Richard S. Newell, Author
SINCE 1973 AFGHAN SOCIETY has experienced a series of shocks which has shattered its political institutions, devastated the physical infrastructure supporting its economy, decimated and scattered its population, and left open to question its prospects for government and even survival as a national community. There is no longer a monarchy presiding over a confederacy of Pushtun tribes and ruling over several culturally distinct minority communities. Political usurpation, foreign occupation, war and civil war have left Afghanistan in chaos, with a leadership incapable, so far, of initiating a process of recovery.
Intimately linked to Afghanistan's tragedy was the Soviet Union's collapse at the end of 1991. Its demise released the mostly Muslim peoples of Central Asia from the captivity of Cold War politics. Their governments have been freed from proxy service in superpower causes. European imperialist manipulation of the region which had shaped its politics since the early nineteenth century had suddenly come to an end.
Afghans now confront neighbors who are awakening to new opportunities. Afghans struggle with the irony that the anarchy which has followed their successful defiance of a superpower could lead to their dissolution as a nation. Interference by neighbors became a major factor in Afghan politics before the Soviet military withdrawal. It became profoundly destabilizing with the collapse of the Kabul Marxist regime in 1992.
Afghanistan's vulnerability to fragmentation has since become acute. Its internal rivalries have become increasingly identified with regional communities which it shares with neighboring nations. Every kilometer of its borders is a product of British or tsarist Russian imperial policy. The writ of those great powers having dissolved, such historical artifacts could also disappear in a new era of regional tumult and change. This chapter will focus on the forces and events which have led to Afghanistan's break with its past leaving it exposed to a profoundly uncertain future.
THE ATTEMPT TO MODERNIZE: 1953-73
Many Afghans look back with nostalgia on the generation of modernization, democratization and diverse foreign assistance that began shortly after World War II. For the royal family and its retainers, the challenge was to expand government functions while retaining control after nearly a century of hard won political consolidation. By the early 1950s, the government presented an obvious paradox. Its authority was stronger than ever, but acquiescence was problematic among large sections of the population. Special immunities maintained the loyalty of the eastern Pushtun tribes. The Shia Hazaras of the central Hazarajat still resented the brutal suppression they had suffered at the end of the nineteenth century. A Tajik rebel had seized control of Kabul as recently as 1929. In 1947 a revolt of the Safi tribe of the Ghilzai confederation had to be suppressed.
These challenges to royal authority firmly fixed the attention of the government on internal security. Its primary objective was enforcement of credible coercion over all challengers. Army officers were frequently appointed governors of sensitive provinces. The Ministry of Interior, with its mostly Pushtun senior staff, maintained an authoritarian and arbitrary posture. Bureaucratic coercion was imposed in the autocratic manner adopted from Persian tradition. Government presence thus bordered on colonialism in the minority regions of the north, west and center.
Such a heavy emphasis on control seriously limited resources available for development. And, while it served to make official authority appear formidable, the segmented and inward looking features of Afghan society assured that the government's writ was actually shallow on matters of most concern to rural and nomadic Afghans. Traditional patriarchal, patrilinear organization of households, lineages and clans determined local arrangements for property control, division of labor, dispute settlement, and for physical security. Government authority was kept at arms length.
Despite its own tribal heritage, the royal leadership was a foreign entity to most of its fellow Pushtuns. Persianized in language and partially detribalized in marriage and social relations, the royal and administrative hierarchy was sensitive to its cultural isolation. Its strenuous effort to impose Pushtu as the working language of government on the Persian- (Dari-) speaking bureaucrats was an indication of the monarchy's anxiety to be identified with Pushtun roots and sentiment. Its dispute with Pakistan over Pushtunistan was another means of identifying with Pushtuns.
The Decision to Accept Soviet Economic and Military Assistance
Within this condition of fierce appearance and shallow control ,Prime Minister Muhammad Daud and King Zahir Shah attempted to transform the structure and purpose of Afghan government. The most fateful innovation was Daud's decision to accept Soviet military assistance. This move would immensely increase the government's coercive powers, but at the risk of losing control of some military officers to Marxist indoctrination.
As prime minister, Daud maintained the royal style of ruling as an autocrat over a rigidly centralized bureaucracy, but he saw that significant economic and technological development required the broadening of educational, professional, and entrepreneurial opportunities previously monopolized by the royal family and court aristocracy. He also recognized the political implications of a rapidly growing professional and technocratic elite. He was the first royal leader to give major cabinet posts to commoners, for example.
His cousin, King Zahir Shah, then gambled that reforms offering a major political role to entrepreneurs, technocrats, professionals and managers could be devolved gradually without destroying the monarchy. This gamble turned out to be as portentous as Daud's acceptance of Soviet aid. In both cases the purpose was compelling, but implementation brought disaster. The consequences of both moves have demonstrated how fragile was the political fabric that held Afghanistan together.
Great physical developments were achieved under Daud. Dominated by the Soviet Union, the government began large scale constructions projects in the mid-1950s, building hydroelectric power plants, long-distance highways, and major civil installations. Shortly thereafter the United States, Western European nations, Japan, and United Nations (UN) agencies became heavily involved in the development of mining, agriculture, education, civil administration, and health.
The Constitutional Period, 1964-73
Zahir Shah replaced his cousin in 1963 with a cabinet of commoners who had earned doctorates abroad. He appointed a committee of other foreign educated Afghans to draft a new constitution. Its primary goals were to prepare the government and the people for gradual movement toward democracy and socio-economic modernization. The central concern of government was to shift from controlling the population to preparing it for new opportunities.
After public review the constitution was put into effect in October, 1964. A Loya Jirgah (grand council of notables) had debated, modified and approved its innovations, which included a bill or rights for all Afghans, explicitly including women. A new parliament was created, dominated by its lower house (the Wolesi Jirgah), which was to be elected through universal suffrage. It had the power to reject royal appointments to the cabinet and to dismiss it by a vote of no confidence. Laws passed by parliament were to have constitutional precedence over traditional Islamic law (the Sharia). Parliament was to meet regularly, not at royal pleasure as before. It could refuse budget increases, but could not reduce appropriations below the level of the previous year. Its members had control over the organization of parliament and enjoyed legal immunity for what they said in debate. Members had the right to form political parties, but their formation required legislation acceptable to the cabinet and, hence, the king.
Bold as its innovations were compared with the functional autocracy it replaced, the constitution was filled with provisions intended to assure that the royal government would not lose control. A wide constitutional gulf separated the cabinet from the parliament. The cabinet was to exercise the monarch's powers, including the initiation of all government policy and the invocation of emergency decrees. Cooperation between officials and legislators, integral to classical parliamentary systems, was discouraged. Legislators were prohibited from holding ministerial or other executive positions. The cabinet was assured control over the composition of the Meshrano Jirgah, the parliament's upper house.
Judicial restructuring and elective provincial councils were endorsed, but the constitution did not prescribe their structure or working arrangements. The failure to spell out a complete structure for the government leant a provisional character to the constitution. At least seventy articles required parliamentary legislation in order for them to take effect.
The constitution's democratic features were especially provisional. Ample authority was retained for the executive branch to slow, halt or reverse legislation. Nor was caution only displayed toward would-be overweening legislators. The most notorious provision in the constitution was its prohibition of official or political activity by any member of the royal family other than the monarch. The implications of this clause would soon haunt the constitutionalists. No means was provided for an increasingly restless Muhammad Daud to return to power without nullifying the constitution.
Shortly after its enactment, the vulnerability of the constitution to political realities became dramatically clear. The adversary relationship it created between the cabinet and the parliament brought about tragedy and an serious loss of political momentum. In October 1965, following the election of the new legislature, an impasse over its approval of the new cabinet brought about rioting and intervention by the army leading to the death of at least three student demonstrators. All sides were appalled except the leftist agitators who were led by Marxist legislators. The proposed cabinet was withdrawn, a reshuffled one under the leadership of Muhammad Hashim Maiwandwal, a senior diplomat, was approved with little opposition. Officials and legislators were faced with running the new system with hopes considerably dampened.
The liberal or constitutional experiment, which lasted for the next eight years, has been generally seen as a political failure. The cabinet and legislature were constantly deadlocked, unable to enact laws vital to the constitution or seriously weakening it through long delays. Legislators proved to be effective critics of the bureaucracy, which responded by holding back legislation to avoid scrutiny or lengthy disputes.
There was a wide social and cultural gap between the legislators and senior ministry officials. Few of the former had had the exposure to the modern education and foreign experience enjoyed by senior ministry officials. More than 90 percent of the Wolesi Jirgah members represented rural constituencies. Legislators had the right to lobby ministers and senior bureaucrats directly. Doing so was more rewarding than dealing with middle rank provincial officials who had less authority and information. The constitution discouraged executive-legislative cooperation on policy, but it did not prevent the give and take of patronage.
Disenchantment with the Reforms
Toward the end of the constitutional period, the Wolesi Jirgah became increasingly critical of the government. In May 1972 the incoming cabinet was subjected to nineteen days of denunciation of the previous cabinet before it was given grudging approval. Despite a heavy backlog of bills, foreign loan agreements, budgets and treaties, it found a quorum only once in two months in the autumn session of 1972. In its final session (Spring 1973), it reached a quorum once in eighty-two days.
Such legislative failures were crucial to the demise of the constitutional effort. The Jirgah's recalcitrance seriously affected the morale and discipline of the bureaucracy. In an atmosphere of contention both sides became increasingly frustrated and corrupt.
Government performance was unpromising in other areas. Economic development was moving from construction projects to more advanced operational phases. Afghan government departments and industrial units found the transition difficult. Productivity failed to keep up with the infusion of foreign money, bringing serious inflation to Kabul in the early 1970s.
As the rural population became increasingly aware of the concentration of modern facilities and industry in Kabul and a few other cities, signs of resentment assumed political importance. This mood changed to widespread anger when the government failed to respond promptly and adequately to a drought which ravaged the Hazarajat and much of northern Afghanistan in 1970-72. The experiment in democracy had brought few benefits to the most Afghans while economic opportunities and profits from corruption appeared to be monopolized by the elite.
Discontent was especially intense among the rapidly growing numbers of secondary and university students. Between 1967 and 1972 the number of secondary schools increased from forty to approximately 200. A much wider segment of rural and small town youth was graduating from the middle schools beneath them. By 1973 the number of secondary school graduates far exceeded the openings to higher education available at the university, the teacher training colleges, or the various technical institutions.
Previously, the rural population had been content with informal, largely religious, instruction offered by resident mullahs,which produced rudimentary literacy at best. By the late 1960s,villages throughout Afghanistan were volunteering materials and labor to construct school buildings and were clamoring for the government to send teachers. Education had become identified with upward social mobility.
In the early 1970s,the products of this burgeoning system were mostly converging on Kabul. The revolution in expectations had suddenly created a marginalized class which was unemployed or forced to accept work far beneath its expectations. Embitterment changed many students and graduates into recruits for radical and protest movements.
Marxist critiques of the constitutional experiment quickly appeared. In 1966 a newspaper published by the newly formed communist party branded the reforms an attempt to co-opt the expanding educated elite so that the monarchy could to retain power. Activist students on the Kabul University campus organized informal political and study groups that ran the spectrum from Maoism to the Islamist views of the Muslim Brotherhood. By 1970 the strongest of these had become well organized. The Marxists were foreign funded and advised. Led by a medical student, Najibullah (later to be president of the Marxist government), they took control of the student government. In the early 1970s, they lost it to their militant Muslim rivals.
Both sides opposed the government, and both movements flourished on the anxieties of students for whom jobs were suddenly scarce. Both also saw the political establishment as a corrupt impediment to their own opportunities, and both demanded radical changes in the structure of political power.
These problems and growing resentments gave Zahir Shah ample reason to doubt the viability of the constitutional experiment. His attempt to broaden and liberalize government had created growing opposition. It had not brought about a visible improvement in government performance, especially in planning and implementing development. Foreign assistance was declining--the Arab oil boom that brought new funding was still in the future. Sooner or later the survival of the government would again depend upon effective coercion. Zahir Shah had never directly associated himself with that side of statecraft.
The Shafiq Government: A Last Attempt at Reform
At the end of 1972 Zahir Shah named a close protege, Muhammad Moussa Shafiq, to be his prime minister. Bright, ambitious and apparently given royal encouragement to energize the flagging constitutional system, Shafiq appeared to breathe new life in the government during the first months of his term. He courted the legislature, giving time to testify before its committees and lobby its senior officers. His cabinet was approved without opposition. The Jirgah passed his two major legislative priorities, the Helmand Waters Treaty with Iran and authorization of an industrial development bank, which had languished in parliament for years. Shafiq opened his government to the press, providing substantive information on a daily basis. He did not introduce policy innovations, concentrating on demonstrating that the political logjam that had accumulated during the constitutional period could be cleared, that open government could work.
Shafiq also emphatically associated himself with the king, mostly through a flurry of press releases on their meetings and social engagements. Yet, in May, 1973 a few days before the legislature approved the Helmand Treaty, in a public speech he expressed doubts about solving Afghanistan's problems. Indirect evidence suggests he was aware that he had lost Zahir Shah's support. The treaty had generated criticism that the government had made concessions to Iran that would adversely affect Afghan farmers. It was an insinuation that affected popular opinion of the king.
Several weeks earlier a schedule for the third parliamentary elections had been announced for late summer. It came with no reference to an approval by the king of the political parties bill which had long since passed the legislature. Shafiq had lobbied hard for approval of the bill. Through his highly public use of his office, he had positioned himself to campaign actively for legislators who had supported his programs. Availability of a party organization would have greatly strengthened such an effort. With the king's refusal to act on the bill, Shafiq had good reason to believe that Zahir Shah had turned to other political options.
In July, 1973 the king took a vacation, partially for medical treatment, in Italy. While there he was ousted by his cousin, Daud, who made comfortable arrangements for his exile. Government would once again shift its priorities toward coercion.