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23 August 2021

From the NS archive: Europe and Afghanistan

28 January 1928: Afghanistan was a backward country. It is becoming a modern state.

By Sisley Huddleston

In 1928, ahead of Amir (commonly “Emir” or king) Amanullah of Afghanistan’s visit to Europe, including to London, the journalist Sisley Huddleston reported on the country’s relationship with European powers. The Amir’s tour, Huddleston wrote, was “a far more important event than is realised by the general public”, given Russia and Britain’s roles within the country’s turbulent past. Following the First World War, Afghanistan was “released from Great Britain’s control of foreign relations”. A treaty, signed in November 1921, “definitely re-established peace and accorded full sovereign rights to Afghanistan”. As Amir Amanullah opened up Afghanistan, Huddleston observed that what was once a “backward country” was becoming a “modern state”, with improved infrastructure, communications and schools. “The emancipation of women is one of the most notable signs of Eastern changes,” he wrote. The queen of Afghanistan accompanied her husband on automobile excursions, wore European clothes with her veil, and worked to promote a girls’ school in Kabul. But, Huddleston noted: “As may be imagined, the traditionalist resist these innovations.”


Afghanistan, larger than any European country with the exception of Russia, and regarded as a buffer-state between the Russian Asiatic Empire and British India, is ostentatiously making official contacts with the principal powers of the Western world. This is perhaps a far more important event than is realised by the general public, but certainly in diplomatic circles there is no attempt to disguise the significance of the voyage which the Afghanistan sovereigns are making in Europe. The French, like the Italians, are officially receiving the Amir Amanullah with the greatest ceremony. When he goes to England every courtesy will be extended to him. Germany is particularly interested in his visit. But, above all, his return to Afghanistan by way of Moscow is considered, in certain quarters, to be a triumph for Russian diplomacy.

I have been much impressed by the excitement displayed in the chancelleries at this tour of the king and queen of Afghanistan. It is desirable to understand the reason of the keenness with which the royal itinerary is watched; for there is in it much more than the conventional regard properly given to the progress of an Oriental monarch. The Amir, after traversing India, was greeted in Egypt with unprecedented demonstrations of sympathy, for this was the first time that Egypt had had occasion to express its sentiments for a Muslim king who is veritably independent. One cannot doubt that King Fuad, who recently visited European countries, found himself in special community of thought with the ruler who has freed himself from the tutelage of Great Britain. “I want to show Europe that Afghanistan has its place on the map of the world.” In these words of the Amir is the key to his political purpose. He doubtless wishes to accelerate the introduction of such aspects of Western civilisation into Afghanistan as are desirable, and stress is rightly laid on this object. But his chief mission, in the eyes of Continental diplomatists, is to proclaim the enfranchisement of himself and of his people from the bonds which had long been imposed upon Afghanistan.

The history of the Beni-Israel – the Children of Israel – who claim descent from King Saul is fairly well known. The British wars in the 19th century particularly directed attention to them. The first, which began in 1888 and lasted until 1842, has been described as an ill-fated and hazardous enterprise. There were constant troubles. Civil war weakened the country. Especially were the British and the Russians rivals, though in 1868 the Russian government gave assurances that they considered Afghanistan to be outside the sphere of their influence, while British policy aimed at the establishment of a strong, friendly, and united Afghanistan. A few years later the British, witnessing the extension of Russian dominion in the north-west, endeavoured once more to assure their own political ascendancy, The Amir tried to hold the balance between the two great powers. He leaned, however, towards Russia. He declined to admit a British mission to his capital, Kabul.

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The second Afghan War began in 1878. In the following year a British nominee was accepted as king, and Yakub Khan placed in British hands full control of his foreign relations, receiving in return a guarantee against foreign aggression. In the same year the British envoy and his staff were massacred at Kabul, and Roberts led a fresh expedition. Abdur Rahman was recognised as Amir on the understanding that he should have no relations with other foreign powers and should unreservedly follow the advice of the British Government. The province of Kandahar was separated from the rest of the country under the leadership of Sher Ali Khan. But the British sustained defeat at Kandahar, and Roberts was compelled to make his memorable march to restore British authority.

Not until September, 1881, was the rulership of Abdur Rahman established over the whole of Afghanistan. The northern boundaries were determined by a joint commission of Russian and British officers. The Amir received large annual subsidies from the British government, subdued the warring tribes, and systematically collected taxation. A powerful central administration which could maintain order was set up. In October, 1901, Habibullah, the eldest son of Abdur Rahman, succeeded to the rulership. He continued the policy of his father – that is to say, he followed the advice of the British government in external affairs, and particularly referred to the authorities in India all official Russian communications. Yet the treaty of March, 1905, conceded a certain independence to Habibullah, and it was thought proper to provide him with opportunities of personal acquaintance with the Indian rulers. In August 1907, an Anglo-Russian convention was drawn up by which Great Britain disclaimed any intention of annexation or interference with the administration of Afghanistan, and promised that her influence should not be used in any manner which Russia could regard as menacing. Russia in return recognised that Afghanistan was outside her sphere of influence.

The war years were difficult. When Turkey threw her forces against the Allies, the anti-British party in Afghanistan awoke from their torpor. Was not Turkey the protagonist of Islam and the holder of the Caliphate? A Turco-German mission was sent to Kabul. Nevertheless Afghanistan remained loyal to her engagements. But in February 1919, Habibullah was assassinated. The present Amir Amanullah, who was not the heir, forced his way to the throne, and proclaimed the independence of his country. There was short but severe fighting – known as the third Afghan war – in which the British employed aeroplanes over Kabul. Eventually a treaty was signed, in August 1919, which annulled the annual subsidy to the Amir, but released Afghanistan from Great Britain’s control of foreign relations. A friendly treaty signed in November 1921, definitely re-established peace and accorded full sovereign rights to Afghanistan.

It should be noted, however, that there was controversy over an Afghan agreement with Russia by which Russia might establish consulates in districts which the British felt to be jumping-off grounds for Russian propaganda on the Indian frontier. There have been minor crises since that date, and Russian designs have been looked upon with apprehension in official circles. Yet, on the whole, satisfactory relations have been built up, and independent Afghanistan has admitted foreign legations to Kabul, and has sent ministers to Teheran, Angora, and the great European capitals.

Such arc the elements of the extremely interesting situation which is brought vividly to our attention by the European tour of the Afghan sovereigns. It is not surprising that each country which the Amir visits hails him with apparent enthusiasm, and doubtless asks itself in what way diplomatic use may be made of a masterful man who has shown audacity and skill. There was, not long ago, an unpleasant, not to say perilous, incident between Italy and Afghanistan, but Italy has received the Amir with exceptional honours. Italy was the first – as Russia will be the last – European power with which the Amir on the present tour is knitting personal relations. The French claim that their culture is most profoundly felt in Afghanistan, and they are arranging a series of fetes for the king and queen. I read in the lllustration, for example:

Assuredly it is France that Amanullah Khan chiefly wishes to see. French is the only Western language that he knows perfectly. In Italy, outside the discourses pronounced in Persian – for Persian is the official language of Afghanistan – he spoke in French. If he has called to his kingdom engineers and technicians of all countries – Germans, Russians, Poles – the French have always had the better part – and it is one of our compatriots, the architect, Andre Godard, that he has asked for plans of the new and grandiose capital of Dar-ul-Aman which is to replace Kabul.

In Paris he will find his son, who is a pupil at the Lycée Janson-de-Sailly. A younger brother of the king and a brother-in-law attended the military school of Saint-Cyr. There are at Paris members of the French archaeological mission which has undertaken interesting researches in Afghanistan. There is the director of the French college of Kabul. A French firm is to complete the installation of a “wireless” post that will link Kabul with other countries. A Frenchman is to organise the telegraphic, the telephonic, and the postal services. These facts are emphasised, and many others of a similar character are cited. The private secretary of Amanullah was educated in France, and in his suite are former Ministers of Afghanistan at Paris. The Queen Sourya is the daughter of Mahmoud Tarzi, minister of Foreign Affairs, who represented Afghanistan at Paris from 1921 to 1924. I mention these matters because they seem to me to have more than a personal gossipy interest. They serve to indicate that in the new Afghanistan, British influence can no longer be regarded as exclusive. The French claims are on all fours with the claims of other European countries. The other day I had a conversation with an official spokesman of the Russian Government who asserted that Russia too has a conspicuous part to play in the development of the bordering state.

Undoubtedly Afghanistan, under its present ruler, is being opened up to European civilisation. Amanulla is engaged in a task which may be compared to that of Mustapha Kemal in Turkey, or of Riza Khan Pahlavi in Persia. Afghanistan was a backward country. It is becoming a modern state. Its road communications have been transformed. There is a well-trained army. There are excellent schools. The metric system was recently adopted. In the centre of Asia what is almost a new country is in process of birth – or, at least, the old country is being metamorphosed. In Afghanistan, as in other lands, the emancipation of women is one of the most notable signs of Eastern changes. Some of the schemes for female education are accepted with deep regret by the conservative Afghans. Amanullah is himself monogamous and encourages his subjects to take only one spouse. The queen accompanies him in his automobile excursions. She wears European clothes, though in public she is usually veiled. She has especially devoted herself to a school for girls in Kabul where there are 800 pupils. As may be imagined, the traditionalists resist these innovations.

But Amanullah is unquestionably a ruler of strong character. He has definite ideas and ambitions. He imposes his views with an iron band. Neither force nor cajolery may be unintelligently practised against him. It would be well for Great Britain to realise the problems that arise from the altered status of Afghanistan, which brings the Amir to Europe, and arouses in European capitals a remarkable interest, diplomatic, cultural, and economic, as to the future of his country. The forthcoming visit of the Amir to London furnishes an opportunity that is not to be lost for further study of the awakening East.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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