Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Afghanistan

Afghanistan was formally nonaligned during World War II, but there were nonetheless complex diplomatic, political, and military developments of consequence in and around that country. As early as 1907, the British Committee of Imperial Defense had concluded, "The gates of India are in Afghanistan and the problem of Afghanistan dominates the situation in India." This assessment reflected the fact that the country was strategically situated between British India and Russia and of considerable interest to both in the diplomatic and political maneuvering of the nineteenth century known as "the Great Game."

Afghanistan was effectively positioned for neutrality in the years before World War II. The February 1921 Soviet-Afghanistan Treaty of mutual recognition was followed in 1926 by a formal nonaggression pact between the two countries. The government in Kabul clearly saw the Soviet Union as an effective counterweight to British power and influence in the region. The November 1921 Anglo-Afghanistan Treaty had accorded Afghanistan full and formal independence, although Britain remained the most important power in terms of immediate control over territory in South Asia, including India and what would become Pakistan.

The Afghanistan constitution, adopted in April 1923 and not replaced until 1963, declared the country to be free and independent, with a free press and free economy. Other democratic guarantees were made explicit in writing, although they were not always followed in actual practice. A constitutional monarchy governed the country, with Islam the established religion. Moderate rule dating from the 1930s was an advantage in dealing with the turmoil and uncertainty of the period.

With the approach of World War II, Afghan leaders established broader ties with Germany. In 1935, they decided to rely mainly on Germany for economic and military modernization, and the following year Germany hosted the Afghan hockey team as well as visiting senior officials as special guests at the Berlin Olympic Games. Weekly air service between Berlin and Kabul commenced in 1938. The German Todt began construction and improvements of airfields, bridges, roads, and industrial plants. German officers began training the Afghanistan military and introduced modern equipment, techniques, and weapons. In diplomatic and political terms, the government in Kabul saw Germany as a counterweight to both Britain and the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the British government, irritated by Kabul's partnership with Germany, refused to aid Afghanistan in territorial and related disputes with the Soviet Union. Despite the British attitude, Afghan leaders generally saw Britain in positive terms.

After World War II began, developments pressed Afghanistan toward the Allied camp. The June 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union and the August 1941 British-Soviet invasion of Iran meant Afghanistan was virtually surrounded by Allied-controlled territory. In preparation for a possible German invasion, antitank mines were laid in the Khyber Pass, and other defensive measures were taken. At Allied insistence, Afghanistan expelled German and Italian representatives in the country and severed all ties with the Axis powers.

Arthur I. Cyr


Further Reading
Gregorian, Vartan. The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1969.; Toynbee, Arnold, ed. Survey of International Affairs, 1939–1946. London: Oxford University Press, 1952.
 

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