Amir of Afghanistan (c. 1844-1901), was the son of Afzul Khan, who was the eldest son of Dost Mohammad Khan, the famous amir, by whose success in war the Barakzai family established their dynasty in the rulership of Afghanistan. Before his death at Herat, 9th June 1863, Dost Mohammad had nominated as his successor Shere Ali, his third son, passing over the two elder brothers, Afzul Khan and Azim Khan; and at first the new amir was quietly recognized. But after a few months Afzul Khan raised an insurrection in the northern province, between the Hindu Kush mountains and the Oxus, where he had been governing when his father died; and then began a fierce contest for power among the sons of Dost Mahomed, which lasted for nearly five years. In this war, which resembles in character, and in its striking vicissitudes, the English War of the Roses at the end of the 15th century, Abdur Rahman soon became distinguished for ability and daring energy. Although his father, Afzul Khan, who had none of these qualities, came to terms with the Amir Shere Ali, the son's behaviour in the northern province soon excited the amir's suspicion, and Abdur Rahman: when he was summoned to Kabul, fled across the Oxus into Bokhara.
Shere Ali threw Afzul Khan into prison, and a serious revolt followed in south Afghanistan; but the amir had scarcely suppressed it by winning a desperate battle, when Abdur Rahman's reapearance in the north was a signal for a mutiny of the troops stationed in those parts and a gathering of armed bands to his standard. After some delay and desultory fighting, he and his uncle, Azim Khan, occupied Kabul (March 1866). The amir Shere All marched up against them from Kandahar; but in the battle that ensued at Sheikhabad on 10th May he was deserted by a large body of his troops, and after his signal defeat Abdur Rahman released his father, Afzul Elian, from prison in Ghazni, and installed him upon the throne as amir of Afghanistan. Notwithstanding the new amir's incapacity, and some jealousy between the real leaders, Abdur Rahman and his uncle, they again routed Shere All's forces, and occupied Kandahar in 1867; and when at the end of that year Afzul Khan died, Azim Khan succeeded to the rulership, with Abdur Rahman as his governor in the northern province. But towards the end of 1868 Shere Ali's return, and a general rising in his favour, resulting in their defeat at Tinah Khan on the 3rd of January 1869, forced them both to seek refuge in Persia, whence Abdur Rahman proceeded afterwards to place himself under Russian protection at Samarkand. Azim died in Persia in October 1869.
This brief account of the conspicuous part taken by Abdur Rahman in an eventful war, at the beginning of which he was not more than twenty years old, has been given to show the rough school that brought out his qualities of resource and fortitude, and the political capacity needed for rulership in Afghanistan. He lived in exile for eleven years, until on the death, in 1879, of Shere Ali, who had retired from Kabul when the British armies entered Afghanistan, the Russian governorgeneral at Tashkent sent for Abdur Rahman, and pressed him to try his fortunes once more across the Oxus. In March 1880 a report reached India that he was in northern Afghanistan; and the governor-general, Lord Lytton, opened communications with him to the effect that the British government were prepared to withdraw their troops, and to recognize Abdur Rahman as amir of Afghanistan, with the exception of Kandahar and some districts adjacent. After some negotiations, an interview took place between him and Mr (afterwards Sir) Lepel Griffin, the diplomatic representative at Kabub of the Indian government, who described Abdur Rahman as a man of middle height, with an exceedingly intelligent face and frank and courteous manners, shrewd and able in conversation on the business in hand. At the durbar on the 22nd of July 1880, Abbdur Rahman was officially recognized as amir, granted assistance in arms and money, and promised, in case of unprovoked foreign aggression, such further aid as might be necessary to repel it, provided that he followed British advice in regard to his external relations. The evacuation of Afghanistan was settled on the terms proposed, and in 1881 the British troops also made over Kandahar to the new amir; but Ayub Khan, one of Shere Ali's sons, marched upon that city from Herat, defeated Abdur Rahman's troops, and occupied the place in July. This serious reverse roused the amir, who had not at first displayed much activity. He led a force from Kabul, met Ayub's army close to Kandahar, and the complete victory which he there won forced Ayub Khan to fly into Persia. From that time Abdur Rahman was fairly seated on the throne at Kabul, and in the course of the next few years he consolidated his dominion over all Afghanistan, suppressing insurrections by a sharp and relentless use of his despotic authority. Against the severity of his measures the powerful Ghilzai tribe revolted, and were crushed by the end of 1887. In that year Ayub Khan made a,fruitless inroad from Persia; and in 1888 the amir's cousin, Ishak Khan, rebelled against him in the north; but these two enterprises came to nothing.
In 1885, at the moment when the amir was in conference with the British viceroy, Lord Dufferin, in India, the news came of a collision between Russian and Afghan troops at Panjdeh, over a disputed point in the demarcation of the north-western frontier of Afghanistan. Abdur Rahman's attitude at this critical juncture is a good example of his political sagacity. To one who had been a man of war from his youth up, who had won and lost many fights, the rout of a detachment and the forcible seizure of some debateable frontier lands was an untoward incident; but it was no sufficent reason for calling upon the British, although they had guaranteed his territory's integrity, to vindicate his rights by hostilities which would certainly bring upon him a Russian invasion from the north, and would compel his British allies to throw an army into Afghanistan from the south-east. His interest lay in keeping powerful neighbours, whether friends or foes, outside his kingdom. He knew this to be the only policy that would be supported by the Afghan nation; and although for some time a rupture with Russia seemed imminent, while the Indian government made ready for that contingency, the amir's reserved and circumspect tone in the consultations with him helped to turn the balance between peace and war, and substantially conduced towards a pacific solution. Abdur Rahman left on those who met him in India the impression of a clear-headed man.of action, with great self-reliance and hardihood, not without indications of the implacable severity that too often marked his administration. His investment with the insignia of the highest grade of the Order of the Star of India appeared to give him much pleasure.
From the end of 1888 the amir passed eighteen months in his northern provinces bordering upon the Oxus, where he was engaged in pacifying the country that had been disturbed by revolts, and in punishing with a heavy hand all who were known or suspected to have taken any part in rebellion. Shortly afterwards (1892) he succeeded in finally beating down the resistance of the Hazara tribe, who vainly attempted to defend their immemorial independence, within their highlands, of the central authority at Kabul.
In 1893 Sir Henry Durand was deputed to Kabul by the government of India for the purpose of settling an exchange of territory required bu the demarcation of the boundary between north-eastern Afghanistan and the Russian possessions, and in order to discuss with the amir other pending questions. The amir showed his usual ability in diplomatic argument, his tenacity where his own views or claims were in debate, with a sure underlying insight into the real situation. The territorial exchanges were amicably agreed upon; the relations between the Indian and Afghan governments, as previously arranged, were confirmed; and an understanding was reached upon the important and difficult subject of the border line of Afghanistan on the east, towards India. In 1895 the amir found himself unable, by reason of ill-health, to accept an invitation from Queen Victoria to visit England; hut his second son Nasrullah Khan went in his stead.
Abdur Rahman died on the 1st of October 1901, being succeeded by his son Habibullah. He had defeated all enterprises by rivals against his throne; he had broken down the power of local chiefs, and tamed the refractory tribes; so that his orders were irresistible throughout the whole dominion. His government was a military despotism resting upon a well-appointed army; it was administered through officials absolutely subservient to an inflexible will and controlled by a widespread system of espionage; while the exercise of his personal authority was too often stained by acts of unnecessary cruelty. He held open courts for the receipt of petitioners and the dispensation of justice; and in the disposal of business he was indefatigable. He succeeded in imposing an organized government upon the fiercest and most unruly population in Asia; he availed himself of European inventions for strengthening his armament, while he sternly set his face against all innovations which, like railways and telegraphs, might give Europeans a foothold within his country. His adventurous life, his forcible character, the position of his state as a barrier between the Indian and the Russian empires, and the skill with which he held the balance in dealing with them, combined to make him a prominent figure in contemporary Asiatic politics and will mark his reign as an epoch in the history of Afghanistan.
The amir received an annual subsidy from the British government of 18-1/2 lakhs of rupees. He was allowed to import munitions of War. In 1896 he adopted the title of Tia-ul-hlillat-ud Din (Light of the nation and religion); and his zeal for the cause of Islam induced him to publish treatises on Jehad. His eldest son Habibullah Khan, with his brother Nasrullah Khan, was born at Samarkand. His youngest son, Mohammad Omar Jan, was born in 1889 of an Afghan mother, connected by descent with the Barakzai family.