Afghanistan in 1900s

The 20th century was a tumultuous period for Afghanistan, marked by significant political, social, and economic transformations. From the end of the monarchy to the Soviet invasion and the rise of the Taliban, Afghanistan experienced a series of upheavals that shaped its modern history.

1. Early 20th Century:

At the dawn of the 20th century, Afghanistan was a relatively isolated and impoverished country, ruled by the Pashtun monarchy of the Durrani Empire. Abdur Rahman Khan, known as the “Iron Amir,” had established centralized control over the country, but Afghanistan remained largely undeveloped and politically fragile.

British Influence and the Great Game:

According to extrareference, Afghanistan’s strategic location between the British Indian Empire and the Russian Empire made it a focal point of the Great Game, a geopolitical rivalry between the two colonial powers. Britain sought to maintain Afghanistan as a buffer state to protect its interests in South Asia, while Russia sought to extend its influence into Central Asia.

Durand Line Agreement:

In 1893, the British and Afghan governments signed the Durand Line Agreement, establishing the boundary between British India and Afghanistan. The Durand Line, named after British diplomat Sir Mortimer Durand, divided Pashtun tribal territories and became a source of contention between Afghanistan and British India.

2. Reforms and Modernization Efforts:

In the early 20th century, Afghanistan embarked on a series of reforms and modernization efforts under King Amanullah Khan, who came to power in 1919 after the Third Anglo-Afghan War. Amanullah sought to modernize Afghanistan’s institutions, economy, and society, drawing inspiration from Western models of governance and development.

Reforms: Amanullah implemented a range of reforms, including the abolition of slavery, secularization of education, and introduction of constitutional monarchy. He also initiated infrastructure projects, such as road construction and telecommunication networks, to improve connectivity and communication across the country.

Challenges and Resistance: Amanullah’s reforms faced opposition from conservative religious leaders, tribal chiefs, and segments of Afghan society resistant to change. The Khost rebellion of 1924 and the uprising led by Bacha-i-Saqao in 1929 highlighted the challenges of implementing reforms in a deeply traditional and fragmented society.

3. Decline of the Monarchy and External Pressures:

Despite initial enthusiasm for reform, Amanullah’s ambitious modernization agenda faced growing opposition and internal unrest. The king’s attempts to centralize power, impose secular reforms, and assert Afghan independence drew backlash from conservative forces and regional power brokers.

Anglo-Afghan Treaty of 1921: Amanullah’s efforts to renegotiate the Anglo-Afghan Treaty of 1919, which recognized Afghanistan’s independence but maintained British control over its foreign affairs, strained relations with Britain. The treaty’s revision failed to secure full Afghan sovereignty, exacerbating anti-British sentiment.

1929 Coup and Civil War: In 1929, Amanullah was overthrown in a coup led by Habibullah Kalakani, also known as Bacha-i-Saqao, plunging Afghanistan into a period of civil war and instability. Bacha-i-Saqao’s regime was short-lived, and in 1929, he was ousted by Mohammad Nadir Shah, who restored stability and established a new monarchy.

4. Mohammad Zahir Shah and Era of Stability:

Mohammad Zahir Shah, the grandson of Nadir Shah, ascended to the throne in 1933 and ruled Afghanistan for nearly five decades, making him the longest-reigning monarch in Afghan history. Zahir Shah’s reign, often referred to as the “Golden Age,” was characterized by relative stability, economic development, and social progress.

Modernization and Infrastructure: During Zahir Shah’s reign, Afghanistan witnessed modest modernization efforts, including investments in education, healthcare, and infrastructure. The king promoted policies aimed at expanding access to education, modernizing the judicial system, and improving public services.

Foreign Relations: Zahir Shah pursued a policy of neutrality and non-alignment in international affairs, seeking to balance relations with neighboring countries, as well as global powers such as the United States and the Soviet Union. Afghanistan received economic and military assistance from both Western and Eastern blocs, maintaining a delicate diplomatic balance.

5. Cold War Dynamics and Soviet Influence:

Afghanistan’s geopolitical position made it vulnerable to external pressures and influences during the Cold War era. The rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, along with regional dynamics, shaped Afghanistan’s internal politics and foreign relations.

Soviet Influence: The Soviet Union sought to expand its influence in Afghanistan through economic assistance, military aid, and cultural exchanges. Soviet advisors and experts played a significant role in advising Afghan governments on modernization projects, military training, and strategic planning.

Communist Coup and Saur Revolution: In 1978, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), a communist political party, seized power in a coup known as the Saur Revolution. The PDPA’s rise to power triggered internal divisions, social unrest, and armed resistance from conservative and Islamist factions, leading to a protracted civil war.

6. Soviet Invasion and Afghan Resistance:

In December 1979, the Soviet Union intervened militarily in Afghanistan to support the communist government and suppress the insurgency. The Soviet invasion, which aimed to stabilize Afghanistan and prop up the pro-Soviet regime, instead fueled widespread opposition and armed resistance.

Mujahideen Resistance: Afghan resistance fighters, known as mujahideen, waged a guerrilla war against Soviet and Afghan government forces, receiving support from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and other countries. The mujahideen’s resilience and determination to defend Afghan independence and sovereignty galvanized popular support and international solidarity.

Humanitarian Crisis: The Soviet-Afghan War resulted in a humanitarian crisis, with millions of Afghans displaced internally or forced to flee as refugees to neighboring countries. The conflict inflicted immense human suffering, destruction of infrastructure, and loss of life, leaving a lasting impact on Afghan society and economy.

7. Rise of the Taliban and Civil War:

Amid the chaos of civil war and Soviet withdrawal, the Taliban emerged as a powerful force in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Composed largely of Pashtun students (Taliban means “students” in Pashto), the movement initially aimed to restore order, enforce Islamic law, and end lawlessness and corruption.

Taliban Rule: By 1996, the Taliban had captured Kabul and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, imposing its strict interpretation of Sharia law and instituting harsh social restrictions, particularly on women and religious minorities. The Taliban’s rule was marked by human rights abuses, cultural vandalism, and international isolation.

Civil War and Fragmentation: Afghanistan descended into a devastating civil war among rival mujahideen factions, warlords, and ethnic militias, vying for power and control. The collapse of the communist government in 1992 further exacerbated the disintegration of state institutions, leading to factional infighting and chaos.


In conclusion, Afghanistan in the 1900s witnessed a series of transformations, from the end of the monarchy to the rise of the Taliban and the devastating impact of external interventions, including the Soviet invasion. The 20th century was a period of political upheaval, social change, and armed conflict, as Afghanistan struggled to navigate its path towards modernization and stability.

Throughout the century, Afghanistan grappled with the legacy of colonialism, the challenges of state-building, and the complexities of regional geopolitics. The country’s strategic location, situated at the crossroads of Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East, made it a battleground for competing imperial interests and geopolitical rivalries.

Despite periods of progress and relative stability, such as during the reign of King Zahir Shah, Afghanistan faced persistent challenges, including ethnic tensions, tribal rivalries, and external interference. The Soviet invasion and subsequent civil war unleashed a wave of violence, displacement, and suffering, leaving deep scars on Afghan society and economy.

The rise of the Taliban in the 1990s further plunged Afghanistan into turmoil, as the militant group imposed its draconian version of Islamic law, leading to widespread human rights abuses and international condemnation. The Taliban’s rule exacerbated ethnic and sectarian divisions, exacerbating internal conflicts and fueling regional instability.

As Afghanistan enters the 21st century, it continues to grapple with the legacies of its turbulent past, including the ongoing threat of terrorism, insurgency, and political instability. Efforts to achieve peace, reconciliation, and development remain elusive, as Afghanistan navigates the complex challenges of post-conflict reconstruction and nation-building.

Despite the daunting obstacles ahead, Afghanistan’s resilient people have demonstrated resilience and determination to rebuild their country and chart a path towards a more prosperous and peaceful future. International support, diplomatic engagement, and Afghan-led initiatives will be essential for overcoming the country’s myriad challenges and realizing the aspirations of peace, stability, and development for all Afghans.