Thursday, December 12, 2013

Story of Monarchy: The End of Afghanistan

As most readers of this weblog at least will probably know, Mohammed Zahir Shah was the last King of Afghanistan. He was a member of the Barakzai dynasty which had held power in Afghanistan since 1826 after the fall of the Durrani Empire. Chaos had ensued after the fall of the Durrani and Afghanistan fragmented into warring tribal factions, something which will sound familiar to people today. Out of that chaos arose Dost Mohammad Khan who made himself the Emir of Afghanistan. Later, he lost power as a result of the First Anglo-Afghan War but was later restored and his family would rule Afghanistan until the monarchy came to an end. The Emirate of Afghanistan became a kingdom under Amanullah Khan who took Afghanistan out of the British sphere of influence and tried to modernize the country only to be met with a civil war and be forced to flee the country, finding refuge, ironically enough in the British Empire of India. His son was likewise chased from the country though his successor was soon deposed as well, allowing for a return to some normalcy with the reign of King Mohammed Nadir Shah who came to power in 1929. He had British support but still faced opposition from radical tribal leaders, pressure from the Soviet Union and periodic rebellions. In 1933 he was assassinated which left the throne to his son, King Mohammed Zahir Shah.

King Zahir Shah
A highly educated man and forward thinking, his reign saw Afghanistan become a more well established country rather than just a war-torn backwater. Afghanistan joined the League of Nations, established diplomatic relations with the United States, had trade agreements with countries from Europe to the Empire of Japan and he gave assistance to the Muslim rebels attempting to establish an independent East Turkestan. However, these forces were defeated by the Republic of China whose forces massacred all the Afghan volunteers. Still, particularly after World War II ended, Afghanistan under the King continued to improve itself. The first university was established, a new constitution was enacted, genuine elections were held and the country became a functioning constitutional monarchy. Innovations included things like universal suffrage and even rights for women. Unfortunately, rival factions continued to be a problem and not just in the countryside but in the palace as well. Mohammed Daoud Khan, a cousin of the King, had served as Prime Minister in the 1950’s but his administration was a disaster and the King had dismissed him. Given what happened later, it is important to understand why.

Daoud Khan was an egotistical and extremely ambitious man who ended up being the ruination of his own country. Despite the fact that there was still a great deal of work to be done in his own country, he looked beyond Afghanistan and put progress there to the side while he pursued his dream of uniting all the Pashtun people into a larger Pashtun nation-state (the Pashtun being the dominant ethnic group of Afghanistan. However, there were a great many Pashtuns living in the still fairly young country of Pakistan and the Pashtun nationalism of Daoud Khan provided no small amount of antagonism to Pakistan. Never a wealthy country, Daoud Khan poured money into Pashtun militias on the Pakistani border and quarreled with Pakistan over where the border was. Pakistan cut off trade with Afghanistan as a result, leaving the Soviet Union as the sole source of economic support for the kingdom. The Soviets were, of course, more than happy to provide all sorts of support to Daoud Khan but at a heavy price of course with the result being the Afghanistan became more and more dependent on the Soviets and the Soviets became more demanding about having greater influence.

Daoud Khan
Fighting broke out between Afghanistan and Pakistan during this time and things did not go well for the Afghans. In addition, the economy was suffering and the non-Pashtun minorities were growing resentful and rebellious of the regime of Daoud Khan which was entirely Pashtun dominated. The King finally dismissed him in 1963 and tried to win back the support of the minorities by removing members of the Royal Family from the Council of Ministers with his new constitution. He also tried to reestablish good relations with Pakistan and, indeed, the border was reopened. However, Daoud Khan held a grudge and was determined to seize power again but next time he intended to do away with the monarchy completely so there would be no King who could remove him from office. It is also worth remembering that, even though they were never a majority, Daoud Khan had been supported durin his time in office by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, the communist party which was, of course, favored by the Soviets. They wanted to make Afghanistan a socialist state like the Soviet Union and were quite pleased to see the failed policies of Daoud Khan draw their country closer into the Soviet orbit.

The communist poison was sitting there in Afghanistan, almost unnoticed but certainly deadly and Daoud Khan would be their path to power even if he was too ignorant to realize it. As has almost invariably been the case in countries around the world, from Russia to China to Cambodia, it is not the communists who overthrow monarchies and seize power (they are usually not strong enough to) but rather some other, more moderate, regime that does so first. The communists then come in, sweep away this younger, weaker regime and take absolute power for themselves. Such was the case in Afghanistan. In truly cowardly fashion, Daoud Khan plotted his revenge against his cousin but did not take action against him in person. Rather, he waited until the King was far away in Italy having eye surgery in 1973 when he launched a palace coup. Daoud Khan seized power and for the first time in Afghan history, declared himself President rather than king and the country became the Republic of Afghanistan. He thought he had won and immediately consolidated his power, killing off potential rivals and establishing a single-party state ruled by the party he established of course, the National Revolutionary Party. All political opposition was persecuted and that included his former communist “friends” of the PDPA. Relations also cooled with the Soviet Union as Daoud Khan, anxious to be his own boss, sought economic ties with India and Iran and the Middle East rather than Soviet Russia. Needless to say, the communists were soon plotting his downfall.

PDPA flag
Old enemies also rose again such as Islamic fundamentalists who were given aid by Pakistan which had not forgotten how Daoud Khan had tormented them in the past. Also, despite his attempts to change direction from his more socialist past, nepotism and corruption were as widespread as before. The Soviets helped unite the communist subversives in Afghanistan around the PDPA (other than the Maoists) and in 1978 Daoud was assassinated in a communist coup that brought the PDPA to power. However, there were still deep divisions among the communists and chaos ensued with one faction overthrowing another. However, a socialist state was established, land reforms (as they were called) were enacted and state atheism was imposed on what was still a zealously Muslim country. Almost immediately there was an anti-communist resistance movement and the rulers called on the Soviet Union for help. Despite some initial reluctance, by the end of 1979 the USSR invaded Afghanistan to prop up the communist government. Most probably know what happened next. Soviet military power was able to hold the cities but the countryside remained dominated by anti-communist, mostly Islamist, guerilla forces support by funds and war materials from the United States. This soon brought about a stalemate and increasing frustration for the Soviets in a situation that resulted in many referring to Afghanistan as “Russia’s Vietnam”.

The exiled King Zahir Shah had been barred from the country by the PDPA and an Afghan civil war was the last thing he wanted to see. Nonetheless, during the Reagan administration he was sought out as an opposition leader and cautiously and tentatively agreed to become the leader of a government-in-exile for Afghanistan. However, this was something the most powerful rebel factions would not agree to as they were determined to have a theocratic republic rather than a monarchy and so the concept fell apart. By 1989 the last of the Soviet military forces left Afghanistan (in utter disgust and frustration) while in Afghanistan the fighting continued between the Afghans themselves. The King had little to nothing to do with Afghan politics during this time, though he was still a sufficiently contentious figure that he was nearly assassinated in 1991. Another government emerged but the country was still almost completely lawless and it was opposed by the Taliban militia that was supported by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. In 1996 the Taliban secured control of most of the country though areas remained contested by the United Front opposition.

"Father of the Nation"
In 2001, after refusing to turn over Osama bin Laden, U.S. and allied forces invaded Afghanistan and destroyed the Taliban regime. Almost immediately there were calls for the restoration of the monarchy under former King Zahir Shah as the only man who could unite all Afghan people and who was not tainted by the long series of civil wars. However, the U.S. government opposed this, preferring the (supposedly) more pro-American Hamid Karzai to be President of Afghanistan. Yet, it seems the former monarch did not want the position in exactly that way anyway saying, “I will accept the responsibility of head of state if that is what the Loya Jirga demands of me, but I have no intention to restore the monarchy. I do not care about the title of king. The people call me Baba (a term for a respected elderly man) and I prefer this title”. So, when the new post-Taliban government was formed Hamid Karzai became President and he granted the former king the title “Father of the Nation” which was abolished after the King died in 2007. There are currently no major political parties or factions in Afghanistan calling for the restoration of the monarchy, some favor the current republican regime, most advocate for a more Islamist government and there is still the (Maoist) Communist Party ever ready to cause trouble. However, recently, Prince Nadir Naim has emerged as a possible contender for power, a former aid and grandson of the last King (the son of a daughter of his) who is attracting some attention and positive press. He is the first royal to official enter the political race since the downfall of the monarchy, is dismissed by some as an outsider but supported by others who see the end of the monarchy as the point when things started going wrong for Afghanistan. Unfortunately, he has, as yet, not said that his goal is to restore the monarchy. He is running for President in the elections next year on a more general theme of national “restoration” as leader of the “Voice of the People” movement. He is also the nephew of Afghanistan’s first president, the one who overthrew his grandfather and ended the monarchy. Only time will tell how he fares in the chaotic world of Afghan politics.


  1. I fondly remember the time in my graduate class when my Professor asked what should have happened in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. I advocated the restoration of Zahir Shah though unfortunately nobody else in my class shared this view.

    1. I imagine they all advocated bringing democracy to Afghanistan, because as long as they have democracy everything will be wonderful! Most people view anything other than mob rule as horrific, and imagine that one form of government, democracy, can and will work anywhere, even though our experience in the Middle East should prove otherwise. Different cultures and people have different temperaments.

      "A constitution that is made for all nations is made for none."

      Joseph de Maistre

    2. And oddly enough it is usually those who claim to be all about "diversity" who want all peoples in the world to have the same type of government, the same lack of values, the same ideals, the same beliefs and the same economic system. Odd that.

  2. Indeed they advocated bringing democracy to Afghanistan, not realizing that Afghanistan was forged out of a disparate group of peoples united by Ahmad Shah Durrani, a monarch. It was the monarchy that made Afghanistan, held it together, and gave it a raison d'etre for otherwise it is a collection of warlords.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...