Afghanistan: Lots of Luck with That

In 1747 the Durrani Pushtun lords of the south elected Ahmed Shah as their king. This event was the modern foundation of what we call “Afghanistan”. Ahmed Shah controlled Kandahar, Herat and Kabul. The lords were independent in their home areas but followed their king and provided him with troops in return for which he gave them gifts of land and money. In other words their allegiance was highly conditional and was retained by Ahmed Shah paying them out of the spoils of his conquests of:

* Peshawar
* Sindh
* Kashmir

These areas are in what is now Pakistan and India. Peshawar and Sindh are both very fertile plains. Kahmir is quite remarkably lush. Between the three of them they provided the surplus needed to maintain the Afghan State.

Every king (every central government) has needed such a surplus. Every king (every central government) has had to feed, arm and pay an army. Without such an army or the khans there would be no Afghan state. It is very simple without money, no arms, no army and no khans. No king (no central government) has ever been able to raise sufficient revenue within Afghanistan, for that would be to attack the khans. So customs dues and revenues from the plain supported the state.

However as overland trade declined so did customs revenues. Dynastic wars tore the state apart and the rising power of the Sikhs meant the loss of Kashmir and Peshawar, the Amirs of Sindh declared independence. Thus when Amir Dost Mohammed emerged as the ruler of Kabul and Kandahar he lacked the surplus needed to hold the kingdom together. He asked the British to help him reconquer Peshawar. The British who were nervous of taking on the Sikhs said “no”, he turned to the Russians which caused the British to panic and invade.

The British invasion of 1838 was a walk-over. Amir Dost Mohammed had been cutting back the Khans’ subsidies and raising their taxes in an attempt to hold the state together (and incidentally stay both in power and alive). When the British started (literally) flinging bags of gold at the Khans their opposition to invasion evaporated and Amir Dost Mohammed’s army deserted.

At that time there was no such thing as Afghan nationalism. The closest thing to a nationalist resistance was a few mullahs who managed to raise small groups of armed men for jihad. They were at most only a few dozen and were easily defeated. At the start Afghans were not in general reflexively opposed to the British. But they rapidly became so. The reason for this was that the East India Company had realised that in order to hold Afghanistan they would have to pay out far far more in subsidies than they collected in revenue. They decided to cut the payments to the border tribes and the khans. The result of this was that the border tribes closed the passes, and the khans stopped regarding the British as friends and allies. Once rumours began to spread that the British were planning to withdraw because of the expense it became time to change sides.

As well as ceasing to be a fount of gold the British had brought a major economic problem with them in the shape of a large army with many camp followers to Kabul and Kandahar. They ate up so much grain that the price of bread initially climbed to double the usual price and then continued to rise. This made the khans happy, but it drove the poor to famine, desperation, and hatred for the British.

Resistance began to coalesce into a holy war. And it was inevitable that it be a holy war. Given the divisions in Afghan society Islam was the only banner that could unite the resistance. They massacred nearly the entirety of the 20,000 man army retreating from Kabul. The empire struck back, empires always do, the British returned and engaged in an orgy of sacking, looting, raping, and burning. They referred to these activities as "teaching the Afghans a lesson". But while they could and did sack, loot, rape, and burn to their imperialist little hearts’ content what they couldn’t do was hold the country. They left and Dost Mohammed reassumed his throne

This time however he had a hefty British subsidy to back him up (sound familiar???) and he had enough to hold the state together. The Islamic resistance disbanded but they left behind a memory and a tradition of popular Islamic resistance to foreign invaders. For while it is true that the Afghans had turned against the British for mostly economic reasons, they had fought them as infidels.

I chose to start at the beginning. But I could equally have picked 1878, 1901, 1919, 1924, 1928, 1933, 1973, 1978, or you get the idea.

The Afghan state as we know it doesn’t deserve the name, it’s not a state, a nation, or even a people. It does not now have (and never did have) the internal resources to hold itself together, let alone to develop. It has always needed massive injections of cash OR the resources of:

* Peshawar
* Sindh
* Kashmir

To hold itself together.It would be cheaper, easier, and quicker to give

* Peshawar
* Sindh
* Kashmir

“back” to Afghanistan over the objections of Pakistan and India than it would be to engage in nation building. So that’s what you need to do. Give

* Peshawar
* Sindh
* Kashmir

“back” to Afghanistan over the objections of Pakistan and India.

Lots of luck with that.

du

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