AHMAD SHAH AND THE DURRANI EMPIRE
From Nadir Shah's death in 1747 until the communist coup of April
1978, Afghanistan was governed--at least nominally--by Pashtun
rulers from the Abdali group of clans. Indeed, it was under the
leadership of the first Pashtun ruler, Ahmad Shah, that the nation
of Afghanistan began to take shape following centuries of fragmentation
and exploitation. Even before the death of Nadir Shah, tribes
in the Hindu Kush had been growing stronger and were beginning
to take advantage of the waning power of their distant rulers.
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.
In 1747 Ahmad Shah and his Abdali horsemen joined the chiefs
of the Abdali tribes and clans near Qandahar to choose a leader.
Despite being younger than other claimants, Ahmad had several
overriding 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 possessed
part of Nadir Shah's treasury.
One of Ahmad Shah's first acts as chief was to adopt the title
"Durr-i-Durrani" ("pearl of pearls" or "pearl of the age"), which
may have come from a dream or from the pearl earrings worn by
the royal guard of Nadir Shah. The Abdali Pashtuns were known
thereafter as the Durrani.
Ahmad Shah began by capturing Ghazni from the Ghilzai Pashtuns,
and then wresting Kabul from the local ruler. In 1749 the Mughal
ruler ceded sovereignty over Sindh Province and the areas of northern
India west of the Indus to Ahmad Shah in order to save his capital
from Afghan attack. Ahmad Shah then set out westward to take possession
of Herat, which was ruled by Nadir Shah's grandson, Shah Rukh.
Herat fell to Ahmad after almost a year of siege and bloody conflict,
as did Mashhad (in present-day Iran). Ahmad next sent an army
to subdue the areas north of the Hindu Kush. In short order, the
powerful army brought under its control the Turkmen, Uzbek, Tajik,
and Hazara tribes of northern Afghanistan (see Ethnic Groups,
ch. 2). Ahmad invaded India a third, then a fourth, time, taking
control of the Punjab, Kashmir, and the city of Lahore. Early
in 1757, he sacked Delhi, but permitted the Mughal Dynasty to
remain in nominal control as long as the ruler acknowledged Ahmad's
suzerainty over the Punjab, Sindh, and Kashmir. Leaving his second
son Timur in charge, Ahmad left India to return to Afghanistan.
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. From their capital at Pune, the
Marathas, Hindus who controlled much of western and central India,
were beginning to look northward to the decaying Mughal empire,
which Ahmad Shah now claimed by conquest. Upon his return to Qandahar
in 1757, Ahmad faced Maratha attacks which succeeded in ousting
Timur and his court in India.
Ahmad Shah declared an Islamic holy war against the Marathas,
and warriors from various Pashtun tribes, as well as other tribes
such as the Baloch, 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 confrontation
between two warring contenders for control of northern India.
The Battle of Panipat in 1761 between Muslim and Hindu armies
who numbered as many as 100,000 troops each was fought along a
twelve-kilometer front. Despite decisively defeating the Marathas,
what might have been Ahmad Shah's peaceful control of his domains
was disrupted by other challenges.
The victory at Panipat was the high point of Ahmad Shah's--and
Afghan--power. Afterward, even prior to his death, the empire
began to unravel. By the end of 1761, the Sikhs had gained power
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, after taking their holy city of Amritsar,
massacred thousands of Sikh inhabitants, destroying their temples
and desecrating their holy places with cow's blood. Within two
years the Sikhs rebelled again. Ahmad Shah tried several more
times to subjugate the Sikhs permanently, but failed. By the time
of his death, he had lost all but nominal control of the Punjab
to the Sikhs, who remained in charge of the area until the British
defeat in 1849.
Ahmad Shah also faced other rebellions in the north, and eventually
he and the amir of Bukhara agreed that the Amu Darya would mark
the division of their lands. In 1772 Ahmad Shah retired to his
home in the mountains east of Qandahar, where he died. Ahmad Shah
had succeeded to a remarkable degree in balancing tribal alliances
and hostilities and in directing tribal energies away from rebellion.
He earned recognition as Ahmad Shah Baba, or "Father" of Afghanistan
(fig. _, Ahmad Shah Durrani's Empire, 1762).
By the time of Ahmad Shah's ascendancy, the Pashtuns included
many groups whose origins were obscure; most were believed to
have descended from ancient Aryan tribes, but some, such as the
Ghilzai, may have once been Turks (see Ethnic Groups, ch. 2).
They had in common, however, their Pashtu language. To the east,
the Waziris and their close relatives, the Mahsuds, had lived
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 Mohmands
had moved from the upper Kabul River Valley into the valleys and
plains west, north, and northeast of Peshawar. The Afridis had
long been established in the hills and mountain ranges south of
the Khyber Pass. By the end of the eighteenth century, the Durranis
had blanketed the area west and north of Qandahar.
Ahmad Shah's successors governed so ineptly during a period of
profound unrest that within fifty years of his death, Afghanistan
was embroiled in a civil war. Many of the territories conquered
with the help of Ahmad Shah's military skill fell to others in
this half century. By 1818 the Sadozai rulers who succeeded Ahmad
Shah controlled little more than Kabul and the surrounding territory
within a 160-kilometer radius. They not only lost the outlying
territories but also alienated other tribes and lineages among
the Durrani Pashtuns.
After the death of Ahmad Shah's successor, Timur, the three strongest
contenders for the position of shah were Timur's sons, the governors
of Qandahar, Herat, and Kabul. Muhammad Zeman, governor of Kabul,
was in the most commanding position and became shah at the age
of twenty-three. His half-brothers accepted this only by force
majeure--upon being imprisoned on their arrival in the capital
for the purpose, ironically, of electing a new shah. The quarrels
among Timur's descendants that threw Afghanistan into turmoil
also provided the pretext for the intervention of outside forces.
The efforts of the Sadozai heirs of Timur to impose a true monarchy
on the truculent Pashtun tribes and to rule absolutely and without
the advice of the other, larger Pashtun tribes' leaders were ultimately
unsuccessful. The Sikhs too, were particularly troublesome, and
after several unsuccessful efforts to subdue them, Zeman made
the mistake of appointing a forceful young Sikh chief, Ranjit
Singh, as his governor in the Punjab. The "one-eyed" warrior would
later become an implacable enemy of Pashtun rulers in Afghanistan.
Zeman's downfall was triggered by his attempts to consolidate
power. Although it had been through the support of the Muhammadzai
chief, Painda Khan, that he had come to the throne, Zeman soon
began to remove prominent Muhammadzai leaders from positions of
power and replacing them with men of his own lineage, the Sadozai.
This upset the delicate balance of Durrani tribal politics that
Ahmad Shah had established and may have prompted Painda Khan and
other Durrani chiefs to plot against the shah. Painda Khan and
the chiefs of the Nurzai and the Alizai Durrani clans were executed,
as was the chief of the Qizilbash clan. Painda Khan's son fled
to Iran and pledged the substantial support of his Muhammadzai
followers to a rival claimant to the throne, Zeman's older brother,
Mahmud. The clans of the chiefs Zeman had executed joined forces
with the rebels, and they took Qandahar without bloodshed.
Zeman's overthrow in 1800 was not the end of civil strife in
Afghanistan but the beginning of even greater violence. Shah Mahmud
reigned for a mere three years before being replaced by yet another
of Timur Shah's sons, Shuja, who ruled for only six years, from
1803 to 1809. On June 7, 1809, Shuja signed a Treaty of Friendship
with the British which included a clause stating that he would
oppose the passage of foreign troops through his territories.
This agreement, the first Afghan pact with a European power, stipulated
joint action in case of Franco-Persian aggression against Afghan
or British dominions. Only a few weeks after signing the agreement,
Shuja was deposed by his predecessor, Mahmud, whose second reign
lasted nine years, until 1818. Mahmud alienated the Muhammadzai,
especially Fateh Khan, the son of Painda Khan, who was eventually
seized and blinded. Revenge would later be sought and obtained
by Fateh Khan's youngest brother, Dost Mohammad.
From 1818 until Dost Mohammad's ascendancy in 1826, chaos reigned
in the domains of Ahmad Shah Durrani's empire as various sons
of Painda Khan struggled for supremacy. Afghanistan ceased to
exist as a single nation, disintegrating for a brief time into
a fragmented collection of small units, each ruled by a different
Data as of 1997