The National:

“I DON’T envy you that.”

That was the response David Pratt, The National’s foreign editor, gave when I said I had been tasked with pulling together an article on how Afghanistan became independent from the British as part of our ongoing series looking at the 65 countries to have done so.

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Afghanistan, landlocked between Iran and Pakistan and sharing borders with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and even China to the north, has a terribly complex history that is extremely hard to report in brief.

But Pratt, who has visited the country numerous times since the Soviet invasion of 1979, has a go.

“It is a story of outside meddling. It is a story of a country that has never been allowed to find its own way, and Afghan resistance to that,” he says.

The National:

Officially, Afghanistan celebrates independence from the British on August 19 – which is actually 11 days after the signing of the Anglo-Afghan Treaty of 1919 which it commemorates.

A letter accompanying the treaty – from the British chief representative at the peace conference at which it was signed – states: “The said treaty and this letter leave Afghanistan officially free and independent in its internal and external affairs.”

So on paper the 1919 treaty ended the Third Anglo-Afghan war and Afghanistan’s status as a British protectorate – which it had become in 1879 as a major theatre of the “Great Game”, a protracted competition for influence in central Asia between Britain and Russia.

But it is not quite so simple. Afghanistan had never truly been part of the British Empire, and would not yet truly be free of it.

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“There are countries where you can say a definitive day, week, minute or hour when British rule ended,” Pratt explained. “It isn’t quite like that for Afghanistan.”

A second treaty between the Afghans and British followed in 1921, and the decades after saw King Amanullah’s work “catapult Afghanistan to become the first Islamic state to be a proud member – not a pariah – of the nascent international community after World War I”, according to Faiz Ahmed, an associate professor of history at Brown University.

'A kind of modern place'

Afghanistan was not an important battleground in the Second World War, Pratt explained, leaving the country to develop into a “kind of modern place” under Mohammad Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan who ruled from 1933-1973.

“Many Afghans wax nostalgic about the 1960s and how much of a tourist trail it was,” Pratt says.

“Chicken Street” in Kabul (below) was an iconic stop on the Hippie Overland Trail – taken by western travellers heading east through the 1960s and 70s. But that all changed in 1979.

The National:

That year, Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviet Union plunging the country into civil war, with various factions backed by foreign powers. The Soviets pulled out of the country a decade later, leaving another civil war, which raged for three years, in their wake.

Less than a decade after the fighting officially ended in 1992, the US invaded after the attacks on New York on September 11, 2001. The Americans remained for two decades, leaving the Afghan people to the mercy of the Taliban in 2021.

Today, the country is run by the hardline Islamist group, with women persecuted as second-class citizens and neighbouring Pakistan “calling the shots”, Pratt says.

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A century of strife, compounded and even encouraged by foreign powers, is not a blueprint for an independent Scotland. Tut the period directly after the end of the British protectorate may offer some small lessons of sorts.

Ahmed, the associate professor of history at Brown University, wrote on the 100th anniversary of the end of British rule in the nation: “From Constantinople to Calcutta, Afghanistan’s independence represented the triumph of an Asian Muslim state against the world’s premier imperial power.

“But the most striking achievements were yet to come. Having secured Afghanistan’s sovereignty abroad, Amanullah (below) launched an ambitious state-building program to expand public services under a centralized, constitutional monarchy.

The National:

“He recruited a skilled team of Afghan, Turkish, and Indian Muslim jurists to establish, in his own words, a ‘rule of law’ in the country. The result of their work was an extraordinary body of legal literature in supposedly the most lawless of places.”

The first constitution in Afghan history was promulgated on April 9, 1923, slavery was banned, schools for girls were opened, as well as teacher colleges for both sexes, animal cruelty was criminalised, and initiatives sought to protect the nation’s ancient heritage.

One lesson for Scotland

Could a newly independent Scotland learn any lessons from this? One perhaps, and it may prove vitally important.

As Ahmed wrote: “A century later, Amanullah Khan’s [efforts] stand out for institution building and reform led by Afghans themselves.”

In that, at least, the citizens of an independent Scotland will need to do the same.