King Amanullah (r.1919–29) is widely known as Afghanistan’s reformist monarch. As a boy, he was Tarzi’s protégé and would in 1913 marry Tarzi’s daughter Soraya, before becoming king in 1919 after the assassination of his father. Amanullah’s transformational initiatives ultimately failed, however, and, in retrospect, there were six main reasons for this.
First, the ideologies espoused by the reformists, a number whom had returned from exile or were foreigners, represented a thought process alien to most Afghan citizens. Afghanistan entered the 20th century with no secular schools, a very small group of intellectuals centred mainly in the capital, and no newspapers. It had very limited contact with the outside world and lacked internal communication routes to connect the various parts of the country resulting in extreme xenophobia. This disconnect was never rectified despite Amanullah changing his proposed constitution – the reform process’s centerpiece of inclusivity and progressivism – twice before it was promulgated.
The final version of the constitution, which entered into force in 1925, was much more restrictive than the first draft in 1921, especially in matters dealing with the role of religion in society. This initial draft can be regarded as the most progressive non-communist fundamental law ever envisioned for the country. Attempts to implement the 1925 constitution and other regulatory proclamations without addressing these disconnects fuelled the rebellions that resulted in the ousting of Amanullah in 1929. The hesitation of successive Afghan leaders to introduce political reforms that deal with religious and social issues has been in a large measure due to the disastrous end to Amanullah’s reign. Looking at Afghanistan’s last attempt to write a constitution after the collapse of the Taliban, the expediency of having a strong presidency and disallowing any possibility of reviving the monarchy led to a constitution that was developed with little participation by the Afghan people. Article 3 of the 2004 constitution further means that the majority of freedoms enshrined in the document can be voided technically – as many have been in practice.
Second, the reformists failed to include landed tribal leaders among their ranks. These men could have persuaded their peers to accept the voluntary yielding of some of their immediate privileges to the state for the collective betterment of society and their own long-term prosperity. The absence of the tribal leadership also meant there was no voice for the concerns of that group, a group that had immense influence on public opinion throughout the country – including, critically, in rural Afghanistan – and strong connections to the clergy. In his last work, written during his second exile (1929–33), Tarzi identified the landed tribal elite as one of three reasons for the failure of his experiment.
Third, efforts at reform could not reconcile resistance from the clergy, which in Afghanistan has traditionally been used to legitimise power, be it governmental or within tribal systems. The only time that the clergy saw an active challenge to this status quo was during Abdur Rahman’s reign when the Amir tried to regulate their profession, forcing them to become state functionaries. Nevertheless, as part of his statist policies, the Amir used the clergy to further reinforce the notion that Afghanistan was the domain of Pashtuns and that the Sunni Hanafi rite was the only legitimate form of state religion. Habib Allah relaxed his father’s restrictions on the clergy’s position, leading to the strengthening of their political role in defining the nature of the Afghan state as conservative and Sunni, and with Pashtun primacy.
With Amanullah’s attempts to introduce reforms, the clergy, sensing a diminishing of their own privileges and those of their allies within the tribal leadership, became the most vehement voice against both the reforms and reformers, including the king and his father-in-law. In fact, during the uprising in eastern Afghanistan, one of the rebel demands to end their rebellion was the ousting of Mahmud Tarzi and his family from Afghanistan. Unsurprisingly, Tarzi blamed the ignorance and regressiveness of the clergy as another reason for the failure of his reforms. More recently, since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the ensuing wars, the clergy has re-emerged as a political force, with the main armed opponents of the current Afghan political arrangement identifying as students of religious seminaries.
Fourth, unlike Tarzi’s hero Mustafa Kamal Atatürk, who founded Turkey’s republic, the Afghan king had lost a monopoly over the use of violent force previously held by Abdur Rahman – and with it the ability and legitimacy needed to enforce his rules. So when he tried to introduce reforms that directly challenged privileges and prerogatives of the tribal chiefs and the clergy, he failed. Looking back, Amanullah had a relatively cohesive plan of action; he just lacked the enforcing mechanisms to safeguard his reforms from the backlash they met. Today, the military is arguably much stronger and more nationally representative than at any other time in Afghan history. The National Defence and Security Forces are fighting internal enemies whose stated goals include the reversal of social and institutional progress made since 2001. The military is not the vehicle to transform Afghanistan’s politics, however. The problem lies within the executive authority, which is divided and weak.
Fifth, Amanullah lacked the diplomatic nuance to appreciate the geopolitical situation of his country – in particular the continuing presence of the British in India. This author’s grandfather served as Amanullah’s personal secretary during the 1927–28 voyage that took the monarch to a dozen Asian and European countries. He recounted how dismissive the king was towards any suggestions from Britain. For example, in response to a British request to relax his country’s entente with the Soviet Union, the infuriated king went out of his way to antagonise the British further.
Modern Afghan historiography generally tends to place the main blame for the failure of Afghanistan’s reforms and political transformation squarely on British polices. However, Amanullah would have given his plans a much better chance of success had he not opposed the British so vehemently. In retrospect, his military could also have benefited from British support. Mahmud Tarzi, who was not a supporter of Amanullah’s trip, did, however, share his father-in-law’s distaste of the British. For Tarzi, the combination of conservative tribal elite in symbiotic relationship with a regressive clergy backed by British anti-Amanullah polices were the principal reasons for the failure of the transformational reforms that he and his associates had envisaged at the beginning of the 20th century.
The sixth element contributing to the failure was the interfamilial and interpersonal rivalries within his government. As king, Amanullah was unable or unwilling to put a stop to the internal rifts among his closest advisors. There were two camps. The pro-reform camp led by Tarzi looked to the nascent Turkish Republic for inspiration and support. Unfortunately for them, Turkey had very little tangible assistance to offer. The more conservative camp, led by Muhammad Nadir (later Nadir Shah) found support among the tribal leaders, the clergy and the British – Tarzi’s three prime culprits in the failure of his plans. The Nadir camp found more fertile ground on which to promote its platform and was able to squash the reform effort. In the end it was able to insert itself into power to perpetuate its conservative agenda and undermine further attempts at reform until the mid-1960s. In contemporary Afghanistan, the current elite camps, while not having direct familial relations, have links to various mujahidin groups, former communist cadres or ethnic groupings. If these are not harnessed and directed towards a common cause, they can become a major source of national discord and a magnet for foreign influencers to further their interests in Afghanistan or to use Afghanistan as a proxy battlefield.