Sunday, 19 August 2012

The Fight for Independence Afghanistan May 1919

this is the second part of a two part series celebrating Afghan independence day. Part one can be read here 

by Peymana Assad 

For years Habibullah Khan, the Amir of Afghanistan had been building support to fight against the British, but nothing came of the schemes he devised. He was heavily subsidized by the British, but he chafed under their control of Afghan foreign policy. His powers could really only be compared to that of a British provincial governor, even though no British soldier was on Afghan soil. In February 1919 Habibullah was assassinated while on a hunting trip. After a brief succession fight, Amanullah Khan, one of his sons took power and became the new Amir. 

For many years already small but vicious battles flared on the Eastern parts of Afghanistan into British India, so Amanullah finally declared war on Britain. As a gesture to the Afghan people he went to Eidgah Mosque in Kabul and shouted to the crowd “Ya Margh Ya Istiqlal” either death or freedom, launching the Third Afghan-Anglo war of May 1919. Three Afghan columns marched against British India and the Afghans moved down the Khyber Pass gathering tribal support along the way. 

The Jihad had been called on Britain but exhausted by the First World War, Britain found it hard to mobilise the forces it needed. During the first battles of the Third Afghan-Anglo war Britain reeled, abandoning several frontier posts with heavy losses. The Afghans were victorious in Parachinar, Thal and Kurram, with the help of fellow Pashtun tribes but started to face difficulties in Khyber, incurring heavy losses.

Within a month Britain realised that there was little to be gained by war, although many in the British forces were still fantasying about taking their troops all the way to Kabul. But the government of Delhi were resolutely opposed to such an idea; they believed it would take more troops than were present in the whole of India to take Afghanistan effectively. Frustrated by the lack of progress the Raj employed aircraft's for the first time to target the capital. 

Another three months of fighting would incur before Lord Chelmsford met with Amanullah Khan for a peace agreement. In Rawalpindi Amanullah was stripped of his financial subsidy, refused the right of arms shipments from India and forced to yet again re-affirm the permanence of the Durand line. But he won from the British a basic right which Afghanistan had previously been denied as attached to the treaty was a letter that declared Afghanistan “free and independent in its internal and external affairs”. Britain had finally relinquished control of Afghan foreign policy on 19th of August 1919 at the Treaty of Rawalpindi. The irony of the air attacks on the capital so soon after the British Empire had condemned Germany's World war one attacks on London was not lost on the King. "It is a matter of great regret that the throwing of bombs by zeppelins on London was denounced as a most savage act and the bombardment of places of worship and sacred spots was considered a most abominable operation. While we now see with our own eyes that such operations were a habit which is prevalent among all civilized people of the west"

It has now been 93 years since Afghanistan restored its sovereignty over its foreign affairs, yet sadly the country is still ravished by war. However August 1919 still holds a great significance for Afghans today. It is a symbol of their desire for freedom and self determination of their affairs.
The present context of affairs in the country may be blurred with countless internal political disputes and accusations of corruption, but it is a reminder to the people of Afghanistan that only a strong, stable and united country can achieve what it is capable of. That reminder crosses the boundaries set by ethnic or religious lines. 

The vision of Amanullah was a progressive Afghan state. Since the end of the Taliban regime in 2001, Afghanistan has been given the opportunity to move towards just that. The freedoms granted to its citizens in its current constitution are the small steps being taken, even with the hiccups. Change however does not take place overnight, it is gradual and the past 11 years have shown greater development in all aspects of Afghan life.

For some though 1919 stands as an example that Afghanistan is still not free from international or regional influences as the relations of the country are mainly based by its alliance with NATO. But in a world that is becoming heavily interdependent, it is an important example for Afghans, that they must understand the need of having allies. 

This however does not mean Afghans should forget their 2,500 years of defiance against conquest and foreign rule. Rather it should put into perspective that Afghanistan will inevitably face difficulties along the way but these difficulties can only be overcome when they are fought together as a collective. Post 2014 will be the biggest test for Afghanistan and this reminder should resonate in the minds of Afghans, then and now during every celebration of Afghanistan’s Independence Day.

The writer is a student of War studies and tweets at @PeymanaAssad
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