Originally posted December 2009

We are regularly bombarded by news reports and political analysis that reflect certain underlying assumptions about Afghanistan. These assumptions range from claims that Afghanistan was always a backward state ruled by warlords, to assertions that the country was never really a nation at all, and proclamations that Afghanistan is unfit for Western-style democracy and that it is dangerously naïve to think otherwise.

Those who knew Afghanistan prior to America’s current military engagement understand that these assumptions are wrong, yet they form the basis of a mythology that underlies the growing US military commitment and the shape of American policy toward the Afghan government.

Afghanistan’s fierce wars against colonial occupiers are well known, but the country’s efforts to maintain its independence and to establish itself as a modern nation against the constraints and interests posed by these forces are not.

According to Vartan Gregorian in his landmark 1969 study, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan, Afghan nationalist historians have faced resistance to their efforts at establishing the origins of an Afghan identity since the early 20th century. They welcomed the work of the French archaeological team in the 1930s “who had uncovered the richness of the country’s Bactrian and Kushan heritage. The Afghan nationalists took great pride in the fact that Kushan rule had had a far-reaching impact on the destinies of the peoples of eastern Iran and India, especially in the fields of religion and art.”[1]

Gregorian’s exhaustive study paints a vivid picture of a once vital country in the brutal throes of modernization and change — from the genesis of the modern Afghan state in the 1880s under Abdur Rahman Khan (Amir of Afghanistan from 1880 to 1901) until the end of World War II.

But the internal movement for progressive change came to be dated well before the rise of Abdur Rahman — to the 16th century and the rise of the Roshaniya movement.

Led by Sufi poet Bayezid Ansari and known as Pir (saint) Roshan, Ansari’s movement is a major chapter in the region’s ethnic Pashtun history as well as indicative of the broadly progressive nature of Afghan Islam. Ansari fought against both the oppression of the Moghuls and the feudal practices of his own Pashtun nobles. His goal was said to be the achievement of equality between men and women. According to Gregorian, Ansari’s “aim, among other things was to establish a national religion, the movement encouraged the Afghans in the tribal belt to struggle against Moghul rule. The Roshaniya movement thus promoted the first political formulation of the concept of Afghan nationality.”[2]

Prior to the British military invasions of the mid-19th century, the Afghans were not hostile to the European powers. In 1809, Scottish statesman and historian Mountstuart Elphinstone and his “retinue of some 400 Anglo-Indian soldiers were well received by the Afghans.”[3] So too were others in 1810, 1815, and 1826, when Sunni Afghans were reported to have expressed an open tolerance toward Christians. Gregorian writes of British explorer Charles Masson, who “was well treated by Muslim religious men and Afghan tribesmen.” Of his stay in Kabul in 1832, he reported that a Christian was respectfully referred to as a “Kitabi” or “one of the Book.”[4]

Renowned adventurer and East India Company political officer Alexander Burnes wrote home in May of 1832, “The people of this country are kind hearted and hospitable. They have no prejudice against a Christian and none against our nation. [5]

Burnes argued correctly that the strong Afghan Amir, Dost Mohammed, “could keep the country together and resist Russian or Persian encroachment, but a country split into feudal principalities and tribes would invite Russian intrigue aimed at picking them off piecemeal with no great difficulty.”[6]

Yet, his argument and the goodwill of the Afghan people were lost when London acquiesced to the conquest of Afghanistan through what is known as the “Forward Policy,” setting the stage for three Anglo-Afghan wars, an endless low-intensity conflict, and a century and a half of political instability. Gregorian writes,

The Anglo-Afghan wars also contributed to the consolidation of Afghan feudalism and tribalism. The loss of Peshawar and the Punjab to the Sikhs on the eve of the First Afghan war deprived the Afghan monarchy of an important economic asset. That loss, together with the weakness of the urban sectors and the feudal character of the monarchy itself, forced the Afghan rulers to become increasingly dependent on the Durrani clans … Tribalism was thus preserved at the expense of the Afghan monarchy and the growth of nationalist institutions.[7]

Constrained and embittered by British colonial policy, Amir Abdur Rahman began his rule determined to establish a modern nation-state. Backed by an effective intelligence apparatus, he established a system of provincial governors, suppressed dissent, and slowly implemented change. By the end of his 21-year rule, he had created a national army which reinforced his authority while establishing a government bureaucracy that paved the way for a small but well-educated middle-class.

The accession to the throne in 1919 of Abdur Rahman’s grandson, Amanullah Kahn, brought on a period of rapid modernization and democratic change that makes today’s Afghan government seem pitiable by comparison.

Declaring Afghanistan’s independence from Britain, Amanullah’s first Constitution in 1923 guaranteed universal suffrage, civil rights to all of Afghanistan’s minorities, established a legislative assembly, courts, and penal, civil and commercial codes. He prohibited revenge killings and abolished subsidies for tribal chieftains as well as the royal family. His support for women’s equality and the rapid modernization of Afghan society was an open and consistent theme.

Overthrown in 1929 by a Tajik warlord known as Habibullah Kalakani, Amanullah’s embrace of modernism, equality, and democracy is often viewed as the cause of his political downfall. Yet, as Gregorian and others have observed, Amanullah’s political undoing stemmed mostly from his inability to buttress his social reforms with solid economic measures, not from any underlying rejection of his educational and political programs.

The same could be said of King Zahir Shah’s “experiment in democracy” from 1963 to 1973, where failure stemmed not from the Afghan people’s rejection of democracy, but from the King’s flawed administration of power and the emerging storm of external Cold War political forces that already were tearing at the fabric of Afghanistan’s fragile political structure.

As summarized by Gerald J. Schmitz, Principal Analyst, International Affairs, at the Parliamentary Information and Research Service in Ottawa, Canada:

The historical record plainly shows that Afghan efforts to build a modern liberal democracy were resisted and later fatally undermined by great power and then Cold War political ‘games’, not that these efforts never took place or only did so in a intrinsically inhospitable societal environment. Of course they were championed by urban elites … But the key point is that for decades the principle external actors did more to hurt than to help secular democratic aspirations in Afghanistan. No wonder they never lasted. They were never given much of a chance.[8]

The international community has one last chance in Afghanistan. But without a better, a more complete, and honest set of assumptions about the secular democratic aspirations of Afghanistan’s people, there is little chance that any policy acceptable to the Afghan people can be achieved.


[1]. Vartan Gregorian, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan: Politics of Reform and Modernization, 1880-1946 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1969), p. 345.

[2]. Gregorian, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan, p. 43.

[3]. Gregorian, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan, pp. 118-119.

[4]. Gregorian, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan, p.119.

[5]. Gregorian, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan, p. 119.

[6]. John H. Waller, Beyond the Khyber Pass (Austin: University of Texas Press), p. 123.

[7]. Gregorian, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan, p. 127.

[8]. Gerald J. Schmitz, Ongoing Dilemmas of Democratization: The Case of Canada and Afghanistan, Parliamentary Information and Research Service, Library of Parliament, Ottawa, Canada April 7, 2009.