The Life and Times of Amir Habibullah Khan

Habibullah, the eldest son of Amir Abdur Rahman Khan, a member of the Barakzai tribe, succeeded his father to the throne of Afghanistan in 1901. Like his father, he was a strong ruler, but unlike his father, he had a far less dominating personality. In his coronation speech, he announced his intentions of pursuing a policy of National unity, resistance against foreign aggression, and reform. Although, in some ways, Habibullah's policies were different from that of his father, nevertheless, his goal was the same-an absolute Afghan central government.

To expand his base of power, Habibullah sought to improve his relations with the tribal chiefs. He relaxed the tribal military recruitment, established a Council of State to handle tribal affairs [which gave much considerations to the will and interests of the tribal chiefs], and introduced a system by which tribal representatives could participate in provincial activities. Habibullah also allowed the newly converted Moslems of the province of Kufristan [Nuristan] to keep their lands. He, in order to unify the country, established the National Unity Day. To win support of the people, he abolished the much feared spy system, which had been established by his father, and offered amnesty to many political prisoners and exiles.

During his crowing ceremony, the Khan-i-Mullah [chief religious dignitary], wrapped a head cloth of white muslin around Habibullah's head, presented him with a copy of the Quran, some relics of the prophet, and a flag from the tomb of an Afghan saint. All this was to symbolize the ruler's religious obligations as well as the divine source of his power. The newly adapted elaborate dastboosy [hand kissing] ceremony was to stress the sacredness of the Amir's office. These ceremonies were to reflect the Amir's office as an institution that defended Islam and the fatherland.

Once, thanks to Mahmud Tarzi and his associates, the monarchy, patriotism, and religion were tied under Habibullah's office, he was in a position to take steps towards modernization-reforms considered essential for the well-being of Afghanistan, which might win the support of the religious establishment. Although the support of the religious establishment was not the vital part of his legitimacy, it was important nevertheless. He had other channels on which to check the religious community; for example, as defender of Islam, Habibullah had the exclusive right to proclaim jihad, control of the waqf, and ability to limit the number of mullahs [through examinations]. He added to these checks, the bestowal of khelat [robes of honor], and forcing a majority of the mullahs to remain employed under government. Some of these methods had positive results; for example on a notable occasion, a group of religious leaders honored Habibulllah with the title Siraj ul Millat Wa Din [the light of the Nation and the Faith] for his actions on behalf of the faith.

Habibullah launched a series of reforms, intending to strengthen the Afghan economy and government. Although his reforms did not significantly change people's lives then, in the long run these reforms proved to be the first steps towards the modernization of Afghanistan. Habibullah's reforms expanded after a state visit to India, in 1907.

Keeping some basic features of his father's administration, Habibullah set to make further changes and improvements in the administration and the military. He divided Afghanistan into six provinces-Kabul, Qandahar, Herat, Farah, Afghan Turkestan and Badakhshan-which were then divided into districts. A haakem was to govern the provinces-Kabul was governed by the Amir {although in 1907, the office of naib-ul hukuma (deputy governor) was founded to assist the Amir in ruling the province of Kabul}. Under the Amir, these haakems had both, judicial and civil functions, and presided over mahkama-e haakem [provincial courts], having jurisdiction over civil as well as criminal cases. In case of a deadlock, in the religious or the civil courts of the capital or the provinces, the cases were sent to the Amir. Death sentences passed by any court had to be confirmed by Habibullah.

Then, he gave attention to the military. He introduced modern weapons and expanded the military program which was established by his father. The first attempt was to train an officer corps. To facilitate this task the Madrasse-ye Harbi-ye Siragieh [Royal Military College] was founded in 1904-06. Instruction of the cadets was handed to a Turkish colonel, Said Mahmud Efendi, in 1907. To protect his army against internal opposition, the Amir increased the pay, recruited about 1800 Nuris [the newly Moslems] and some Hazaras [a Mongol race of Afghans] into the army.

It is believed that when Habibullah came to power, 98% of the Afghans were illiterate. In an attempt to change that number, Habibullah laid the foundation for Afghanistan's modern education system. Habibya College, the first secondary school was founded in 1904--an all boys school. Initially, the school offered courses in mathematics, geography, callisthenics , English and Urdu; gradually they added courses in education, drawing, history, public health, Turkish and Pashto. A modest library was established at the school--representing the first public library in Afghanistan. The majority of the teachers in Habibya were Indian Moslems; some were Afghans educated in India. In the beginning, the Afghan education system was modeled after the Anglo-Indian system, but after WWI, it turned to the Franco-Turkish model. The education establishment grew as time went on, and important books and people were produced.

After the outbreak of cholera epidemics in Kabul, in 1903 and again in 1915, the government assumed the first steps towards creating a public health program. A Scottish engineer, James Miller, was hired to supervise the laying of a pipeline which would bring water from Paghmaan [outside the city of Kabul] to Kabul city. In 1913, the first state hospital was established, in Kabul. It was staffed by Indian attendants and supervised by two Turkish doctors, one of them was Amir's personal physician. Though poorly equipped and understaffed, the hospital proved a success. The Amir, later, hired an English doctor, an American dentist and two Englishwomen to take care of Women and children.

Habibullah made important contributions to expand the local industry. Between 1901 and 1904, about 1,500 workers were working for the government workshops in Kabul. In total, about a hundred different kinds of machines were in use; but despite the various productions, the main purpose of these workshops was to supply the Afghan army. Thus, Habibullah bought equipment for a tannery and boot factory. Capable of making 400 boots per day; he also established a textile mill, which could satisfy Afghan demand for clothing. The Amir's significant contribution was this construction of the very first hydroelectric plant of the country, in 1910. By the end of his rule, the number of government employees had increased from 1500 in 1901 to 5,000 in 1919.

To improve communication and trade, Habibullah set to make new routes and connect the old ones. He established the first public working program, hiring 5,000-8,000 men. Along with the road-building program, the government educated people on the value of good roads and reminded them that roads were for travel and transportation purposes, not a meeting place. Habibullah personally demonstrated the value of good roads and modernization showing people how a car could be useful, as he periodically drove from Kabul to the adjacent province of Jalalabad. He also help found the Afghan Motor Transport Company, the first joint-stock company in the country. Habibullah also improved the postal service, but it still remained primitive. A telephone line linked Kabul and Jalalabad, in 1908.

In an attempt to increase the volume of trade between Afghanistan and the rest of the world, Habibullah reopened trade with Bukhara, encouraged foreign trade, removed many restrictions on Afghan transactions with India and Russia--its closest trade partners. Theses measures had some positive results. In 1901 exports to India was 549,100 Afghanis and imports 512,900 Afghanis; in 1907 those figures rose to 970,400 Afghanis in exports and 1,124,800 Afghanis in imports. Meanwhile, the trade with Russia also increased, largely due to Russia's railway extension to the Afghan borders [the Trans-Caspian and Orenburg-Tashkent lines]. In 1901, imports from Russia was 2,592,000 rubles, and exports were 1,197,000 rubles. That figure changed by 1909 to 4,328,000 rubles in imports and 3,366,000 in exports. The Russians exported chintzes, glassware, sugar, linen, silk, cotton goods, cutlery, and paper; for wool and kurakul sheepskin. However, after the Anglo-Russian Convention was signed in 1907 Afghanistan tended to trade more with India, and the volume of trade greatly jumped. In 1908, exports were 643,551 Pounds Sterling and imports 790,235 P.S.; in 1917, exports rose to 1,144,000 P.S. and imports rose to 1,150,000 P.S. The items exported from Afghanistan were fruits and vegetables, grain and pules, wool, ghi, tobacco, carpets and horses; and Afghans imported cotton goods, dyes, sugar, tea, iron, knives, scissors, needles and thread, paper, drugs and machinery from India.

The Amir took some steps in the way of social reform. One of his early steps was to open the first public orphanage. He also attempted to eliminate the heavy expenditure on marriages. He assigned various fixed amounts of money for each class. In setting an example for keeping legal number of concubines and female slaves, he publicly divorced all but four of his wives. He was particularly tough on antislavery laws. He also prohibited the torture of prisoners and the basis that Islam forbids inhumane practices. And for the first time attempts were made to teach the prisoners handicrafts. On the same issue, harsh punishments such as amputation of hands, cutting out of tongues and blinding, were officially terminated.

After his state visit to India in 1907, the Amir was impressed by Western technology and on his return, he tried very hard to Westernize Afghanistan, seeing Westernization as a step towards modernization. He encouraged the use of western clothing. Habibullah also promoted the waring of astrakhan hats, replacing traditional turbans. He also bought a coach for ceremonial occasions. He, for enhancing the prestige of the monarchy and pride among Afghans, held a display of the products made in government workshops, in 1913, the first public exhibition in Afghanistan. Habibullah also ordered the Afghan flag to be flown on all offices owned by the government.

Habibullah introduced a number of technical innovations into the country. The first clock tower was constructed in 1911. Traditionally the people relied on the sun's position and the firing of a canon on the midday, from the top of a mountain which was located in the center of Kabul city. The first cinematography equipment was brought into Afghanistan in 1905, the same year that the automobile was introduced. The Amir had a passion for photography and personally taught a number of Afghans how to use a camera. The Amir surpassed his father [who was the first Afghan ruler to permit himself to be photographed], by selling his portraits [for the benefit of the orphanage]. He also organized a photographic contest through Afghanistan's first newspaper, Sirag al-Akhbar [however, he did not establish this newspaper]. It was also through this newspaper that a number of European terms entered Pashto and Dari.

Habibullah's many attempts to modernize Afghanistan, though were somewhat successful, nevertheless, were not revolutionary. The obstacles blocking his interests were many. Every area he tried to reform, he encountered stiff resistance. To start with, one of his greatest obstacles was lack of capital. The annual income of the Afghan state was extremely low [1-2 million Pounds Sterling]. Revenues were irregular, and most people paid taxes with goods, most of which routed in inadequate storehouses. He could not increase state revenues without taking the country out of isolation. There were many reasons for Afghanistans isolation. One was the infertility of the land, second, poor farming system and irrigation; third, lack of a good number of well to-do farmers or a farming bank, or any bank for that matter; last, but not a bit least was the people's opposition and hesitation toward Westernization.

Every way he turned, the Amir found resistance. The court system was not adequate and bribery was wide spread. His military school for officers had only 80 students in 1910, most of whom were from powerful families. Many soldiers did not know how to use modern weapons, mostly because they were illiterate; they could not read the manual and instructions on how to use them. The army had a low salary and mostly the noblemen moved up the ranks or occupied higher ranks. Schooling left most people untouched. Traditional learning was the only way of education. Boys entered the traditional learning institutions at the age of six or seven [ sometimes older] and learned the Quran, fiqh [juridical science based on theology], hadith, calligraphy, Dari and Arabic literature. Most who entered Habibya College did not know much about sciences or many other modern subjects, and even while they were there they learned very little about the modern subjects. Outside Kabul, children entered mosques and memorized the Quran. People still resisted the new education system and kept their children in traditional schools. And Amir's continuous cries that education and religion go hand-in-hand had little effect on the general populous.

The steps he took toward building a new hospital was bold and crucial. Habibullah established a hospital in a country that had only one modern trained Afghan doctor. The hospital served only the immediate area of Kabul. Most people relied on charms and magic, practiced by hakims [traditional doctors--not to be confused with governors--haakems]. There was no health education and child mortality was very high.

Amir's industrial plans also had some set back. For example, working conditions were very primitive and dangerous. Most workers fled, or were severely wounded or killed, because of inadequate safety measures, on the job. Worker's wages were very low and fixed, while basic commodities were rising steadily. Industrial growth was very difficult because of a shortage of fuel. Most Industries centered in the capital, which had no coal or wood as fuel. The Amir often had to hire foreign experts whose services cost a great deal, considering Afghan treasury. Besides, the Amir dared not to hire anyone but Moslems, especially for sensitive tasks of education, army and public health.

Transportation and communication did not greatly change the usual business. Most of the transportation was done on animals. Heavy machinery had to be carried by elephants, which took a long time. Aside from being time consuming, the caravan transport was very expensive and offered little protection against damage and theft. On the other hand, lack of communication, banking, trade agreements, diplomatic and economic contacts, and restriction on travel seriously damaged the Afghan economy.

Perhaps Habibullah's most challenging task was social reform. Like his predecessors, he was forced to seek modernization in accordance with the Islamic law and tribal custom. Often the foreign advisors were frustrated by the refusal of many Afghans to cooperate with them. The Afghans had good reason for their actions. Some foreign firms taking advantage of Afghanistan's economic isolation, lack of banking facilities, and their naiveness on international markets, made profits as high as 66% or promised the goods but never delivered it, while taking the money. On the other hand, the two neighbors, Russia and India (British) were constantly threatening Afghanistan's independence. The Afghans saw things as being between Christians and Moslems, where the Christians are trying to destroy Moslem countries and Moslem interests, especially after WWI.

The State that was entrusted to his father, Abd ar-Rahman Khan, by the British, was a buffer state between the British in India and Russia. As a result, Afghanistan was always endanger of being attacked by either. Habibullah's fears were increased when the Russians built their railroad, all the way near the borders of Afghanistan and the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, in which Afghanistan's fate was being discussed without any Afghan representation. Although the Amir took his chances with the British, he was very cautious when dealing with them. In the Dane-Habibullah deal, the British secured the control of Afghan foreign relations in return for an annual pay of 400,000 Pound Sterling and Afghanistan's rights to import Arms without any restriction.

Meanwhile, the Japanese defeat of the Russians opened the eyes of many Afghan nationalists. Many saw that most of Japan's success in war was due to her modernization, thus some of Amir's reforms were accepted enthusiastically. During WWI, most of the Afghan people were sympathetic to the Turkish cause, but Amir declared Turkey not a pure Moslem state and that Afghanistan had no obligation to respond to the jihad declared by the Khalif. This decision was made both on a political and economical basis. The Amir knew that Afghanistan did not have the resources and military strength to fight the two major powers; however, he made a smart move by requesting the sending of a large army and a handsome amount of gold if Germany wished Afghanistan to go to war; on the other hand, assured the British that he had no intention of breaching relations-knowing fully well that the modernization of Afghanistan depended on British assistance. Therefore, the Amir, despite much resistance from the public, remained neutral.

After the war, when Turkey was defeated and the office of Khalifat was later abolished, the Afghans regretted the chance of not defending the religion in hour of need. The people thought that Habibullah failed in international affairs, especially with Russia, where the change of political system [Bolshevik Revolution] presented an opportune time for the Afghans to unite the Moslems of Central Asia and fight for national freedom. For this and for his treaty obligations to the British, he was assassinated on February 20, 1919 in Jalalabad.

by Rameen Moshref


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