Could monarchy have saved Afghanistan?

America’s republican prejudices stopped them from restoring a unifying king

Artillery Row

The United States is the Great Republic. It defeated King George’s men at Yorktown and saw — and sees — itself as a bulwark against monarchical despotism. Through gritted teeth sitting monarchs are tolerated, but it goes against their grain. Success stories such as Japan, when America allowed Hirohito to remain Emperor and Cambodia’s Sihanouk are balanced against the failed attempt to keep Reza Palevi on the Peacock throne in Tehran. But for Washington, restoring a deposed monarchy is a step too far.

In the case of Afghanistan, America’s refusal to countenance the return of Zahir Shah may well have proved to be their greatest failure of imagination yet.

It was 25 September 2001, less than a fortnight after the atrocities of 9/11 and I was in Rome, ostensibly to discuss the latest European Union development amongst fellow members of the European People’s Party at the Pamphilj Palace. They were going to draft a constitution for the continent. Instead, we found ourselves in a rain-stained, brutalist villa in Oligata, a gated community on one of Rome’s outer hills. Inside sound was muffled by old, but exquisite, carpets, deadening our shoeless approach. The walls hung with a plethora of photographs, mostly monochrome and sepia: men, men in uniforms, men in beards.

We were there to discover if the old man was interested, or even able, to take up the reins again

We were ushered into the garden room, there, on cane furniture, sat two old men. One, slightly-sunken of face but alert and with a smile waltzing over his lips, the other of a more military bearing. Dust eddied in the shafts of light as we passed, then settled as we did. We were visiting the 86 year old Zahir Shah, King of Afghanistan for 40 years between 1933 and 1973. With him was Lieutenant-General Sardar Abdul Wali Khan, who acted as an interpreter, it was entirely unnecessary as the King would answer in accurate though halting English.

We were there to discover if the old man was interested, or even able, to take up the reins again. His time as monarch (ended in a palace coup by his cousin, Mohamed Daud) had been one of unprecedented peace and prosperity for the mountain kingdom. In the late 1960s he introduced a new democratic constitution. Amongst other things, it guaranteed women’s rights and elections. He was also someone who was able to garner loyalty not just from his native Pashtun people, but from the Hazara, Tajik and Uzbeck minorities and the confidence of many of the regional powers.

The exiled king spoke of his visceral love for the country. That and his deep sadness. How, from his Roman exile he had seen his land first became a dictatorship after a palace coup, then a Soviet satellite state, ending in a Soviet inspired coup, the Soviet invasion of 1979 and the civil war that saw the death of 400,000 of its citizens between 1979 and the fall of the Taliban. Estimates suggest upwards of 10 per cent of the entire population were killed during that period, a salutary realisation that even 20 years ago Afghanistan had been a killing field for the previous 20 years.

It was clear that Zahir was prepared to return. He had been speaking to people back home and to powerful exiles — known later as the Rome Group. He had lost a supporter only weeks before in Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panshir, whose Al-Qaeda directed assassination (by Moroccans out of Molenbeek) two days before 9/11 had been a medieval blood offering from bin Laden to secure Taliban protection for his pan-national terrorist group. A few weeks after our visit perhaps his most important Pashtun ally, Abdul Haq, was betrayed to the Taliban by our supposed allies in Pakistan and was executed.

Things were looking promising but Pakistani Intelligence was uncomfortable with the prospect of a moderate in power

These events had not dimmed the king’s desire to do what he could for the nation. He had told us he would do anything to secure peace. As he went on to do. Within a week of our meeting, he had made an informal agreement with the anti-Taliban Mujahedeen of the Northern Alliance. 

Soon the concrete villa hosted a cavalcade of international politics, Francesc Vandrell, the UN special envoy arrived, followed by the French and Italian Foreign Ministers, Hubert Vedrine and Renato Ruggiero. Next came the leader of the House of Representatives, Curt Weldon, with an 11-member US congressional delegation and Richard Haas, then Colin Powell’s deputy at State soon after. The King sent his advisor and former Justice Minister — the Columbia educated Abdul Sattar Sirat — back to Kabul. He was the initial favourite to become the interim Prime Minister, winning the support of the Bonn conference, but because of his Tajik ethnicity was asked to step aside by the Americans on behalf of the Pashtun, Hamed Karzai. Sirat even had the partial support of the Taliban to become Prime Minister as a unifying influence (in large part due to the prior work of Abdul Haq).

At this point things were looking promising for a return of the king. But Pakistani Intelligence, the ISI, was uncomfortable with the prospect of a moderate in power in Afghanistan, and was even less happy by the combination of a Pashtun king, with the support of the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara dominated Northern Alliance having political power.

Zahir at no time demanded the throne — indeed the Tajik, former President and leader of the Jamiat-e Islami rejected the idea out of hand — his offer was to convene a Loya Jorga, a gathering of all the tribal notables to create a new constitution.  In November of that year the Bonn conference, which included all Afghan factions barring the Taliban, supported him as the interim leader. 

And yet, by the time Zahir returned to Kabul with Hamed Karzi, the US had gone completely cold on the idea. Now their chosen man was Karzai, soon after American-led forces had driven the Taliban out of Kabul in 2002.  It is clear that the US’s retreat from supporting the monarchical option was in part driven by their ties with the Pakistani ISI, for years they had starved the moderate Afghan nationalist Haq of support whilst feeding the Islamist factions of the Northern alliance.

Just before we left the villa, I asked the king what had been his proudest boast of his 40 years as monarch

When the king arrived to convene the Loya Jirga which appointed Karzai to the presidency, the pass had already been sold.  

 The US, though it was aware of the possibilities of an Afghan solution to an Afghan problem, and a solution that could have utilised the residual loyalty of the Afghan peoples, decided against. The rest is dour, bloody history.

Just before we left the villa, I asked the king what had been his proudest boast of his 40 years as monarch. I expected him to talk about peace, or his modernising constitution. He smiled, partially inwardly, and his eyes shone: “Oh, when I became king there was no sport to unite us, but I borrowed the sport of Buzkashi from the Tajiks and gave it to the nation. Now it is our national sport, played everywhere”.

Buzkashi is a form of polo crossed with warfare where teams of riding men try to get a goat carcass into a goal. It is immensely popular in Afghanistan. It was banned by the Taliban but has had a huge resurgence. I suspect it will be banned again.

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