Mark O’Donald/U.S. Navy
World News /01 Dec 2018

The Fall of the Monarchy and Afghanistan

The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction recently wrote that the Taliban now controlled more territory than any time since 2001. This hard assessment is evidence that a military solution to this matter is futile. While a foreign solution might have been possible back in 2002, the time for this died with the King on July 23rd, 2007.

On the 11th of June, 2002, a Loya Jirga was held to transfer power to the Afghan Transitional Authority. While King Mohammed Zahir Shah had considerable support from the delegates, the United States decided to back Hamid Karzai instead.

Had the Bush administration not sidelined the King, these last 15 years might have been much different for Afghanistan. Indeed, the fall of the Monarchy in Afghanistan marked the downfall of the country.

Back in the coup of July 17, 1973, Afghan republicans and communists had put an end to a system, which despite its defects, had achieved a certain degree of stability and democratic progress not known before in the history of their country.

Indeed, between the early 1950s and 1973, Afghanistan with its beautiful landscapes, saw an increasing number of schools, doctors, teachers, and tourists in the country. And even though by the early 1970s, King Mohammed Zahir Shah had lost much of his political significance, the monarchy had been the only institution that had enjoyed the recognition and acceptance of political authority from a population divided along tribal, ethnic, and religious lines.

Afghan Kings had always been the main champions of the modernization processes of the country and had been supported by both tribal and religious leaders, as long as their power was not significantly threatened.

In the rush to achieve national unity, Mohammed Zahir Shah and his predecessors were always conscious of the need to integrate the country’s different ethnicities and to avoid the exclusive domain of power by the Pashtuns. The monarchy also enjoyed the advantage of being Pashtun, which at least in theory guaranteed the support of the main ethnicity.

If we exclude the period of King Amanullah Khan, the monarchy was always careful to avoid a confrontation with traditional norms or religious values, and this had paved the way for the Southern tribes to recognize their legitimacy.

The different Pashtun revolts that Mohammed Zahir Shah had to deal with had always been of a local nature or had been restricted to internal tribal interests. Indeed, these revolts were never supported by the great tribal leaders of the time.

But the Afghan Kings still viewed the tribes as a threat to their own authority and sought to force them to participate in the central government.

The monarchy also defended the rest of the ethnicities from discrimination. It promoted the integration of the Tajiks and other non-Pashtun peoples to important positions of the government. This gave the monarchy a great deal of respect from minorities, which viewed it as a break to Pashtun hegemony.

Then the Kings, except for Amanullah Khan, rarely confronted the power of the religious establishment, and instead tried to decrease it. Historically, the monarchs used the title of Amir al Mu’min (Commander of the Faithful), which gave them both religious and political authority.

Despite opting for the title of Shah from the 1920s, the monarchs enjoyed certain prestige as defenders of the Islamic State and Islam. As a matter of fact, Abdur Rahman Khan, had declared that the ability to wage Jihad rested solely with the King. This deprived tribal leaders and especially religious authorities from proclaiming that right.

Using religion as a fountain of political legitimacy, the monarchs were able to undermine tribal power and religious leaders. They did it skillfully by maintaining an Islamic discourse, which restricted their opponents from questioning their policies.

The title of ‘Amir’ gave them certain legitimacy that could not be superseded because it originated from God. This then neutralized tribal aspects of power and authority.

It is complicated to control the religious establishment in Afghanistan because Sunni Islam does not have a hierarchy and it is rather decentralized. This situation is made even worse because of topography.

But the monarchs still maneuvered around such complications. King Mohammed Nadir Shah tried to control and organize the body of the ulema, thinking that if it had some sort of structure then it would be easier to control.

He gave the ulema positions of power like in the sphere of justice, but never weakened the authority of the State. Since these reforms were implemented gradually the ulema accepted them and did not perceive the actions of the King as threatening Islam.

Then from the 1930s, his son, Mohammed Zahir Shah, advocated secular education and began the creation of a network of state madrassas to control the formation of the ulema.

He sought to construct a religious body that was more progressive and open to reforms. Of course, given the complexity, the successes of these policies were relative.

State madrassas were in urban centers, while traditional ones were all over the country. The ulema in traditional centers were therefore always the majority and the historical weakness of the Afghan state made it difficult to extend itself to rural areas.

In 1964, a 455 member Loya Jirga approved a new constitution. But Mohammed Zahir Shah’s desire to transform Afghanistan into a modern parliamentary monarchy was presenting to be much more difficult than expected.

The causes of the failure include the absence of a clear political ideology to orient the democratic process, political tensions triggered by Islamists and Communists, and the inability of traditional society to adapt to a modern political system.

The religious establishment passively accepted the secular nature of the new 1964 constitution because of the existence of state madrassas, the presence of Islamic experts and the King’s influence.

From 1964, the law guaranteed freedom of speech and freedom of thought as well as equality before the law. While these liberties were more theoretical than real, they were nevertheless an important advancement in the history of Afghanistan.

For example, Bareq Shafiyee, a communist poet, published a poem commemorating Lenin and used the term “doroud” to venerate him. This generated a backlash from the religious establishment because the term was restricted to prayer.

Mullahs in Kabul asked for Shafiyee to be incarcerated and for the direct intervention of the King, who ended up ignoring their demands. The mullahs were then forced back to their homes by the government.

The fact that the constitution of 1964 prohibited the participation of members of the royal family was another important example of modernity. But ironically, the best people to govern the country were the relatives of Mohammed Zahir Shah, due to their education and experience.

Then the absence of a law regulating electoral spending allowed those with more financial power, like tribal leaders and former state officials, to dominate the political process.

Afghanistan’s institutions have struggled to legitimize their authority in a country where rural society is tied to traditions and Islam, and where there are many different ethnicities that clash with each other.

For example, the peasantry has perceived anything that originates from the urban centers as a threat and a cause for distrust. Illiteracy continued being overly high and rural inhabitants were bribed by powerful individuals to vote for them.

Therefore, Kabul’s efforts to deliver modernity to rural areas failed due to the lack of support from the inhabitants and the inability of the State to explain why reforms were necessary.

Ethnic differences also played an important role in the political system. With Abdur Rahman Khan and his immediate successors, the influence of the Pashtunwali on politics was weakened.

In the 1960s these efforts were accelerated by Mohammed Zahir Shah and subsequent administrations. Nevertheless, even if the new political situation was perceived as positive by non-Pashtuns, they were still unsatisfied because the political system was largely dominated by Pashtuns.

It is evident that in Afghanistan, ethnic, tribal and religious diversity has complicated the construction of a national identity. This has then impeded a strong central authority.

The 1964 constitution was closer to Western texts than Islamic codes, even though it consecrated Islam as the religion of the state.

The consequence was that such a constitution became incompatible with the society that it had to rule over, and that Afghans never perceived it as an ideological guide.

The absence of a dominant ideology led the Afghan intelligentsia, concentrated in Kabul, to be vulnerable to the influence of radical ideologies like Marxism or Islamism, especially when the government was incapable of resolving problems.

Freedom of the press was used by the most extreme groups to spread their ideas and led to a radicalization of politics. This stopped the King from authorizing the legalization of political parties.

Such an action was a grave strategic miscalculation, since the King had impeded the development of moderate political parties, while allowing radical groups to influence urban society and debilitate democracy.

What this ought to teach us is that if the Afghan Kings confronted great difficulties in building a modern nation-state then we cannot be so arrogant to think that we will be successful if we just dedicate more soldiers and finances.

It is time to be realistic and conclude the discussion about withdrawing from Afghanistan.

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