Rawalpindi in August 1919 in which Britain acknowledged Afghanistan’s independence as a nation. With this Rawalpindi treaty Amanullah accelerated a program of reform on European lines.


1.2 National Interest of Afghanistan in Global Context

With the end of Third Anglo-Afghan War and the signing of the Treaty of Rawalpindi in August 1919, King Amanullah Khan, who became king of Afghanistan after the death of his father, Abdur Rahman Khan, in February, the same year, declared Afghanistan a sovereign and fully independent state. He moved to end his country’s traditional isolation by establishing diplomatic relations with the international community and, following a 1927-28 tour of Europe and Turkey, introduced several reforms intended to modernize his nation. A key force behind these reforms was Mahmud Tarzi, Amanullah’s Foreign Minister and father-in-law and an ardent supporter of the education of women. He fought for Article 68 of Afghanistan’s first constitution which declared elementary education compulsory (Encyclopaedia Iranica:237-41). Some of the reforms that were put in place, such as the abolition of the traditional Muslim veil for women and the opening of many co-educational schools, quickly alienated many tribal and religious leaders. Faced with overwhelming armed opposition, Amanullah was forced to abdicate in January 1929 after Kabul fell to forces led by Habibullah Kalakari. However, in the same year (1929), Prince Mohammed Nadir Khan, cousin of Amanullah Khan, in turn, defeated and executed Habibullah Kalakari in early November. He was soon declared King Nadir Khan. He began consolidating power and regenerating the country. He abandoned the reforms of Amanullah Khan for a more gradual approach to modernisation. But unfortunately, he was assassinated in 1933 by a student from Kabul.

Mohammed Zahir Shah, who succeeded the throne became the king of Afghanistan after Mohammed Nadir Shah on 8 November 1933 and remained in the post until 17 July 1973. He was an ethnic Pashtun and was educated in a particular class for princes at Habibia High School in Kabul. He continued his education in France where his father had been sent as a diplomatic envoy, studying at the Pasteur Institute and the University of Montpellier. As he belonged to king’s family, he also served in the earlier government positions of deputy war minister and minister of education. After the assassination of his father Mohammed Nadir Shah, at the age of 19, he was ascended to the throne and for the first thirty years, he did not adequately rule, ceding power to his paternal uncles Mohammad Hashim Khan and Shah Mahmud Khan. (Simon, Ignatieff, and Thakur, 2005:400). This period fostered a growth of Afghanistan’s relations with the international community as in 1934; Afghanistan joined the League of Nations while also receiving formal recognition from the United States. By the end of the 1930s, agreements on foreign assistance and trade had been reached with many countries, most notably Germany, Italy, and Japan.

Following the Word War II, although Afghanistan remained neutral, recognized the need for the modernization of the country and recruited some foreign advisors to assist the process. Around the time the long division of the Pashtun tribes caused tension with the neighboring country Pakistan, founded on the other side of the Durand Line after a division of the Indian subcontinent in August 1947. Now the old Durand Line became an active border between Afghanistan and newly formed country Pakistan. In response, Afghanistan shifted its policy toward the Soviet Union as globally it was the phase of Cold War and Pakistan was the follower of US camp. Earlier in the nineteenth century, Afghanistan served as a strategic buffer state between Czarist Russian and the British Empire in the subcontinent during the so-called Great Game. Afghanistan’s relations with Moscow became more cordial after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. The Soviet Union was the first county to establish diplomatic ties with Afghanistan in 1919 after the Third Anglo-Afghan War and signed an Afghan- Soviet Nonaggression Pact in 1921, which also provided for Afghanistan transit rights through the Soviet Union. Early Soviet assistance included financial aid, aircraft and attendant technical personnel, and telegraph operators.

Russians interest in Afghanistan while serious during the reign of the Czars, grew following the end of World War II. The early post-revolutionary period in Russian history- the Bolshevik Revolution saw Soviet leaders too preoccupied with their efforts at consolidating the old Russian colonial holdings in Central Asia, and Russia’s the Far East to be able to focus much on Afghanistan. The Soviet Army, while populated with some brilliant military minds, was too weak before World War II to project the kind of military power beyond its borders necessary to be able to compete with British and, after the war, US power. The Soviet Army that emerged from the war against Nazi Germany, however, was one of the two most formidable militaries in the world, second only to that of the United States. This ability to project military power, especially over land, to neighboring regions changed Soviet-Afghanistan relations. Another factor which facilitated the growth of Soviet influence in post-war Afghanistan was the demise of the British Empire, particularly the end of British colonial control of the Asian Subcontinent, India, and Pakistan. The British departure left a great power vacuum in the region that now pitted the Soviet Union against the growing US interests in the Middle East and South Asia. The Soviet Union began to use its intelligence service, KGB, to manipulate events inside Afghanistan, supporting pro-communist Afghan officials against those loyal to the monarchy. At the juncture, the 1953 ascent of General Mohammed Daoud Khan, a relative of Zahir Shah and ally of the Soviet Union, provided an open invitation to the Soviet Union to expand its presence and interest in Afghanistan greatly.

In fact, the global geopolitics underwent a tremendous change immediately after the Word War II. The status of the United Kingdom (UK) as a high power had been relegated to the oblivion paving the way for the United States. On the other, the Soviet Union retained its great power status. Rather it emerged as much stronger. In response, the United States declared its policy of global containment of communism and the Truman Doctrine inaugurated the onset of the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Despite this development, Afghanistan was not faced with any immediate threat either from British India or the Soviet Union. Thus, in the changed circumstances, as a traditional adherent to the policy of strict and active non-alignment, Afghanistan kept aloof from the maneuvers of both the Super Powers. In May 1946, Shah Mahmud declared that the principle of establishing friendly relations with all countries, in particular with its neighbors formed the bedrock of Afghan foreign policy (Islah, May 15, 1946). In line, on 13 June 1946, Kabul and Moscow signed an agreement to define the Amu river border and thus settled the ownership of some 1,191 islands (United Nations Treaty Series, 1949: 147-167). The Soviet Union after the Amu River agreement was gradually increasing its influence in Afghanistan and against Pakistan, Moscow supported Afghanistan on Pashtun issue. Perhaps as a test, in the wake of its strained relations with Pakistan over Pashtun issue and a Super Power as its neighbor, the Afghan Government sought military, and economic assistance from the United States in 1948-49 but the response, it got only economic aid and military aid was denied because US preference was for Pakistan. The US refusal to accede to Afghan request for supply of arms proved costly for the US because it made Kabul dependent on Moscow for arms supplies.


1.3 Strategic Importance of Pakistan

The decade 1950s paved the way for strengthening of Afghan-Soviet relations from the beginning and in July 1950, Moscow and Kabul signed a four-year trade agreement which envisaged Soviet petroleum products, cotton, cloth, sugar and other commodities in exchange for Afghan goods – wool, fur, raw cotton, fruits and nuts at a higher currency exchange rates and duty-free exchange (Dupree, 1960 :3). The decade also witnessed geostrategic developments in which Pakistan joined US-sponsored military alliances – Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in September 1954 and Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) in 1955. It further heightened Afghan apprehensions of Pak military might and US refusal to provide military assistance to Afghanistan in October 1954 made Kabul feel dejected.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the failed political reforms of the 1949-52 period came a major shake-up in September 1953 when the King’s cousin and brother-in-law, Mohammad Daoud became prime minister. Daoud was the first of the young, western – educated generation of the royal family to wield power in Kabul. Daoud’s social and economic policies were cautiously reformative and relatively successful. However, his foreign policy was guided by two principles: balancing what he saw as pro-Western orientation on the part of previous governments by improving relations with the Soviet Union, without sacrificing US economic aid, and pursuing the Pashtunistan issue by every possible means. Daoud believed that the rivalry between two superpowers for local allies created a condition whereby he could play one against the other in search of aid and development assistance. Daoud’s desire for improved bilateral relations with the Soviet Union stepped up in 1955 when the Iranian and US governments refused to create an alternate trade access route through Afghanistan, and the latter had no choice but to request a renewal of their 1950 transit agreement with Moscow. Ratified in June 1955, it was followed by a new bilateral barter agreement. Their relations further strengthened in the same year when Soviet leaders Nikolay Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev visited Kabul and announced a 100 – million US dollar development loan for projects to be mutually agreed upon.

The year 1953 in which Daoud ascended to the post of Afghanistan’s Prime Minister was equally famous for its relations with the United States. It was not crucial merely for the change of governments in Kabul and Washington, but also because of change in the dynamics of the Cold War. Dulles’ policy of rapid economic modernization and extreme nationalism and Daoud’s policy of “Pactomania” (Dupree, 1973:509) coupled with the disappearance of Stalin from the Soviet scene and shift in the arena of Cold War from Europe to Asia brought to the fore new challenges in bilateral ties between Afghanistan and the United States. Few months before the change of guards in Afghanistan a new government came to power in the United States in January 1953, in which General Eisenhower became the President of the United States and placed the direction of American foreign policy in the hands of John Foster Dulles (Fletcher, 1966:259). The new US regime, to (or “intending to”) contain communism in the Middle East, began to organize a “Northern Tier” system of alliances along the southern flank of the Soviet Union from Turkey to Pakistan (Poullada, 1982:183). This led to American military pacts with Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan, but Afghanistan on account of contiguity to the Soviet Union and her historical policy of neutrality refused to join this security system. Thus, the new US policy and Afghanistan’s response thereof provided a challenge to the incumbent Kabul government, since it had to take the maximum mileage economic aid program while keeping itself out of the US policy of containment of communism. In fact this shift in Afghan foreign policy put the United States in a precarious situation because during this period of intense cold war, her relations with Pakistan and the perceived need to involve that country in one or more parts aimed at containing the USSR gained precedence over other considerations in the region (Dupree:509). In a nutshell, despite economic assistance to Afghanistan from time to time, the US strategists were of the view that Kabul is of little or no geostrategic importance to the United States.

As developments took place the year, 1955 proved to be a turning point not only in US-USSR aid rivalry in Afghanistan and consequent acceleration of Afghan economic development but also in determining Afghanistan’s relations vis-à-vis superpowers. The massive western economic and military aid to Pakistan affected Pakistan – Afghan relations and activated the Soviets to counter the Western moves in the region. Emboldened by large-scale us army and economic aid, the Pakistan government in March 1955, announced the consolidation of all provinces of West Pakistan including the Pashtun-Baloch areas into a “One Unite” system. The Afghan government strongly opposed to the Pakistani move. Soon, in the wake of natural tension and following violent incidents in both countries against each other, Pakistan imposed a blockade on Afghan transit trade. As a result, land – locked Afghanistan found herself cut off from the outside world for her chief exports and imports. Now, Afghanistan, to prevent a complete breakdown, turned to the Soviet Union, which for her interests stepped in to rescue Afghanistan with offers of transit facilities, political support and military aid (Poullada:159). The continued Pakistan-Afghan blockade gradually reduced the American presence and influence in Afghanistan; it also brought the Afghans closer to the Soviets’. However, in the year 1955 too, the US continued her nominal aid to Afghanistan to prevent that country from slipping entirely into the Soviet bloc.

This apart, the Afghan leadership from the beginning was serious about their ill- equipped and poorly organized armed forces. The emergence of Pakistan in August 1947, in the wake of British departure from the region and subsequent serious tension with the former over the issue of Pashtun-Baloch areas, necessitated the Afghan leadership to re-equip their army and air force. The new nationalist government which took over in 1953 under the premiership of Daoud put the modernization of armed forces on the priority list, particularly given the introduction of the cold war into the region and increased Western attempts to involve Pakistan and Iran in US-sponsored regional pacts aimed at containing communism. Despite several attempts by the Afghan government to procure military assistance from the US Kabul returned every time, empty handed. On the other hand, at a time when Afghanistan was denied arms supply to meet the genuine security needs, the US government was arming her enemy Pakistan heavily. In fact, by now, Afghanistan became critical to both the United States and the Soviet Union in the world struggle. ‘A pro-Western Afghanistan would strengthen the chain of alliances on Russia’s southern flank from the Balkans to Pakistan. A pro-Soviet Afghanistan would jeopardize the chain and give the Russians a land bridge to the Muslim and Asian world. Again given the facts and opinions expressed by different think-tanks the State Department began to adjust its policies in Afghanistan to counter the Soviet moves in the context of global competence.