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Of all the signs of Mad Preznit George's megalomaniacal hubris, one of the most-pointed-out in yet-to-be-written histories of his administration will be his choice of enemies.  In picking the Afghans and the Iraqis as the subjects of his "war president" legacy, Bush has pitted himself against people who have been resisting foreign invasions for so long that it's literally in their blood.  Considering that conquerors as mighty as Alexander the Great, Tamerlane, and Genghis freekin' Khan weren't able to exercise control over the place once it was out of their line of sight, it chills the blood to think what could transpire were a inept boob to there launch a half-hearted manhunt from half a world away.  

So join me, if you will, in the Cave of the Moonbat, where things are going to get a little tribal.  Afghanistan's long history of invasion and assimilation coalesce into the more-or-less modern incarnation of the country we all know and occupy – and we meet the ancestors of people who dared to bloody even Queen Victoria's stiff upper lip...

Historiorant:  Thanks once more to the estimable Russianlitblographer pico for hosting the high-browed pie fight/philosophical interlude here in the Cave last weekend.  Excellent job – worthy of a toast of the finest St. Petersburg vodka...or whatever they're drinking in Paris and Berlin this year!

When last we gathered in the shadow of the Hindu Kush, a loya jirga had just convened, and had crowned a youngish guy named Ahmad Shah as the first King of Afghanistan.  That was in 1747 (the same year as the birth of John Paul "I've not yet begun to fight" Jones, btw), and Afghanistan was asserting its independence after a turbulent - what else? - period involving Persian domination and frequent clashes with the Mughals, an India-based empire with an Afghan heritage.  Neither, of course, had been the first foreigners to feel their grip on Afghanistan weaken – from Ghaznavids, Mongols, and Tamerlane all the way back through Asoka-, Alexander-, and Cyrus the Greats, history has shown us that no one controls this land for long.    

The Baba of His Country

Ahmad Shah created and adopted the name Durr-i-Durrani ("pearl of pearls") to signify his new, country-unifying office (or it could have been a reference to the pearl earrings worn by members of Nadir Shah's bodyguard), but his clan originally was known as the Abaldi.  They were part of a much larger Pashtun-speaking group that controlled a broad swath of modern Afghanistan (see map), but just because one spoke Pashtun didn't necessarily mean that he'd be safe from attack by linguistically-similar rivals.  Such was the case when Ahmad Shah Durrani – he officially changed the family name – bore down on the Ghilzai Pashtuns in Ghazna shortly after coming to power.

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Things get more confusing than just clans and linguistic groups, however: each tribe within the various clans had its own, traditionally-powerful families and lineages.  Indeed, one of the reasons the loya jirga cast its vote for Ahmad Shah was that he was a direct descendent of a dynasty-founder named Sado.  And while the fact that he had escaped the frenzied scene at the assassination of the "Persian Napoleon," Nadir Shah, with a few thousand well-trained cavalrymen and a chunk of Nadir's treasury probably didn't hurt his chances at being tapped for the throne, his heirs were the true beneficiaries.  Sadozai leaders would go on to reign in Afghanistan for most of the next 225 or so years, with only a brief interlude of rule by members of the Muhammadzai family of the Barakzai tribe.

Historiorant:  If I were a Communistic Wingnut instead of a Unitary Moonbat, I might try to make something of that last tribal name.  Look for to soon "discover" that Barak Obama is, in fact, Afghani royalty.  They'll then start spearheading a drive to ship him off to Kabul to be the King.

It turned out that the loya jirga of 1747 made a good choice: Ahmad Shah was a formidable warrior who was also possessed of enough charisma and tact to successfully negotiate inter-family, inter-tribal, inter-clan, and inter-national rivalries, feuds, and ambitions to establish the foundation of a unified Afghanistan.  Among the many accolades that history has rained down upon him is "Baba" ("father") of modern Afghanistan.  

Sikhing a Better Way

Once Ahmad Shah had secured Kabul from a local lord, he moved his army into northern India, where it promptly sacked Lahore.  This frightened the deteriorating Mughal Empire into surrendering its holdings west of the Indus, and freed Ahmad Shah to pursue other priorities.  He turned his attention to Herat - fell after a bloody, one-year siege - and Mashad and Nishapur (in modern Iran), before sending his now-mighty army north of the Hindu Kush to bring the Turkmen, Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara tribes into line.  Once this was accomplished, he decided to take another poke at India.

The subcontinent was once again factionalizing, as different ethnic and religious groups vied for control of the areas still held in the loosening clutches of the post-Aurangzeb Mughals. In the south and west, a group known as the Marathas re-wrote the caste system and assumed the duty of checking Mughal (and later, Afghani) expansion, while to the north, the Sikhs had moved on Lahore soon after Ahmad Shah's army marched out of view.  The Marathas were Hindu; the Sikhs, something else entirely – but both, it turned out, were religiously unacceptable to Ahmad Shah.

Dating from time of Babur, the Sikhs were a growing separatist force in and around Kashmir, strongly asserting a right to free worship from their Golden Temple in the holy city of Amritsar - literally, "Pool of the Nectar of Immortality" - located in the modern Indian province of Punjab (about 30 miles east of Lahore, Pakistan).  Almost from its inception, Sikhism had proven an increasing challenge to Mughal authority:

To Akbar, the Sikhs were a religious community deserving imperial support. To Jahangir, they were a growing political force that potentially threatened the Empire. To Aurangzeb, the Sikhs were dangerous heretics to be stamped out at any cost. To the successors of Aurangzeb, the Sikhs were a major military and social force pulling the Empire apart. As a separate and militant community, the Sikhs still find themselves partly foreigners in their own country, suspicious of and suspected by the dominant government.

Ahmad Shah was not so much a religious zealot as he was a political and military conqueror, but that didn't mean that he was averse to using the tools of the one to accomplish the aims of the other.  As polytheists, the Hindu Marathas were clearly infidels worthy of eradication, but the beliefs of the monotheistic Sikhs made them subject to the threat of religious persecution, as well.  Here's a sample from the Sikh holy book, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib:

"I observe neither Hindu fasting nor the ritual of the Muslim Ramadan month; Him I serve who at the last shall save. The Lord of universe of the Hindus, Gosain and Allah to me are one; From Hindus and Muslims have I broken free. I perform neither Kaaba pilgrimage nor at bathing spots worship; One sole Lord I serve, and no other. I perform neither the Hindu worship nor the Muslim prayer; To the Sole Formless Lord in my heart I bow. We neither are Hindus nor Muslims; Our body and life belong to the One Supreme Being who alone is both Ram and Allah for us." (Guru Arjan Dev, Guru Granth Sahib, Raga Bhairon pg. 1136)

Guru Ajran Dev, via

the same site lists the following as tenets of the Sikh faith:

There is only One God. He is the same God for all people of all religions.

The soul goes through cycles of births and deaths before it reaches the human form. The goal of our life is to lead an exemplary existence so that one may merge with God. Sikhs should remember God at all times and practice living a virtuous and truthful life while maintaining a balance between their spiritual obligations and temporal obligations.

The true path to achieving salvation and merging with God does not require renunciation of the world or celibacy, but living the life of a householder, earning a honest living and avoiding worldly temptations and sins.

Sikhism condemns blind rituals such as fasting, visiting places of pilgrimage, superstitions, worship of the dead, idol worship etc.

Sikhism preaches that people of different races, religions, or sex are all equal in the eyes of God. It teaches the full equality of men and women. Women can participate in any religious function or perform any Sikh ceremony or lead the congregation in prayer.

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In 1751 and 1752, Ahmad Shah retook Lahore and reduced Kashmir as a prelude to moving on the Mughals.  He wasn't the only one with such designs: the Marathas, too, sensed blood in the water, and anxiously bided their time until an opportunity presented itself.  Ahmad Shah provided this in 1756, when he captured Delhi and permitted his troops to sack it of every bit of wealth that had been gathered since its last looting (at the hands of the Persian Nadir Shah, in 1739).  Rather than replace the Mughal dynasty, he married his son Timur to the daughter of a puppet emperor, and left him in charge of defending the way-past-its-prime kingdom.  Just for good measure, he launched a troop surge against the Sikhs while on his way back to Kandahar, sacking Amritsar and defiling the Golden Temple by splashing cow's blood upon its walls, in the mistaken belief that he could blaspheme the will of the Sikhs right out of them.  Instead, he earned himself and his descendents a foe with a long memory and fearsome military skills.

Weird Historical Sidenote: Away off to the south, in Bengal, forces and allies of the British East India Company, under the command of Robert Clive, were a at this time facing off against Siraj-ud-Doula, the last Nawab of Bengal in the Battle of Plassey, which is now seen as one of the critical turning points in the history of British rule in India.  Contrary to mid-19th-century and later "common knowledge," the battle was not primarily motivated by vengeance for the Black Hole of Calcutta incident: though the same fort was contested, and the Black Hole – in which the Nawab placed 143 British prisoners in a cell 18'x15', and only 23 survived the night – did occur only a couple of days before the battle, it was not widely cited as one of Clive's motivations until after the publication of a history book in 1858.

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Meet Me at Panipat (again)!

Timur didn't do a very good job filling his paw's shoes.  Within a year, he'd lost the Punjab to the Marathas and been forced to flee back to daddy, who spent most of 1759 preaching jihad and assembling a huge army of united Afghanis (well, the Pashtuns, at least) to ride in revenge.  By the end of the year, Ahmad Shah's army was in Lahore, and by late 1760, it was ready to move in earnest against the Marathas.

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Both of the armies that converged for the Third Battle of Panipat (which, by this point, could probably be considered the traditional climactic battleground for Afghan invasions of India) were huge – fairly reliable estimates place the numbers in excess of 100,000 on each side.  Both were also employing the latest offerings from the Great Imperialist Arms Emporium, with the Marathas setting up about 150 long-range French artillery pieces in defensive works around Panipat, and the Afghans bringing along several hundred swivel-canons mounted on the backs of camels.

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Both armies were also operating under the difficult circumstance of having long supply lines through neutral-to-hostile territory, but here Ahmad Shah had the advantage.  The Marathas had pillaged Mughal lands as they had moved through or conquered them, so when a fellow Muslim came through at the head of a jihad, most of the locals threw their weight behind the Afghans.  So it was that the Marathas found themselves besieged in late 1760, and though they'd prepared defenses, within a couple of months it was clear that they'd have to sally, surrender, or die.  They chose to sally.

On January 14, 1761, Maratha artillery opened up on a front nearly 8 miles long - and at a distance the Afghans were unable to answer.  Things were going rather poorly for Ahmad Shah, until a bunch of Maratha lieutenants, jealous of the success of the arty and infantry commanders, got troop surge on the brain and charged off at the wavering Afghan lines.  In doing so, they encountered the same problems the Afghans had faced in earlier attacks on the long-range artillery: their horses were exhausted after crossing a mile-wide no man's land filled with rotting corpses from the previous months' battles.  The Afghan swivel-canons, which were especially effective against cavalry at short range, tore into the Maratha horseman, who were now in between their own artillery and the enemy.

As the Afghan cavalry charged past their doomed Hindu counterparts, elements of the Maratha army – specifically, Muslim logistics infantrymen whose local lords had not been strong enough to resist Maratha conscription – rose to the call of jihad and began attacking the Maratha army from within.  Naturally, this caused enormous confusion, especially since about a third of the Maratha army consisted of middle-class families who looked upon the venture as more of an armed religious pilgrimage to Hindu holy sites in long-Muslim lands than a contest for the dominance of northern India - and, later, simply for survival.

The fighting ended with the setting of the sun, but the Maratha army was broken and began fleeing into the night.  The next morning, Afghan units marauded across the countryside – Indian sources report women jumping into the Panipat well in order to avoid being dishonored by the rampaging soldiers of Ahmad Shah.  Maratha expansion was ended once and for all, and after their retreat, the various leaders occupied themselves with infighting until finally succumbing to British encroachment and disappearing as a political entity in 1818.

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Weird Historical Sidenote:  Two days after the Third Battle of Panipat, far off to the south, the British captured Pondicherry from the French - only to give it back in 1763 as part of the treaty package that settled the Seven Years' War.  A bunch of beautiful maps from this period can be found at columbia.ed

Please Don't Compare This Legacy With Hameed Karzai's

His objective achieved - and hearing rumors that the Marathas were assembling another 100,000-man host – Ahmad took his booty (500 elephants, 1500 camels, 50,000 horses, and 22,000 women and children, according to this India-sympathetic source) and hightailed it home.  He left what remained of the Mughals as titular lords of a thoroughly-gutted Northern India, over which they presided until the British supplanted them in 1858.

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The Sikhs, who had been the original reason for the invasion, were relatively unscathed by the war, and began rebelling as soon as Ahmad Shah had left the scene.  He was obliged to abandon Lahore and the Punjab to them in 1764, when a rebellion in Afghanistan itself compelled his return; they remained basically independent until defeated by the British in the First Anglo-Sikh War.  

For his part, Ahmad Shah found himself making a lot of concessions in his final years: he bought off an Uzbek emir by conceding to him all territory north of the Amu Darya (the Oxus, to you Alexandrian types), and wound up abandoning all interests in India so as to concentrate on putting down rebellions in his homeland, but the overall effect of his life and deeds on the formation of Afghanistan as a nation-state was enormous.  Historioranter Mountstuart Ephilstone (I've never heard of him, but with a name like that, he's got to be an historioranter – u.m.) wrote of Ahmad Shah:

His military courage and activity are spoken of with admiration, both by his own subjects and the nations with whom he was engaged, either in wars or alliances. He seems to have been naturally disposed to mildness and clemency and though it is impossible to acquire sovereign power and perhaps, in Asia, to maintain it, without crimes; yet the memory of no eastern prince is stained with fewer acts of cruelty and injustice.

via wikipedia (I should also note that I encountered a similar citation in a description of the Sikh leader Ranjit Singh on a kinda-biased-looking site - u.m.)

...while the man himself left a legacy of beautiful poems about his love for the land he crawled upon as a youth:

I come to you and my heart finds rest.
Away from you, grief clings to my heart like a snake.

I forget the throne of Delhi
when I remember the mountain tops of my Afghan land.
If I must choose between the world and you,
I shall not hesitate to claim your barren deserts as my own.


Weird Historical Sidenote:  Hameed Karzai and the Pakistani ambassador to the U.N. are both Durrani, as is about 20% of the Afghan population (7 million in Afghanistan, 1-2 in Pakistan, and several hundred thousand in northern Iran).  Karzai is of the Popalzai sub-clan, which has long-running ties to the royal leaders of Afghanistan; the Taliban, by contrast, were largely of the highly tribal (as opposed to "Persianized" or "urbane") Ghilzai tribe from the mountains near Kandahar.  They are Pashtun speakers, all.

One of the Biggest Problems in Dynastic Rule...

Timur Shah Durrani, as is so often the case when legacies are entrusted to the unworthy-but-properly-bloodlined, was not up to the job of even maintaining the borders his father had established, and his reign saw the beginnings of a century-long erosion of holdings that would finally end with the dynasty controlling little more than the area around Kabul by the time the British arrived in the 1840's.  He spent most of his reign (1772-1793) resisting insurgencies and fathering sons – he had 24 of them – and was ingloriously forced to move his capitol from a rebellious Kandahar to a more-defensible Kabul.  At his death, his fifth son, Zaman Shah, pronounced himself successor by virtue of being governor of the capitol.

When this move was contested by several of Timur Shah's other sons, foreign powers began to take advantage.  When the Sikhs, for example, proved too unruly for direct control, Zaman Shah made the mistake of trying to co-opt one of their most able leaders, Maharaja Ranjit Singh by naming him governor of the Punjab.  The one-eyed warrior – nicknamed "Lion of Punjab" – went on to spar successfully with the British and very effectively fend off the always-internecine Afghans.

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In the end, Zaman Shah secured power the old-fashioned way: he imprisoned his brothers as they arrived at Kabul to elect a new shah.  This led to predictable feelings of outrage and revolt, as did his attempt to consolidate power by biting the Barakzai hand that had supported his claims to the throne – he nepotistically inserted Sadozai family members in posts that should have gone, quid-pro-quo, to Barakzais.  When he executed the heads of clans that were plotting against him – including Painda Khan Barakzai – he effectively created an alliance to oppose himself, and in 1801 was deposed.

Whether or not you call it a civil war, it was – and it raged on during the entire first reign of Mahmud Shah.  In 1803, he was driven from power by Shuja Shah, who ruled until 1809.  This was just long enough to make him the first Afghan leader to complete a treaty with a European power: in 1809, just a few weeks before Mahmud Shah re-usurped the throne, Shuja signed an agreement with the British pledging to allow troops to move unmolested, and to come to one anothers' aid in the event of Franco-Persian aggression.  The Great Game was about to begin...

Mahmud Shah's second reign lasted until 1818, and was distinguished more by his ability to create long-term antagonism than anything else.  Fearing a plot, he ordered seized one Fateh Khan, a son of executed Barakzai chieftain Painda Khan, and had him blinded.  This was to become one of the primary motivations behind the violent revenge that would eventually be sought by Fateh's youngest brother, Dost Mohammad.  Two more Durranis ruled before Dost Mohammad Barakzai asserted control of the chaotic, thoroughly factionalized land, but they - Sultan Ali Shah (1818-1819) and Ayub Shah (1819-1823) – were unable to exert any kind of authority beyond shouting distance of the walls of Kabul.

A Man of His Times

Afghanistan reeled in anarchy for three years after the presumed death of Ayub Shah, but by 1826 the governor of Ghazni, Dost Mohammad, had gathered enough support from his brothers to claim the throne at Kabul.  Almost immediately, he found himself contending with Ranjit Singh, who was making a play for power in the Punjab by backing the claims of the exiled former Sadozai emir Shuja Shah.  In 1834, Shuja invaded from Sikh lands, but was defeated at the very walls of Kabul by Dost Mohammad.  When the dust settled, the biggest winner turned out to be Ranjit Singh, who'd used the Afghans' distraction as a cover to seize Peshawar – a/k/a the southern end of the traditional invasion route into northern India.

This concerned both the Russians and the British, both of whom understood that their widening spheres of influence were finally going to intersect somewhere in the middle of Afghanistan.  The Russians offered to help Dost Mohammad with his Sikh problem, but he chose to explore alliance options with the Brits instead.  After his son, Akbar Khan, defeated the Sikhs at a spot about 15 klicks west of Peshawar, Dost Mohammad reached out to the British colonialists in India.  In 1837, he welcomed a young adventurer named Alexander Burnes into Kabul, but though the agent supported Dost Mohammad to Lord Auckland (the East India Company's guy in the green zone) the bureaucrat elected to support Shuja Shah.  This led directly to the completely predictable disaster that was the First Anglo-Afghan War.

Weird Historical Sidenote: After Dost Mohammad had been deposed in favor of Shuja Shah in 1839, Burnes (b. 1805) – a Scotsman who had signed on with the East India Company at the age of sixteen – served as the company's representative in Kabul until his assassination during an insurrection in 1841.  He is one of the most un-Bremerlike diplomats ever; his heroism in staying at his post long after it had become perilous to do so earned him great (if posthumous) respect.

A Russian agent, Captain P. Vetkevich, was in Kabul at the same time as Burnes' first visit, ostensibly for the same sort of "commercial" discussions as the Brit.  Burnes' instructions read, in part, to demand that Dost Mohammad evict Vetkevich from the city and sever all ties with Iran, in whose court the Russians and French already wielded much influence.  This kind of diplomatic un-nicecity, however, was not really an option for the Afghan leader, since the Persians were already on the march toward Heart, and since some of the other British non-negotiables included significant territorial concessions to the Sikhs.  When he proved unwilling to comply with British demands, they declared that they and their Sikh allies would support Shuja Shah, and in 1838 moved to escort their puppet back to Kabul in force.


Gonna have to end this one here, since I'm pretty much out of time – especially considering that the next chapter is a war, and those always seem to take me a while to moonbatify.  On this Oscar night, then, let this be your cliffhanger: see you next week for the Anglo-Afghan Wars!

Image-related CYA:

Camel cannon woodcut via Artillery Barrel and Carriage Design; XVII Century Polish Artillery

India map via University of Texas

Battle of Plassey painting: Lord Clive meeting with Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey, by Francis Hayman (c. 1762) via wikipedia

Ranjit Singh via

Historically hip entrances (and crossposts) to the Cave of the Moonbat can be found at Daily Kos, Progressive Historians, Never In Our Names, and The Impeach Project

Originally posted to Unitary Moonbat on Sun Feb 25, 2007 at 05:53 PM PST.

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