40 Years Of Hard Lessons


The fall of modern Afghanistan’s 225 year-old monarchy 40 years ago this week was a watershed moment in the country’s history. It defined, to a large extent, the next four decades and continues, to this day, to haunt Afghans as they struggle to restore stability in their country and normalcy in their lives. There are many lessons learned and parallels that can be drawn from the past as Afghans and the international community grapple with a complex transition that will underscore the end of a long foreign military mission, elections and the probability of reconciliation with brutal armed factions that continue to bleed the country.

Although the July 17, 1973 coup d’état headed by prince Mohamad Daoud that toppled his cousin King Zahir Shah was bloodless and welcomed across society because he was a known entity, the political consequences over the years, nonetheless, have been dramatic, and the human and economic costs expanded considerably after the bloody 1978 communist coup that overthrew the Daoud republic.

As a result of extreme upheavals, the country, more recently besieged by poor governance, weak institutions and capacities and, above all, a nagging insurgency with cross-border sanctuaries, has had a difficult time recovering despite a massive international intervention.

Although Afghans are naturally divided over the interpretation of segments of their past four decades of history, as most versions encompass some level of bias, there is, however, no one single person or entity to blame for this bleak outcome. The blame is shared among many actors. After all, Afghanistan underwent the most turbulent period of its history, with different internal and external players involved at different intervals. In relative terms, some tried to play a constructive role whereas others are seen as spoilers.

The country was – and still is – victimized by unwanted regional meddling, brutalized by pre-2002 undemocratic regimes, and held back by repressive and regressive ideological movements. Despite tremendous pressure, Afghans have shown great tenacity and faith when the odds were stacked against them.

Along the way, many opportunities have also been squandered. Although, the current window of opportunity that opened up after the ouster of the Taliban in 2001 is still open to try and fix the country and smooth over the damage of 30 years of warfare, many Afghans are concerned that it might close prematurely or out of expediency, and a unique opportunity would leave behind a fragile situation.

It is only in the past 12 years that any collective effort has been made – at a high cost to Afghans and donors alike – to correct the negative drift. This is why most Afghans are cautiously optimistic, want to protect their gains and want a comfortable level of certainty about their future. This is why some lessons from the past – granted that it was a different era – in conjunction with current realities can help them and their external backers steer the country toward better prospects, avoiding a repeat of misplaced priorities, miscalculation, and mismanagement, that might lead to a new round of conflict and despondency.

This is also what ordinary Afghans expect from their political leaders and from their friends in the international arena at this historically critical juncture. They see their leaders as excessively infatuated by the lure of power, unable to think and act strategically, and they see the internationals as not enough focused on making sure that the end-game is not lost.

Lessons for domestic consumption

The three mutually inclusive factors essential for political stability in the Afghan context are: Political resolve to defend and assure survival of a legitimate political order; critical-mass inclusivity aiming to strengthen national cohesion; and keeping key domestic and international constituencies engaged constructively.

Furthermore, possessing strategic vision, and leadership and communications skills are tools that can improve the quality of governance, crisis management and foster a healthy political environment to enable social and economic progress.

The constitutional monarchy that gave Afghanistan a taste of democratic rights and reforms from 1964 till 1973, did not crumble because of lack of tools or enablers, but because of a lack of political will to nurture and protect the legitimate democratic process, and keep key domestic constituencies onboard. For example, failing to ratify the crucial political party laws in the 1960s pushed some groups underground, and helped sow the seeds of militancy and military coups soon thereafter.

Even western democracies, including the US government, which showed little interest in Afghanistan during that stage of the Cold War, had no appreciation for the King’s democratic experiment and thought it was too advanced for what British colonial “specialists” have for more than a century wrongly assumed to be a primitive tribal society. Today, the same duplicitous argument is being made by anti-democratic and hegemonic powers in our neighborhood in order to keep the tribal areas underdeveloped and keep the international community at bay.

It is baffling to think that over the past century little effort was made to introduce the tribal regions, inhabited by more than 30 million people, to modern education and economic development. Instead, thousands of religious schools, mostly run by fanatics, were facilitated to radicalize the youth and turn them into Jihadi fodder.

The difference this time around is that on the Afghan side, we have a population that is tired of war, eager for normalcy and economic opportunity, and wanting basic rights and freedoms framed by moderate religious and cultural norms. Demographically, a youthful majority connected to cyber space is not ready to submit to Talibanization or any dictatorial despot.

As some analysts allege, feuds or conspiracies within the ruling clan or family have also contributed to turmoil in the past, as in the case of the 1973 coup. A return to clannish intrigue is not seen as a healthy alternative now or in the future.

Another concern relates to the ruling clique and the quality of a leader’s advisory team, which, in current times, is a question preoccupying many Afghans. While president Daoud is considered by many to have been a patriotic and progressive leader, he is also seen as an authoritarian who put an end to democratic practices, did not tolerate dissention and preferred to be surround by yes-men. Consequently, not only did the quality of governance deteriorate, but his time as a strongman was cut short by turncoats whose loyalties lay elsewhere.

Members of the same pro-Moscow leftist factions that helped him secure power in 1973, played a key role in overthrowing his regime and instigating a blood bath after the April 1978 coup.

One reason for this tragic turn of events has been the Machiavellian nature of zero-sum politics practiced by individuals and groups who are only bent on acquiring and retaining power in a discriminatory manner at any cost. Furthermore, not being able to define friend from foe, and resorting to ethnic-style politics has deteriorated public confidence in political elites and undermined social justice.

In other words, when politics intersects with corruption, as laws and values are trampled, the country inevitably faces instability leading to conflict. These are reason why there is little appetite in the country today for a system that is volatile and that cannot offer some level of predictability and sustainability.

The external context

Given Afghanistan’s precarious geography, this situation has been aggravated over the years by regional interference and manipulation that take advantage of Afghan systemic weaknesses and enable external agendas that manifest themselves in regional rivalries that harm the country.

Afghans have come to realize that their challenge has deep regional roots and are starting to look at longer-term options that would safeguard their interests. While mindful of the pitfalls, they expect their government to act responsibly and address the threats in a rational and realistic fashion, avoiding unnecessary entanglements or a weak disposition that does not reflect a wide consensus.

Over the past 40 years, the country experienced regime change on numerous occasions, ranging from hard left (as in the communist rule from 1978 to 1992 that included the brutal Soviet occupation decade) and hard religious right (under the Taliban/al Qaida from 1996 to 2001). In each case it was not a purely civil strife situation. There were – and continue to be – determined external players involved in support of their perceived interests.

The foreign meddler has tried to define the chaos as revolution, Jihad, civil war and ethnic war, but Afghans have learned to differentiate between home-made chaos, intervention that is welcomed and the kind that is not. That is why most Afghans have a hard time accepting Taliban brutality as Jihad, or even more comically, as “nationalism” versus foreign occupation. They remember that prior to 2001 when there were no Western troops in the country, the Taliban, affiliated to multi-national brigades of terrorists and regional Jihadists, brutalized their own Muslim compatriots.

By the end of his rule in 1978, President Daoud attempted a strategic, yet abrupt, volte-face from Soviet domination to Western rapprochement. He even courted Iran, moderate Arabs and Pakistan. It failed because of domestic intrigue, untimely miscalculation and the level of Soviet penetration in Afghan institutions.

In comparison, as the 2014 transition approaches, Afghans are once again faced with a decision to choose their strategic allies. Public sentiment in this regard seems to reflect a consensus in favor of international engagement, but, once again the ruling clique, dealing with intrigue and inconsistency, is putting the fate of the country in jeopardy.

Making demands that are unrealistic or resorting to conspiracy theories have hurt Afghan governments in the past, and will continue to hurt the country today and squander what is left of its opportunities.

The core of Afghan stability at this stage depends on a hands-off stance by its neighbors, especially Pakistan. This in turn requires a non-provocation stance by Afghans, while seeking a comprehensive regional (with international community assurances) understanding that can benefit all sides, and guarantee Afghan sovereignty and independence.

As we look back, judge past events and make historical analogies, future generations will do the same and will judge today’s developments based on our ability to understand, decide, manage and lead.

Not only should Afghans strive to interpret history with veracity, so that today’s leaders and future generations act responsibly and avoid repeating its cardinal errors, but they should also encourage the political class, which includes women leaders and youth movements in the neighborhood to educate the grassroots, adopt new methods and out-of-the box approaches to address contentious issues and recommend practical solutions.

Failing to do so can have grave consequences beyond Afghan borders, as the country’s turbulent history over the past 40 years has demonstrated.

Omar Samad is Senior Central Asia Fellow at New America Foundation, President of Silkroad Consulting, and former Afghan ambassador to France and Canada.