Abdur Rahman’s successors attempted to push Afghanistan further along the path of modernisation. His son Habibullah (1872–1919) was assassinated in 1919 and succeeded by Amanullah (1892–1960), who took advantage of British weakness at the end of the Great War to invade India. The British bombed Kabul and Jalalabad and drove the invaders back. Neither side had much stomach for the war, and it fizzled out after a month. The British ceased both their subsidies and their control of Afghan foreign policy. Amanullah promptly opened a fruitful relationship with the new Bolshevik government in Moscow – the first foreign government to do so.
He then embarked on an ambitious programme of reform in imitation of the secularising reforms of Atatürk in Turkey. He established a Council of Ministers, promulgated a constitution, decreed a series of administrative, economic and social reforms, and unveiled his queen. His plans for the emancipation of women, a minimum age for marriage, and compulsory education for all angered religious conservatives and provoked a brief rebellion. Tribesmen burned down the royal palace in Jalalabad and marched on Kabul. In 1929 Amanullah fled into exile in Italy.
Nadir Shah (1883–1933), a distant cousin of Amanullah, seized the throne, reimposed order, but allowed his troops to sack Kabul because he had no money to pay them. He built the first road from Kabul over the Salang Pass to the north and continued a cautious programme of reform until he was assassinated in 1933.
His son Zahir Shah (1914–2007) reigned from 1933 to 1973. This was the longest period of stability in Afghanistan’s recent history, and people now look back on it as a golden age. Reform continued. A parliament was elected in 1949, and a more independent press began to attack the ruling oligarchy and the conservative religious leaders.
In 1953 Zahir Shah appointed his cousin Daud (1909–78) as prime minister. Daud was a political conservative but an economic and social reformer. For the next ten years he exercised a commanding influence on the King. He built factories, irrigation systems, aerodromes and roads with assistance from the USSR, the USA, and the German Federal Republic. He modernised the Afghan army with Soviet weapons, equipment, and training.
In 1963 Zahir Shah got rid of Daud to appease conservatives infuriated by his flirtations with the left and the Soviets. But the King continued with the policy of reform. He introduced a form of constitutional monarchy with freedom of speech, allowed political parties, gave women the vote, and guaranteed primary education for girls and boys. Women were allowed to attend the university and foreign women taught there. Ariana Airlines employed unveiled women as hostesses and receptionists, there were women announcers on Kabul Radio, and a woman was sent as a delegate to the United Nations.
During all these years, the educational system was systematically developed, at least in the capital city. Habibia College, a high school modelled on an elite Muslim school in British India, was set up in Kabul in 1904. Amanullah sent many of its students to study in France and elsewhere in Europe. A School of Medicine was inaugurated in 1932, followed by faculties of Law, Science, Agriculture, Education, and Engineering, which were combined into a university in 1947. Most of the textbooks and much of the teaching were in English, French, or German. A faculty of Theology was founded in 1951 linked to the Islamic University of Al-Azhar in Cairo. In 1967 the Soviet Union helped establish a Polytechnic Institute staffed largely by Russians. Under Zahir Shah’s tolerant regime student organisations were set up in Kabul and Kandahar.
Daud rapidly expanded the state school system. Between 1950 and 1978 numbers increased by ten times at primary schools, twenty-one times at secondary schools, and forty-five times at universities. But the economy was not developing fast enough to provide employment for the growing numbers of graduates. Many could find jobs only in the rapidly expanding government bureaucracy. Salaries, already miserable, lost half their real value in the 1960s and 1970s. The good news – though not for conservatives – was that about 10 per cent of this expanded bureaucracy were women.
The American scholar Louis Dupree called Kabul University ‘a perfect breeding ground for political discontent’. It was in the universities that Afghanistan’s first political movements were created. A Communist Party, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, was set up in 1965 by Nur Mohamed Taraki, Babrak Karmal (1929–96), and Hafizullah Amin, all of whom were to play a major role in the run-up to the Soviet invasion. A number of students who were later to become prominent in the anti-Communist and anti-Soviet struggle also fledged their political wings there: Rabbani (1940–), Hekmatyar (1947–), Abdul Rasul Sayyaf (1946–), and Ahmad Shah Masud (1953–2001) all studied together in Kabul University. Students rioted in 1968 against conservative attempts to limit the education of women. In 1969 there were further riots, and some deaths, when high school students protested against the school management. The university was briefly closed.