From Nadir Shah's death in 1747 until the communist coup of April 1978, Afghanistan was governed--at least nominally--by Pashtun rulers from the Abdali group of clans. Indeed, it was under the leadership of the first Pashtun ruler, Ahmad Shah, that the nation of Afghanistan began to take shape following centuries of fragmentation and exploitation. Even before the death of Nadir Shah, tribes in the Hindu Kush had been growing stronger and were beginning to take advantage of the waning power of their distant rulers. Two lineage groups within the Abdali ruled Afghanistan from 1747 until the downfall of the monarchy in the 1970s--the Sadozai of the Popalzai tribe, and the Muhammadzai of the Barakzai tribe.
In 1747 Ahmad Shah and his Abdali horsemen joined the chiefs of the Abdali tribes and clans near Qandahar to choose a leader. Despite being younger than other claimants, Ahmad had several overriding factors in his favor. He was a direct descendant of Sado, eponym of the Sadozai; he was unquestionably a charismatic leader and seasoned warrior who had at his disposal a trained, mobile force of several thousand cavalrymen; and he possessed part of Nadir Shah's treasury.
One of Ahmad Shah's first acts as chief was to adopt the title "Durr-i-Durrani" ("pearl of pearls" or "pearl of the age"), which may have come from a dream or from the pearl earrings worn by the royal guard of Nadir Shah. The Abdali Pashtuns were known thereafter as the Durrani.
Ahmad Shah began by capturing Ghazni from the Ghilzai Pashtuns, and then wresting Kabul from the local ruler. In 1749 the Mughal ruler ceded sovereignty over Sindh Province and the areas of northern India west of the Indus to Ahmad Shah in order to save his capital from Afghan attack. Ahmad Shah then set out westward to take possession of Herat, which was ruled by Nadir Shah's grandson, Shah Rukh. Herat fell to Ahmad after almost a year of siege and bloody conflict, as did Mashhad (in present-day Iran). Ahmad next sent an army to subdue the areas north of the Hindu Kush. In short order, the powerful army brought under its control the Turkmen, Uzbek, Tajik, and Hazara tribes of northern Afghanistan (see Ethnic Groups, ch. 2). Ahmad invaded India a third, then a fourth, time, taking control of the Punjab, Kashmir, and the city of Lahore. Early in 1757, he sacked Delhi, but permitted the Mughal Dynasty to remain in nominal control as long as the ruler acknowledged Ahmad's suzerainty over the Punjab, Sindh, and Kashmir. Leaving his second son Timur in charge, Ahmad left India to return to Afghanistan.
The collapse of Mughal control in India, however, also facilitated the rise of rulers other than Ahmad Shah. In the Punjab, the Sikhs were becoming a potent force. From their capital at Pune, the Marathas, Hindus who controlled much of western and central India, were beginning to look northward to the decaying Mughal empire, which Ahmad Shah now claimed by conquest. Upon his return to Qandahar in 1757, Ahmad faced Maratha attacks which succeeded in ousting Timur and his court in India.
Ahmad Shah declared an Islamic holy war against the Marathas, and warriors from various Pashtun tribes, as well as other tribes such as the Baloch, answered his call. Early skirmishes ended in victory for the Afghans, and by 1759 Ahmad and his army had reached Lahore. By 1760 the Maratha groups had coalesced into a great army. Once again Panipat was the scene of a confrontation between two warring contenders for control of northern India. The Battle of Panipat in 1761 between Muslim and Hindu armies who numbered as many as 100,000 troops each was fought along a twelve-kilometer front. Despite decisively defeating the Marathas, what might have been Ahmad Shah's peaceful control of his domains was disrupted by other challenges.
The victory at Panipat was the high point of Ahmad Shah's--and Afghan--power. Afterward, even prior to his death, the empire began to unravel. By the end of 1761, the Sikhs had gained power and taken control of much of the Punjab. In 1762 Ahmad Shah crossed the passes from Afghanistan for the sixth time to subdue the Sikhs. He assaulted Lahore and, after taking their holy city of Amritsar, massacred thousands of Sikh inhabitants, destroying their temples and desecrating their holy places with cow's blood. Within two years the Sikhs rebelled again. Ahmad Shah tried several more times to subjugate the Sikhs permanently, but failed. By the time of his death, he had lost all but nominal control of the Punjab to the Sikhs, who remained in charge of the area until the British defeat in 1849.
Ahmad Shah also faced other rebellions in the north, and eventually he and the amir of Bukhara agreed that the Amu Darya would mark the division of their lands. In 1772 Ahmad Shah retired to his home in the mountains east of Qandahar, where he died. Ahmad Shah had succeeded to a remarkable degree in balancing tribal alliances and hostilities and in directing tribal energies away from rebellion. He earned recognition as Ahmad Shah Baba, or "Father" of Afghanistan (fig. _, Ahmad Shah Durrani's Empire, 1762).
By the time of Ahmad Shah's ascendancy, the Pashtuns included many groups whose origins were obscure; most were believed to have descended from ancient Aryan tribes, but some, such as the Ghilzai, may have once been Turks (see Ethnic Groups, ch. 2). They had in common, however, their Pashtu language. To the east, the Waziris and their close relatives, the Mahsuds, had lived in the hills of the central Suleiman Range since the fourteenth century. By the end of the sixteenth century and the final Turkish-Mongol invasions, tribes such as the Shinwaris, Yusufzais, and Mohmands had moved from the upper Kabul River Valley into the valleys and plains west, north, and northeast of Peshawar. The Afridis had long been established in the hills and mountain ranges south of the Khyber Pass. By the end of the eighteenth century, the Durranis had blanketed the area west and north of Qandahar.
Ahmad Shah's successors governed so ineptly during a period of profound unrest that within fifty years of his death, Afghanistan was embroiled in a civil war. Many of the territories conquered with the help of Ahmad Shah's military skill fell to others in this half century. By 1818 the Sadozai rulers who succeeded Ahmad Shah controlled little more than Kabul and the surrounding territory within a 160-kilometer radius. They not only lost the outlying territories but also alienated other tribes and lineages among the Durrani Pashtuns.
After the death of Ahmad Shah's successor, Timur, the three strongest contenders for the position of shah were Timur's sons, the governors of Qandahar, Herat, and Kabul. Muhammad Zeman, governor of Kabul, was in the most commanding position and became shah at the age of twenty-three. His half-brothers accepted this only by force majeure--upon being imprisoned on their arrival in the capital for the purpose, ironically, of electing a new shah. The quarrels among Timur's descendants that threw Afghanistan into turmoil also provided the pretext for the intervention of outside forces.
The efforts of the Sadozai heirs of Timur to impose a true monarchy on the truculent Pashtun tribes and to rule absolutely and without the advice of the other, larger Pashtun tribes' leaders were ultimately unsuccessful. The Sikhs too, were particularly troublesome, and after several unsuccessful efforts to subdue them, Zeman made the mistake of appointing a forceful young Sikh chief, Ranjit Singh, as his governor in the Punjab. The "one-eyed" warrior would later become an implacable enemy of Pashtun rulers in Afghanistan.
Zeman's downfall was triggered by his attempts to consolidate power. Although it had been through the support of the Muhammadzai chief, Painda Khan, that he had come to the throne, Zeman soon began to remove prominent Muhammadzai leaders from positions of power and replacing them with men of his own lineage, the Sadozai. This upset the delicate balance of Durrani tribal politics that Ahmad Shah had established and may have prompted Painda Khan and other Durrani chiefs to plot against the shah. Painda Khan and the chiefs of the Nurzai and the Alizai Durrani clans were executed, as was the chief of the Qizilbash clan. Painda Khan's son fled to Iran and pledged the substantial support of his Muhammadzai followers to a rival claimant to the throne, Zeman's older brother, Mahmud. The clans of the chiefs Zeman had executed joined forces with the rebels, and they took Qandahar without bloodshed.
Zeman's overthrow in 1800 was not the end of civil strife in Afghanistan but the beginning of even greater violence. Shah Mahmud reigned for a mere three years before being replaced by yet another of Timur Shah's sons, Shuja, who ruled for only six years, from 1803 to 1809. On June 7, 1809, Shuja signed a Treaty of Friendship with the British which included a clause stating that he would oppose the passage of foreign troops through his territories. This agreement, the first Afghan pact with a European power, stipulated joint action in case of Franco-Persian aggression against Afghan or British dominions. Only a few weeks after signing the agreement, Shuja was deposed by his predecessor, Mahmud, whose second reign lasted nine years, until 1818. Mahmud alienated the Muhammadzai, especially Fateh Khan, the son of Painda Khan, who was eventually seized and blinded. Revenge would later be sought and obtained by Fateh Khan's youngest brother, Dost Mohammad.
From 1818 until Dost Mohammad's ascendancy in 1826, chaos reigned in the domains of Ahmad Shah Durrani's empire as various sons of Painda Khan struggled for supremacy. Afghanistan ceased to exist as a single nation, disintegrating for a brief time into a fragmented collection of small units, each ruled by a different Durrani leader.