Unknown Afghanistan


I SUPPOSE that of all the dreams that haunt travelers the fairest is to find an undiscovered country. Even the tourist prides himself above all things on getting off the beaten track. If a man go no farther from his home than to visit the next county he will find pleasure in following some scarce visible footpath through the woods, and in pretending to himself that he is a discoverer, voyaging as he did in childhood into some mysterious unknown land where trees and sky, man and beast, custom, commerce, and food are magical with newness and dowered with the unspeakable power of romance and faëry.

Much virtue lies in the quest. Nearly all civilized men and women pursue it in the measure of their opportunity, whether that opportunity come to them but in a day’s travel from their own home, or in the gorgeous dreams they find between the covers of printed books in which Robert Louis Stevenson, or some other literary anæsthetist, has precipitated imagination’s powerful drug. But one must count one’s self fortunate if, after many journeys undertaken not in the spirit but in the flesh, one reach the end of the quest and find even for a brief space the witchery turned to reality.

All this is by way of prelude to explain the feeling that possessed me some months ago when a quite ordinary Indian coolie handed me a yellow telegram in the frontier city of Peshawar. The telegram was from the Foreign and Political Department at Simla and said that His Majesty, — for since the Declaration of Independence in 1919 he has been translated from a Highness, — the Amir of Afghanistan, had that day in Kabul signified his pleasure that I should visit his country hitherto hermetically sealed against Europeans. As I looked at the telegram, its sprawling black lines on tawdry paper seemed to me the wispy stuff wherefrom romance is spun.

The opening of Afghanistan had begun a month or two before, when the first diplomats from Moscow and from Simla had arrived at the Court of the Amir. As yet no private person had set foot in Kabul. Moreover, there were no telegraph lines in Afghanistan; but by still more surprising magic the Amir’s wishes had reached me. For the British minister had thoughtfully taken up to Kabul with him from India a certain instrument, keyed in tune with another instrument in Simla, and had set up in Kabul town two tall poles connected by wire. By this surprising necromancy the Amir’s whisper in Kabul had been heard in Simla and flashed thence to me at Peshawar.


Bright and early, a few days later, I left Peshawar in the still cool dawn and set forth on the northwest road into the unknown in a modern fire chariot, made in America by busy factory workers, christened after the old English county of Essex, and shipped East of Suez to pursue relentlessly its mission of driving camels, mules, and hardy pack-ponies off the roads and tracks that for thousands of years they have made musical with sweet bells and gay with their trappings and blue beads and cunningly embroidered cloth. The road to Afghanistan runs through the Khyber Pass, famous in border song and story, the great gateway that guards at this point the northwest frontier of India, and the narrow channel through which Central Asia has in past time poured its warriors and to-day pours its wares into the plains of Hindustan. The Indian Government, which once found advantage in the impassableness of the Khyber, is now, for reasons best known to itself, building a marvelous railway right through it, up to the threshold of Afghanistan. The line winds along the heights that overhang the road, zigzags from side to side, and is forever vanishing into and reappearing from the blackness of tunnels. Gangs of coolies were laboring on it and from above displaced immense rocks which rolled crashing down the hillside, plunged into the roadway and, by God’s grace, missed hitting my car. It emerged safely from the bombardment, slid through Landikhana Camp at the western end of the Pass, and much barbed wire, and drew up short on the sacred frontier of Afghanistan. There are frontiers which travelers can cross without being aware of them, but this is not one of them. Barbed-wire trestles block the road, and on a great board is written in large hypnotic letters, in English: ‘It is absolutely forbidden to cross this border into Afghan territory.’

But every rule has an exception. Up came an Afghan and pulled the trestles aside; somebody evidently expected me. One soldier showed himself, jumped on the steps of the car, and signaled for it to move forward. Off we went into Afghanistan, with never a word said about passports. It was a gay spring morning, the snows had all melted from the road, and far away on the left hand Safeed Kuh, or White Mountain, showed its eternally snowy head, towering up some fifteen thousand feet into the shimmering sky. We spun along to Dakka without difficulty. Here I changed my soldier for an officer and set forth again upon a tolerable road for Jalalabad, which lies a hundred and twenty miles beyond the frontier. There I slept the night in a palace which, in winter, is a residence of the Amir, but was now bright with the trappings of spring. The gardens were bursting into blossom and all the trees alive with singing birds.

The evening passed with an interchange of formal calls with the Amir’s representatives in Jalalabad, and next morning, early, I set forth for Kabul on a road built apparently upon the Coué principle of every day getting better and better. For miles beyond Jalalabad it runs through shady avenues, but the greatest charm of the road lies in the people upon it and, by good fortune, there were many caravans on the move. The merchants and the merchandise of Central Asia lumbered past me on camels, mules, and ponies. The Bokharans were the brightest of all with their robes of crimson and gold and their little caps slashed into colored stripes. Most of the ladies were swathed in garments that came over their heads, covered their faces as with a mask, save for breathing spaces and eye-holes, and descended to their feet. From Jalalabad to Kabul the run is about a hundred and twenty miles.

Kabul has some fine houses, lit by electric light, and there is a factory with electric power where a variety of goods, including arms, are made. The names, dates, and factory-marks of European models are carefully copied by artisans who, of course, cannot read a word of European languages. Workers of all sorts in Afghanistan wear long robes and turbans. The Government employs a great deal of labor, which is organized on a military basis. Gangs of workmen are marched to and from their work upon the roads in military formation; the whole country resembles a private feudal estate. The Amir’s word alone counts.

The young Amir, Amanullah Khan, is one of the most important factors in the future of Central Asia. His father, the Amir Habibullah, was mysteriously shot dead while he slept in his tent, in March 1919. The murdered king’s brother, Nasrullah Khan, who was universally suspected of complicity in the assassination, proclaimed himself Amir and succeeded in forcing the rather weak-minded eldest son to stand aside. But Amanullah Khan, the third son, encouraged by the Queen Mother, Ulya Hazrat, opposed himself to Nasrullah, whom he accused of having murdered his father, and had the advantage of the Pretender that Nasrullah was unwisely at Jalalabad whereas Amanullah was in Kabul, where he placed himself at the head of the troops and took possession of the State Treasury. The troops in Jalalabad promptly followed the example of Kabul, made Nasrullah prisoner, and handed him over to Amanullah. The new Amir now not only stood forth as the avenger of his father’s murder, but by public proclamation he commended himself to the people as the champion of national independence.


Since Britain’s second Afghan War, in 1878, Afghanistan had been a closed country, possessing complete internal independence but carrying on her foreign relations with other countries by means of a British Indian Resident in Kabul who was the representative of the Government of India. No Englishman or any other European was allowed within the borders of the country; but Great Britain undertook the protection of all Afghan subjects and interests in foreign countries. During the World War, however, German and Turkish missions had penetrated the country and had made strenuous endeavors to seduce the late Amir from his neutrality and from his loyalty to his treaty with Great Britain. All such attempts had failed with Habibullah, but they had not failed with his Court or with the Afghan nobles and leaders of opinion. To these it had been successfully represented that no State could be truly independent so long as its foreign relations had to be conducted through another Power and that therefore, in effect, Afghanistan was enslaved by Great Britain for her own purposes. After the Russian revolution this teaching was still more vigorously spread by Russian agents.

The treaty made by Great Britain in 1878, and subsequently renewed by successive Amirs, had been designed solely to put an end to Russian intrigue in Afghanistan against the British position in India. The struggle for influence between the two Powers, Russia and Britain, was continuous and open in Persia, but Russia had secured for herself an exclusive position in the Central Asian khanates of Turkestan, and Great Britain felt it incumbent upon herself to check her diplomatic advance into Afghanistan. By the Anglo-Russian Agreement of 1907, Russia had finally acquiesced in this arrangement, but the Soviet Government sought to bring it into contempt as a pact between two imperialistic governments and, professing solicitude solely for Afghanistan, urged the repudiation of all alliance with Great Britain.

When Amanullah came to his murdered father’s throne, the country was in a state of great agitation. Intrigue and conspiracy were afoot against him in several quarters. He seemed to feel it necessary to take some decisive step which should rally the country to his banner. He wrote a letter to the Viceroy of India in which he announced his own accession and, at the same time, used vague language with regard to Afghanistan’s independent position. The letter reached the Viceroy when he had just finished writing his reply to a letter from the ‘wicked uncle,’ Nasrullah Khan, who had previously written announcing his accession as Amir. In Simla it began to look as if Amirs were coming thick and fast! The Viceroy took six weeks to think things over, and then wrote a polite letter to Amanullah wherein he congratulated him and expressed a hope for the continuance of the same entirely friendly relations as with his late father, and said nothing at all about Afghan independence.

It would perhaps have been well if the Viceroy could have seen his way to explain to the new prince, as was the fact, that at that very moment the Government of India was considering how it could most suitably show its gratitude toward Afghanistan for its loyal and very effective neutrality during the war, despite great pressure and inducement offered to depart from it, and was hesitating whether to show that gratitude by increasing its annual subsidy, or by continuing the old subsidy without any longer asking in return for it that Afghanistan should conduct its foreign relations through the Indian Foreign Office. Kabul was excited, and the young Amir was driven by political necessity. Without further consideration rash action was precipitated; troops were assembled at the Afghan end of the Khyber Pass; Indian territory was occupied, and without twenty-four hours’ warning India and the British Empire, to their intense surprise, suddenly found themselves engaged in the third Afghan War.

The war was soon over. The British marched to Dakka, and when an aeroplane dropped bombs on Kabul the Afghans realized that their action had been precipitate. By the end of the summer a peace was patched up at Missourie, a pleasant Indian hillstation; but it was not till the last days of 1921 that a formal treaty was signed in Kabul between Great Britain and Afghanistan.


Foreign policy is a difficult matter for the new independent State of Afghanistan, and for the young Amir. The old suspicions which Russia and Britain entertain of each other continue alive though soviets have succeeded tsars, and an Indian parliament sits in Delhi. Kabul, like Teheran, is the meeting-ground of the antagonists, and so great is their activity that Lord Curzon lately demanded from Moscow the recall of Mr. Raskolnikoff, the Russian agent in Kabul. Mr. Raskolnikoff, who was once a midshipman in the Tsar’s navy, and has the open face of a sailor, tells all the world what he told me in Kabul, that nothing would induce him to intrigue against Great Britain. However that may be, the fact is that the British Government has not believed Mr. Raskolnikoff’s protestations, and, whether he is an intriguer or not, he gets the credit of being one. In international politics the dog with a dog name is best left at home for a space, and Mr. Raskolnikoff has left Kabul.

Then there is the very troublesome Bokharan question. The Amir of Bokhara, a cousin of the Amir of Afghanistan, is a refugee at Kabul and a pensioner of his cousin. The Soviet Republic of Bokhara has a diplomatic minister and a Bokharan legation. The death of Enver Pasha, which took place in a battle in Bokhara, in August of last year, — it has often been denied, but the news is true, — was a setback to the anti-Soviet party; nevertheless, though the resistance of bands is now scattered, plots are continually on foot to expel the Bolsheviki from all the Central Asian khanates, and create a federation of Mussulman States of Turkestan in opposition to Moscow. Much of this plotting inevitably takes place on Afghan soil, and inevitably also the Turkomans seek to induce Afghanistan (and likewise Great Britain) to have part in it. That Afghanistan should put itself at the head of such a federation is continually suggested. So far, however, the Amir has succeeded in keeping himself clear of all these complications. His diplomatic corps is lengthening. In addition to the countries already named, France, Italy, China, and Persia have ministers at his Court, and Mr. Engert, lately American chargé-d’affaires in Teheran, has been to Kabul to make a preliminary report to the State Department on the subject of trade openings and diplomatic relations.

The Amir, at State expense, has sent a hundred Afghan students to European countries, principally France, to study Western science, more particularly mining and mechanical engineering, and mathematical sciences, for which the Afghans appear to have aptitude. Professor Foucher, the distinguished French authority on Buddhist art, has been given special facilities for archæological work, and hopes to have the privilege of excavating the wonderful treasures of Balkh, the far-famed but still unknown and mysterious lure that makes glow the thoughts of savants whenever Central Asia is mentioned.

Education in Afghanistan is as yet in an extremely primitive condition. Magic, the mediæval forerunner of science, is still supreme in the highest walks. Chemistry among the Afghans means alchemy, and the search for the philosophers’ stone and the elixir of life is unweariedly prosecuted. In neighboring countries there is a legend that the secret is preserved in Afghanistan, and many dervishes follow the example of the Persian in de Gobineau’s tale of L’Illustre Magicien, who was tracked by his disciple to a mysterious cavern near Kandahar. I have also met Persian mystics, seeking ‘the ancient wisdom, ‘ who told me of their belief that it was still to be found in Afghanistan, though others point to the High Pamir. It is not a little curious that the scientific wheel has come full circle, and that the first Afghan students who have come westward find European savants working hopefully in their laboratories at the old problems of transmutation of metals and the renewal of youth. The modern alchemist talks of disintegrating the atom, and the elixir of life has become ‘an internal secretion of the glands’; but plus cela change, plus c’est la même chose. And the Afghans are catching the modern way.

Schools are being opened up in considerable numbers, and the education in them is no longer entirely confined to the Koran. Most wonderful of all is the success of a girls’ school. At first all Kabul was aghast at this innovation, and, although education was offered free, few parents were found to send their daughters. Harem ladies had hitherto fulfilled their duties without the dangerous knowledge of letters, and it was not considered either right or proper that Eve should be reminded of that unhappy gift of knowledge which she herself had introduced to man and thereby cost him his Eden. But the Amir did not accept this boycott of progress. The Queen Mother became patroness of the new venture, and royal princesses became pupils. The parents of Kabul reconsidered the question and soon the new girls’ school was packed to overflowing with some thousand pupils.


At a dinner to which I was invited in the Afghan Foreign Office, I had the pleasure of meeting ministers and many of the official world. Dinner except for certain rice dishes was quite à la Faranghi, that is, in the European mode; but considerably more courses were served than are now usual in Europe. We sat in a long verandah open to the starry night, while in the garden a military band clad in tartan trews and a close imitation of British scarlet uniform marched up and down playing stirring music. Most unexpected of all were the Afghan pipers, a fine imitation of the real Scotch article, who made upon the bagpipes the true bloodcurdling sounds that all Scotchmen love and about which most Englishmen are polite. When the late Amir Habibullah visited India in 1907 the glamour of the pipes and the brave scarlet trappings of our military bands caught him. He took back to Kabul pipes, uniforms, and a bandmaster, and the good work has been carried on ever since.

Persian is the language of Kabul, and it was in Persian that we discoursed while the Afghan band played Scotch and Irish airs. Nearer the northwest frontier, Pashtu is the language of the people. The Amir speaks Persian, Turkish, and Pashtu, and it is in the last-named language that he talks with Colonel Humphreys, the minister who represents Great Britain for the first time in Afghanistan.

After dinner we drank tea which I was told came from ‘Kitai,’ in other words from ‘Far Cathay.’ Caravans carry it to Kabul across the leagues of Central Asia, through remote Kashgar and Turkestan. Real Eastern music was played after dinner. The musicians sat upon the floor and thrummed it from stringed instruments, bursting at intervals into fierce familiar melancholy-sounding song such as one hears in many parts of Asia. The success of the evening was a long eulogy of Amanullah Khan, the reigning Amir.

Finally I played bridge with Ministers. It was not auction but the older bridge, and had two features to me unusual. The first was that the dealer’s partner was not allowed to look at his hand until the dealer had decided whether to declare or to leave it to the partner. To allow the partner the possibility of betraying by his face whether he wishes the declaration left to him or not is considered to be trying human nature too far in Afghanistan. The second feature was that a junior diplomat was detailed to keep the score and stood impassively behind our chairs throughout the game. A human marker at bridge struck me as a very odd and Oriental idea at first, but after all I suppose it is no queerer than to have a living billiard-marker.

We played for ‘love.’ The outward observances of Islam are strictly kept in Afghanistan. We neither gambled nor did we have wine at dinner.