Afghanistan is a land-locked country of Western Asia, bounded on the West by Iran and on the South and East by Pakistan. To the North lie three of the republics of former Soviet Central Asia – Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. To the North-East is a long pan-handle only 10 miles wide that extends all the way to Sinkiang in China, through the mountain passes of the Hindu Kush at an altitude of 14,500 feet, to the almost impenetrable snowfields of Sarikol. With an area of 251,825 square miles (652,225 sq. km) Afghanistan is almost three times the size of the UK, but with a population of only 25 million.
During World War I the Amir of Afghanistan, Habibullah, intrigued with the Turks (whose caliphate he recognised as the supreme Islamic authority) and even briefly permitted a German military mission. His assassination in 1919, and the succession of his anti-British nephew Amanullah, exacerbated the situation. In May that year he attempted to win the favour of his subjects by declaring war on Britain and India, with disastrous results. Troops were sent through the Khyber Pass and, for the first time in Afghan history, aircraft were used to bomb the rebellious tribesmen into submission. Amanullah sued for peace, which was negotiated at Rawalpindi in August. Under the terms of the treaty, he lost the British subsidy which had been paid to his predecessors, but gained more independence.
Amanullah gained immense prestige, and popularity, with his subjects by his skilful negotiations with the leading foreign powers. He introduced a wide range of reforms, aimed at bringing his people into the 20th century.
Amanullah’s reforming zeal soon fell foul of the ultra-conservative Southern tribes, and a rebellion erupted in 1925 which the Amir’s newly-created Western-style army was stretched to the limit. The cost of suppressing the uprising depleted the state treasury and led to further instability which, over the ensuing three years, spread over the entire country.
In 1928 Amanullah went on an extended tour of Europe and the Near East, and shortly after his return in June he announced several decrees to revolutionise the country. But his plans to emancipate and educate women caused his downfall. A rebellion, instigated by the Ayatollahs, spread like wildfire and, in January 1929, Amanullah was forced to flee.
Kabul surrendered to a brigand named Baccha-I-Saqao (‘son of the water-carrier’) who assumed the name, and title, of Amir Habibullah. For several months he and his thugs controlled Kabul and the surrounding countryside, and even for a time extended their rule to Herat, the second city.
After nine months of terror and mis-rule Habibullah was defeated in battle by Sirdar Nadir Shah, and executed in October 1929. The victor now assumed the title of Ala’ Hazrat (King). Nadir Shah was descended from the younger brother of Dost Mohamed and was a distant cousin of the exiled Amanullah. He had fallen out with his cousin in 1924, and had fled into exile in France. Following Amanullah’s flight, he had returned to Afghanistan and other dissident elements among the hill tribes had flocked to his ranks.
He took power with no organised army, a bankrupt treasury, a divided country and Herat as virtually a separate state. Nadir Shah strove energetically to restore order, rebuild an army, and suppress rebellions. In this he was assisted by the British government, which supplied arms, cash and technical assistance. In 1932 an attempted coup to restore Amanullah was foiled and its leaders executed. Just as Afghanistan was recovering from this traumatic period Nadir Shah was assassinated in November 1933.
He was succeeded by his 19-year-old son Mohamed Zahir Shah. He was educated in Paris and had served as Assistant Minister for National Defence, and Minister of Education, before succeeding to the throne. This was the beginning of the longest reign in Afghan history – a period which brought the country stability and a measure of prosperity it hadn’t known before. Zahir Shah was mainly concerned to preserve his country’s neutrality. He believed in gradual modernisation, but a failure to introduce and maintain proper democratic principles fuelled the resentment of the westernised upper classes.
His introduction of a constitutional monarchy in 1964 alienated the Islamic fundamentalists. In July 1973, while in Rome, he was overthrown by his cousin, General Daud Khan, who blamed Afghanistan’s three-year drought and famine on Zahir’s mis-rule. Zahir Shah formally abdicated on August 24 that year.
Stamps for the King
Relatively few stamps portrayed the King. In the early years of his reign the few Royal portrait stamps depicted his late father, and it wasn’t until 1939 that Zahir Shah appeared on the 1, 2 and 3 afghani high values. His next appearance was in 1948, on a stamp marking the third anniversary of the United Nations, but the portrait is tiny. Three different portraits of the now-balding monarch graced the high values of the 1951 definitives. In 1960 a stamp marked his 46th birthday and from 1963 onwards this became an annual issue. Some of the last birthday stamps, which had the King’s portrait in a panel on the left, were re-issued after his overthrow with the panel torn or cut off.
For almost 30 years Zahir Shah resided in exile in Rome, watching the disintegration of his native land. Over the years he became an increasingly popular symbol of national unity, drawing support from all of the more moderate factions and opposition groups. On several previous occasions overtures were made to him about returning to Afghanistan to restore stability, but only last year did this become practical. Now aged 88, Mohamed Zahir Shah returned to Kabul last year, almost 70 years since he first came to the throne.