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Afghans Still Dispute Legacy Of Former 'Bandit King'

Afghan police stand beside a portrait of former Afghan King Ghazi Amanullah Khan during Independence Day celebrations in Jalalabad.
Afghan police stand beside a portrait of former Afghan King Ghazi Amanullah Khan during Independence Day celebrations in Jalalabad.

In Afghanistan, August 19 typically spurs an outpouring of celebration and patriotism over the day in 1919 that the multiethnic country regained its independence from Britain following the end of the third Anglo-Afghan war.

But a fuss this time over a contentious historical figure who overthrew the Afghan monarch credited with winning the country's independence provides a reminder of Afghanistan's deeply rooted ethnic divisions.

Ahead of this year's festivities, a new movement spread north of Kabul calling for the government to organize an official state burial and gravesite for former Afghan King Habibullah Kalakani. In 1928-29, forces loyal to Kalakani took advantage of the absence of royal troops from the capital to overthrow the reformist king, Amanullah Khan, who is widely regarded as a national hero for his successful war against Britain and his efforts to modernize Afghanistan.

Kalakani's reign was brief, as he was executed after being deposed less than a year later. He is the only ethnic Tajik monarch to have ruled Afghanistan from the country's emergence in 1747 to the overthrow of the monarchy in 1973. Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group, have otherwise dominated the leadership of the Afghan state.

Among some Afghans, Kalakani is derided as a "bandit king" whose revolt against Amanullah Khan clogged Afghanistan's path to modernization. Others, however, see Kalakani as an important figure who broke the Pashtun stranglehold on power.

The historical event has drawn parallels with the current struggle for power between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, a Pashtun and Tajik, respectively, who bitterly fought a disputed election in 2014 and together share power in what critics regard as an unwieldy national unity government.

The pro-Kalakani movement, whose strength is difficult to gauge but which is supported by some prominent ethnic Tajik lawmakers and former militia commanders, has threatened street protests in Kabul if its demands are not met. Backers have called for a memorial ceremony to be held on September 1.

The whereabouts of Kalakani's remains is unclear.

Still, some Afghan lawmakers have pressed the government to allocate land to erect a tomb in his honor. Abdullah has promised to bring up the issue with the president.

Calls to honor Kalakani have exposed historical ethnic divisions, with Afghans taking to social media to vent their support or anger at the issue.

Afghan journalist Daud Junbish labeled Kalakani a British agent and claimed his reign reversed the reformist agenda of Amanullah Khan. Junbish compared Kalakani to the fundamentalist Taliban movement's late founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar.

Another Afghan Twitter user suggested disdain for Kalakani was "ethnically motivated."

Some Afghans have been circulating posters of Kalakani. This poster says: "Independence was not mine or Amanullah Khan's. It is because of the sacrifice of the people."

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.