Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

AAN Reads: An Afghanistan history covering 750 years

Thomas Ruttig 24 min

Eminent Afghanistan specialists and historians have praised Jonathan L Lee’s 2018 Afghanistan: a history from 1260 to the present as “detailed research of the highest quality” and even the new go-to “encyclopaedia” on this subject. It is indeed encyclopaedic, pulling interesting episodes out of the dark of Afghan history, but still, it is partly disappointing, says AAN’s Thomas Ruttig, who has read through the 780-page oeuvre and finds the post-1919 chapters riddled with factual errors.

This book is a gigantic undertaking in its scope. The praise heaped on it is overwhelming, although one should know to take the blurb printed on the dust cover of a book with a large pinch of salt. William Dalrymple has called Afghanistan: a history from 1260 to the present “a model of clarity [and] accuracy”; the renowned literary magazine, the Kirkus Review, an “encyclopaedia.” Chris Wyatt, of the University of Birmingham and himself an author on Afghanistan (Afghanistan in the Defense of Empire, London: Taurus, 2011), declared it “the last word on the history of Afghanistan.” The work by Jonathan L Lee, an Englishman residing in New Zealand. It came out at the end of 2018, but given its length – 780 pages – it is difficult to digest quickly.

The author’s approach – starting at such a specific time in history – creates expectations. In contrast to most authors, he starts neither too late, with the foundation of the Durrani empire in 1747 nor, at the other extreme, with Alexander the Great’s campaign, in what today is Afghanistan. The author starts instead in 1260. This is indeed a historical turning point insofar as Ghengis Khan’s invasion led to the destruction of much that existed in what become Afghanistan as we know it today, particularly the irrigation-based cultures in what is now Afghan Turkestan (northern Afghanistan). Indeed, the invasion shook power structures in the wider Central Asian region to the core. This date is an interesting choice. However, the author never really explains his reasons for this date. Instead, after a rather conventional overview of Afghanistan’s geographical situation and ethnic and religious composition, the book dives directly into describing events. Only in the very last paragraph of his conclusion does Lee write: “Afghanistan emerged from the collapse of three great empires” (p697), referring to the Saffavids, the Mughals, and the Khanate of Bukhara. That is what the book should have started with and developed from.

The book is, as such, in its width of detail, indeed encyclopaedic and gives us some strong chapters. They include thrilling accounts of the fall of the pre-Durrani Sadozai dynasty (a tribe to which former president Hamed Karzai belongs – his son bears the name of the dynasty’s most well-known ruler, Mir Wais); of the civil wars after Timur Shah’s death in 1793, the king who transferred the country’s capital from Kandahar to Kabul; of Afghanistan’s steps towards independence under Amir Amanullah (r. 1919-29); and, of the intra-dynastic conflicts of the Afghan monarchy in the 20th century. This has been done for the first time in such detail since Leon Poullada’s 1973 Reform and Rebellion in Afghanistan, 1919-1929. Particularly strong are Lee’s findings on the relationship between the Turkic tribes and empires of Transoxanian Central Asia and Afghanistan, and how the areas between the Hindu Kush mountains and Amu Darya became Afghan Turkestan; these included Amir Abdul Rahman’s far lesser known atrocities there (compared with those in the Hazarajat) which “encompassed all sections of society [or rather elites] from religious elites to the families of the former Uzbek amirs, the officers corps and rival Muhammadzais.”

There are plenty of not well-known facts and enlightening anecdotes in the book, such as that reports of Amir Abdul Rahman’s (r. 1880-1901) Turkestan atrocities

… eventually appeared in the Indian and British press, which led to a public outcry. Even Queen Victoria wrote to Salisbury expressing her revulsion of the Amir’s conduct.

Or that a woman (the widow of Amir Abdul Rahman) tried to topple his successor Amir Habibullah I in 1903 by instigating a military revolt (p414). Or that

… until 1879 there was an Armenian church in Kabul’s Bala Hisar. In the 1840s a daughter of one of the leaders of the Armenian community married [or maybe was married to] Sardar Muhammad ‘Azam Khan, who was briefly Amir of Afghanistan from 1867-8. (…) A handful of Georgian traders are also recorded as living in Kabul, Kandahar and Herat, and early European explorers noted the grave of a Georgian bishop on the slopes of Kabul’s Koh-i ‘Asmayi. (Page 77 has a short rendering of the battle near Ghazni between the Georgian ghulaman (slave soldiers) of the Safavids, led by one Georgi Khan, against the Abdali and the Kakar who had refused to pay their taxes.)

This is all not surprising: Lee is best-known for his contributions to the history of northern Afghanistan, and particularly the little-known independent Uzbek khanates in those areas that came under Kabul’s rule in the 19th century. His most famous book previously was The ‘Ancient Supremacy’: Bukhara, Afghanistan and the Battle for Balkh, 1731-1901 (1996). One of his earlier papers, “The History of Maimana in Northwestern Afghanistan, 1731-1893”, also still makes for a thrilling read.

From Afghaniyat to ‘Pushtunism’?

In the chapters about Afghanistan’s post-independence period, Lee looks at developments through a somewhat narrower, primarily ethnic lens. He particularly focuses on the ruling royal family’s attempts at creating an Afghan national identity, by what he sees as establishing Pashtun “racial and cultural superiority” in Afghanistan. For this, he uses various terms: “Pushtunism”, at times “Pushtun”, or “ethno-nationalism,” or “Pushtun-Aryanism.” (He uses the rather unusual spelling “Pushtun/Pushtu” throughout the book; sometimes he writes “Pakhto.”).

Lee sees the beginnings of these tendencies in the pre-Amanullah years. He refers to Amanullah’s father-in-law and mentor Mahmud Tarzi’s concept of “Afghaniyya” (p441-2, or afghaniyat) as “the foundation stone of all subsequent royalist-nationalist discourse.” Tarzi’s followers, the Young Afghans, he adds, had conflated this concept “with social Darwinism, German ideas of racial supremacy and Aryanism.” Over the following parts of the book, Lee closely associates these ideas, and later policies, with ideas and ideologies – particularly German – that culminated in Nazism and the holocaust. He asserts that “some of the more radical Pushtunists claimed that the Pushtun ‘race’ was part of the Herrenvolk, or Master Race.” This seems to hint at Muhammad Gul Khan Momand, to whom Lee later dedicates a separate subchapter. (We will get back to him later.)

That is heavy artillery. However, the author does not give us even a brief analysis, or sources, of which authors and ideas influenced Tarzi’s (or Momand’s) concepts, or those later of the Young Afghans. He refers to the “Aryanist” and “German-born Orientalist Max Müller” (1823-1900; p441) but tells us how he influenced the German Nazi party, not whether he was read by Tarzi or other Afghans. It is known that there were French and British contributors to the concept of Herrenvolk (Master People) and Herrenrasse (Master Race), such as Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau (1816-82), or Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927), who had been widely read in Asia (see also this AAN analysis).

This is compounded by incorrect details, which – together with the mentioned assertions – often seem to border on bias. For example, Lee tells us (p439) that “the vast majority of citizens of Afghanistan” did not speak Pashto (author’s highlight and that “by the most generous estimates Pushtuns make up only one-third of Afghanistan’s population.” Well, the ‘most generous’ estimates, among them some Soviet ones, put the figure at 60 per cent. Just before, on the same page, the author had correctly reminded us that “[p]opulation estimates vary considerably.” Also, his assertions that Pashto was not “the language of the literate” and that “the primary native speakers of Pushtu were mostly illiterate peasants, the maldar nomads and the semi-independent hill tribes of the Afghan-Indian frontier” are problematic. It ignores that, as a result of Amanullah’s reforms of the education system, a strong Pashto-speaking segment of the Afghan intelligentsia had emerged (see this AAN paper; many of them left the country after the Soviet invasion in 1979). Lee goes as far as ridiculously claiming (p441) that “Tarzi’s advocacy for Pushtu as the national language of Afghanistan (…) was equivalent to the British government making Welsh the national language of Britain.” (There are fewer than one million Welsh speakers among a total population of over 66 million in the United Kingdom.)

Another major inaccuracy is the claim that Pashto had been declared “the only official language of Afghanistan” in 1936 (p527). In fact, Pashto was made the second official language, next to the country’s lingua franca, Dari (Farsi, Persian) which already had this status. The promotion was, in fact, part of a bilingual nation-building project, as Pashto, up to that point in history, had been relegated to the margins of official use. What in reality was an upgrade of Pashto to the same status as Dari, makes Lee’s mistake look like an attempt to establish Pashto linguistic supremacy. Indeed, this was not popular, as officials were forced to attend language courses. The measure sounds less authoritarian when one reads that even Nader Shah (r. 1929-33), his brother and children took the lessons. That the increased use of Pashto led to “chaos”, as Lee claims, referring to a British source from more than two decades later (1959), goes a bit far. There are no reports to that avail elsewhere in the literature.

The role of Muhammad Gul Khan Momand

One of the many players in Afghan history Lee pulls out of obscurity is Muhammad Gul Khan Momand (Lee writes Mohmand, but there is no ‘h’ in the Pashto original of this tribal name). As interior minister immediately after Nader Shah overthrew Habibullah II Kalakani in 1929 (AAN background here), and simultaneously provincial governor, Momand became one of the most influential politicians of pre-World War II Afghanistan. Originally a military officer, but also interested in linguistics, particularly, but not exclusively, of his mother tongue, he used his political position to become a driving force in the promotion of the Pashto language (1). James A Caron, the author of the only extensive western publication about Momand (Cultural Histories of Pashtun Nationalism, Public Participation, and Social Inequality in Monarchic Afghanistan, 1905-1960) quotes a fellow Pashtun intellectual, Sediqullah Reshtin, as saying about Momand that he “brought about political Pashto.”

Lee accuses Momand of forcibly relocating non-Pashtun “indigenous communities as well as Turkman and Uzbek refugees from Central Asia” to southern Afghanistan, “confiscating their lands and properties, which were sold off cheaply, or gifted, to a new wave of Pushtun colonists from Nangahar [sic], many of whom were members of Gul Khan’s Mohmand tribe.” (pp535-6) He also accuses Momand of “cultural vandalism,” by carrying out a programme of

… province-wide redevelopment of the main provincial towns, which aimed at the eradication of emotive symbols of indigenous culture… as the consequence [of which] most of the urban centres of northern Afghanistan lost their character and charm and were replaced by vistas of concrete uniformity.

In Lee’s word, this sometimes sounds (although he does not use the term) like ‘ethnic cleansing.’

There is no doubt about the – also forcible – resettlement of Pashtuns from the south and east of the country, the so-called naqelin, to northern and northeastern Afghanistan. How often this was accompanied with displacement, the book leaves unclear. (For a collection of secondary sources on Pashtunisation strategies in northern Afghanistan by Christian Bleuer, see here.) Lee also only gives a few examples of the alleged cultural destruction, apart from  the settlement and fortress of Minglik, on the road from Aqcha to the Amu, and “an area of several hundred [square] meters around” what he calls “the shrine of Shah-e Mardan” in Mazar-e Sharif being “completely levelled.” (The shrine’s more commonly used name is Rauza-ye Ali. There is a shrine, Shah-e Mardan, in Kabul.) (2)

Robert Byron, whose famous 1937 travelogue The Road to Oxiana Lee quotes in support of his argument, does not speak of wide-ranging destruction. Byron, who describes how he met governor Momand, confirms the clearing around the Rauza-ye Ali and “extravagant eccentricities” in the reconstruction of Balkh town. However, in contrast to Lee, he mentions that Balkh had been destroyed before during the short-lived Soviet military incursion into northern Afghanistan in favour of Amanullah in 1929, and does not consider it a scheme to eradicate ‘symbols of indigenous culture’. He even enjoyed a “smartened up” Mazar-e Sharif (p287):

The bazaars are new and whitewashed, and their roofs are supported on piles which let in light and air underneath. In the new town (…), the roads are edged by neat brick gutters. (…) it would be churlish not to admit that the town is the pleasanter for these improvements.

Byron also does not mention forced replacements, but seeing “Afghans from the south, Persian-speaking Tajiks, Turcoman, and Hazaras,” for example, in the bazaar of Maimana (p277). True, he describes Momand Khan as an “extreme nationalist”, but adds that this kind of nationalism existed Asia-wide and was “inevitable” in its “desire for self-sufficiency” and to “no longer be called interesting for the lack of plumbing.”

Events of mass displacement around this time, early to mid-20th century, which, in Lee’s words, sound like ethnic and cultural ‘cleansing’ are also not mentioned in other sources. While Abdurrahman Khan did inflict mass murder, wide-scale famine, torture, imprisonment and exile upon much of the non-Pashtun and rebellious Pashtun population of northern Afghanistan in the last two decades of the 19th century, the 20th century witnessed much less population displacement. Rather, lands newly irrigated as part of agricultural development projects were given to southern Pashtun settlers and exiles. In Thomas Barfield’s words, while the government’s “strategy was to overwhelm the Uzbek with sheer numbers of settlers,” land in parts of the north was “an expanding resource” thanks to land reclamation projects. As a result, Pashtun resettlement in many areas could happen without displacing other ethnic groups (Thomas Barfield, “The impact of Pashtun immigration on nomadic pastoralism in northeastern Afghanistan,” in JW Anderson & RF Strand (Editors), Ethnic processes and intergroup relations in contemporary Afghanistan. New York: Afghanistan Council of the Asia Society, 1978, p3).

Caron confirms that Momand “equated the preservation of an authentically Pashtun cultural heritage with the maintenance of a legitimate right of Pashtun political hegemony, and by extension cultural dominance.“ He adds that “bureaucrats [including Pashtun intellectuals such as Reshtin] at the center were disquieted by their sense that Momand wished to extend the hegemony of Pashtunism outside an appropriation of aristocratic court symbols, and into the realms of education, the bazaar and even the home.” This group “decided to stop the trend,” and did so. Momand was sidelined. Caron adds:

After 1946, Pashto and Pashtun culture was, by official policy, to be promoted by the state solely in the realm of publication activities, filtered through a number of periodicals and through the activities of the Pashto Tolana. The Tolana was still the premier official cultural organization in the country, but of course, reading was not a mandatory state activity. This was quite a bit less than Momand had worked for.

This part is missing in Lee’s book. Also, his accusation that Momand was responsible for “imprisoning and executing basmachi leaders” (p535) stretches what is available in other sources. (3) Under Nader Shah and Momand’s governorship in northern Afghanistan, military force was surely used to drive Basmachi fighters back over the Soviet border. There, some of them were caught and executed (Ibrahim Beg in 1931), but there is no other source claiming that Afghan forces had a direct role in ‘executing’ Basmachis.

Nazi German influence

Lee has come to the conclusion that the Afghan monarchy’s close relations with Nazi Germany in the 1930s strongly influenced their policies of ‘Pushtunism’. He asserts (p526) that:

Sympathy with Hitler’s Germany and National Socialism ran deep within the ruling elite, due in part to the government’s active promotion of Pushtun nationalism, which was increasingly conflated with ideas of racial and cultural superiority and Aryanism.”

Indeed, Afghan-German relations were close over this period. Definitely of importance is when Lee points to an academic source that clearly shows anti-Semitic elements in the policies of Abdul Majid Zabuli, the then economy minister, namely Sara Koplik’s book A political and economic history of the Jews of Afghanistan (Leiden and Boston, 2015). According to her, Zabuli’s sherkats (joint stock companies), the basis of the Afghan state capitalism economy he intended to create, excluded Sikhs and Jews from having shares. This particularly hurt the community of Bukharan Jews who had fled from Central Asia after the Soviet takeover. According to Lee, they were the main traders in qaraqul (lambskin) and, therefore, Zabuli’s main competitors. He further writes that, in 1933, the Bukharan Jews and the much older Jewish communities in northern Afghanistan were forced to relocate south of the Hindu Kush, accused “of being fifth columnists for Moscow,” followed by anti-Jewish riots in Herat in 1935 and the departure of most Afghan Jews to Palestine. Byron (p280) confirms that Andkhoi’s Jews “had been deported from here to Herat in order that the trade should be no longer in the hands of ‘foreigners’.”

But Lee wrongly states, for example, that King Muhammad Zaher and his Prime Minister Muhammad Hashem Khan attended the propagandistic 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi-ruled Berlin (p531). It was Hashem’s younger brother, and later war minister, Shah Mahmud who attended. Hitler even managed to persuade him to attend the notorious Nazi party congress that year in Nuremberg where the anti-Jewish race laws were inaugurated. This episode, intensively researched by a number of German authors, is not in Lee’s book. (Apart from 15 Persian sources, his bibliography only has English-language ones.)

It never becomes clear what Shah Mahmud thought of Nazi ideology. It is known that Hashem Khan, who visited Germany privately for medical treatment later the same year, apparently did not sympathise with Nazis ideas, and said so openly. A German source quotes him telling the German ambassador in Kabul (apparently not a fanatical Nazi) that he hoped that the Nazis would not gain the upper hand, as this would mean “the end of peace in the world.” Hashem reportedly also raised concerns about the activities of the local Nazi party group at the German embassy in Kabul, drawing large audiences with their public display of propaganda films. At that time, there was no cinema in Afghanistan and, of course, no TV yet either.

There must also be a question mark after Lee’s allegation that the Afghan team in the 1936 Olympics marched into the stadium for the opening of the games showing “the Nazi salute.” There had also been the same allegation made against other teams, including that from France. Research however shows that “the alleged Hitler salute is identified in case of most teams as the ‘Olympic salute’.” This was also given with an outstretched right arm, and could be confused with the Nazi salute. Therefore, the Olympic movement abandoned it after World War II. Lee also says that Zabuli married the daughter of a German policeman in Berlin in 1929 (p515). Again, his source is not clear, but this author, who has researched Zabuli’s political role, found that most sources say he was married to the daughter of a German-Russian trader family in St Petersburg. It is possible though that he had several wives, as his National Bank (Bank-e Melli) – founded in 1932, and which had a monopoly over Afghanistan’s lucrative qaraqul export – had branches all over the world, including in Moscow, Berlin and New York.

Lee continues by telling the reader that Zabuli, who visited Nazi Germany several times, had told Hitler “that he was prepared to depose King Zahir Shah and Hashim Khan and declare war on British India.” This is only half true: Yes, Zabuli, like other Afghan politicians, offered Nazi Germany Afghanistan’s support against Britain by starting either a guerrilla war, or even open warfare in British India, in exchange for a German assurance that after their victory over Britain, Kabul would receive back the North-West Frontier Province of British India, once separated from Afghanistan. However, the plan to topple Zaher Shah and to put Amanullah back on the throne (he was in exile in Mussolini’s Italy then) was pursued via exiled supporters of Amanullah living in Berlin, such as Sediq Khan Charkhi, according to German files. (The plan did not fly in Berlin because it did not want Mussolini’s influence in that part of Asia.) (4)

It is not correct that the Young Afghan movement, inspired by Mahmud Tarzi, the mentor of later Amir Amanullah, “was regarded [by whom?] as almost synonymous” with the first constitutionalist movement in Afghanistan of 1908/09, the Mashruta-khawahan. (There never was a “Hizb-i Mashruta” (p430ff); this was a term attributed post factum to the group.) (5) Literature usually treats the Young Afghans as a continuation of their ideas, but there was not much personnel continuity, not least because the leading Mashruta-khawahan were executed. Lee even entertains the idea that Tarzi, whose nephew was among the executed, might have betrayed the conspirators (p436). This is a serious accusation and would need more than speculation.

Osama, Mullah Omar and other issues  

Factual mistakes also dot other parts of the book’s sections on Afghanistan’s history in the 20thcentury. One of his most blatant errors is the allegation that al-Qaeda leader, Osama ben Laden, resettled from Sudan to Afghanistan in 1996 on the “specific invitation” of Taleban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar (p 643). It is correct rather that Osama came to Afghanistan, namely to Jalalabad, during the mujahedin government of interim president Borhanuddin Rabbani (see for example, Steve Coll, Ghost Wars, 2004, pp9, 325-7).

Borhanuddin Rabbani was not the “President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” from 1992 to 1996 (p567). (It was the ‘Islamic State’ – although not the terrorist organisation of current days. At least in the beginning, Rabbani was also only the interim president.) Daud was not the president of the “Democratic Republic of Afghanistan” (p580; it was only ‘Republic’; DR Afghanistan was the name of the Soviet-backed regimes between 1978-87). Harakat-e Enqelabi-ye Islami was not founded in “the 1960s” – this was a predecessor group named Khuddam ul-Furqan (p566; AAN background here). The “bicameral system” in Afghanistan’s 1964 constitution did not consist of the Loya Jirga and the Wolesi Jirga (p561), but the Wolesi and the Meshrano Jirga (the Senate).

Shah Mahmud’s 1946 cabinet did not have “a decidedly Leftist and Reformist leaning” (p539), nor were there “Communist sympathisers” (p550). There were simply no leftists but just reformists in Afghanistan in the 1940s. The leftist PDPA and the Maoist Shola-ye Jawed movement only emerged in 1965. The 2012 Memories of Khalilullah Khalili, the sha’er ul-shuara (poet laureate) at the pre-WWII Afghan court and a major source of Lee for this period, describes all the hand kissing and lack of debate in the cabinet. (6) The reformists were in opposition.

In fact, it was Shah Mahmud’s personally more ‘liberal’ approach (in contrast to his brother and predecessor’s paranoid authoritarian style) that opened the way for a re-emergence of reformist groups. After becoming prime minister in 1946, he released the Young Afghan political prisoners and, for the first time in Afghan history, allowed halfway free elections in 1949 based on secret voting. Five reformists elected to the Wolesi Jirga formed a faction named Jabha-ye Melli (National Front), echoing the name of the party of their role model, the nationalising Prime Minister Sadeq Mosadeq in neighbouring Iran. Lee wrongly calls it “Jabha-ye Mardum” (People’s Front) (p549). (7) He is correct in calling the faction “critical of the government.” In June 1951, they launched the first ever vote of no-confidence against an Afghan cabinet. But this movement was not critical of “the King” as Lee claims (p549). On the contrary, its members showered him with pledges of loyalty and appeals to put himself at the front of the reforms. The king did so in 1964, but only after most of the reformists had gone through years of jail under Shah Mahmud’s successor Daud (1953-63). (8) Also, describing an earlier period, Lee conflates an embryonic Afghan communist group – the “Central Committee of Young Afghan Revolutionaries” founded in exile in Bukhara in 1920 – with Tarzi’s Young Afghans (p480).

Writing about post-Taleban Afghanistan, Lee makes the current US peace negotiator and post-2001 US special envoy and ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, a “monarchist” (p642). Khalilzad’s 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga (ELJ) action of removing the former king as a candidate for head of state, because he was in competition with US favourite Hamed Karzai, does not bolster this characterisation (see AAN background). Furthermore, Lee wrongly says the 2001 Bonn agreement on Afghanistan was “valid for six months” (p655) – it was valid, as its official title (“Agreement on Provisional Arrangements in Afghanistan Pending the Re-establishment of Permanent Government Institutions“) said, until 2004 with the first presidential election. (9) Former King Zaher was not “Honorary Chairman of the National Assembly” (which is the bicameral parliament), but of the 2002 ELJ (p660). He was also not “unilaterally” given this post by then head of state Hamed Karzai; rather this was stipulated by the Bonn agreement. The ELJ did not elect an “interim President,” but instead a chairman (the title ‘president’ was only used after the first full-scale election in 2004), and ELJ members were not “nominated by elected provincial councils” (p660). Also, not “five hundred individuals, including former mujahidin commanders… turned up” at the ELJ of which “fifty… were admitted to the sessions” (p661), but rather Karzai was given the right to nominate 50 extra members, and he chose some of those commanders and warlords. In the 2009 election, after the heavily fraudulent first round of the presidential elections, Karzai did not “refuse to step down,” but he did want to avoid a run-off.

Lee also revives a few cold war myths. He says that “Marxist sympathisers were given the nod by Soviet embassy officials to go ahead with the planned coup” in 1973. Given the importance of this event, a differentiated discussion of this allegation (p580) would have been a must in a 780-page book. Khalqis were alsonot in power after this coup (p583). That Parchamis and Khalqis did not share “Daud’s obsession with Pushtunistan” is far-fetched. Lee also picks up the controversial assertion that, after the Soviet invasion of 1979, the Karmal regime “administratively” signed over the Wakhan corridor in Badakhshan (p599) to the USSR, so that Moscow could install surveillance facilities there during the time of the East-West nuclear arms race of the 1980s. (10) Finally, Lee repeats the widespread, but oversimplistic ethnic description of the PDPA’s two main factions, Khalq and Parcham, the former “a mainly Ghilzai Pushtun party” – not explaining what the Ahmadzai Ghilzai Najibullah (r. 1986-92) (and others) did in Parcham. (11) He wrongly puts the PDPA founding in January 1964 (p563), and Neda-ye Khalq newspaper, that was published for just a few months in 1951, into the post-1964 ‘decade of democracy’ (p563), confusing it with the PDPA’s Khalq newspaper.

This list of errors (which is not exhaustive here, see footnote 12) makes it look as if the author had written parts of this book from the top of his head, without much double-checking. Also, the sourcing is often thin. (Admittedly, the necessary endnotes would have expanded the book by at least another 100 pages.) Apart from all that, there is a whole series of misspellings, confused names and linguistic mix-ups. (13)

Given the above, the publishers and the author should have taken a bit more time and done more peer reviewing before throwing the book into the market. One can only hope a second edition is published – as the book’s plenty of material deserves this. (14)

Myths and demystification

There is no doubt that Afghanistan – the economically weak rump of the Durrani empire  – has been ruled and dominated up to the fall of the monarchy in 1973 (15) by a Pashtun tribal aristocracy. (AAN will soon publish a report on Afghanistan as a rentier state.) There is no doubt that its rule over the non-Pashtun areas and people now in its territory was established by brutal force, taking on genocidal aspects under Amir Abdul Rahman (r. 1880-1901) and his subjugation of the Hazaras. (It does not make it better for the victims and their descendants that such policies were widespread in that era, from the subjugation of the American West to the British Boer Wars in South Africa, or Germany’s pushing the Herero and Nama people of today’s Namibia, who had risen up against them, into the desert to die, to the Russian and Soviet conquest and re-conquest of Transoxania.) There is no doubt that there is widespread denial about these episodes of Afghan history among the Pashtun elites, and that there was never any official  taking stock or apology for these crimes. Such denial has been repeated concerning the war crimes committed in the post-1978 factional wars. There is no doubt that these open historical wounds still shape the politics of present-day Afghanistan.

It is doubtful whether Kabul’s courting of Berlin’s support can be equated with full-scale sympathy for Nazi ideology. Despite all the unsavoury elements of Pushtunist ideology and the systematic exclusion, by law, of non-Pashtuns from government positions and officers’ ranks in the security forces up to 1964, insinuating that ‘Pushtunism’ somewhat equals fascism – a regime that stands for the industrialised annihilation of ethnic and religious minorities and political opponents – goes a long step too far. Other Asian leaders who also tried to win Nazi Germany’s support, such as Burma’s Aung San or India’s Subhas Chandra Bose, cannot be characterised as Nazis. It can possibly be held in the favour of the 1930s Afghan elites that they – like most politicians in the west at that time – had no idea that the Nazis’ anti-Semitism would lead to the Holocaust. In opening up for this interpretation, the author also runs the risk of playing into heated arguments about the character of the current state and government that do very practically jeopardise not “ethnic coherence,” but political stability.

This is the more so the case, as aggressive ethno-nationalism is also on the rise among other ethno-political groups in Afghanistan, and ethno-political groups who have experienced exclusion do not behave differently when in power (AAN reporting here). This probably shows that we do not talk about a phenomenon of ‘ethnicity’ only, but about power.

It is definitely necessary to deconstruct certain Afghan historical myths, discover under-researched periods, and fill in blanks in Afghan historiography as Lee sets out to do. In doing so, the author overshoots his target in the chapters on the post-1919 period. This does a grave disfavour to the rest of the book which is, indeed, richer in detail than other recent histories of Afghanistan by a western author and, therefore, a worthy read.

Jonathan L Lee, Afghanistan: a history from 1260 to the present, Reaktion Books, London, 2018. 784pp.

Book cover photo: Reaktion Books website

(1) Momand was Nader Shah’s first interior minister, starting in 1929. Simultaneously, he served as governor, first in Paktia, then Parwan and Kapisa, then Kandahar, and finally as military governor (rais-e tanzima) of the four provinces of Badakhshan, Qataghan, Afghan Turkestan and Maimana (not only of Balkh, as Lee writes) from 1933 to 1940 and Minister of State from 1940, according to this Afghan source. (Ludwig Adamec’s 1975 Who’s Who of Afghanistan has other figures: interior minister from 1930 to 1939, and Minister of State starting from 1945; it is not clear how long he held this position.) Momand was the author of several linguistic books, including the first Pashto grammar written by an Afghan (it was lost due to the destruction caused by Habibullah II) and a Pashto-Farsi dictionary (1938). He initiated the foundation of the Pashto Anjuman-e Adabi (Pashto Literature Society) in Kandahar in November 1932 that he, in 1937, merged with other local organisations into the Pashto Tolena (Pashto Society) in Kabul, the institution tasked with promoting Pashto. (It later became part of Afghanistan’s Academy of Sciences.) In the programme of the Pashto Anjuman-e Adabi, which Momand himself presented at its founding session, there was nothing postulating a Pashto supremacy: apart from collecting and printing Pashto language texts, it stipulates that members would work towards “attracting the entire nation’s attention and optimism for the development of the Pashto language, by publishing a literary magazine.” At one point, he indeed spoke of the “Pashtun nation,” but he did not equate it with Afghanistan (the reviewers 1985 diploma thesis, here).

Earlier, in 1929, Momand had founded a Pashto newspaper, De Kor Gham, in Jalalabad, in opposition to Habibullah Kalakani, and turned the Dari-language Kandahar weekly Tolo-ye Afghan, founded under Amanullah, into a bilingual publication in 1932. In the late 1940s, he was instrumental in bringing about the Wesh Zalmian movement (later a party), one of the earliest Afghan political parties (background in this paper of the author). Momand died in 1964.

(2) Interestingly, Lee blames the destruction of the famous covered bazaar of Tashqurghan (also known as Kholm, in Samangan province), “one of the few towns to escape this cultural vandalism,” on whom[?], which is usually attributed to the Soviet forces in the 1980s and/or to a 1990s firefight between Dostam Jombesh forces and fighters of Hezb-e Islami (p537).

(3) The Basmachi were insurgents fighting Soviet rule in Central Asia across the Amu Darya, often from safe havens in northern Afghanistan, sometimes with Afghan support, sometimes persecuted, depending on how Soviet-Afghan relations were playing out. Under Amanullah, reluctantly, and under the short rule of Habibullah Kalakani in 1929, Kabul supported them. (more about Afghan-Soviet and Afghan-Basmachi relations in this AAN paper)

(4) See: Johannes Glasneck and Inge Kircheisen, Türkei und Afghanistan: Brennpunkte der Orientpolitik in zweiten Weltkrieg, Berlin: Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften, 1968, pp212-4.

(5) Lee also calls Tarzi’s attempts to create the theory of Afghan nationalism a “jumble of inappropriate ideas cut and pasted from Turkish nationalism” (p440). This might be the case, but he bases that on the argument that Tarzi’s term for nation (watan) meant the much smaller region of one’s birth “in colloquial Kabuli Persian.” Apart from the fact that this is also the case in Pashto, this is no argument, as Tarzi tried to re-interpret concepts he indeed borrowed from the religious and intellectual discourse he was familiar with.

Inexplicably, Lee repeatedly talks about a “Sunni party” or “faction” (pp412, 425) and then of a “sycophantic Royalist Party” (p487) at the court. At that time, there was no Shia influence at the court, or in Afghan politics generally, to speak of, so this term is superfluous, and there were definitely no non-Royalist ‘parties’ there. (There were a few scattered early republicans, also among the mashruta-khwahan, but in exile.)

(6) The Memories of Khalilullah Khalili, edited by his daughter Marie Khalili and Afzal Nasiri, were printed privately in Virginia (US) in 2012. Khalili calls one of the few reformers of that time, Abdul Rahman Mahmudi, “a faithful Muslim” who “would have never opted for the leftist ideology.”

(7) Lee also calls a 1940s political organisation initiated by Daud and Zabuli, the Klub-e Melli (Kabul Club) the “Kabul branch” of the reformist Wesh Zalmian movement (Lee writes Wish or Wikh) (p 548). The Club indeed was founded only after Daud’s and Zabuli’s attempts to co-opt the Wesh Zalmian were rebuffed by them.

(8) The National Front later grew to 16 members. Mobilising between 30 and 40 others of the 120 MPs for their vote of non-confidence in June 1951, they were still outvoted. Nevertheless, Lee writes that Daud, during a 1953 visit to Moscow, had been encouraged to replace Shah Mahmud, as the latter had (the still not existing) “Communist sympathisers” imprisoned. Neither were the movement’s print organs “broadsheets,” but rather small-format, hand-copied pamphlets produced on primitive print machines called Gestettner.

(9) Lee also wrongly writes that late mujahedin leader Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani “backed” the Rome group (which he wrongly calls “Rome Party”; p655), one of the four delegations at the Bonn conference. Gailani had his own one delegation, the Peshawar Group, led by his son, Sayed Hamed Gailani, now his successor.

(10) Reports of a Soviet annexation of the Wakhan made the rounds in the media in the early 1980s (see one media report here), but sources were usually anonymous “diplomats” or Pakistan. This 2003 UN report, giving a history of the Wakhan, including in the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, does not mention an annexation at all, while saying only that the Soviets built and manned a post at the border with China, in order to cut off Chinese support for anti-Soviet insurgents.

(11) He also makes him “Najib Allah Khan”; a title he most likely would never have used (p620).

(12) Lee refers to Arbab Ibrahim Beg, a 1940s Hazara rebel against Kabul’s heavy taxation, as “Gawsewar” (he was actually a son of Gawsewar) and a “religious leader” (p539; he was merely the son of a khan). He even makes him the father of Shia political activist Sayed Muhammad Ismail Balkhi (p550). Although they were jointly accused of having been involved in a coup attempt in 1949 (Lee dates it to 1951), they were not related to each other at all, except for their religious denomination. This error seems to originate from Khalili memoirs (see FN 6).

Abdul Hadi Dawe, a leading Young Afghan, is called “Dawai” (p437); Abdul Rahman Mahmudi, one of the five reformist MPs in 1949 was a Kabuli Tajik, not a Pashtun “Mohmand” (p563). Zaher Shah was not 19 years old (p530) when he ascended the throne in 1933, but – officially – 18 and, in reality, only 17; he was made one year older to be able by law to become king at all, as he liked to tell visitors after he returned to Afghanistan in 2002. This author also doubts that former Afghan Prime Minister Hashem Maiwandwal was an Ahmadzai (p567; there are not many Ahmadzai in his area of origin, Maiwand district, in southern Afghanistan).

The Yari brothers, leading Maoist activists of the 1960s, were from Daykundi, not from “Jaughori.” There was no PDPA splinter group called Jawanan-e Zahmatkash (p564); this is possibly a confusion with Jamiat-e Enqelabi-ye Zahmatkashan-e Afghanistan (JAZA; Revolutionary Toilers Association of Afghanistan) – which, despite the name, was predominantly Pashtun.

Fazl Hadi Shinwari was not a minister, but Chief Justice (p657); ex-warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum was not “first deputy prime minister” (p659) but First Vice President under Ashraf Ghani.

There are also no Orakzai, Bangash and Turi Pashtuns in Paktia and Paktika (p34), perhaps only some refugees. These tribes live on the Pakistani side o the border.

(13) The first typo is on the first page of the introduction, “wulswalis” instead of “wuluswalis”, for districts. This is followed on the next page by “Nangahar” (an “r” missing) and Spingar. Spinghar, with its missing “h,” is a toponym and stands for “White Mountains” in the east of country. “Ghar” is the word for “mountain”, while “gar” is a suffix to indicate professions (kargar, worker; buzgar, farmer [literally goatherd]; zargar, goldsmith…). Instead, an “h” is superfluously added to “Khushk,” a district of Herat province, two pages further. This is not about different systems of transcription, but about distinguishing between different consonants in Afghan languages, such as “k” versus “kh” (see Kandahar and Khost). There is “Deh Kundi,” instead of Daykundi (p662), Nadd-i ‘Ali (p28) instead of Nad-i ‘Ali, or Nadali. “Tang-i Waghjan” (p501) should be Tangi-ye Waghjan (“tangi” not “tang” being “gorge”). The politician Shamsuddin Majruh lacks an “s” (p561). That such errors occur throughout the entire book is not a sign of ‘accuracy.’

Some mistakes simply should be embarrassing for a Persian speaker. Lee mixes the name of a famous 1920s governor of northeastern Qataghan province and promoter of Afghanistan’s cotton producing company Spinzar, with the name of an Afghan river harbour, calling him “Sher Khan Bandar.” Bandar means “port”; the man’s correct name was Sher Khan Nasher. Nanwayis (“bakers”) become “nanbais” (p583), Saudi King Faisal “Faizal” (p587), the Tsarendoi (the regular police) the “Defenders of the Revolution” militia (p600). Lee also mixes Dari and Pashto, claiming, grammatically incorrectly, that Daud was called “Surkh Sardar” (the Red Prince) (p559). In correct Dari, this would be Sardar-e Surkh, while in Pashto it would be Sur Sardar. The same where he calls a famous tribal leader “Loya Khan” (p538), which should be Loy Khan, as Pashto, in contrast to Dari, has grammatical genii.

(14) It should also correct mistakes that go on the publisher: the mistaken chapter headers over hundreds of pages. “Nadir Shah and the Afghans, 1732-47” is not only printed at the top of this chapter’s pages, but also in the following six ones, from page 116 to 411. This makes checking footnotes extremely difficult. The same is the case with the chapter heading “A house divided, 1933-73”, which is also wrongly put over one extra chapter. Only after rectifying these mistakes does this book have a chance to become the go-to source on Afghan historiography as it is advertised.

(15) The monarchy ended in 1973, but the 1973-78 republic, under former prince (Sardar) Muhammad Daud, can be considered as the last, short chapter of that era. After 1978, Afghanistan has been ruled mainly by Pashtuns again, with the exception of 1992-96, but under drastically changed, but still authoritarian political systems.


Afghan monarchy History Jonathan L Lee Majid Zabuli Momand Nazi Germany Pashtuns