Afghan Civil War (1928–1929)PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Initially, various Afghan tribes vs. the government of Emir Amanullah Khan in Kabul; then Pashtun rebels vs. the Tajik followers of the bandit usurper Habibullah Ghazi
PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Kabul, Afghanistan
MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Initially, rebels sought to reverse the emir’s modern reforms and protect their tribal and Muslim traditions; outlaw leader Habibullah Ghazi wanted to depose the emir and take his place as ruler of Afghanistan; the Pashtuns wished to overthrow the usurper and return the throne to a “legitimate” ruler from the Musabihan clan.
OUTCOME: Amanullah abdicated in favor of his brother,who in turn abdicated under threat of attack from Habibullah, who was in turn ousted and executed by the Musabihans, placing Nadir Shah on the throne and, with British help, reuniting the country.
APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS:Royal army, 15,000; rebel numbers unknown
CASUALTIES: Rebel casualties, 15,000 killed; royal casualties unknown
When Amanullah Khan (1892–1960) became emir of Afghanistan in 1919, he vowed to modernize his country and destroy the influence of foreign powers over its internal affairs. As he went about professionalizing his army, streamlining the civil bureaucracy, and in general creating a modern administrative system, he alienated and offended many of those who had initially supported him. Then, on November 12, 1928, Shinwari tribesmen rose in revolt in Jalalabad because Amanullah’s reforms had begun to erode traditional tribal life. Encouraged by religious leaders, who were also offended by modern reforms that challenged venerable Muslim theology, the Shinwari marched on the capital of Kabul. Amanullah was shocked to discover that his reforms lacked support even among his soldiers, the majority of whom, angered at the emir’s rigid insistence on military professionalism, refused to answer his call to arms. Realizing that his opponents had successfully managed a full-scale revolt, desperate to preserve what he could of his progressive government, and anxious to maintain his family’s rule of Afghanistan, Amanullah abdicated in mid-January 1929 in favor of his weaker older brother, Inyatollah, and fled to India.
The events in Kabul did not escape the notice of an outlaw leader and Tajik tribesman named Bacha-i-Saqao (d. 1929). Shrewdly assessing both the potential of the Shinwari uprising and the timidity of the new emir, Bacha led his strong band on his own march against the capital. Inyatollah had been emir of Afghanistan for three days when his fears of the Shinwari and Bacha’s Tajiks got the better of him. He, too, abdicated, escaping to join his brother in exile in India, while Bacha—former army deserter, erstwhile bandit of the Khyber Pass—proclaimed himself emir under the name of Habibullah Khan. Amanullah, now desperate to reclaim his throne, returned to Kandahar, where he assembled an army and marched on Kabul in the spring of 1929. Habibullah attacked him en route, and the defeated Amanullah Khan fled the country for good.
Though Habibullah successfully defended his crown from other claimants throughout the summer, the new emir’s rule quickly deteriorated, and much of his support vanished, not so much because of his checkered past as because he was a Tajik, the first “outsider” to rule Afghanistan since before the coming of the Greeks. Most Afghans were Pashtuns, a tribe that had initially supported Habibullah but was the first to turn on him. They demanded, of course, a Pashtun ruler. Among the Pashtuns the major pretenders to the throne were the Musabihans, a clan directly descended from the great 19th-century Afghan ruler Dost Muhammad (1793–1863).
The eldest of the Musabihan brothers, General Muhammad Nadir Khan (1880–1933), was Amanullah’s cousin and had served as his minister of defense before resigningin protest over the former emir’s military reforms. Just returned from Europe, Nadir Khan organized an army in the late summer of 1929 with plans to retake Kabul. He had originally hoped for direct support from the British, but when he sought their help, they refused him, calculating that if they were to back Nadir Khan and the Musabihan coup were to fail, the English would then be personae non grata in Kabul regardless of who sat on the throne.Instead, London cautiously offered tacit assistance and setup guidelines to follow in maintaining officially its neutrality.The British did allow Nadir Khan (and others) in the British-held North West Frontier Province (NWFP) to cross the border freely into Afghanistan, though they frowned on back and forth traffic and banned outright the use of the NWFP as a sanctuary or a recruiting ground for rebels. Since the British, however, made it fairly clear they would do little, if anything, to enforce these restrictions, Nadir Khan could safely ignore them.
At length, the Musabihans were able to gather enough men, most of them from the NWFP, to march confidently on Kabul. On October 10 Nadir Khan’s forces took the city, and Habibullah fled. On October 16 Nadir Khan assumed the throne, renaming himself Nadir Shah. Scarcely a fortnight later Habibullah was captured and executed in the town of Kohistan on November 3, 1929. Once in power, Nadir Shah, with British help, instituted reforms, restored order, and placated those who remained loyal to his exiled cousin Amanullah. In 1932, a year before his death, Nadir Shah established a constitutional government in a unified Afghanistan.
Further reading: Michael Barthorp, Afghan Wars and the North-West Frontier 1839–1947 (New York: Sterling, 2002); Edgar O’Ballance, Afghan Wars, 1839–1992 (New York: Brassey’s, 1993).