Modernization and Development of Institutions

Afghanistan Table of Contents

In addition to forging a nation from the splintered regions comprising Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman tried to modernize his kingdom by forging a regular army and the first institutionalized bureaucracy. Despite his distinctly authoritarian personality, Abdur Rahman called for a loya jirgah (jirgah--see Glossary), an assemblage of royal princes, important notables, and religious leaders. According to his autobiography, Abdur Rahman had three goals: subjugating the tribes, extending government control through a strong, visible army, and reinforcing the power of the ruler and the royal family.

Abdur Rahman also paid attention to technological advancement. He brought foreign physicians, engineers (especially for mining), geologists, and printers to Afghanistan. He imported European machinery and encouraged the establishment of small factories to manufacture soap, candles, and leather goods. He sought European technical advice on communications, transport, and irrigation. Nonetheless, despite these sweeping internal policies, Abdur Rahman's foreign policy was completely in foreign hands.

The first important frontier dispute was the Panjdeh crisis of 1885, precipitated by Russian encroachment into Central Asia. Having seized the Merv (now Mary) Oasis by 1884, Russian forces were directly adjacent to Afghanistan. Claims to the Panjdeh Oasis were in debate, with the Russians keen to take over all the region's Turkoman domains. After battling Afghan forces in the spring of 1885, the Russians seized the oasis. Russian and British troops were quickly alerted, but the two powers reached a compromise; Russia was in possession of the oasis, and Britain believed it could keep the Russians from advancing any farther. Without an Afghan say in the matter, the Joint Anglo-Russian Boundary Commission agreed the Russians would relinquish the farthest territory captured in their advance but retain Panjdeh. This agreement on these border sections delineated for Afghanistan a permanent northern frontier at the Amu Darya but also the loss of much territory, especially around Panjdeh.

The second section of Afghan border demarcated during Abdur Rahman's reign was in the Wakhan Corridor. The British insisted Abdur Rahman accept sovereignty over this remote region where unruly Kirghiz held sway, he had no choice but to accept Britain's compromise. In 1895 and 1896 another Joint Anglo-Russian Boundary Commission agreed on the frontier boundary to the far northeast of Afghanistan, which bordered Chinese territory (although the Chinese did not formally accept this as on a boundary between the two countries until 1964.)

For Abdur Rahman, delineating the boundary with India (through the Pashtun area) was far more significant, and it was during his reign that the Durand Line was drawn. Under pressure, Abdur Rahman agreed in 1893 to accept a mission headed by the British Indian foreign secretary, Sir Mortimer Durand, to define the limits of British and Afghan control in the Pashtun territories. Boundary limits were agreed on by Durand and Abdur Rahman before the end of 1893, but there is some question about the degree to which Abdur Rahman willingly ceded certain regions. There were indications that he regarded the Durand Line as a delimitation of separate areas of political responsibility, not a permanent international frontier, and that he did not explicitly cede control over certain parts (such as Kurram and Chitral) that were already in British control under the Treaty of Gandamak.

The Durand Line cut through both tribes and villages and bore little relation to the realities of topography, demography, or even military strategy. The line laid the foundation, not for peace between the border regions, but for heated disagreement between the governments of Afghanistan and British India, and later, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The clearest manifestation that Abdur Rahman's had established control in Afghanistan was the peaceful successor of his eldest son, Habibullah, to the throne on his father's death in October 1901. Although Abdur Rahman had fathered many children, he groomed Habibullah to succeed him, and he made it difficult for his other sons to contest the succession by keeping power from them and sequestering them in Kabul under his control.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress