Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

The 1919 War of Independence (or third Anglo-Afghan War): a conflict the Afghans started (and ended)

Fabrizio Foschini 22 min

Not all conflicts in Afghanistan’s history have been long, drawn-out or seemingly endless affairs, and not all of them degenerated into civil wars either. Outstanding among them, sadly many, instances of military operations inside or around Afghanistan, was the War of Independence of 1919, one of the few which was started by the Afghan state with the main purpose of reclaiming from Britain the right to conduct their foreign policy independently. It was also one the Afghans largely fought, untypically from at least the end of the 18thcentury, outside their boundaries, and also represents the only time an officially administered portion of British India was invaded by a foreign army, before the Japanese advance on Manipur and Nagaland in 1944. On the occasion of the 100thanniversary of that brief but fateful war, AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini takes a look at the most original aspects of the political atmosphere that led to war and at how the conflict was fought and ended.

"The Afghan peace delegation while crossing the Torkham border on their way to the Rawalpindi peace conference, 24 July 1919. The tall, bearded man on the left is Ghulam Muhammad Khan Wardak, then Minister of Commerce, while the figure in the centre with a plumed cap is probably Mahmud Tarzi, Minister of Foreign Affairs and head of the delegation.”"The Afghan peace delegation while crossing the Torkham border on their way to the Rawalpindi peace conference, 24 July 1919. The tall, bearded man on the left is Ghulam Muhammad Khan Wardak, then Minister of Commerce, while the figure in the centre with a plumed cap is probably Mahmud Tarzi, Minister of Foreign Affairs and head of the delegation.”

Afghanistan celebrated the centenary of its independence on 19 August. The date chosen for the yearly commemoration follows the announcement of Afghanistan’s right to conduct its own independent foreign relations, as established in the Treaty of Rawalpindi on 8 August 1919. In fact, delegates had been meeting at the hill station of Murree, probably to escape the heat of the Punjabi plain, in what was the first of a series of peace negotiations that followed the War of Independence or Third Anglo-Afghan War fought between Afghanistan and the British Empire in May-July that year.

Preserving national – or local – independence by force of arms had been a recurrent issue throughout Afghan history in the 19th century and even before. The content and context attached to the idea of such a struggle, however has most often been that of grassroots communities resisting colonial or government attempts at controlling their territories and lives, and often succeeding thanks to the ineffable characteristics of a tribal or in other ways clustered society (the adjective qawmi, “community-based”, usually does the trick of avoiding lengthy explanations) coupled with a remarkably prohibitive terrain. To generations of historians, colonial officials and even Afghan political leaders, it has meant Afghan villagers fighting on their turf for their traditional material or spiritual values: land, access to local power and resources, religion and social order.

The 1919 war started as something different: here was the Afghan state waging war outside its territory, in fact invading the domains of the foremost colonial power of the era with the stated objectives of: a) reclaiming Afghanistan’s right to carry out foreign diplomatic relations at its will with any country in the world from the British protectorate; and b) helping the oppressed peoples of India, regardless of their creed, to get rid of their colonial overlords in the name of Pan-Asianism. (1) Neither of the issues would have then been characterised as primary concerns for the average Afghan, who, after Kiplingesque literature, was portrayed as a jezail-wielding savage interested chiefly in booty and blood feuds.

The War of Independence has probably been the least explored ‘novelty’ among the many modern enterprises credited to Amanullah (1892-1960), the modernist king par excellence. We will presently try to piece together the motivations of the Afghan king in waging war, including his own and his entourage’s nationalist ideals and the opportunities provided by the period of troubles that the British Empire was experiencing at the end of WWI. Further sections will describe the state of the Afghan army, the role of tribal auxiliaries and the conduct and outcome of the military campaigns of that brief yet fateful conflict.

What led to war?

The Third Anglo-Afghan War started undeclared. There are many speeches by Amanullah preceding or following the beginning of hostilities that may be taken for a declaration of war, but strictly speaking, no declaration was made. (2) On 3 May, Afghan troops crossed the Durand Line and occupied positions beyond it, near the Khyber Pass. Two days later the British gathered and sent in troops to attack them and declared war upon Afghanistan in the process, on 6 May.

Amanullah had ascended to the throne at the end of February 1919, shortly after the assassination of his father Habibullah (who reigned from 1901-1919) on 20 February. His death had seen a contested succession to the throne (a not too rare occurrence in Afghanistan) with both Amanullah and his uncle Nasrullah proclaiming themselves king, respectively in Kabul and Jalalabad. Amanullah only just managed to get the upper hand and arrest other possible claimants before he started a war with his mightiest neighbour, the British Empire, a course of action which had been assiduously avoided by his father and earlier by his grandfather Abdul Rahman. Why act so hastily?

Warmongering is a well-known shortcut for rallying public opinion and political élites behind a leader, at every latitude. Therefore, some observers have bluntly linked Amanullah’s attack on India as a diversion meant to unite the nation and gain legitimacy and to counter suspicions about the possibility of his own role in his father’s murder and be accepted as a monarch.

However, one should not underestimate Amanullah’s ideological background and the political current that he headed at the Afghan court. The young king had been long exposed to the notions of Afghan nationalism and of the modernization of the country as a primary need – particularly thanks to his close connection to Mahmud Tarzi, the foremost Afghan reformer and publisher of the influential periodical Siraj ul-Akhbar in the period 1911-1919, who was also his father-in-law. (3) To modernise Afghanistan, it was necessary to open up the hitherto secluded country to foreign ideas and, to be able to do so, to first remove the protectorate over Afghanistan’s diplomatic relations imposed by the British after the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1881).

As to the war being a real attempt at seizing back territories lost to the British in the past, many Afghans (then as now) no doubt refused to consider permanently ceded the territories inhabited by Pashtuns as far as the Indus or, at least, those separated from Afghanistan only by the Durand Line and that remained outside the administrative framework of British India. The issue definitely formed part of the intense political relations between the court at Kabul and the Pashtun tribesmen on both sides of the Durand Line. Amanullah and his entourage, though, were probably realistic enough not to consider it a goal that would easily be achieved.

However, these were momentous times in the region and, broadly speaking, across the world, so that nothing could be excluded. The end of WWI had left England exhausted in terms of human and material resources and many countries subjected to British rule were shaking its foundations, or at least showing deep discontent with it – and the Wilsonian notion of the right to self-determination of peoples, established at least theoretically at the Versailles conference that was just taking place, had done a lot to enhance this attitude on their part. While the first shots of the 3rd Anglo-Afghan War cracked, England already had an Anglo-Irish War on its hands, and the Egyptian Revolution and the Maltese Sette Giugno protests were about to take place. For Afghanistan, the single most important front where English rule was under pressure was, of course, India.

Here, the independence movement had been repressed under draconian emergency criminal laws during WWI and had now resumed its activism to the point that in early 1919 the government extended the validity of the repressive measures through the Rowlatt Act. On 13 April General Reginald Dyer perpetrated the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in Amritsar, killing around 400 unarmed civilians gathered there in protest. This act had wide resonance in Afghanistan as well, being mentioned in Amanullah’s proclamations as one of the reasons for war to be declared.

It is possible that the Afghans were considering the possibility of major disturbances in India in reaction to the massacre and took the chance to speed up their preparations for war accordingly. (4) However, the Afghan nationalists’ interest in Indian independence was more than occasional and opportunistic. During Amanullah’s reign, efforts at fostering cooperation with Indian activists would include sheltering them in Afghanistan and allowing them to operate trans-border clandestine operations inside British India, while the Afghan government took a number of measures (many of them enshrined in the 1923 Constitution) aimed at putting Afghan Hindus and Sikhs on a par with Muslim citizens and to shed the image of a savage, predatory and backward country that the English and Indian press had popularised with the Indian public. These efforts were to remain a constant in Amanullah’s Afghanistan, lasting well after the end of the Hindu-Muslim Unity period (roughly lasting from the Lucknow Pact of 1916 to the mid-1920s) inside the Indian independence movement and definitely showing degrees of ideological commitment to the issue by parts of the country’s political and cultural élites. (5)

Contrary to the sensationalistic reporting that regularly accompanied military operations on the Frontier, the Third Anglo-Afghan War was conspicuously absent from the main British newspapers, being relegated to a few articles in the back pages and made to pass almost unnoticed in Britain and India (see here). This shows the concerns of the British government at the time that not only a broader section of its Indian subjects could prove rebellious on hearing of the fighting, but also that British society on the whole, not craving for new conflicts after the massive losses inflicted by WWI, could react negatively.

To sum up, Amanullah’s success in assuming power was as closely linked to his well-known nationalist programme as to his strategic location in Kabul when the struggle for the throne happened. For a small but growing section of Afghan society, he embodied the hopes and the objectives of a new era, and the war for independence was the first step as a means of achieving it.

After Habibullah’s death, however, it is quite likely that conflict with the British would have broken out anyway. The small Afghan intelligentsia, some members of the court and the army, were not the only ones whom the dramatic events of the WWI had filled with expectations. As an alternative to Amanullah’s nationalistic programme, had his conservative uncle Nasrullah managed to seize power, he would have increased his support for the Eastern Frontier mullahs – with whom he had been nurturing relations for years – to the point of precipitating a major confrontation with the British.

In the area between Jalalabad and Peshawar in particular, a peculiar type of religious leadership had been developing since British inroads in the areas inhabited by Pashtun tribes in the second half of the 19th century. In order to resist military pressure, local communities had often coalesced in broader militancy movements led by religious leaders. These were at once spiritual leaders (pir) employing the social ties with their disciples/devotees (murid) established by Sufi orders and extremely orthodox preachers able to link up with regional networks of Muslim educational institutions, able to draw economic support from them or from the Afghan kings, who were always interested in establishing systems of patronage over the Frontier tribes. (6) The outcome had been the spread of a “jihadi” culture and economy in the rugged border areas beyond the direct control of the British.

During the WWI years, Habibullah had been careful to maintain Afghanistan’s neutrality despite Turko-German attempts at involving it – and especially the Frontier tribes – in the conflict against the British. However, he did not wish to cut the Afghan kingdom’s age-old ties with the Pashtun tribes on the British side of the border so his brother Nasrullah had been unofficially supporting them during instances of conflict with the British.

By 1919, international tensions surrounding Muslim states such as Turkey and institutions such as the Caliphate had stirred up among the religious leaders and their tribal followers a crescendo of militancy that was waiting for a bigger outlet than the usual small-scale tit-for-tat of Frontier warfare.

Amanullah may well have sought to carry out his unprecedented nationalist programme in accordance with his modernist beliefs but he certainly knew he was going to have strange bed-fellows in doing this. Back then, however, he was still confident of his ability to use them to his advantage.

The state of the Afghan army and tribal auxiliaries

The Afghan army at Amanullah’s accession to the throne was in poor shape, not yet having managed the transition between a traditional make-up of temporary tribal contingents and personally recruited units to a standing conscript army. Afghan rulers had been trying to reform the military since Sher Ali (1863-66; 1868-1878) and possibly even before; Abdul Rahman (1880-1901) is usually credited with having imposed the state’s monopoly of force over the tribes and communities of Afghanistan with the strengthening of centralised armed forces. However, as his need to rely massively on tribal lashkars for the subjugation of the Hazaras in 1891-1893 showed, his army was all but highly effective. Garrisons’ soldiers were basically left to live a civilian life and only rarely required to gather for drills or duty, many of them indeed engaged in other professions while nominally in the army. The situation changed slowly with Habibullah, along with the advent of western ideas in Afghanistan and the arrival of Turkish and Indian military instructors, who started to impart some discipline and standardized drills and service duties.

These changes, however, had a considerable effect on the lives of the servicemen who were now unable to find other means of sustainment and had to rely on their soldier’s pay, which had only slightly increased under Habibullah in the face of a general rise in living costs. Except for the Orderly Regiments garrisoning the Arg in Kabul, who were called the Beheshti Fauj (the “Paradisiac Army”) by other troopers on account of their better wages and privileges, the position of soldiers in society became a rather miserable one. The hasht nafari conscription system, which entailed that for every eight able men in a community one should be enlisted for life service, had already been considered with dismay by rural communities and usually, candidates for recruitment would try and skip service by hiring a less affluent relation to be sent in their place. The phenomenon increased during Habibullah’s reign and the army came to be considered a resort for deprived or wretched people rather than a prospective career.

Despite the achievement of some degree of professionalism, the degree of arbitrary power that higher officers had over their subordinates remained connected to the former’s personal status and relation to the court rather than on procedures, often leading to corruption and abuses.

Moreover, under Habibullah’s reign, the appointment and promotion of officers were the preserve of a few members of the royal house: his son Sardar Inayatullah for the lower ranks and his brother Sardar Nasrullah for the higher ones.

In terms of military units, the only big-sized ones existing in the country were the four mixed brigades stationed in Kabul, each formed by three battalions of infantry, which each had a battery of machine guns, field and pack artillery and a cavalry unit. One of these battalions on paper accounted for around 620 infantrymen, 260 artillerymen and 400 cavalrymen; however, their ranks were usually severely depleted, with cavalry units in particular only accounting for around one-third of the sanctioned strength. Provincial units were usually smaller and even more under-staffed.

Standardised uniforms issued by the government had slowly made their way into the Afghan army during Habibullah’s reign, after having been limited to a leather belt at the time of Abdurrahman. Afghanistan had a good reserve of individual weapons, but most of these were the old Martini-Henry and the almost obsolete Snider rifles. Only a portion of the troops had the modern Lee-Enfields that were the standard among British troops. Moreover, the facilities for producing cartridges in Afghanistan were barely able to cope with the demand.

As if this had not been enough, logistics were a nightmare. The country’s transportation system was deficient not only in terms of the road networks and their conditions: the Afghan state and consequently, its army lacked pack animals to fulfil the needs of a military campaign. Despite Afghanistan has been the main staging point in the great horse trade between Central Asia and India between the 17th and 18th centuries and the Afghans having played a prominent role in it, by the early 20th century the number and quality of horses in the country had gone down. Bullocks and mules, on the other hand, were even scarcer and only camels were available in comparatively great numbers.

Afghanistan was always on the edge of alimentary self-sufficiency and state food reserves were thin. Fodder and grains were typically very scarce in spring before the new harvests were able to replenish stores, and it was in spring that Amanullah launched his military campaign. When soldiers were obliged to obtain their provisions from the locals, this could put additional stress on relations with villagers, as would happen during the 1919 war in Mohmand country.

Relatively more self-sufficient from a logistical point of view were the armed tribal volunteers, on whom, according to the British analysts “the real military strength of the country” depended. (7) They constituted, however, a double-edged sword for the Afghan command. Despite the enthusiastic response to Amanullah’s declaration of war by the Frontier Mullahs, it took some time before all the tribes living along the Durand Line mobilised to fight the British. This ‘attendist’ attitude on their part may have originated in decades of experience of armed politics in the face of the British colonial administration: they entered the fray when they were certain that the Afghan state really meant business.

Once mobilisation had started, tribal contingents were certainly highly motivated, well-armed and extremely mobile locally, however, the caveats of tribal rivalries and susceptibilities strongly limited the possibility of deploying them to distant fronts and sometimes occasioned infighting.  Neither was their discipline wholly reliable: in the event of an Afghan military success, they could be expected to collect whatever booty they found and head home, while on the occasion of an Afghan defeat there was the chance that they would engage in looting weapons and equipment from the regular troops.

Altogether, their major asset – especially of those tribes residing on the British side of the Durand Line – resided in the possible threat they posed to British settled territories and lines of communication, more than just by swelling numbers on the Afghan side, by opening up new fronts behind British troops.

The British army, on the other hand, had to face the same type of problems with its own para-military troops. Since the reorganisation of the North-Western Frontier Province in 1899-1901, the military outposts in the trans-border districts (meaning within the areas between the Indian administrative border and the Durand Line) from Chitral down to Baluchistan were, with very few exceptions, manned by auxiliary units recruited among the Pashtun tribes. These militias were mostly made up of locals, except for the two Waziristan militias who, due to the impossibility of recruiting Wazirs or Mehsuds, consisted of Pashtuns from other areas. It was a cheaper form of effecting limited control along with the Frontier areas and it also contributed, by employing locals, to creating a vested economic interest for this administrative system among local communities. However, the British commands were aware of the high risks of connivance with tribal raiders or outright rebellion by these militias in the event of a major confrontation.

Indeed, the major setback of the whole Third Anglo-Afghan War for the British came with the mass desertions that affected the Waziristan militias, who virtually melted away and sided with the Afghans. (8)

The war: inconclusive engagements and the decisive morale factor

With the obsession of a change of heart among their own auxiliaries, the first British focus was to dislodge the Afghan troops from the positions near Landi Kotal across the Durand Line they had occupied on 3 May 1919. They were in a hurry to do so with a view to preventing disaffection from spreading to the Afridi tribesmen living in the area, who constituted the bulk of the recruits for the Khyber Rifles militia. British reports, in fact, mention large numbers of armed tribesmen witnessing the confrontation from the nearby hills, biding their time before taking sides. It took the British over a week and several attacks to be able to storm the Afghan positions. However, it took longer for the Afridis to warm up and start getting involved in a more significant way in the fighting. Contrary to other tribal volunteers, such as the Shinwaris and Mohmands from the Afghan side of the Durand Line, these warlike dwellers of the Khyber Pass did not start to attack the British troops until June. By then, not only had the British repulsed the Afghans beyond the Durand Line, but had occupied the village of Dakka on the Afghan side, spurring more fierce fights when Afghan troops sought to counterattack. The British troops were planning further advances towards Jalalabad when developments elsewhere made them stop in their tracks.

Despite the hostilities having started on the eastern front under the Afghan commander-in-chief, Saleh Mohammad, the greater concentration of Afghan troops was actually in Khost, where the most momentous advance by the Afghan army inside British territory was also to take place. The British were expecting an Afghan attack either in Parachinar or in Miram Shah; instead, on 23 May, commanding officer Nadir Khan (future king in 1929-1933) took a middle route along the Kaitu river. This unexpected move spurred the evacuation of a series of posts manned by the North Waziristan militias. The morale of the Pashtun auxiliaries tilted against their Indian or British officers and they deserted en masse, with many joining the tribesmen and the Afghan troops in looting the abandoned forts. This, in turn, triggered a domino effect by which, even before an Afghan offensive in that sector materialised, the whole of the South Waziristan militia turned its weapons against its officers. A mere choice of the itinerary had led to the almost total collapse of British control in the two Waziristans in a matter of days; it would take three years of fierce fighting before this was firmly re-established.

Meanwhile, the Afghan troops under Nadir Khan proceeded to march on Thal (also spelled Thall), a small town in the settled areas, that is, already inside ‘official’ British India. They occupied it on 27 May, but could not take the nearby fort, garrisoned by British and Indian troops. In fact, Nadir Khan was soon to be repulsed with losses by the arrival of British reinforcements from Peshawar, but his offensive had reversed the gains that the British were making on other fronts with the occupation of the border post in Spin Boldak near Kandahar, besides Dakka in Nangrahar.

On 3 June 1919 a kind of truce between the Afghan government and the British Army was signed, but on the Kurram front operations continued until 7 June. On their part, British troops continued to carry out reprisal operations against the Waziris who had offered assistance to the Afghan troops, burning a total of 54 villages in North Waziristan and Kurram in mid-June.

On the eastern front, Mohmand, Shinwari and Afridi tribesmen made repeated efforts at dislodging the British from Dakka throughout the rest of June, while Afghan regulars kept in the background not to violate the ceasefire. The majority of the Afridis, however, remained passive until mid-July, when for a few days they started attacks on the British posts along the Khyber Pass, with a prominent role played by the Khyber Rifles’ deserters among them. Other tribes as well had a late start: Orakzais and Zaimukhts started harassing British communications near Hangu in July. The presence, in areas previously ungarrisoned, of so many British troops who moreover were mostly inactive, evidently proved too strong an incentive even for less enthusiastic supporters of the jihad.

Even in Kurram, desultory fighting between the British troops and the tribesmen continued throughout June and July: a group of the latter even managed to shoot down an aeroplane of the squadron sent to bomb them on July 30. This could well have been the last episode of the Third Anglo-Afghan War before peace was signed at Murree/Rawalpindi on 8 August.

The operations in Waziristan (and in adjacent parts of Baluchistan) would instead continue for the next three years, with many major battles fought. A small body of regular Afghan soldiers, 12 gunners with their artillery battery under Colonel Shah Dawla, was reported to have been present in Waziristan for several months after the cessation of hostilities, assisting the tribesmen in their resistance against the British.

The section of the front where regular Afghan soldiers continued to take an active part in the fighting for longest was Chitral. Here, an Afghan force equally composed of soldiers and tribal warriors had climbed the Kunar river valley upstream to invade Chitral on the 12th of May. Their first advance had eventually been repulsed by the British and princely Chitrali troops, but the Afghans had again crossed the border at the end of June and re-occupied two villages in Chitral territory which would only be returned to Chitral in 1922. Also, the Afghan soldiers were busy throughout the first half of July in meting out punishment to those Nuristani villages who had assisted the Chitrali-British force.

In secondary or remote fronts like Kurram or Chitral, the conflict was mainly one between local irregular forces often motivated by previous hostilities (Shia Turi and Bangash vs. Sunni Orakzai, Bangash, Mangal and Jaji; Afghans vs. Chitralis, with some of the Nuristanis, still smarting under the relatively recent annexation to Afghanistan, siding with the latter), with regular forces by either side mainly in a supporting and monitoring role.

The aftermath: diplomatic bouts and a missed opportunity to reform the military

The peace agreement signed was the start of several rounds of negotiation between the British Empire and Afghanistan: those at Mussorie the following year (where the Afghan delegation again included Diwan Naranjan Das, a prominent Afghan Hindu civil official whose presence unnerved the British, who considered it a “propaganda tool” aimed at the Indian public) did not lead to any result. In 1921 it took almost the full year for a second agreement to be signed: yet once again there was no official treaty and a number of issues were left pending. But the most important prize, full independence, as confirmed by the number of treaties signed elsewhere and the frenzy of diplomatic activity of Afghanistan worldwide, had been achieved.

For the first few years following the Independence War, Amanullah pushed for a reform of the army, with a particular focus on making the conscription system more effective and improving training and literacy rates (among officers).

This, however, went on a par with a reduction in the overall strength of the army in terms of its numbers, as many units were disbanded or were amalgamated with others and, particularly so since 1923, with cuts in military expenditure. On his accession, Amanullah had raised the soldiers’ pay from 12 to 20 rupees, this being also quite an obvious step for a new and still contested occupant of the throne. However, already in December 1919, he demobilized many old or unfit troopers and the new recruits were enlisted at only 14 rupees. One month of the soldiers pay had also just been cut by the state in order to subsidy the purchase of aeroplanes. (9)

The new recruitment system was also far from ideal. In place of the hasht nafari, military service was made compulsory and universal, and tighter control over lists of eligible conscripts was permitted by the introduction of the tazkera. The new system was resented even more than the previous one, as it entailed no economic support for the families of the conscripts. (10) The possibility of somebody excusing himself from the draft by paying an exemption fee was used extensively by the better-off families and came to be favourably seen as a source of revenue by the government. Again, however, only the most destitute members of society ended up in the army.

The purchase of modern weapons also proceeded slowly, as did attempts to fix Afghanistan’s lack of production of reliable amounts of ammunition. Many tribesmen, some of whom would turn their weapons against the Afghan government during the next decade, were better armed than the soldiers thanks to the ever-bustling arms trade across Baluchistan.

Free diplomatic relations had come at a cost: Amanullah was the first Afghan monarch in a while to have to do without British cash subsidies. The war had put considerable strain on the country’s finances and, moreover, payments of the arrears of the subsidy owed to Habibullah, amounting to 44 lakhs rupees, had been forfeited after the latter’s death.

Army reform costs a lot and Afghanistan, then as now, does not easily generate a surplus of wealth that the government can tap into in order to finance such a project. Amanullah’s early intentions to strengthen and modernise the army slowly waned after successive rounds of diplomatic negotiations with British India failed to produce an agreement that would reinstate the practice of a British subsidy to Afghanistan. This had traditionally constituted a much-welcomed source of cash to be employed for the modernisation and strengthening of Afghanistan’s civilian and military institutions. The subsidy and (a very limited) gift of weapons provided by the friendship agreement with Soviet Russia, which Amanullah signed in mid-1921, did not suffice to bridge the gap.

Abandoning ideas of creating a strong army, Amanullah started to rely mostly on two weapons. The use of airpower by the British during the recent conflict had impressed the Afghans a lot – in fact, the bombardments of Kabul and Jalalabad had bewildered the king. Amanullah sought immediately to purchase planes and pilots and create an airforce, but this also proved a very expensive and lengthy process. By 1928 he had around 20 serviceable aircraft in Kabul, although they were still mostly flown by Russian pilots, while Afghan pilots were undergoing training in Europe. However, Amanullah’s airforce was a rather motley ensemble of different flying machines, some purchased and some gifted by various European countries on the occasion of the establishment of diplomatic ties or a visit by Amanullah.

The other strategic asset of choice was partially an outcome of the Independence War. After the conflict, there had been an increasing assumption, on the part of the king and the now-commander in chief Nadir Khan, that regular troops were less effective and pivotal to the defence of Afghanistan compared to the armed tribesmen settled along the borders. The Mangal Revolt of 1924-25 showed the dire situation of the armed forces to its full extent. The fact that the revolt was finally suppressed thanks to tribal lashkars may have convinced Amanullah that to retain control of the country there were other options available which were less expensive than creating a strong and modern army. His fall in 1928-29 would prove this to be a wrong calculation – indeed, Habibullah Kalakani, who deposed him, was himself a former Afghan soldier-turned-bandit – and the failure to modernize the military would contribute decisively to ending a section of Afghanistan’s tortuous path to modernity.



(1) The text of a royal proclamation by Amanullah issued on 12 May 1919 – and which is the closest to an official declaration of war the author came across – mentions these two objectives. The first is to achieve the full independence of Afghanistan from the English. The second objective is outlined thus:

The second thing which I want is this that they (the British)should discontinue cruelty and improper oppression of our Indian brethren and people of other religions – Musalmans and Hindus – with whom we have relation and union on account of our being neighbours and having the same history and of our all being born in the East … In the same way, we cannot bear to hear of the oppression and aggression of the English on the people of India, who are our neighbours, and not feel aggrieved for them … we should be resolute in our intention of obtaining our freedom and avenging our Indian brethren.

Another message by Amanullah, this time a leaflet in Urdu addressed to the Indians and circulated at the end of April, contained a similar message:


Now I address my declaration to you, the Hindus and Muhammadans of India. Although according to International law we have no right to interfere in the internal affairs of the British Government, yet by virtue of the law of equity and humanity I can say that the people of India are justified in creating the disturbances which are at present happening in India…Therefore by virtue of the law of humanity it is our duty to advise our temporal and spiritual brethren to remain united, because in every religion God has given an injunction about unity. O my temporal and spiritual brethren!… You should discard your personal interests in favour of each other. Hindus, Muhammadans, Guebers and Christians are the creation of one God and are the descendants of one father and mother, Adam and Eve, and all of them are each other’s’ brothers. It is a matter of regret that the English people do not regard the Muhammadans and Hindus as human beings and behave towards them in an arrogant manner. The final result of arrogance is humiliation. It was arrogance which was the cause of the downfall of Satan. It is incumbent on you to unite whole-heartedly with the Afghan nation because I treat my Muhammadan and Hindu subjects with equal kindness and protect the life and property – and the honour and modesty of all of them.

I pray to God to grant me success in my good intentions and give me ability to cherish my subjects with more kindness, and to free you from the clutches of tyranny.

(India Office Record, L/P&S/11/159, file 6901/1919)

(2) Both Louis Dupree and David Edwards seem to consider Amanullah’s speech at the Eidgah Mosque in Kabul on 15 May as the declaration of war; however, the fighting had been ongoing for a fortnight already. Interestingly, Dupree highlights the ‘modernist’ cry of the crowd “Independence or death”, while Edwards considers Amanullah’s language on the occasion, heavily laden with jihadi expressions, to bear-proof of the king’s resorting to traditional values and symbolism in selling his project to the public. (Dupree L., Afghanistan, Princeton University Press 1973, p. 442; Edwards D., Before Taleban, University of California Press 2002, pp. 79-80)

(3) In a January 1916 article in Seraj ul-Akhbar, regarded by some as Afghanistan’s first declaration of independence, Tarzi called for Afghanistan’s full independence and ended on this note: “The noble Afghan nation… is perceptive, informed and aware. It has come to know its good and bad, its benefit and loss, the dignity of its ethnic freedom and the rights of its national independence. Let bygones be bygones! From now on, Afghans are not ones who would overlook their rights.”

(4) The Afghan postmaster in Peshawar, Ghulam Haidar, had dispatched somewhat optimistic reports to Amanullah about the advanced state of civil unrest in the city and the mutinous attitude of Indian troops there. The Afghan commands were probably convinced that an uprising in Peshawar was about to take place and they endeavoured to get in touch with the rebels there. However, hostilities began too early for any such plan to develop and British troops surrounded Peshawar city on 8 May, arresting several suspects among whom the postmaster and other Afghan citizens.

(5) The extent of Amanullah’s government efforts made for eliciting the sympathy of the Hindus went as far as decreeing a ban on the killing of cows in Afghanistan – a mostly symbolic and seldom enforced one in meat-eating Afghanistan. Read here for a historical outline of the Hindu and Sikh communities of Afghanistan and here for the vicissitudes of their current situation in the country.

(6) The life and character of one of the first and foremost of this class of religious leaders, the Mullah of Hadda, has been masterfully treated in David Edwards’ classic Heroes of the Age (University of California Press 1996). Other scholars, such as Sanah Haroon in Frontier of Faith (Oxford University Press 2007), have studied the Frontier Mullahs, their networks and political and social roles. A separate but complementary presence, that of foreign (mostly Hindustani) militants in the same area, dating back from the first Sikh inroads in the region in the 1820s, is explored by Altaf Qadir, Ahmad Barailvi: His Movement and Legacy from the Pukhtun Perspective (Sage Publications 2015).

(7) General Staff Branch, Army Headquarters India, Third Afghan War, Official Account, Calcutta 1926, p. 6.


(8) The Frontier had not been left ungarrisoned because of WWI. The main problem for the British at the start of the 1919 war was not the lack of availability of military manpower, although they had to postpone the furlough or the demobilisation of many units. It was more difficult to supply them adequately due to a shortage of pack animals caused by their relocation to other war theatres and a severe surra epidemic which had killed many camels and mules. (General Staff Branch, Army Headquarters India, Third Afghan War, Official Account, Calcutta 1926, p. 21 – available here)

(9) Summary of events in Afghanistan, 8 August 1919 to 1 June 1920, p. 16, compiled by the General Staff, Simla, Government of India Press, 1920.

(10) Under the hasht nafari system, the family would be supported economically by the seven men of the same community who had escaped state service. See Nawid, Religious Response to Social Change in Afghanistan 1919-1929 (Mazda Publishers 1999), p. 82; 85-86.


Anglo-Afghan War Great Britain History


Fabrizio Foschini

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