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Afghanistan History


 

Ahmad Shah and the Durrani Empire
(1747 - 1772)

From the death of Nadir Shah in 1747 until the communist coup of April 1978, Afghanistan was governed-at least nominally- by Pashtun rulers of the Abdali tribe. Indeed, it was under the leadership of the first Pashtun ruler, Ahmad Shah, that the nation of Afghanistan began to take shape after centuries of fragmentation and rule by invaders. Even before the death of Nadir Shah, the tribes of the Hindu Kush area had been growing stronger and were beginning to take advantage of the waning power of their distant rulers.

The Ghilzai Pashtuns had risen in rebellion against Iranian rule early in the eighteenth century, but they had been subdued
and relocated by Nadir Shah. Although tribal independence would remain a threat to rulers of Afghanistan, the Abdali Pashtun established political dominance, starting in the middle of the eighteenth century with the rise of Ahmad Shah.
Two lineage groups within the Abdali ruled Afghanistan from 1747 until the downfall of the monarchy in the 1970s-the
Sadozai of the Popalzai tribe and the Muhammadzai of the Barakzai tribe.

Although the names of Timur, Genghis Khan, and Mahmud of Ghazni are well-known for the destruction they wrought in South and Central Asia, the name of the founder of the Afghan nation-state is relatively unknown to Westerners, though Ahmad Shah created an Afghan empire that, at its largest in the 176Os, extended from Central Asia to Delhi and from
Kashmir to the Arabian Sea. There have been greater conquerers in the region before and since Ahmad Shah, but never before his reign and rarely since has there been a ruler of this fragmented area capable not only of subduing the truculent Afghan tribes but also of pulling them together into a nation.

Ahmad was the second son of the chief of the Sadozai, which although small was the most honored of the Abdali lineages. Along with his brother, he had risen in rebellion against Nadir Shah and had been jailed by the Ghilzai in Kandahar.

Finally released by Nadir Shah in 1738 when he took the city from the Ghilzai, Ahmad rose in the personal service of the
Iranian monarch to the post of commander of an elite body of Afghan cavalry. When Nadir Shah, who had become vicious
and capricious in his later years, was killed by a group of dissident officers, Ahmad and some 4,000 of his cavalrymen
escaped with the treasury Nadir Shah always carried with him for payments and bribes en route.

Ahmad and his Abdali horsemen rode past Herat and southeastward, joining the chiefs of the Abdali tribes and clans at a shrine near Kandahar to choose a paramount chief. Although his rivals for the post included Haji Jamal Khan-chief of the Muhammadzai, chief branch, of the Barakzai, which would be the other royal branch of the Abdali-and although only 23, Ahmad was finally chosen after more than a week of discussion and debate.

Despite being younger than other claimants, Ahmad had several factors in his favor. He was a direct descendant of Sado,
eponym of the Sadozai; he was unquestionably a charismatic leader and seasoned warrior, who had at his disposal a trained, mobile force of several thousand cavalrymen; and he had part of Nadir Shah’s treasury in his possession. In addition, the other chiefs may have preferred someone from a small tribe who would always need the support of the larger groups to rule effectively.

One of Ahmad’s first acts as chief was to adopt the title“Durr-i-Durran” (meaning “pearl of pearls” or “pearl of the
age”), whether because of a dream or because of the pearl earrings worn by the royal guard of Nadir Shah. The Abdali
Pashtuns were known thereafter as the Durrani. Ahmad’s rise was owing not only to his personality and talents but also to extraordinary luck. His reign coincided with the deterioration of the empires on both sides of Afghanistan- the Mughals to the southeast and the Safavis to the west.

Even his first days as paramount chief were blessed with good fortune. Just before arriving in Kandahar, where some resistance was expected, Ahmad encountered a caravan bound for the Iranian court laden with treasure. The new ruler seized it, used it to pay his cavalry and to bribe hostile chiefs, and invited its Qizilbash (Turkmen Shia who served as palace guards for many Afghan and Iranian rulers) escort to join his service.

Ahmad Shah began by taking Ghazni from the Ghilzai Pashtuns and then wrested Kabul from a local ruler. In 1749 the Mughal ruler, to save his capital from Afghan attack, ceded to Ahmad Shah sovereignty over Sind province and over the
areas of northern India west of the Indus. He returned to his headquarters in Kandahar to put down one of an endless series of tribal uprisings and then set out westward to take Herat, which was ruled by Nadir Shah’s grandson, Shah Rukh. Herat fell to Ahmad after almost a year of bloody siege and conflict, as did also Meshed (in present-day Iran). Ahmad left Shah Rukh, a 16-year-old who had previously been blinded by a rival, to rule the eastern Iranian province of Khorasan for him. At Nishapur, Ahmad was temporarily halted, but the following spring he struck again, this time employing a cannon that fired a 500-pound projectile. Although the cannon exploded on its first shot, Ahmad Shah’s determination and the effect of the huge missile convinced the local rulers that they should surrender. Before returning to Herat, Ahmad’s troops plundered the city and massacred much of the population.

Stopping by Meshed to remind the rebellious Shah Bukh of his subservient position, Ahmad next sent an army to subdue the areas north of the Hindu Kush. In short order the army brought under control the Turkmen, Uzbek, Tajik, and Hazara tribes of northern Afghanistan. Ahmad invaded India a third, and then a fourth time, taking control of the Punjab, Kashmir, and the city of Lahore. Early in 1757 he sacked Delhi, but he permitted the attenuated Mughal Dynasty to remain in nominal control as long as the ruler acknowledged Ahmad’s suzerainty over the Punjab, Sind, and Kashmir. Leaving his second son Timur (whom Ahmad married to a Mughal princess) in charge, Ahmad left India to return to Afghanistan, Like Babur, he preferred his homeland to any of his other domains. Dupree quotes an Afghan writer’s translation of one of Ahmad Shah’s poems:

Whatever contries i conquer in the world. I would never forget your beautiful gardens. When i remember the summits of your beautiful mountains i forget the greatness of the Delhi throne.

The collapse of Mughal control in India, however, also facilitated the rise of rulers other than Ahmad Shah. In the Punjab the Sikhs were becoming a potent force, and from their capital at Poona the Marathas, who were Hindus, controlled much of western and central India and were beginning to look northward to the decaying Mughal empire, which Ahmad Shah now claimed by conquest. After Ahmad returned to Kandahar in 1757, he was faced not only with uprisings in Baluch areas and in Herat hut also with attacks by the Marathas on his domains in India, which succeeded in ousting Timur and his court. Herat was quickly brought under control, and the Baluch revolt was quelled by a combination of siege and compromise, but the campaign against the Marathas was a more substantial operation.

Ahmad called for Islamic holy war against the Marathas, and warriors from the various Pashtun tribes, as well as other
tribes such as the Baluch, answered his call. Early skirmishes ended in victory for the Afghans, and by 1759 Ahmad and his army had reached Lahore. By 1760 the Maratha groups had coalesced into a great army. Once again Panipat was the scene of a historical confrontation between two contenders for control of northern India. This time the battle was between Muslim and Hindu armies, numbering as many as 100,000 troops each, who fought along a 12.kilometer front. Although he decisively defeated the Marathas, Ahmad Shah was not left in peaceful control of his domains because of other challenges to the ailing monarch in his last years. Moreover, the ultimate effect of the 1761 Battle of Panipat may have had detrimental effects on the rule of Ahmad Shah’s descendants; by thwarting the consolidation of Maratha power in northern and central India, the battle may have set the stage for the rise of both Sikh and British power in the region.

The victory at Panipat was the high point of Ahmad Shah’ and Afghan-power. Afterward, even before his death, the empire began to unravel. Ahmad Shah was less fit to cope with insurrection because he suffered from severe ulceration of the face, an ailment that was probably cancer. Even before the end of 1761 the Sikhs had risen and taken control of much of the Punjab. In 1762 Ahmad Shah crossed the passes from Afghanistan for the sixth time to subdue the Sikhs. He assaulted Lahore, and when he had taken the Sikh holy city of Amritsar, he massacred thousands of its Sikh inhabitants, destroyed their temples, and desecrated their holy places with cow blood.

The Sikhs rebelled again within two years, but Ahmad Shah’s efforts to put down the uprising of 1764 were not as successful. Again in 1767 he crossed the mountain passes. Although much harassed by Sikh guerrilla warfare, Ahmad Shah took Lahore and again laid waste to Amritsar, killing many of its inhabitants. After this attempt Ahmad Shah tried two more times to subjugate the Sikhs permanently, but he failed. By the time of his death, he had lost all but nominal control of the Punjab to the Sikhs, who remained in control until defeated by the British in 1849.

It was not only the fierce Sikhs who rebelled against the rule of Ahmad Shah. His empire was being seriously eroded in
other areas as well. Ahmad Shah’s Indian domains refused to pay homage, and other regions simply declared their independence. The amir (ruler) of Bukhara claimed some of the northern provinces, and Ahmad Shah reached an agreement with him to accept the Amu Darya as the border between them. Three years before his death, Ahmad Shah had to put down a revolt in Khorasan.

In 1772 Ahmad Shah retired to his home, the mountains east of Kandahar, where he died. He was buried in Kandahar, where his epitaph, recalling his early connection with the Iranian monarchy, calls him a ruler equal to Emperor Cyrus.
Despite his relentless military attacks and his massacres of Sikhs and others in imperial warfare, he is known in Afghan
history as Ahmad Shah Baba, or “father.” Although confusion reigned after his death, Ahmad Shah was clearly the creator of the nation of Afghanistan, As scholar Leon B. Poullada notes, the loyalty of the Afghan tribes was not transferred from their own leaders and kin to the concept of nation, but Ahmad Shah succeeded to a remarkable degree in balancing tribal alliances and hostilities and in directing tribal energies away from rebellion into his frequent foreign excursions. He certainly enjoyed extraordinarily good luck, but he was clever in exploiting his good fortune, and he showed exemplary intelligence in dealing with his own people. Having started his rule as merely the paramount chief of the Durrani, Ahmad Shah never sought to rule the Pashtuns by force. He reigned in consultation with a council of eight or nine sirdars (or sardars), the most powerful Durrani Pashtuns, each of whom was responsible for his own group. He sought the advice of his council on all major issues. Although he favored the Durrani, and especially his own lineage, the Sadozai, he was conciliatory to the other Pashtun chiefs as well. Ahmad Shah’s successors were not so wise, and the nation he had built almost collapsed because of their misrule and the intratribal rivalry that they could not manage. By the time of Ahmad Shah, the Pashtuns included many groups whose greatest single common characteristic was their Pashto language. Their origins were obscure: most were believed to have descended from ancient Aryan tribes, but some, such as the Ghilzai, may have been Turks. To the east, the Waziris and their close relatives, the Mahsuds, have been located in the hills of the central Suleiman Range since the fourteenth century. By the end of the sixteenth century and the final Turkish-Mongol invasions, tribes such as the Shinwaris, Yusufzais, and the Mohmands had moved from the upper Kabul River Valley into the valleys and plains west, north, and northeast of Peshawar, and the Afridis had long been established in the hills and mountain ranges south of Khyber Pass. By the end of the eighteenth century the Durranis had blanketed the area west and north of Kandahar.