Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Regional Relations

A Tomb in Kabul: The Fate of the Last Amir of Bukhara and his country’s relations with Afghanistan

Thomas Ruttig Vladimir N Plastun 40 min

In addition to the last Amir of Bukhara’s former garden, on which we reported some days ago, there is another landmark in Kabul that reminds us of this unlucky ruler – his tomb at the Shuhada-ye Salehin cemetery. The Amir, Muhammad Alem Khan, died in Kabul in 1944 and remains buried in Afghanistan despite his last wish for his remains to be transferred to his home city. His country, once Afghanistan’s neighbour to the north, no longer exists. Using little viewed material from both Russia and Central Asia, guest author Vladimir N Plastun (*) and AAN co-director Thomas Ruttig look at how the once-powerful ruler ended up in Kabul: the result of the last round of the great Central Asian game between Soviets, British and local forces, including Afghanistan, and a forgotten competition over who would lead the Muslim world – an AAN long read for the days around the (western) New Year.

Visitors at the shrine of Sayyed Mir Muhammad Alem Khan, the last Amir of Bukhara (died 1943) at Kabul's Shuhada-ye Salehin cemetery. (In the forefront: grave of one of the Amir's courtiers.) Photo: Vladimir N Plastun.

You can read part 1 of our short series on Afghanistan and Bukhara (“The Amir of Bukhara’s Forlorn Garden”) by Jolyon Leslie here.

Dreams of khelafat

For a short time, from August 1919 to August 1920, Afghanistan and Bukhara to its immediate north, were the only de facto independent Muslim states not only in Central Asia but worldwide. Neighbouring Iran de jure was independent, too, but had partly been occupied by foreign – British and Russian – troops during World War I. The Ottoman Empire had been dismantled as a result of this war, during which it had allied with the defeated Central Powers, Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Bulgaria. Given this outcome, both rulers – Amir Amanullah Khan of Afghanistan and Amir Sayyed Mir Muhammad Alem Khan of Bukhara – aspired to becoming the new leader of Islam. Both dreamt of a new, large independent Central Asian Muslim empire that would include those areas that had been under Russian and then were – only partly in practice – under Soviet control. Both were hoping to be able to assume the title of the caliph, until then held bythe Ottoman Sultan. But allied troops had occupied the Ottoman capital Istanbul in 1919 and the sultan-caliph had fled abroad.

Both Amirs were thus in competition with each other, without ever publicly claiming the title. This was impossible, as a new caliph had been elected by the parliament of the Turkish Republic under Atatürk, although with strongly curbed powers. In 1924, Turkey formally abolished the caliphate.

Alem Khan in Bukhara had the advantage over the Afghan Amir, given that his capital – bearing the honorific title Bukhara-ye Sharif (the noble Bukhara) – had been famous for centuries as one of the most important centres of Islamic learning worldwide. And importantly, although having been de jure a Russian protectorate since 1868 when it had been forced to give the Czar control over the country’s foreign relations after a military defeat (similar to Afghanistan following the 1879 Gandamak Treaty with Britain), Bukhara saw itself as de facto independent after the 1917 February Revolution that ended Czarism. This event, followed by the takeover of Lenin’s Bolsheviki in October that year and the outbreak of the Civil War between the ‘red’ and the ‘white’ Russians in late 1918, severed all physical connections – ie the rail links – between the beleaguered Russian centre and Central Asia. As a result, Alem Khan had a free hand, as Tajik historian Kamoludin Abdullaev wrote in “Posledniy Mangit” (“The Last Manghit”), to try “to recover the country’s place in the international community of states between revolutionary [Soviet] Turkestan, (1) Afghanistan, which was religiously and ethnically close, British India and Shia Iran.”

In March 1918, Amir Alem’s troops repelled an early Soviet attempt to conquer his country. The latter had the support of the small, homegrown reformist Yash Bukharalilar (Young Bukharan) movement. The Amir was known to be adverse to any modernisation that was not military, and for brutally suppressing all forms not only of opposition but also of non-orthodox thought. A crackdown on the Yash Bukharalilar followed; they then sought refuge with the Soviets.

Amanullah came to power in Afghanistan only two years later, in February 1919, after his father Habibullah was assassinated. In August that year, he proclaimed the re-establishment of his country’s full independence. This followed a short war, the third one with Britain since 1839, at a point where their adversaries had become so war-weary after World War I, they decided to let the Afghans go. Britain also ceased paying subsidies to Afghanistan, forcing Amanullah to impose a tougher tax system that resulted in growing opposition. After the war, he used the title “Ghazi” (victor) which has a religious connotation. Dupree and Poullada wrote that he then started playing with the idea of proclaiming Afghanistan the seat of the khelafatand that “feelers were stretched out” to a number of Islamic countries, via foreign minister Mahmud Tarzi and religious scholars, about whether to proclaim Amanullah the new caliph. (2) In early 1920, according to contemporary British intelligence reports (quoted here, p32), the khutba – the Friday prayer sermon – was read in Kabul “in the name of other Muhammadan rulers as well as in the name of [Amanullah].”

There were also practical ways of boosting Amanullah’s standing as a leader of Islam. When Indian Muslims sold their land and prepared for migration in protest against the British occupation of Istanbul in 1919, he offered them land. By August 1920, some 30,000 of them had crossed into Afghanistan in the so-called Hejrat (migration) movement. Some of them were given land around Jabl ul-Seraj, a town north of Kabul in today’s Parwan province, and seem to have been assimilated by the local population over the decades. A second muhajer colony was planned in Qataghan province in the northeast. Other migrants enlisted into the Afghan army (see here, pp32, 52, 59).

However, the Hejrat Movement’s influx led to severe price rises for foodstuffs and land, and almost broke Afghanistan’s economic back (read here, p58). After some months, Amanullah closed the border and sent many of the Indian emigrées either back or allowed them to move on to Soviet Central Asia.

Amanullah also looked further afar. He “was interested to promote Afghan influence in Sinkiang [today’s Xinjiang, Chinese Turkestan]” according to Andrew DW Forbes, an author on the region. (3) Local Muslim populations were frequently rising up against the Chinese and warlord rule during the first decades of the twentieth century in this region. Afghanistan tried to establish “independent diplomatic links between Kabul and [the Chinese authorities in] Urumchi,” Chinese Turkestan’s capital, and sent a delegation there in the summer of 1922. Forbes wrote: “As a result of this Afghan presence something of an Afghan cult began to develop at Yarkand [a city in southern Xinjiang], and the Chinese authorities in Kashgar [the second city in the province] were disturbed to hear that some local Turkic-speaking peoples were studying Pushtu [sic].” (4)

While, Amanullah was thus able to consolidate his power at home, Alem Khan soon came under new Soviet pressure. His 1919 victory against the Soviets had only given him a respite of two years.

Amir Sayyed Mir Muhammad Alem Khan of Bukhara in a contemporary photograph by Sergei M Prokudin-Gorskii, kept in the US Library of Congress

Historical excourse: Bukhara – Chengiz Khan’s heritage

Muhammad Schaibani, a descendant of Chengiz Khan, is considered to be the founder of the Khanate of Bukhara. He conquered the city in 1506, sending into exile the former ruler, Babur, who went on to establish the Moghul Empire in India and is buried in Kabul (see AAN about his garden here). In the first half of the eighteenth century, the Uzbek tribe of the Manghit established its dynasty there. In contrast to its predecessors, it did not belong to Chengiz Khan’s lineage and its rulers relinquished their traditional title “khan,” choosing “amir” instead – in fact, amir ul-momenin, “leader of the faithful.” This symbolised that they were also religious heads of state. Under the amir was a kush-begi (chief minister) who ran the internal administration of the Emirate. In the absence of the amir, he would run the country.

In the nineteenth century, Bukhara served as a refuge for a number of royal fugitives from Afghanistan, rivals to various Afghan amirs. Abdulrahman Khan (ruled 1880-1901), for example, came there under Amir Sher Ali Khan’s rule (1863-66 and 1868-78), and went on from there to Samarkand, then a Russian protectorate. In 1878, after Sher Ali’s death, he returned and was crowned Amir in Kabul in 1880 after two years of infighting with other contenders. He waged a brutal campaign to unify what today is known as Afghanistan. This brought him the nickname, the “Iron Amir.” (5)

The bilateral relationship between Bukhara and Afghanistan was also burdened by old territorial conflicts. Both ruled parts of Badakhshan on the other side of the Amu Darya river, despite an earlier treaty that proclaimed it the mutual border river. For example, Darwaz, today an Afghan district, was claimed by Bukhara. (6) More significantly, the former independent Uzbek khanates south of the Amu and north of the Hindukush felt much closer to Bukhara than to Afghanistan. But they had already come under the latter’s control under Abdul Rahman’s predecessors in the second half of the nineteenth century (Kunduz in 1859 and Maimana in 1866, for example), then known as Afghan Turkestan. Today, they form Afghanistan’s northern and north-eastern regions. In the mid-eighteenth century, the khutbawas still read in Kunduz in the name of the Amir of Bukhara as a sign of suzereignty, even though Bukhara never physically conquered the region (see here).

Bukhara: population and economy

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Bukhara’s territory comprised most of what is today’s southern and central Uzbekistan, between the Amu and Syr Darya (the Oxus and Iaxartes of old) – the old Mawr an-Nahr (Transoxania) –, and southwestern Tajikistan. With 203,000 square kilometres, it was larger than Syria and not much smaller than the United Kingdom. Its population was between 1.5 and three million people, according to different sources. The major ethnic groups were Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmen and Kirghiz. Apart from these, there were smaller groups of Jews, Arabs, Pashtuns (called “Afghans”), ‘Gypsies’ – called Luti, Lori or Ghorbat in Central Asia, and Jat or Jogi in Afghanistan –, Hindus and Persians.

Economically, the emirate was a backward agrarian country, with some sprinkles of home manufacturing. Much of it was desert, allowing for nomadic husbandry, camels and goats, mainly. Along the Zerafshan river that passes by Bukhara and Samarkand there were irrigated oases, mainly producing cotton and grain. Bukhara was famous for its silk production and the ‘Bukhara’ carpets that, however, were mainly produced by the Turkmen in western Bukhara. Many of the country’s riches emanated from the caravan transit trade between Russia, Persia and – through Afghanistan and the Pamirs – India and China. These routes formed parts of the ancient Silk Road.

Apart from Bukhara, there were two more Uzbek-dominated khanates in Central Asia. Khiva – also known as Khwarezm – was located at the lower reaches of the Syr Darya River. It had also been quasi-independent since 1917 but was much less important than Bukhara. Kokand, in the Ferghana valley, which also controlled Tashkent (today’s Uzbek capital), had been annexed by Russia and ceased to exist in 1876. The same was true with the vast steppeareas roamed by nomadic Turkmen and Kirghiz tribes, now Turkestan Gouvernement (province).

Russian protectorate

Bukhara became Russia’s victim during the nineteenth century’s Great Game between Russia and Britian over Central Asia. In 1865, Russian troops occupied Tashkent and laid the basis for the subjugation of all of Turkestan. A year later, the Russian army defeated the troops of Bukhara’s Amir Muzaffar Khan, Alem Khan’s grandfather, in a number of battles over five months. The Russians even captured the Amir’s tent, but Muzaffar managed to escape. He was offered tough conditions for peace, but he managed to drag out the negotiations under various pretexts, in order to gather new troops. In vain – in May 1868, the Russian troops moved further ahead, towards Samarkand, then an independent city-state, and again defeated the Bukharan army, 40,000-men strong, that had also laid claim to the city.

When the Russians occupied the first Bukharan territory, the border fort of Kata-Kurghan, the Amir agreed on the conclusion of a peace treaty that was signed on 23 June 1868. In this treaty, the Amir committed to paying reparations over a sum of 125,000 tela (500,000 roubles; two roubles were equal to one US dollar at that time). He also lost the right to conduct foreign relations with other states. Russian traders were allowed to move freely in Bukhara, to establish their own caravanserais and to acquire real estate. With that, Amir Muzaffar Khan became a vassal of the Russian empire, and the Emirate of Bukhara lost its independence.

At the same time, the Russians compensated Muzaffar by giving him control over Samarkand and another hitherto independent city-state, that of Shahr-e Sabz (read more here). It is famous as the place where Emperor Timur (also known as Tamerlan) is buried, in the famous Gur-e Emir compound.

One of Amir Muzaffar’s sons, Abdul Malek Tura, however, continued the resistance. He was finally defeated and fled to Afghanistan, forshadowing the fate of his uncle, later Amir Alem Khan. He died in Peshawar under British rule. (7)

After Muzaffar Khan’s death in 1885, his son Sayyed Abdul Ahad Bahadur Khan was enthroned on 4 November 1885. He was well educated, spoke Farsi and even some Russian and Arabian. He had visited Russia several times and extensively, including Moscow and St Petersburg, and travelled to Kiev, Odessa, Jekaterinoslav, Baku, Tbilisi, Batumi, Sevastopol and Baghcha Serai in the Crimea, the capital of the former local Tatar khanate. He vacationed almost every summer in Mineralnye Vody in the Caucasus or in Livadia, the Russian emperor’s summer palace outside Yalta, when the emperor’s family was there. Abdul Ahad Khan had the title of a general adjutant at the Russian court, was a general of the Russian cavalry and elected ataman (headman) of the Terek Cossacks, as well as commander of a Cossack regiment based in Orenburg, in today’s northern Kazakhstan. Furthermore, he was addressed as “His Highness.” In 1896 he attended the coronation of Czar Nikolai II.

In 1893, Ahad Khan brought his fourth son, Alem Khan, born in 1880, to the Russian capital, St Petersburg. He acquired land there on which a palace and a garden were built for him, called Del-Keso. He also had a mosque erected, costing half a million roubles. During the Russian-Japanese war of 1905, he donated one million gold roubles for the construction of a war ship, called “the Amir of Bukhara.” Alem Khan was sent to be educated at the Czar’s corps des pages, where, according to Abdullaev, he only “managed, in four years, to acquire basic knowledge of the Russian language and of European cultures.” The father called his son “Alem the Cow,” for his alleged laziness. Frederick M Bailey, however, a British spy who operated in Soviet Central Asia in 1918-19, wrote in his book Mission to Tashkent(1946) that the Amir actually spoke “well-enough French.”

When Amir Abdul Ahad Khan died in the night of 22 to 23 December in 1910 in his home country from a kidney disease, Sayed Mir Alem Khan became his successor on the throne, as the tenth – and last – Manghit Amir of Bukhara. (Central Asia, including Afghanistan, did not know a ruler’s dynastic succession of the eldest son – or child; see the turmoil before Abdul Rahman could take power in Afghanistan. In Bukhara, though, there seemed to be no such turmoil when Alem Khan was enthroned.)

When World War I broke out in 1914, the Amir “needed to prove his loyalty“ to Russia once more (see here) – as the Ottoman caliph had called for jihad against the allied powers, which included Russia. He donated “millions of rubles to the Russian war effort.”

A short intermezzo of independence

After Russia’s 1917 February Revolution, which saw the overthrow of monarchism, the Russian empire was shaken. The new rulers – starting in October 1917, the Bolsheviki – struggled to keep their grip on the Czar’s former possessions, including in Central Asia. Lenin had proclaimed the “peoples’ right to self-determination.” This awakened nationalist ambitions, not only in Bukhara and Khiva but also among different population groups in the region. Dozens of autonomous governments sprang up, from the Ukraine to Central Asia and Siberia. But soon, the centralists (others may call them colonialists) among the Soviets gained the upper hand.

The now again de facto independent rulers of Bukhara and Khiva realised that the fall of the Russian autocracy also threatened their regimes. Threats emerged both from inside and outside their countries, with local reformist opposition groups, supported by the Russian (later Soviet) Communist Party.

Following the advice of his Russian bankers and with their help, Alem Khan transferred parts of his wealth in Russia – first 150 million and later another 32 million Roubles – to banks in France, Germany and India. He had to leave documentation about the transfers behind, however, when he was later forced to flee Bukhara, and he never managed to get hold of the money again.

In early 1918, the oppositional Young Bukharans sent a message to the quasi-autonomous Soviet leadership of the former Russian Gouvernement of Turkestan in Tashkent, headed by the former railway worker Fedor Kolesov, that Bukhara’s local population was ready to revolt. In March, Kolesov himself appeared at the city’s walls at the head of his troops. He demanded that Alem Khan hand over power to the opposition. The Amir rejected the ultimatum. Kolesov’s troops failed in their attempt to storm Bukhara and were beaten back. Alem Khan demanded that all Soviet troops leave the whole of Turkestan.

After the Soviets’ retreat, both sides concluded a peace treaty on 25 March 1918. Tashkent was forced to recognise Bukhara’s full independence. But the Soviet leadership still considered Bukhara part of their realm. This was reflected in Lenin’s letter to Afghanistan’s ruler, Amanullah, dated 27 November 1919, in which he called Afghanistan “the only independent Musulman state in the world.”

Alem Khan, meanwhile, tried to make use of the respite following Kolesov’s defeat to counter the remaining Soviet threat. Hastily, he modernised his army, bought weapons and recruited Afghans and Turks as ordinary soldiers but also as military advisors. Throughout the course of 1918 and 1919, he established three élite guard regiments: a local one; a Turkish; and one “Arabian.” The local regiment included cavalry units and volunteers from Bukhara’s madrassas. Its members were called Sher Bacha Ser-kerde (“the self-sacrificing Lion Boys”; see here). The Turkish regiment consisted of Turkish regular soldiers. They had fled to Bukhara after the Ottoman were defeat by the British in Transcaucasia and Persia in the last year of World War I. There were also former Turkish prisoners of war who had been held in Russia but were released after the 1917 October Revolution. In this regiment, 60 to 70 Afghans also served, together with some 150 mercenaries who were Russian subjects. The “Arab” regiment, contrary to its name, consisted of Turkmen horsemen. The officers’ corps of all three regiments consisted of Turks, considered to be the best in the Emirate’s army.

Meanwhile, the Young Bukharans in exile worked closely with Lenin’s Bolsheviki party and the Comintern. In 1918, a faction of them established a separate Bukharan Communist Party. (8) This was part of the Comintern’s Central Asian bureau’s plan to “revolutionise the East.” This involved supporting revolutionary organisations in the Caucasus, Persia, India, Bukhara, Khiva and Chinese Turkestan (see here, p38-9).

Communism for Afghanistan too – or just a stepping stone to British-India?

For some time at least, according to some sources, Afghanistan was also a direct target of this Soviet policy. Soviet military leader Leon Trotski wrote to the Bolshevik Central Committee in August 1919 (quoted here, p 39) to sanction the establishment of “serious military bases” in Turkestan in order to be prepared for a “uprising to our south.” Abdullaev quoted Mikhail Frunze, the commander of the Soviet troops in Central Asia, suggesting to the Chief Commander of Russian troops in June 1920 to “transfer the scene of military actions and battles into Afghan territory.” This was supposed to happen after the planned seizure of Bukhara.

For that purpose, Abdullaev said, an

[…] Afghan Revolutionary “Party” was quickly formed in Tashkent in case this [Bukhara] plan should be implemented successfully. Deputy Chairman of Turkkommissia [of the Russian Communist Party’s Central Committee] V. V. Kuibyshev set the following tasks for the Afghan Revolutionary Party: to eliminate the existing despotic “system and to inaugurate a People’s Soviet Republic.” All this was proposed under the guise of “friendly” relations between Lenin and Amir Amanullah!

Later, after the fall of Bukhara, other groups emerged. Russian researcher Vladimir Boyko, quoting Russian archival documents, mentioned three (see here). First, a “revolutionary… Afghan party” was set up in the winter of 1920 in Tashkent under the Turkkommissia. In that same year, a republican “Central Committee of Young Afghan Revolutionaries (chairman: Haji Muhammad Yaqub)” was founded in Bukhara, “members of which were Afghan refugees living in Bukhara, Turkestan [and] Russia.” With 55 members led by a Muhammad Ghafar, the group “waited for Soviet instructions in Termez in 1920,” which apparently never came. The Afghan government, according to Boyko, was aware of its existence and demanded their repatriation, however the Bukharan government refused. He added that there is “no material about any practical activity of the committee” and that “its traces disappear already in 1921.” The same went for the third group, a “revolutionary circle” in Herat in 1920/21, that came into being “not without the help of Soviets diplomats and their agents” who attempted to link them up with the circles in Bukhara. Boyko called it “the first and perhaps only attempt of leftist radical organisation on Afghan soil.”

Furthermore, the official participants’ list of the September 1920 Baku “Congress of the Peoples of the East” included 40 Afghan participants. The congress, organised by the Comintern, included communist and non-communist participants from around 20 countries.The 40 Afghans on the list, according to a breakdown of participating ethnic groups, included 12 Jamshidis – a semi-nomadic group living on both sides of the Soviet-Afghan border –  and 11 Hazaras, probably migrant labourers in Russian Central Asia. The remaining 17 were perhaps some of the “192 Persians and Farsis” (maybe, Farsiwans, as Tajik speakers in western Afghanistan are called). The congress’ presidium, composed of representative of the ‘communist faction’ and ‘non-party delegates’ (also sometime called the ‘Muslim faction’) had one Afghan from each, Ag[h]azade from the communists and Azim from the non-party members. (According to a 1983 article in the Central Asian Survey, Aghazade was no Afghan but “an Iranian Communist, a worker in Baku.” See also this AAN article.) The Afghan group’s size was possibly exaggerated by the organisers.

Boyko wrote that the Soviets’ “organisational experiments with the Afghan emigrants [went] miserably” and “the results of these political projects are also not known.” Actually, those Afghan ‘communist’ groups were never mentioned again in any known source, and nothing is known of their fate. Later official Soviet sources used to quote a warning by Lenin that Afghanistan was “not ripe for revolution” and that the USSR should work with the “progressive Amir, Amanullah.”

Instead of targeting Afghanistan, the Comintern’s aim was to use Afghanistan as a stepping stone for fomenting revolution in British-India. The Soviet commissar of war, Leon Trotsky, wrote in 1919 (quoted here): “The international situation is developing so that the way to Paris and London passes via the towns of Afghanistan, Punjab, and Bengal.” Lenin declared in 1920 that “England is our greatest enemy. It is in India that we must strike them hardest.” (9) The plan was to establish clandestine bases, infiltration routes and the delivery of weapons into these regions. Moscow, through the Comintern, had also started supporting the Indian government in exile set up in Kabul in December 1915, then still with German support (more here).

In Lenin’s November 1919 letter to Amanullah (quoted above), Lenin encouraged Amanullah in his pan-Islamic views and at the same time questioned the independence of Bukhara:

At present, flourishing Afghanistan is the only independent Muslim state in the world, and fate gives the Afghan people the great historic task of uniting around itself all enslaved Muslim peoples and leading them on the road to freedom and independence.

Amanullah on the rise

Amanullah’s caliphate dreams seem to have been strongest between when he became Amir on 28 February 1919 and the Third Anglo-Afghan War he started on 3 May the same year. Amanullah embarked on what Boyko called, in a 2004 book, a line of foreign policy based on Pan-Islamism “aiming at the establishment of a Central Asian Con-/Federation consisting of the Khanates of Khiva and Kokand, the Emirate of Bukhara and Afghanistan itself after the fall of the Ottoman empire.” Tajik researcher Abdullaev cited a letter from Amanullah’s mother, Ulya Hazrat, to Amanullah from 1919, saying “Our enemies draw large profit from our family’s [ie Islamic umma’s] differences, topple Muslim governments, and Muslim peoples are paralysed in their iron fangs.” (10)

According to a second article written by Abdullaev, Amanullah was initially interested in recruiting the Basmachi movement for his planned war of independence. This movement had originated in the Ferghana valley, originally a part of the Khanate of Kokand. After the 1917 February Revolution, local nationalists had set up a local government, the so-called ‘Kokand Autonomy’. It was led by the Kazakh Mostafa Chokai (Russian form: Chokaev) who had been a member of the last pre-revolutionary Russian parliament. This government claimed control over all of Russian Turkestan and expected to become a member of a newly organised Russian confederation.

In practice, Chokai’s government barely controlled more than Kokand city and only had a few troops. The Bolsheviki crushed it in a single day, on 11 February 1918. (11) A massacre of the local population followed. The surviving local forces went to the mountains and received support from Uzbek, Kirghiz and Turkmen tribes, forming the Basmachi movement. Composed of around 40 independently operating groups with 20,000 fighters in 1920, it was led by Ergash Bey, a mullah from Kokand. He had been elected the movement’s overall commander at a shura in March 1919 and given the title amir ul-momenin (see here, p43-4). Although Ergash was killed in the summer of 1920, the Basmachi soon controlled large areas in the region. In December 1918, the Basmachi dispatched a delegation to Kabul to raise support. It was received by foreign minister Mahmud Tarzi, the Turkish military advisor, Sami, and even by Amanullah (see here, p66), who, at the time, was not yet Amir but governor of Kabul and in charge of the army and the treasury. They also met Tura, Alem Khan’s uncle who had led the anti-Russian resistance in 1868 and then fled abroad.

Amanullah’s plans to recruit the Basmachi, however, did not come to fruition. He invaded British India with domestic troops, starting in May 1919. When the third Anglo-Afghan war concluded on 8 August 1919 with the peace treaty of Rawalpindi, it re-instated Afghanistan as a fully independent country. After that, Amanullah’s interest for the Basmachi quickly waned and good relations with Soviet Russia took precedence.

Almost immediately after the peace treaty with Britain, an Afghan diplomatic mission led by Muhammad Wali Khan departed for Moscow on their way to participate in the Versailles Peace Conference, in order to assert the country’s newly gained independence. The mission also passed through Bukhara, where it arrived on 6 June 1919 and Wali Khan met the Amir. Wali awarded him a medal and handed over a letter from Amanullah, in which the Afghan ruler explained – apparently replying to a request from Bukhara – that Afghanistan was unable to join the fight against the Bolsheviki. Afghanistan, he argued, was still preoccupied with the British, who continued to hold areas across the Durand Line, which Afghanistan considered its own. Nevertheless, Amanullah sent some support to Bukhara, six cannons and military instructors who joined the army’s general staff and helped to manufacture ammunition. (12)

Similarly, Amanullah kept some limited support for the Basmachi movement. In early December 1919, a ten-member mission led by Afghan army colonel Muhammad Akbar Khan arrived at the headquarters of one of the Basmachi leaders, Madamin Beg (actually Muhammad Amin Ahmadbekov) who operated in the Margilan area of the Ferghana valley, not far from the city of Kokand. The Afghans promised to deliver him 5,000 rifles and to send some 1,000 men to fight the Bolsheviki. In February 1920, a Basmachi delegation from Kokand arrived in Kabul to press for the promised help. But by the early 1920s none of it seemed to have arrived.

In the broader view, Amanullah had to choose between building an independent national state and fostering Islamic solidarity. After calculating the Soviets would be able to defeat the Basmachi and the White Russian contingents, he refrained from actively supporting his rival Bukhara and the insurgents in Ferghana. In doing so, Amanullah also attempted to prevent any British influence in Bukhara.

Afghan-Soviet relations, however, were all but warm. According to Bailey, Nikolai Bravin, the first envoy of Soviet Russia to Kabul (he was not a member of the Bolshevik party, so Yakov Surits became Ambassador), described them as “pompous but without cordiality.” Amanullah even turned Lenin’s Pan-Islamist encouragement against the Soviets from time to time, reminding Lenin, for example, of their joint commitment to safeguard Bukhara and Khiva’s independence. He even wrote to the leaders of socialist Bukhara to establish religious bodies to make sure that the country’s population attended prayer, according to Boyko (p 113).

According to Abdullaev, the British were also keen to avoid any step that could have provided the Soviets with a justification to export the revolution to Afghanistan and India. Support for the Amir of Bukhara and the Basmachis could have been such a step. Britain thus applied its policy of ‘masterly inactivity’ from the Great Game.

The end of the Bukhara Emirate and retreat of Alem Khan

Amanullah’s calculations on Soviet influence in the region proved to be right. The Bolshevik army became substantially stronger in Central Asia, and by April 1920 had defeated the main Basmachi contingents. Elsewhere, they subdued the White Russian generals one by one, who had been in contact with and supported anti-Soviet forces in the whole region, including the Basmachi and Bukhara.

In late August 1920 the Soviets attacked Bukhara again. This time, they conquered the city within a few days. Russian sources say that the Amir’s Turkish regiment, with its Afghan fighters, played a crucial role in their attempts to defend Bukhara. According to Abdullaev, the Amir’s kush-begi Mirza Nezamuddin Urganji (he was from Khiva) tried a counterattack with several thousand fighters, including the Afghans, who had gathered with the Amir in his palace, Setara-ye Mah Hesar (“Moon Star Palace”), a few kilometres to the east of the city on 1 September, but was defeated. On the same day, the Amir ordered the evacuation of the city. Apart from his financial documents, he even had to leave part of his family behind and retreated to Dushanbe in mountainous eastern Bukhara, today’s capital of Tajikistan. There he tried to mobilise resistance against the Soviets. Resistance in Bukhara city continued until 4 September.

As a result of the attack, Bukhara was heavily destroyed. Twenty palaces, 29 mosques, around 100 shops and 3,000 houses were destroyed, according to Abdullaev. On 8 October 1920, the Young Bukharans and their Soviet supporters proclaimed the Bukharan People’s Soviet Republic and concluded a friendship treaty with Soviet Russia. Four years later, in October 1924, the still de jure independent state joined the Soviet federation and was integrated into the Uzbek Socialist Soviet Republic.

Meanwhile, Alem Khan found Amanullah to be less supportive than ever. On 13 September 1920, less then two weeks after Alem Khan was deposed, a Soviet-Afghan friendship treaty was signed. In this treaty, both sides recognised the independence of Bukhara – then of course already of the Soviet-dominated People’s Republic – and Amanullah received Soviet military and other aid in exchange (see also this AAN analysis).

Alem Khan also appealed to the British, but in vain, such as a 21 October 1920 letter to his “brother” King George V, sent via the Bukharan delegation in Kashgar in Chinese Turkestan (still loyal to him) and the British Consul-General there (quoted from Abdullaev):

I hope that in this hour of need Your Majesty will extend to me your kindness and favour and send me from your High Government by way of friendly assistance £100,000 English as a State Loan, also 20,000 rifles with ammunition and 30 guns with ammunition and 10 aeroplanes with necessary equipment. These things may kindly be dispatched to me quickly with my above mentioned officials, and this will make me happy. As to sending me assistance from Your side, you know best how to deal with and fight the Russians, but I shall be very grateful if 2000 armed soldiers can be sent to me quick via [Qarategin]. This will strengthen the bonds of friendship and give expression of our alliance.

But London did not want to complicate relations with Soviet Russia at this point (it had intervened in the Civil War in Russia with troops in the north, the Caucasus and in what today is Turkmenistan. It had then withdrawn them after the defeat of the Whites), fearing Soviet influence in Afghanistan could stoke the Pashtun tribes in India’s North West Frontier Province into uprising. This fear was later laid to rest with the March 1921 British-Soviet trade agreement in which Moscow, gripped by economic crisis, agreed to stop all infiltration into India, but by then it was too late for Alem Khan.

The consolidation of Soviet power in Central Asia led to mass emigration, mainly to Afghanistan. Many of today’s Uzbek, Turkmen and Tajik communities in northern Afghanistan have their roots in Bukhara and Khiva, on the northern side of the Amu Darya (more detail here).

Destructions in Bukhara after the Soviet capture in 1920. Via Uzbek travel.

Exile in Afghanistan: Alem Khan leaves Bukhara forever

In late February 1921, as the Red Army approached Dushanbe, the biggest town still under Amir Alem Khan’s control, he took the decision to leave his country. On 4 March 1921, he and his entourage crossed the Amu border river in what today is Tajikistan’s Khatlon province into Afghanistan, leaving “noble” Bukhara behind forever, although he did not know this at the time. According to Bailey, hewas accompanied by the former Afghan consul to Tashkent, Muhammad Aslam Khan and his royal household, as well as 300 fighters belonging to Bukhara’s regular, defeated army comprised of 200 Bukharans and 100 Afghans. The rest of the Amir’s surviving forces joined the Basmachi.

Alem Khan arrived in Khanabad, in today’s Kunduz province, then the centre of the Afghan northeastern province of Qataghan. He apparently did so without consent from Kabul. It took Amanullah almost three months, until mid-May 1921, to permit him to proceed to Kabul. This was accompanied by a cordial letter in which he wrote, quoted by Abdullaev: “I and you are united in belief, my mother considers you her son, therefore come to Kabul and visit.”

Upon Alem Khan’s arrival on 17 May 1921, Amanullah provided the displaced Amir and his entourage an honorary residence in the centre of Kabul (see part 1 by Jolyon Leslie) and organised a large reception for him. Apart from two meetings in the first three months, Amanullah avoided personal contact with the deposed Bukharan ruler, according to Abdullaev.

Still, Alem Khan did not give up hope of recapturing Bukhara. He continued to write to the British in India, but, censored by the Afghan government, his letters never arrived. He also unsuccessfully appealed several times to Amanullah, including through the English Ambassador in Kabul, for permission to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca via India.

Meanwhile, when the new government of the Bukharan People’s Republic learned of Amanullah’s invitation to Alem Khan, it sent a letter with three demands, quoted by Abdullaev: “1) to disarm and intern the armed forces in the Amir’s entourage and to hand over the weapons to the people of Bukhara; 2) to bar the former Amir from being present near the Bukharan border and in Kabul; 3) to receive the former Amir as a normal citizen and ban him from gathering any grouping around him.”

Amanullah Khan accepted these demands almost totally. As a result, according to Bailey (p299-300), “The Afghans treated [Alem Khan] as a prisoner and censored all his letters, but allowed him a sum each month for his expenses.” On his trips through the country, he was never allowed to travel further then Jalalabad, in order to make sure he did not escape to British India.

Amanullah had Alem Khan shifted to Qala-ye Fatuh in the Chahrdeh valley some 20 kilometres from what was then Kabul city. This was to keep him away from the diplomatic circles in the capital. In India, according to Abdullaev, the British were not unhappy about this arrangement; there seem to have been deliberations that if Alem Khan arrived, he would not be allowed to stay but settle in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) or the Seychelles. (13) According to Red Army intelligence reports, cited by Abdullaev, the Amir still managed to maintain communication with the Bukharan emigrants that had settled mainly in northern Afghanistan. He tried to find out about the military situation in his country and also attempted to maintain contact with the Basmachi. (14)

The Enver Pasha episode

One of the most remarkable political manoeuvres in those already stormy years temporarily brought new hope to exiled Alem Khan in 1921. This had to do with Enver Pasha, the former Young Turk and Ottoman minister of war (1913-18), who had arrived in the region as an ally of the Soviets. Or so it seemed.

Shortly before the end of World War I, Enver had been exfiltrated from Turkey by the Kaiser’s fleet to Germany. With Germany not able to support him any further after its own defeat and capitulation, he went to Soviet Russia. He arrived with recommendations from Karl Radek, one of the Comintern’s key leaders, who operated in Germany during its post-war upheavels. Enver seemed to have persuaded Radek and other Soviet leaders that he might help them in their aim of ‘revolutionising the East’ and subduing the Basmachi uprising. In September 1920, Enver participated in the Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East. In November 1920, he was received by Lenin, who took him up on his offer to be despatched to Central Asia. Enver’s brother Cemal Pasha joined him from Afghanistan, where he had arrived in 1916, likely as a military instructor. In the end, the Soviets did not allow him to go with Enver, according to Turkish historian Suhnaz Yilmaz.

From Moscow, Enver first went back to Germany to buy weapons, then onto the Caucasus in the summer of 1921 and finally to socialist Bukhara, where he  arrived on 8 November. Three days later he left the city, ostensibly on a hunting trip. He was accompanied by then-Bukharan head of state, Osman Khwaja(ev), two more ministers and a 90-strong group. Khwajaev had fallen out with the Soviets, who, despite Bukhara’s (formal) independence, had told him they would maintain a military presence in the country, and requested Afghan help to maintain its independence. (Abdullaev, in contrast, speaks of an attempted coup by Khwajaev, in cooperation with Turkish officers helping to train the Bukharan army.) They then linked up with Basmachi leader Ibrahim Bek, an Uzbek of the Loqay tribe, in the region of Hessar near the border with Afghanistan.

Ibrahim, though, thought they were Soviet spies. He disarmed and detained the group for almost three months (more here). He only released them after he received letters from Amanullah and the Amir of Bukhara who appointed Enver supreme commander of his forces (amer lashkar) and his deputy (naeb amir). Enver’s new titles had been held by Ibrahim Beg so far, so the latter refused to subordinate himself to the newcomer. Soon after, however, at a kurultai (assembly) of the Basmachi leaders, Enver was confirmed in his positions under the influence of representatives of the Amir (more here. The Basmachi forces unified, at least theoretically, into a Lashkar Islam (Army of Islam), with Enver as its leader.

In February 1922, Enver’s troops captured Dushanbe and brought most of Eastern Bukhara under their control. In March 1922, they laid siege to the city of Bukhara but failed to take it. After Soviet purges of ‘nationalists’ in Bukhara in the spring of 1922, the rest of the Young Bukharans joined him. Some 140 Afghan volunteers also joined him, “despite the official policy of Kabul” not to support the Basmachi (as Abdullaev put it). (15) Abdullaev cited an Afghan source, namely a semi-documentary novel by Khalilullah Khalili (later the top poet at the Afghan court), that one of the volunteers was Habibullah Kalakani, who, in 1929, toppled Amanullah and became King Habibullah II for nine months (more in this AAN background).

The Afghan volunteers were apparently headed by Afghan officers and – for religious guidance – by a Panjshiri cleric, Mawlavi Abdul Hai, according to Abdullaev. Enver made him Sheikh ul-Islam, indicating that Abdul Hai was a senior Islamic scholar. (Another source, here, p72, has his name as Abul Khair.)

The volunteers were sent by Muhammad Nader Khan, who would later become Afghanistan’s king (1929-33). He then served as Minister of War and had been sent to Qataghan’s provincial capital, Khanabad, to keep an eye on events beyond the country’s northern border. There he met former Bukharan president, Khwaja(ev), corresponded with Enver and sent weapons and ammunition to the other bank of the river. The letters were later found by the Soviets in Enver’s camp (see here).

In July 1922, in a letter to the Soviet foreign office, Nader Khan allegedly threatened that Afghanistan would annex Bukhara if Soviet activities against its independence did not cease. (16) It is not clear whether that was his private policy or expressed Amanullah’s course (possibly with ‘plausible deniability’).

By this time, Enver had developed his own plan to establish a Turkic empire in the region, with himself at its head. Whether that had been his idea from the start of his Soviet enterprise, or whether the mid-1921 Soviet rapprochement with the new Turkish leader, Kemal Pasha (later Atatürk), a former friend but now Enver’s rival, made him rethink about the Soviets, is still anyone’s guess.

In May 1922, Enver repeated Alem Khan’s earlier ultimatum to the Soviet leadership to withdraw all its forces from Turkestan. But he failed to bring most Basmachi fighters under his command and in practice led only 3,000 out of a total of 16,000 at that point, according to Becker (p304, see FN 7). Ibrahim Beg even “sabotaged Enver’s orders, informed the Red Army about his plans, and openly clashed with his forces”, according to Kirill Nourzhanov, a Kirghiz historian. Enver also alienated Alem Khan by referring to himself as “Amir of Turkestan” and issuing decrees for Bukhara in his own name, using a seal with the inscription “Commander-in-Chief of all the Armies of Islam, Son-in-Law of the Caliph [he was married to a granddaughter of Sultan Abdulmejit I, who ruled from 1839-61] and Representative of the Prophet.”

In the first half of 1922, Alem Khan broke off relations with Enver, depriving him of much-needed financial support. The Soviets, meanwhile, were able to cut off his supply routes from northern Afghanistan in June. They hunted Enver down with what today would be called counterinsurgency units and local militias recruited from among ‘reconciled’ Basmachis. These forces killed him on 4 August 1922 near the village of Ab Dara in Baljuwan district, not far from Dushanbe. It was Eid al-Adha, and Enver had given leave to most of his troops to celebrate. The first newspaper to report Enver’s end was Ettehad-e Islam, published in Mazar-e Sharif, in late October 1922 (quoted here, p200).

Enver’s deputy Haji Bekir Sami (actually Same’) Bey took over as amer-e lashkar. (17) He had been taken prisoner of war as a Turkish officer by Russian troops during World War I, escaped to Bukhara and joined Enver. After Enver’s death in August 1922, he briefly escaped to Afghanistan but returned later that year and fought until July 1923. Then, however, he had to give up under increasing Soviet pressure and left for Afghanistan, for good. There he was assassinated soon after, allegedly by the Turkish secret police.

Before Enver’s death, after an official warning from the Soviets, Amir Amanullah ordered the Afghan volunteers home on 25 July 1922. He gave them 20 days and threatened those who would not comply with the loss of their Afghan citizenship and confiscation of their property (see here, p 136). Nader Khan was demoted for his cooperation with Enver and sent abroad as Afghan minister (ambassador) to Paris. Mawlavi Abdulhai was arrested and imprisoned in Khanabad when back in Afghanistan. The same may have been the case with Habibullah Kalakani, who, according to Khalili’s book, also served time in prison. According to Eden Naby, writing in 2004, Afghan descendants of the soldiers sent by Amanullah in support of the Amir of Bukhara in 1922 are living in and around Bukhara but have lost their original language, Pashto. (18)

At the same time, Amanullah seemed to have supported Alem Khan’s attempts to regain control over the Basmachi movement. In Kabul, a meeting was convened between the Amir and the Basmachi movement’s main leaders in August 1922. (19) It was only after Haji Sami’s disappearance on the Central Asian battlefield in mid-1923, however, that Alem Khan re-appointed Ibrahim Beg as Basmachi supreme commander in July 1923. Real unity never developed, though, and the movement’s diverse groups were defeated one by one by the Soviets. Ibrahim continued his fight for another three years. In 1926, he fled to Afghanistan, where he joined Alem Khan. Thefew other surviving Basmachi leaders did the same by the mid-1920s. Fuzail Maqsum, a Tajik from southern Bukhara, was one of last who gave up in May 1929. Kurshermat (real name: Sher Muhammad) from Ferghana died in Afghan exile.

Further west, Basmachi leader Junaid Khan, a Turkmen from the Yomut tribe, still threatened the city of Khiva in 1926. There, he had been the ruler from February 1916 to January 1920. In 1916 he had toppled the local Khan (and installed a new one as nominal ruler), and, in 1920, similarly to what had happened in Bukhara, he was overthrown by Soviet and local reformist forces, the Young Khivans. And, much like had happened in Bukhara, they established a Khwarezm People’s Soviet Republic. During his rule, Junaid had enjoyed Afghan support. In December 1919, there were 400 regular Afghan soldiers deployed in Merw, according to official British Indian files. When Khwarezm, much like in Bukhara, joined the Soviet Union in 1924 against the will of the Young Khivans, they joined Junaid Khan’s forces. After another defeat in June 1926, Junaid Khan also went to Afghanistan and settled in Herat.

Intermezzo: Habibullah (Kalakani) II

Fate changed again for the Central Asian diaspora in Afghanistan when Habibullah Kalakani overthrew Amanullah in January 1929. He officially supported the Basmachi movement, and Alem Khan quickly capitalised on the political change. He convened a meeting of the main Basmachi leaders in Kabul within the same month. Junaid, Ibrahim Beg and Maqsum’s men all supported the new regime in Kabul and carried the fight back over the Soviet border. Ibrahim, who was quasi-garrison chief in Khanabad, was tasked to liberate Tajikistan (20) by Alem Khan. Maqsum operated from Badakhshan. When pro-Amanullah forces from Soviet Central Asia attacked Basmachi positions inside Afghanistan and even briefly captured Mazar-e Sharif in May 1929, supported by Soviet troops (see here) (21), Maqsum directly worked under Habibullah’s minister of defence, Sayed Hussain.

Afghan support for the Basmachi soon stopped again after Habibullah II’s relatively quick overthrow in October 1929. Nader Shah, as he was then called as King, turned against the Basmachi on Afghan soil after a short period during which Ibrahim was still assistant governor in Mazar-e Sharif. This new political turn was a result of Soviet pressure. This was another heavy blow to the Basmachi, depriving them of their hinterlands. Nader even began pushing them actively back over the Amu Darya border in 1930. (22) There, Junaid Khan led a brief resurgence of the Basmachi movement in 1931. Then, Soviet collectivisation in what is now Turkmenistan created new resistance. He was defeated in 1933 and fled to Iran, where he died in 1936.

Ibrahim Beg was caught by the Soviets in June 1931, transferred to Tashkent, interrogated, tried and condemned to death. He was executed in August 1932.

Amir Alem’s last years: the dream dies

Junaid and Ibrahim’s end was not the last word on the anti-Soviet Bukharan and Basmachi forces, nor on Alem Khan’s ambitions to regain power in Bukhara. Small Basmachi remnants were still active throughout the 1930s and, according to some sources, even into the 1940s. Then, Western sources reported attempts by the Japanese and German intelligence services to re-launch the Basmachi insurgency under the leadership of Alem Khan. This was meant to undermine Soviet resistance against Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa, the attempt to defeat Stalin. Boris Kogan wrote for the Small Wars Journal in 2011 that a “massive cross-border invasion was planned for the summer of 1943, its object being the reinstatement of the Emir in Bukhara.

Available sources do not provide information as to whether Alem Khan was involved in this planning. Elements in the German leadership had contemplated a similar plan for Afghanistan, namely organising an invasion of Afghan forces from Soviet Turkestan (after the envisaged German occupation of the region, which never occurred) in order to bring back Amanullah to power, who, meanwhile, lived in Mussolini’s Italy. According to German files, Amanullah was to be told about the plan only when it had been set in motion (which never happened). (23) Anyway, as Kagan continued about the plan for Bukhara:

It was not to be. Soviet intelligence penetration of the Basmachi organizations of Afghanistan was very thorough. Simultaneously, throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s the British had increased their influence over Afghanistan’s foreign policy. The final nail in the coffin of the insurgency was a series of purges undertaken by the Afghan police against the Central Asian diaspora in 1943, probably at the behest of these two foreign powers, which culminated in the aged Emir being called before the King of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah [who had followed Nader Shah after his assassination in 1933], and being ordered to cease and desist in no uncertain terms.

In early 1943, Alem Khan received the news about the defeat of Hitler’s troops in Stalingrad and the Caucasus. This made Germany’s plans for Central Asia and India obsolete, and destroyed his final hope of a return.

View of the tomb of Amir Alem Khan of Bukhara in Kabul. Photo: Vladimir N Plastun

Less than a year later, on 29 April 1944, Alem Khan died in the presence of his wives and children in Kabul. One of his wives, Nazera, who had been born in Faizabad, Badakhshan, is buried with him in the cemetery of Shuhada-ye Salehin in Kabul.

Abdullaev describes the last days of the Amir of Bukhara: “The heavily sick and almost completely blind Alem Khan turned, in the last days [sic] of his life, into an ardent karakul skin merchant and rentier. He also was forced to give up his dreams about [regaining] his wealth, as due to the activities of the Soviet government his deposits [in Western Europe] remained blocked.” In his residence, it was reported, he kept two glass vessels with soil from Bukhara and two flags of his home country, green with a yellow moon, star and the hand of Fatema and two verses from the Quran.” According to contemporary tales, Abdullaev reported, “he loved to sit at the banks of the Kabul River and recite Persian verses about Bukhara the Noble.”

The Amir’s offspring: Back to Bukhara?

According to a Tajik journalist, there are more than 300 progeny of the Amir living in Afghanistan and the US, Germany and Turkey, as well as in Russia. Twelve sons and ten daughters were still alive abroad in 2016, according to Uzbek writer Artur Samari who has collected information about Alem Khan’s family.

According to him, three of his sons had been left behind in Bukhara in 1920. They were sent to be re-educated in the USSR in a home for children of fallen Bolsheviki in Moscow. Alem Khan contacted the Soviet government for them to be released to Afghanistan, but this was denied.

The youngest of the three, Rahim Khan, attempted to escape to his father in Afghanistan before World War II but was arrested at the border and executed. The eldest son, Sultan Murad, who had denounced his father at the age of seven in 1929, graduated from the Workers’ Faculty (a new university designed for the proletariat) and worked in a factory. But, thirsty for knowledge, he learned English, which in those days was sufficient enough to be suspected a British spy. He was arrested as an enemy of the people and later died in jail.

The middle son, Shah Murad, also had to publicly dissociate himself from his father in an open letter published in the Soviet daily Izvestiya (quoted here). He undertook military training and later joined the Kuibyshev Military Academy, where he became a teacher. As a member of the Soviet Army, he participated in World War II and was seriously wounded in 1944. After the war, he returned to the academy as a lieutenant-general and received a professorship. He died in 1985 in Moscow at the age of 75. Most people around him were unaware of his background. Samari interviewed one of his classmates, who told him how Shah Murad – then officially Shah Murad Olimov – was once shown a book with a photo of his father and started crying.

The amir’s son, General Shahmurad Olimov, in a Soviet uniform. Photo c/o Vladimir N Plastun.

Three children belonging to Alem Khan’s last wife, a Tajik from Hesar in what was a part of Bukhara and whom he had married in Kabul, lived in Afghanistan until the Soviet occupation in 1979. One of them, Shukria Rad Alemi, the Amir’s youngest daughter, graduated as one of four women in the first journalism class of Kabul University in 1966 and then worked as a broadcaster in Radio Afghanistan, the Voice of America (VoA) reported in 2002. Her husband was also a journalist. In early 1980, three months after the Soviet invasion,they saw themselves compelled to migrate onwards to Pakistan, and from there through Germany to the US. In 1982, Shukria Rad Alemi joined the VoA and worked as a broadcaster, editor, host and producer for its Dari Service, until 2002 (on an occasional basis, in the later years).Two of the Amir’s sons, Sayed Amer Khan Alemi and Sayed Akbar Alemi, worked for the VoA’s Dari division.

In 2006, Bilal Shams, a Tajik journalist, met Shukria Rad Alemi, who by that time was living in a retirement home in Washington DC, aged 93. He reported that she told him she did not have any contact with her relatives in either Tajikistan or Russia.

Other daughters and relatives continued to live in Afghanistan. Shams met two of Alem Khan’s grandsons, Sayed Azam Azizi Bukhari  – also a journalist by profession but now “in small business” – and Sayed Abdul Rasul Ghafuri Bukhari, in Kabul. They accompanied him to the Amir’s grave. He also met two daughters, 80 year-old Nazakat and 73 year-old Muslima, living with the grandsons; the latter had been born in Afghanistan. According to Shams, all expressed their interest in returning to their home country, now Tajikistan. The grandsons told him that, if there was a possibility, they would like to transfer the remains of the deceased Amir to their homeland, as requested in his will. They said: “Afghanistan is not the homeland for us; our homeland in on the other side of the Panj river [how the Amu is called upstream].” The two women also said they would “very much” like to go back to their homeland.

In 2006, Shams wrote, the grandsons turned to the Embassy of Tajikistan, requesting permission for Alem Khan’s family members to participate in the celebration of the country’s independence day, but they were not received. In 1994, then-Uzbek President Islam Karimov allowed them to visit his country, but they were asked to leave after ten days.

Before he passed away, the former Amir Alem Khan put in his will that the following Farsi language verses be enscribed on his cenotaph:

امیر بی وطن زار و حقیر است
گدا گر به وطن میرد – امیر است

[Amir-e be-watan zar o haqir ast 

gada gar ba watan me-ra(wa)d – amir ast

An Amir without a homeland is miserable and insignificant
The beggar if he died in the homeland – is an Amir]

The inscription still can be read on Alem Khan’s white marble sarcophagus on Shuhada-ye Salehin cemetery. There it lies in its one-storey, dilapidated mausoleum under a domed roof, behind an iron grill the friendly custodian opened up for us. The mausoleum is surrounded by more graves belonging to Alem Khan’s family members and former advisors. Afghan elders told one of the authors that old men’s bodies are still brought from Bukhara to be buried here.

Edited by Danielle Moylan

Amir or beggar? Alem Khan’s sarcophagus with his self-chosen inscription in Kabul. Photo: Vladimir N Plastun.

(*) Dr (DSc) Vladimir N Plastun is professor for Oriental Studies at Novosibirsk State University. He worked in Afghanistan as Director of the Soviet Cultural Centre in Kabul (1979-80), then as an invited civilian specialist-ethnographer in the Afghan military forces (1987-88) and as correspondent of the Pravda newspaper in Afghanistan (1989-1991). In 2009, during a research trip to Kabul the author located the tomb of the amir with the help of local people.

Translation of Vladimir Plastun’s Russian contributions to this article: Joachim Ludwig.

(1) In the capital of Turkestan, Tashkent, a Soviet government had taken over in 1918. But it was cut off from Central Russia by the ‘White Guards’, who controlled the railway connections through what today is northwestern Kazakhstan and the Ural mountains, and could not rely on support from the Soviet leadership under Lenin and Trotsky in Petersburg. It was also challenged by internal strife.

(2) Louis Dupree, Afghanistan, New Delhi, Rama Publishres 1980, p447 and Leon B Poullada, Reform and Rebellion in Afghanistan 1919-1929, Cornell University Press 1973, p47.

(3) Andrew D. W. Forbes (1986), Warlords and Muslims in Chinese Central Asia: a political history of Republican Sinkiang 1911–1949. Cambridge, CUP Archive, p376.

(4) This included subjects of Amir Amanullah and of the British Empire. Accoording to Forbes, p69 (see FN 3), there were “numerous Afghan merchants (particularly from Badakhshan) [who] had long resided [in Xinjiang] under British protection.” Contemporary sources, such as the German archaeologist Albert von Le Coq, also observed Pashtun traders from Swat, Bajaur, other areas in British-India, and from Afghanistan proper (Von Land und Leuten in Ostturkestan, Leipzig, Zentralantiquariat der DDR 1982, Reprint of 1928 original, p10 FN 1).

(5) Abdul Rahman’s unification of Afghanistan – in fact the creation of a small empire – was particularly brutal against the Shia Hazaras of quasi-independent central Afghanistan. They lost many of their original areas of settlement that were distributed among Pashtun tribes who had supported Abdulrahman’s conquest. Scores were killed or sold into slavery, and many were forced to flee abroad. The large Hazara community in Quetta and elsewhere in today’s Pakistan are a result of those events.

(6) In Badakhshan, disputed areas were Kulab and Darwāz, north of the Amu Darya that had been conquered by the khanate of Kunduz in the early 19th century. This river had been made the Afghan-Bukharan border in a treaty between Ahmad Shah Abdali (ruled 1747-79) and the then-Amir of Bukhara, Muhammad Danyal Bey (locally ‘Bi’, represented by his son Murad Bi) in 1768. On that occasion, the Amir of Bukhara gifted Ahmad Shah a cloak believed to be have been worn by the Prophet Muhammad, that is kept in a shrine in Kandahar (and which, famously, Taleban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, took out of its silver trunk in 1996 when he was proclaimed Amir-ul-Momenin to bolster his legitimacy; more about the cloak in this AAN dispatch). The treaty, however, did not hold. In 1818, for example, Bulkhara seized Balkh when Afghanistan was mired in a dynastic war of succession between Dost Muhammad and Mahmud Khan (quoted here).

After the 1895 Anglo-Russian treaty that regulated the Afghan northern border, the Amir of Bukhara retreated from trans-Amu (Afghan) Darwaz in 1896. He had already withdrawn from Shighnan and Roshan in 1894 (GP Tate, The Kingdom of Afghanistan: A Historical Sketch, p191).

(7) See AS Morrsion, Russian Rule in Samarkand 1868-1910, Oxford 2008, pp 21-2.

Another of Amir Muzaffar’s sons, the eldest one and heir apparent, Sayyed Abdul Malik Mirza, born 1849, had seized and ruled Karshi, in southern Tajikistan, independently of his father, until 1868. He then had to flee to Afghanistan. Later, he was exiled to Abbottabad in India (now Pakistan) and married (amongst others) one of Amir Muhammed Afzal Khan’s daughters, 1866-67 Amir of Kabul (see here).

(8) Originally, there was a Communist Party of Turkestan, allied with Lenin’s Bolsheviki party, which also had branches in Bukhara, but only members among the Russians living in the Emirate. The Bukharan Communist Party (BCP) was established at the initiative of the Soviet leadership in Tashkent between April and November 1918, when it held its first congress in Tashkent and joined the Comintern. The rest of the Young Bukharans joined the BCP in 1920 after the Amir was dethroned. Its leader, Abdul Qadir Mohiuddin, became socialist Bukhara’s first head of state (source: Seymour Becker, Russia’s Protectorates in Central Asia: Bukhara and Khiva 1985-1924, Harvard 1968, p280-1, 303).

(9) It is not clear whether this quote is genuine. But in 1915, Lenin had written (in Socialism and War, quoted here):

If tomorrow, Morocco were to declare war on France, India on England, Persia or China on Russia, and so forth, those would be “just” “defensive” wars, irrespective of who attacked first; and every Socialist would sympathise with the victory of the oppressed, dependent, unequal states against the oppressing, slave-owning, predatory “great” powers.

(10) Vladimir Boyko, Афганистан на начальном этапе независимого развития (1920-е годы): центрально-азиатский контекст внутренней и внешней политики [Afghanistan in the starting phase of its independent development (the 1920s): the Central Asian domestic and foreign policy context], Bishkek 2004, pp 57-87.

(11) Chokaev fled to Georgia (also temporarily independent of Russia) and, from there, in February 1919, he urged the western powers who had gathered for the Versailles peace conference after World War I to occupy Turkestan and support the establishment of an independent Turkestan.

Ergash, in some sources, is called the former commander of the Kokand Autonomy’s police. This is another person, though, locally known as ‘Little Ergash’; Ergash the mullah was also known as ‘big Ergash’. (see Baymirza Hayit, Turkestan im XX Jahrhundert, 1956) The latter’s successor as commander of the movement in 1920 was his rival Madamin Beg, who surrendered and joined the Red Army – temporarily – in the same year. This led to a temporary slump of the movement, which soon gained momentum again.

The best short overview of the Basmachi movement is on the dictionary page of Le Parisien website. It is pointed out that the movement’s roots lay in the 1916 Central Asian revolt against conscription of Muslims for back area services in the Czarist army in World War I. Several later Basmachi leaders participated in that revolt.

(12) Russian sources assert that there were British advisors, too (see here), but Bailey reported that those reports were highly exaggerated and that there were only two Muslim non-commissioned officers in the British-Indian army. One was apparently a Pashtun, named Awal Gul, and one a “Hazara from western Afghanistan”, named Kerbelayi Muhammad. They, who had gone there with a weapons transport sent by the commander of the British troops in Transcaucasia and who the Amir had kept in Bukhara. (Both left with Bailey in December 1919).

(13) Unfortunately, Abdullaev does not provide sources for this detail in the article where he mentioned this.

(14) The Bukharan and other emigrants from the now Soviet areas lived in Afghanistan on provisional papers. According to an estimate of Abdullaev, at the beginning of 1926 there were 42,580 Turkmen emigré families, “225,305 persons overall (…) from Karakum and eastern Bukhara in northwestern Afghanistan. The town of Andkhoy in today’s Faryab province became the centre of Turkmen emigration: “From 1917-1922 more than 30 thousand families moved there for permanent residence.” The number of Uzbek refugees was lower, according to Abdullaev. He quotes the account of a Tajik government commission, noting that 12 thousand Loqays had fled to Afghanistan by the mid-1920s. Only in 1973 were Central Asian refugees allowed to obtain Afghan citizenship (see here).

(15) Sources differ widely about the number of Afghan fighters. The figure of 140 and the information about Abdulhai’s presence derives from a contemporary report by the commander of the Soviet-Bukharan troops at the time, General Nikolai Kakurin. Ali Ahmad, Amanullah’s personal secretary, speaks about 200, led by a Brigadier Fazl Ahmad Khan, in a document written after the fall of the Amanullah government. Ibrahim Bek, after his arrest, spoke of 300 men, led by a certain Ahmad Jan who was the son of the Afghan governor (hakem) of Khanabad, Nader Safar Khan. Fedor Raskolnikov, the Soviet ambassador to Kabul, based on reports from the Soviet consulate in Mazar-e Sharif, speaks of 300 to 2,000 men. These data have been compiled in a Russian-language academic discussion forum and come to the conclusion that there were two groups, first 200 and then 300, led by Anwar Jan. The Tajik historian Ghafur Shermatov elsewhere spoke of 800 men in two groups, first 500, then 300.

(16) Quoted in Ludwig W Adamec, Afghanistan’s Foreign Affairs to the Mid-Twentieth Century, Tucson 1941, p 69, FN 78.

(17) Alexander Marshall, “Turkfront” in: Tom Everett-Heath (ed), Central Asia: Aspects of transition, London and New York 2003, p 17.

(18) Eden Naby, “The Afghan diaspora: reflections on the imagined country”, in: Central Asia and the Caucasus: Transnationalism and Diaspora, ed by Touraj Atabaki and Sanjyot Mehendale, 2004, p182 (FN 4).

(19) See FN 17.

(20) Tajikistan was founded in 1924 as an autonomous part of the Socialist Soviet Republic (SSR) of Uzbekistan, and upgraded to a full SSR in 1929. This resulted in the former territory of Bukhara being divided between two republics. It remains divided between two independent states, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (following the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991).

(21) This episode is only marginally dealt with in most of the English language literature on Afghanistan. In Russia, now, an entire book has been written about it: Тихонов Ю. Н. Афганская война Сталина. Битва за Центральную Азию. – М.: Яуза, Эксмо, 2008. – 704 с. [Yu. N. Tikhonov, Stalin’s Afghan War: The battle for Central Asia, Moscow: Yauza, Eksmo, 2008, 704 pp].

(22) Afghanistan was still the address for regional Islamic uprising forces. When a Turkic movement declared an independent “Turkish-Islamic Republic of Eastern Turkestan” (TIRET) during another round of Chinese civil wars in November 1933, it contacted Kabul for help. King Muhammad Zaher Shah sent his congratulations, but did not provide any practical help, even after a TIRET delegation visited Afghanistan in early 1934. There was apparently also Soviet pressure not to support them, as the TIRET was anti-communist. (Forbes, see FN 3, p116)

(23) The plan was conceived in the German foreign ministry by Werner Otto von Hentig, one of the two leaders of the German military-diplomatic mission to Kabul during World War I (see AAN article here), and originally thought to have been implemented in cooperation with Stalin’s Soviet Union, based on the August 1939 so-called Hitler-Stalin Pact. On the Afghan side, Amanullah’s former foreign minister Ghulam Sediq Charkhi who lived in Berlin was supposed to head the Afghan invasion force. However, the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the ‘Amanullah Plan’, in this form, became obsolete after Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, but was still pushed forward by Berlin.) Finally, Hitler seems to have vetoed it. It also needs to be highlighted that Amanullah was to be told of the plan “in the very last moment” as it was all but sure he would participate. See: Kircheisen/Glasneck, Berlin 1968, Türkei und Afghanistan: Brennpunkte der Orientpolitik im Zweiten Weltkrieg, p212ff, a book based on documents from the Nazi German foreign service’s archives. The dismantling of the Axis powers’ presence in Afghanistan in 1943, result of an allied ultimatum after which all German, Italian and Japanese citizens were expelled, also stopped these plans.


Alem Khan Amanullah Basmachi Bukhara caliphate Central Asia Enver Pasha khelafat Pan-Islamism Shuhada-ye Salehin Soviet


Vladimir N Plastun

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