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Afghanistan during World War II
As early as 1907 the British Committee of Imperial Defense concluded that "...the gates of India are in Afghanistan and the problem of Afghanistan dominates the situation in India...." This conclusion still held true in the years leading up to the Second World War and during the war at least to the extent that the Khyber Pass was prepared for anti-tank mines in the event German panzers defeated the Soviet Union and pushed miraculously eastwards. Although Afghanistan did not play an active role in the war, its position ensured that the kingdom and its people were not entirely untouched by the global conflict.
Between the Wars
During the First World War Afghanistan remained neutral under Amir Habibullah Khan who was then killed by an unknown assassin in 1919. Habibullah was succeeded by Amir Amanullah who steered a pro-Soviet course while supporting Pan-Islamism and militant tribalism to the extent of fighting, and losing, the Third Anglo-Afghan War. His efforts to modernize Afghanistan in the late 1920's succeeded only in loss of popular support and the outbreak of internal revolt and civil war. In 1929 King Amanullah (the title was changed in 1926) fled to Italy. His former Minister of War, Nadir Shah, assumed the throne in the same year. Under his reign, Soviet advisors and technicians were dismissed and Afghanistan sought greater friendship, cooperation, and commerce with the United Kingdom. The "tribal problem" on the border between India and Afghanistan greatly subsided during this time, in large part due to British subsidies granted the Afghan government and army. By 1933, however, some elements in Afghanistan believed Nadir Shah was selling his kingdom into colonial status and on 8 November of that year he was assassinated.
Nadir Shah was succeeded by his young son Mohammed Zahir Shah (born in 1914), but for some years the old king's brothers controlled the government and it was the young king's uncle, Hashim Khan, former ambassador to the Soviet Union, who as Prime Minister held most power for himself. While generally pro-British and in favor of modernization, his policies called for "gradualism" and playing the role of buffer state.
Although the new Prime Minister maintained the fundamentally pro-British policies of his late brother, outbreaks of tribal and religious violence plagued the border with India. The Fakir of Ipi, for example, waged a campaign of guerilla banditry against India in the 1930's that cost around 1000 British and Indian casualties. During the 1920's and 30's, in fact, the Afghanistan border served as one of the training grounds for suppressing rebellious indigenous populations with RAF aircraft.
Afghanistan joined the League of Nations in 1934 (waiting until the Soviet Union joined so as not to appear to be taking sides in favor of the UK) and looked with considerable concern at the way Abyssinia was sacrificed to Italy, seeing far too many parallels in a weak state without access to the sea unable to produce or procure weapons to defend itself against a predatory power. Also in 1934 Afghanistan and Iran peacefully settled their frontier dispute with the assistance of Turkey. In 1937 Kabul concluded the Saadabad Pact, a non-aggression treaty with Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. Although strictly defensive in nature -- the signatories pledged themselves to "discussions" in the event of invasion by another power -- the Pact helped facilitate a Turkish military mission to Kabul. Militarily, however, none of the Saadabad states possessed or could produce the modern arms needed to protect itself from potential aggressors and in any event the Pact twice proved in 1941 not to be binding.
The Afghan armed forces struggled to grow and gradually modernize. The UK provided a few aircraft and instructors. From Czechoslovakia came machine guns and artillery. Italy agreed to further equip and train the Afghan air force. The government in Kabul, having seen the failure of the League of Nations to prevent aggression, pressed for more equipment and credits for purchasing additional weaponry as well as building factories capable of producing its own.
Despite or because of border disturbances such as that led by the Fakir of Ipi -- as well as other factors such as its own serious shortages of military equipment -- the British government declined to provide modern weapons to the Afghan army and air force in the quantities requested. In 1935 Kabul decided to rely primarily on Germany for economic and military modernization. As a consequence, by 1936, as well as hosting the Afghan hockey team and officials as special guests at the Olympics, Germany was beginning to increase commercial transactions and weapons deliveries in Afghanistan. In 1938 weekly air service, the first of its kind, was established between Kabul and Berlin. The Organization Todt provided plans and supervision for major infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges, airfields, and industrial plants while German officers undertook a program designed to equip and train the Afghan armed forces to Western standards. In two years German trade with Afghanistan increased tenfold.
Although Kabul sought German assistance in part because Berlin offered such favorable terms (embarking as it was on its own quest for economic penetration across the Near East), the Afghan government also saw Germany as a useful and unthreatening counter-weight to its Soviet and British neighbors. Given political developments in Europe, neither London nor Moscow approved of the increasingly close relationship between Germany and Afghanistan. However, neither power was in a position to do much about it: the King and his Prime Minister preferred to keep both British and Soviet presence in Afghanistan at a minimum while at the same time neither the UK nor the Soviet Union was prepared to allow the other to gain an advantage in the buffer state.
Much as the British government declined to fully arm Afghanistan, so too the British proved unwilling to provide guarantees against Kabul's greatest fear, an invasion by the Soviet Union. The border between Afghanistan and the USSR, in some places uncertain, had long been a source of friction and dispute and for a time the Soviets stationed "large forces" there and raised the question of the exact location of the boundary. British generals considered the northern regions of Afghanistan indefensible and in any event had no military resources to spare for such a distant problem on such a remote frontier.
Leading up to the war, then, Afghanistan pursued a relatively strict neutrality while remaining friendly with the British, fearing Soviet incursions, and relying on Axis advisors to transform its armed forces and national infrastructure.
Brushed by War
Immediately after the outbreak of war, King Zahir Shah's government proclaimed its official and legal neutrality in the conflict.
Despite increasingly close ties between Afghanistan and Germany, authorities in Berlin realized the government in Kabul, situated as it was between British and Soviet spheres of influence, had no choice but to maintain neutrality. Even so, plans were made in Berlin for exploiting the relationship with Afghanistan to the detriment of the Reich's enemies. These plans, however, were made by separate departments and did not fully coincide. Rosenberg's Foreign Policy department of the National Socialist party supported the government in Kabul and relied on personalities such as Abdul Majid, Minister of National Economy, who in the summer of 1939 had proposed "the closest internal alignment with Germany." Ribbentrop's Foreign Ministry took the position that the Kabul government was too closely aligned with the British and should be overthrown in favor of restoring the former king, Amanullah, still living in exile in Italy. This dichotomy was eventually settled by Hitler in favor of the existing regime of King Zahir Shah and his uncle. At the same time, paradoxically, Berlin planned to encourage Soviet aspirations away from Europe and toward Afghanistan, India, and the Indian Ocean.
By May 1940 the British Staff in India proposed "Plan A" for defense against a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, although in such a contingency the forces were to shield India rather than prop up its neighbor. The plan called for an armored division, five infantry divisions, and an independent infantry brigade, of which the only troops actually available for employment amounted to four infantry brigades. Under the circumstances an "interim" plan, far less ambitious, was adopted.
At the time of the surrender of France in 1940, Abdul Majid -- the Minister of National Economy who might have been acting in this case without knowledge of his government -- indicated that Afghanistan was ready to begin actively supporting the Axis cause, including incitement of the frontier tribes to take up arms against British India, thus tying down Allied combat forces. The German minister in Kabul notified Berlin that he anticipated Afghanistan joining the Axis in return for German mediation of Soviet territorial guarantees in the north, access to the sea (such as the port city of Karachi), and deliveries of warplanes, AA guns, and tanks; indeed, according to some accounts he actually made this offer to Kabul.
In Berlin in September, the Afghan minister used stirring words regarding "liberation" of fifteen million Afghans living under the British yoke in India. In return for such services in support of Germany, Afghanistan reiterated its need for the usual litany of military hardware in suitable quantities. In addition, Afghanistan wanted a wide swatch of Indian territory extending as far as the Indus River.
Similar suggestions were made at various levels in various forums up until June 1941, with Abdul Majid growing especially explicit.
British displeasure notwithstanding, Germany continued to maintain a considerable presence in Afghanistan and little was done to curb the flow of pro-Axis, anti-British propaganda directed toward the population of Afghanistan as well as across the border into India. On 1 February 1941, Subhas Chandra Bose, a leader of the anti-colonialist Congress Party and later head of the Japanese-aligned Indian National Army, arrived surreptitiously in Afghanistan after escaping British custody in India. From Kabul, with German assistance he traveled to Berlin via the Soviet Union (still tied to Germany by treaty at that time) where he added his voice to anti-British propaganda beamed into central Asia and the Indian subcontinent (and later traveled to the Far East by submarine).
Almost a year after Abdul Majid's 1940 overtures, in April and May 1941, while the final preparations for Operation Barbarossa were made, the sideshow in Iraq brought renewed interest for closer relations. Following the Iraqi coup d'etat and encirclement of the British garrison at Habbaniyah airbase, Abdul Majid, spending time in Germany for reasons of health, reiterated his previous proposals for cooperation in general and in this case mutual support of Iraq in particular. In one scheme, to circumvent Turkish prohibitions on rail shipments of war material across its territory to Iraq, armaments for that country were to be shipped by rail from Germany to Baghdad as freight ostensibly consigned for Afghanistan. Despite calls from Baghdad for support under terms of the Saadabad Pact, in the final analysis the Afghan government remained wary of committing itself prematurely to an unfinished war. With collapse of the Iraqi revolt, British victory in Baghdad, and the unmistakable demonstration that German military power could not be projected so far as Kabul, the Afghan offers of aid and assistance evaporated.
By then, however, among the Organization Todt personnel in Afghanistan were a number of German operatives. In April 1940 they were joined by Hauptmann Morlock of the Abwehr who brought with him -- as part of two tons of "diplomatic baggage" -- small arms, a 20mm AA gun, and supplies of ammunition. Additional operatives arrived in July and, under cover of a research group studying leprosy, toured the Indian border and began preparations for a campaign of sabotage and insurrection. According to one account, the Abwehr operatives made contact with the Fakir of Ipi (who had waged his campaign of guerilla banditry against India in the 1930's and was during the war receiving payments from the Axis) who provided them with guides. This resulted in a brief series of operations in which a bridge was demolished, a radio station was attacked, and the commandos ventured as far as thirty kilometers inside Indian territory. According to the same source, in July the Abwehr men were trapped by a British patrol and "English paratroopers." Another source claims the Afghan government, having gotten wind of the operation, surrounded the Germans (who seem to have been betrayed by their guides), "mistakenly" shot two of them, and captured the others in an "accidental" skirmish before they reached the border. Yet another source reports the incident as "...two German 'scientists' were shot while attempting to make contact with the Faqir of Ipi on the Indian side of the border." Later, German agents attempted to foment rebellion among tribesmen along the sensitive Soviet frontier.
In any event, with the advent of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, Afghanistan found itself rocked by a more serious international shockwave. The Soviet Union -- heretofore the great opponent of the British Empire in central Asia and ally of Afghanistan's German friends -- suddenly became an enemy of the Germans and a friend of the British. There was no longer any hope of playing the British against the Soviets. Soon afterward came the joint Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran, an event which thoroughly alarmed the government, and at which point Afghanistan was surrounded by Allied-controlled territory. It became all too apparent to Kabul that it could suffer the same fate as its western neighbor and the government had no choice but to accede to the joint Anglo-Soviet demand in October 1941 for the expulsion of all Germans and Italians. Although due to Afghanistan's officially neutral status small diplomatic staffs were permitted to remain, by the end of the month 206 Axis nationals had departed for neutral Turkey via Peshawar, Karachi, Basra, and Baghdad under guarantee of free passage. Some additional Italian and German diplomatic personnel were expelled in September 1943.
Afghanistan retained its neutrality but, surrounded by the possessions and occupied territories of the increasingly powerful Allied states, it became a neutrality which was as much enforced as chosen. Kabul never declared war on Germany and never broke diplomatic relations with Berlin. Had the Wehrmacht defeated the Soviet Union, however, and had panzers appeared on its northern border, Afghanistan would not have hesitated to declare war against the Allies to gain all it could from British India.
Data and Statistics for 1939-1940
Adamec, Ludwig W. Afghanistan's Foreign Affairs to the Mid-Twentieth Century. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1974
Epstein, M. (editor). The Statesman's Year-Book: 1941. London: MacMillan and Co, 1941
Gibbs, N. H. History of the Second World War: Grand Strategy, volume 1: Rearmament Policy. London: HMSO, 1976
Gregorian, Vartan. The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1969
Hirszowicz, Lukasz. The Third Reich and the Arab East. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968
Kirk, George. Survey of International Affairs, 1939-1946: The Middle East in the War. London: Oxford University Press, 1953
Kurowski, Franz. The Brandenburgers: Global Mission. Winnipeg, Manitoba: J.J. Fedorowicz, 1997
League of Nations. Armaments Year-Book 1939/40. Geneva: League of Nations, 1940
Prasad, Sri Nandan. Official History of Indian Armed Forces in the Second World War: Expansion of the Armed Forces and Defence Organization, 1939-45. Delhi (?): Combined Inter-Services Hist, 1956
Schreiber, Stegemann, and Vogel. Germany and the Second World War, vol 3: Mediterranean, South-east Europe, and North Africa, 1939-1941. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995
Toynbee, Arnold (ed). Survey of International Affairs, 1939-1946: The World in March 1939. London: Oxford University Press, 1952
Copyright © 1999 by Bill Stone
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