Early in the nineteenth century, the Durrani Empire, which had governed Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan since 1747, began to collapse. The Durrani Empire came about through an effort by Afghan tribesmen to throw off Persian rule, and Afghanistan became, more or less, the territory between Iran and Punjab. As the empire disintegrated, contending noble families broke Afghanistan into various pieces. Kabul and a couple of other choice provinces went, in 1818, to Dost Mohammad Khan of the Barakzai family. Dost Mohammad expanded his holdings at the expense of other Emirs, although he lost Peshawar to Ranjit Singh of Punjab. The eventual inclusion of Peshawar in Pakistan, rather than Afghanistan, continues to be a matter of contention between the two countries. Meanwhile, the Emir began to feel increasing Russian and British influence in the region. An effort to win British support failed, and relations with Russia eventually resulted in a British military expedition in 1839. The expedition, led by William Elphinstone and consisting of both British and Indian forces, captured Kabul and imprisoned the Emir. However, an uprising drove the British out of the city, and during the long retreat home the British Army was attacked by forces led Akbar Khan, son of the Emir. All 14000 were slaughtered, save for a single survivor. After a punitive expedition, the British renounced interest in Afghanistan. Dost Mohammad Khan returned to the throne, perhaps poisoning his victorious son along the way.
Efforts to navigate between the British and Russian empires would dominate Afghan foreign policy for the next century. Abdur Rahman Khan (r. 1880-1901) lived in exile in Russia for a while before returning to British guarantees of Afghan territorial integrity. Taking his cue from Reza Shah, King Amanullah Khan (r. 1919-1929) would attempt to modernize Afghan society, with limited noticeable effect. In 1929, a succession of coups and assassinations meant that Afghanistan would have four kings in a period of ten months. Indeed, every Afghan Emir or King except for Abdur Rahman Kahn and (maybe) Dost Mohammad Khan would either abdicate or be assassinated. Afghanistan remained neutral in both world wars, in spite of entreaties from the Ottomans in World War I and the Japanese in World War II. In 1933, Mohammad Zahir Shah came to the throne upon the assassination of his own father.
Historians seem to agree that Mohammad Zahir Shah was, for most of his career, a cypher. He made some efforts and modernization, and Afghani foreign policy during his rule became characterized by Cold War posturing between the Soviet Union and the United States. The King helped produce a new constitution which restricted the monarchy and allowed for increased representation. While in Italy for surgery in 1973, the King was deposed and a republic declared. As events in Afghanistan did not develop necessarily to the advantage of anyone, the reign of the King is remembered somewhat fondly. Mohammad Zahir Shah spent the next 29 years in Italy, being barred by the Soviets from returning in the 1980s. He initially supported the rise of the Taliban, although their brutality apparently turned him off, and he later supported the US led campaign to oust the Taliban from power.
In April 2002, after a twenty-nine year absence, King Mohammad Zahir Shah returned to Afghanistan. He pledged his support for the government of Hamid Karzai, and helped preside over the loya jirga. From 2002 on, Mohammad Zahir Shah lived in Kabul, apart from a few medical-related trips to India and France. In January of this year, what would have been the 74th of his reign, the former King fell ill, and this morning he died at the age of 92. The current claimant to the throne is Prince Ahmed Shah Khan, who was educated at Oxford and worked for a time in the Afghan foreign ministry. Prospects for a restoration seem uncertain. The Afghan loya jirga declared King Mohammad Zahir Shar a “Father of the Afghan Nation” but did not restore him to the throne. Although a Pashtun, Zahir Shah’s popularity extended beyond ethnic Pashtuns to a wider slice of Afghan society. His son, less well known and lacking the same relationship with the Afghan people, does not appear to be as popular.