Habibullah Kalakani is a character from Afghan history whose life reads like an adventure film. Spanning the roles of bandit, soldier, rebel and finally king, his impact on Afghan history is undeniable, even though he is sometimes dismissed as a side note or aberration.
Born in the 1890s in a rural Tajik village north of Kabul, he left home as a teenager after burning down the home of a hated teacher. He then took up with an older bandit in the region, before eventually drifting to Peshawar where he gambled and possibly ran a teahouse. Unable to support himself in this way, he then enlisted in the modernizing Afghan Army. Desertion was a common problem for the army, and it didn’t take long for him to resume a life of banditry in his home district again.
It was as a bandit that he first experienced real success, gathering a large band around him and gaining control over the narrow mountain passes that ran from the capital to the cities of Mazar-e Sharif, Samarkand, Dushanbe and Bokhara. Although not exactly respectable, he became both respected and feared as the leader of hundreds of men. His chief rival in the region was a man named Sharfuddin, known as the “King of the Passes.” Habibullah Kalakani established his primacy by conducting a sneak attack on Sharfuddin’s village, killing all the male inhabitants and parading Sharfuddin’s head on a stake.
Afghanistan’s ruler, Amanullah Amir, had sent the Army to capture Habibullah numerous times, but in every case he humiliated them instead. During one of the last expeditions against him, he managed to capture two machineguns and over forty thousand rounds of ammunition. With this equipment and his growing fame, in 1929 Habibullah raised a force of over two thousand men and began to threaten the capital. He did his best to spread terror and confusion, such as by cutting all the telegraph cables that lead out of the city, and damaging the power plant at Jabal-us Seraj. He received information about the Army’s movements from at least two high level government officials who he regularly bribed.
Amanullah Amir, beset by many threats to his throne, abdicated in favour of his brother Inyatullah and fled the capital. Inyatullah, left holding the bag, tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with Habibullah. But when word of Amanullah’s flight reached the Army, it quickly began to evaporate, soldiers either joining the rebels or simply returning home. Inyatullah wished for an immediate end to the fighting, and with neither an army nor a treasury to support his claim, offered the only thing he could: the throne. Habibullah Kalakani accepted, giving Inyatullah a promise of safety, and with the Amir’s emissaries as his honoured guests, he entered the city triumphantly. The very same courtiers who had just pledged allegiance to Inyatullah only days before now did the same to “Habibullah Amir,” their new ruler.
Seated Uneasily on the Throne
Habibullah Kalakani and his men were famously unsophisticated in the eyes of the residents of Kabul. He was given the derisive nickname “Bacha-e Saqqao,” which means “son of a water carrier,” an indicator of his humble origins. This is the name by which he is often referred to by history.
According to the Kabuli’s whose records of the capital’s occupation still survive, Habibullah Kalakani and his men were overwhelmed with the luxury to be had in the palace, where they saw their first bathtubs and European furniture. Habibullah Kalakani’s deputy was a man named Malik Mohsin, who was physically imposing even at the age of seventy, and distinguished as a major land owner in Kalakan. During their first night in the palace, Habibullah Kalakani tricked Malik Mohsin into sleeping on a billiard table, convincing him that it was a special bed for distinguished guests, and that the cover was an expensive blanket. It is also said that they mistook a water closet for the dining room, and ate soup out of Amanullah’s porcelain chamber pot. Regardless of his upbringing or sophistication, Habibullah Kalakani was the first non-Pashtun to claim the Afghan throne since the beginning of the Durrani empire in 1747.
Habibullah Kalakani’s men did not form a new government in the modern sense, but instead ruled in an informal way. Although he never stated so explicitly, Habibullah Kalakani’s long lasting effect on how power was wielded in Afghanistan was to negate the central government, reverting to a form of society that predates the very idea of a state. This reflected the reality in many corners of the country where the central state’s influence was weak to begin with, but did not create a stable enough system that it would last for long.
Habibullah Kalakani claims in his autobiography that when he took the capital he found the treasury empty. Amanullah likewise claims that he did not steal it when he fled. It seems unlikely that Amanullah would leave the capital empty-handed, but equally improbable that he would leave his brother on the throne with nothing. Whatever the true circumstances, the Bacha immediately rounded up all of the capital’s money-lenders, and extorted an exorbitant amount of money from them by cutting off the thumb of one of their leaders. Habibullah Kalakani also closed all schools, libraries and the Royal Museum, and sold every piece of property he could, trying to cut costs and raise funds at the same time. In short, Habibullah Kalakani’s arrival brought little more than chaos and fear.
In terms of Habibullah Kalakani’s ruling philosophy, he explained it thusly: “I had seen too much of Amanullah’s court to have any respect for too much learning or for courtly manners, as such. Indeed, I distrusted those who were learned of the arts. I could neither read nor write, and I had found it no handicap. I could hire for a few rupees those who had assimilated the ways of the pen, and I determined that my Cabinet should be one of action.” He immediately abolished the ministries of Trade, Health, Education and Justice. His court became one of personality and discussion, a much older system of governance that Afghanistan had only recently escaped. Malik Mohsin was appointed the Governor of Kabul, although he seems to have focused largely on organizing the systematic looting of the city.
Ongoing Civil War
Despite his victory, Habibullah Kalakani’s position on the throne wasn’t secure, as there were multiple competing claimants to the throne, including Amanullah who decided to attempt to regain power. Among the many contenders was also Amanullah’s cousin, Nadir Khan, a skillful general and politician with good relations with many tribal leaders.
For the better part of the year, fighting occurred across the country, as tribes alternately backed and betrayed the various candidates attempting to seize power. Large numbers of civilians were killed in the fighting and looting that characterized the conflict, and most of the combatants were themselves civilians enticed into the fighting by the offer of plunder.
In March, Nadir Khan wrote a letter to the Bacha, which read in part:
As for now, O victorious brother, I express only feelings of goodwill, but do not depend on these lasting. I advise you to end the bloodshed among Muslims and the destruction of Afghanistan. The illustrious Pashtun tribes…will not leave the reins of government in the hands of our brother. If our brother wishes to continue to have some power then I would guarantee him the post of caravan leader and will do my best to help him achieve success.
Habibullah Kalakani first wrote a temperate reply to the insulting letter, claiming to agree to bend to the will of shari’a, but was convinced by the ulema and courtiers who were advising him to take a different tack. They had several members of Nadir Khan’s family, who were still resident in Kabul, summoned to the palace. These family members were then forced to write a letter that read:
We, both men and women, know the respect that Amir Habibullah Khan feels for you. We enjoy full health and peace of mind now, but if you refuse the honour of being received by him then we face destruction.
As a means to be ready to make good on the threat, an inventory of Nadir Khan’s housed belongings was made, and both his wife and the wives of his brothers (all of whom were also sisters of Amanullah) were placed under house arrest.
Within the capital, Habibullah Kalakani’s control was slipping. Repeated episodes of looting and arbitrary arrests created an atmosphere of anarchy, so much so, that even the city’s governor was publicly caned on two occasions for theft. The cost of food rose exponentially, and price controls put in place by Habibullah Kalakani only worsened its availability, as merchants would not sell at a loss. Habibullah Kalakani’s brother, Hamidullah, became well-known in the city. A former wedding dancer and bandit, he was given the title of the “King’s Helper.” He led many of the raids to gain loot in the city, as well as raping and killing with impunity. When butchers in the city were caught selling cuts of meat with too much bone, Hamidullah solved the problem by selecting six of them to be publicly caned and then nailed through their ears to stakes in the market. Unsurprisingly, these policies did nothing to improve the city’s economy.
Habibullah Kalakani also tried “minting” coins in leather to create the money he needed to pay his soldiers, but public confidence was so low that both currencies were rejected. He had exempted many of his supporters from paying taxes as a means to gain their support, and without expanding his control of the country beyond the capital and his own homeland to the north, he was forced into an endless cycle of looting to make ends meet.
All of the powers vying for the throne made efforts to use propaganda to build their case and undercut the legitimacy of their rivals. The arguments they used were largely religious, couching their rejection of each other in the language of jihad. The most effective propaganda was likely spread orally, either through the networks of village mullahs or through rumours in the bazaar. One of the most widespread rumours was directed at Amanullah’s wife, who allegedly rode naked in a motor car through Europe. The rumours said that photographs of her were circulating amongst the population, although it seemed that while everyone had heard of them, no one had actually seen any. Regardless, the rumour was believed by many who heard it, furthering the idea that Amanullah and his family were not true Muslims.
Habibullah Kalakani also used aircraft captured from Amanullah, and piloted by expatriate Russians, to drop leaflets over the tribal areas. A copy of one of the leaflets reads in part:
In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate! A government proclamation. May it be known to brother Muslims in the Eastern and Southern Provinces! Information about the cowardly and treacherous activity of Field Marshal Nadir proves that he has shown himself to be an infidel…trying to divide Muslim from Muslim…Anyone who brings Nadir in alive will be paid forty thousand rupees. Thirty thousand rupees, a rifle and ammunition will go to anyone who brings in his head.
Fighting seesawed back and forth across the country for months, but by September an army led by Nadir Khan and his brothers advanced towrds Kabul along multiple fronts, splitting the Habibullah Kalakani’s attention and straining his already limited resources. Isolated in the centre of the country, he was slowly pushed back even though his forces won a number of local victories. By early October, the fighting was taking place on the outskirts of Kabul, and soon the entire city was under siege.
The End of his Reign
Habibullah Kalakani and his closest followers took refuge in the palace known as the Arg, bringing hostages with them to use to bargain for their lives. To prove his murderous intent, Habibullah Kalakani murdered two half-brothers of Amanullah, and threatened to do the same with the members of Nadir Khan’s family who were within his grasp. Allegedly, the hostages smuggled a letter to Nadir Khan out of the Arg, begging him not to bargain for their lives, but instead to defeat Habibullah Kalakani decisively.
Nadir Khan’s troops bombarded the Arg for several days, but Habibullah Kalakani and Malik Mohsin slipped over the walls one night and escaped back to their homes on stolen camels, where they hoped their kinsmen would shelter and protect them. Nadir Khan sent a communique telling the local population that to aid Habibullah Kalakani in any way would invite retribution. It is said that people avoided angering Nadir Khan by leaving food and water out in the hills every night, “for anyone to partake of.” After only four days on the run, both men surrendered themselves to Nadir Khan, receiving a guarantee of safety from him before they did so.
Despite this guarantee, Habibullah Kalakani’s fate was sealed. Although Nadir Khan personally forgave him, he bowed to pressure from his supporters to take more drastic action. Habibullah Kalakani, several members of his family, Malik Mohsin, and nine other rebels were executed by firing squad on 1 November, 1929. He was then stoned and displayed on a gallows, before being buried outside the city. His death was reported in TIME Magazine a week later with a short article:
Last week Habibullah Khan, ex-king of Afghanistan, né Bacha Sakao, the Water Boy bandit, was captured by victorious King Nadir, imprisoned in Kabul. Though Royal Nadir has on occasion fired Afghan generals in oil, no such fate awaited Habibullah. He was taken out and humanely shot. Afghans attributed this softness to Nadirs years on the French Riviera.TIME MAGAZINE, 11 November, 1929
Nadir Khan had become King, but with the national treasury empty, he paid his victorious troops by allowing them to sack the capital. He began his rule presiding over a capital his own men had destroyed and that had been his home. More than 150,000 people had been killed since the fighting began in January.
Although Habibullah Kalakani’s reign is often dismissed by historians as an aberration in an otherwise uninterrupted line of Pashtun rulers, but this ignores several factors. Although an ethnic Tajik, that is itself less important than the manner in which he chose to rule. Like the Taliban nearly seventy years later, he replaced a modernizing state structure with a tribal one based on patronage and direct personal relationships. This makes sense, given that it was this sort of structure that swept him to power in the first place.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that Habibullah Kalakani has been rehabilitated as a symbol in modern politics as well. Tajik dominated factions within the current government have tried unsuccessfully to win the presidency since 2001, but to date every elected President has been a Pashtun, like all the Kings of old except Habibullah Kalakani. In 2016, he and his followers were removed from their graves and reinterred on Shahr Ara Hill just outside the capital. The funeral procession, several thousand strong and heavily armed, clashed with followers of rival Uzbek politicians who claimed Shahr Ara Hill as an important location in their own history. Along with this reburial, portraits of Habibullah Kalakani also began to appear – in the offices of Tajik politicians, or on the walls in Tajik towns and neighbourhoods, alongside this of another popular Tajik leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud.
While the common history has portrayed Habibullah Kalakani as an uneducated rebel who sought power for its own sake, this interpretation has changed. He has been portrayed as a devoutly religious man who opposed Amanullah’s policies of reform. Or as a Tajik rebel opposed to Pashtun domination. It has been suggested that he was like the mujahideen who fought against the Communist government, whose policies were decidedly modernist. He’s also been compared favourably with the modern Tajik politicians, and their extensive militias, who oppose the Pashtun domination of Afghan democracy that began with Karzai and continues with Ghani today. In each case, the new take Habibullah Kalakani serves a present day political purpose, twisting history as needed to make it fit for purpose.
But no matter how his conflict with the government is framed today, the aspect that is most striking to me, and also most likely to be repeated, is his opposition to the idea of having a modern state at all. In the growing chaos that is Afghanistan today, this is a form of government that we may soon see again.