300 Years Ago, Afghanistan's 'George Washington' Died - The Diplomat
How an Afghan tribal leader took on two of the most powerful empires in the world and won independence for Afghanistan.
Some 300 years ago, in November 1715, a powerful man passed away peacefully in Kandahar–a rarity. He had set in motion a chain of events that would profoundly change the histories of Persia and India, though he probably did not know this as he breathed his last. Mir Wais Hotak, a chief of the Pashtun Ghilji tribe, originally set out to free his city from continued Persian pressure to convert from Sunni to Shia Islam. Instead, he became the George Washington of modern Afghanistan.
At the dawn of the 18th century, much of today’s Afghanistan had been divided for 200 years. The Mughal and Safavid Empires, based in the Indian subcontinent and Persia respectively, each ruled a portion of the country. A third state, the Uzbek Khanate of Bukhara ruled the northern part of Afghanistan around Mazar-i-Sharif. Kabul was a Mughal stronghold and Herat, a Safavid one. Kandahar switched hands several times, with local Pashtun tribes generally siding with whomever they felt would be more beneficial to them. The city was a an important economic and strategic prize since it lay on the main military and trade routes between Persia and the subcontinent. By 1700, Kandahar had been in Safavid hands for half a century.
Yet, all was not well for the Safavids. The Safavid dynasty found legitimacy through their association with Shia Islam, and they succeeded in converting most of their population to Shiism from Sunni Islam over the course of 200 years. Much of Afghanistan was relatively peaceful until the reign of the Safavid Shah Soltan Husayn (ruled from 1694-1722). Shah Husayn was a drunkard and the Safavid Empire stagnated during his reign. Perhaps due to religious conviction or to strengthen his political position, he gave the Shia clergy great power to convert Sunnis, causing great unrest throughout the Empire.
The trouble in Kandahar began when the new governor, Gurgin Khan, a Georgian convert to Islam, arrived in 1704. Despite his heavy-handed methods, he could not get the region’s dominant Pashtun tribe, the Ghilji, led by Mir Wais Hotak, to fully accept his rule or convert to Shiism. Gurgin Khan arrested Hotak and sent him to Isfahan, the Persian capital, where he became friendly with the amiable Shah. While in Isfahan, Hotak noted the decadence of the Safavid Empire and became convinced that it was on the verge of collapse due to the laxness of the military and government and prevalence of court intrigue. Determined to take advantage of these circumstances, he obtained a fatwa in Mecca on the question “as to whether the orthodox Sunni subjects of a heretical [Shia] Muslim ruler were bound to obey him, or were justified, if occasion arose, in resisting him, if necessary by force of arms.” The answer being in favor of revolt, Hotak returned to Kandahar where he organized either a feast or an ambush (sources vary) that resulted in the death of Gurgin Khan and the Georgian-Persian garrison in April 1709.
What could have been a minor disturbance quickly escalated. Mir Wais Hotak was proclaimed the “Prince of Kandahar and General of the National Troops,” strangely (for his time) refusing to proclaim himself king. After several half-hearted attempts by Persian troops to regain Kandahar, a large Persian army of 30,000 men was defeated in 1711, and a second force annihilated in 1713. By the time of his natural death in 1715, Mir Wais Hotak has established an independent Afghan state that encompassed the entire province of Kandahar (most of southwestern Afghanistan). This is the seed of modern-day Afghanistan, which was reestablished as a large empire in 1747 by Ahmad Shah Durrani. - Read More