Afghan king, paradoxical voice for secularism, dead at 92

Afghanistan has announced three days of official mourning for the country’s former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, 92. Announcing his passing, President Hamid Karzai, a relative, hailed Zahir Shah as the “father of the nation.” (RFE/RL) An editorial bidding him farewell in Arab News states: “Today, with the country seemingly sliding again into violence, it is not surprising that many Afghans look back on the 40 years that Zahir Shah reigned, from 1933 to 1973 when he was overthrown by his cousin, as a golden age. As well as peace and stability, there was also reform. Zahir Shah was a king who saw himself as an enabler rather than a ruler and who wanted to democratize his country. He did not want or enjoy personal power… Sadly it was his desire to reform that led to his overthrow. His 1964 constitution barring members of the royal family from involvement in politics was bitterly resented by his ambitious cousin Mohammad Daoud, against whom it was in part directed. Daoud’s coup opened a Pandora’s Box that has proved impossible to close ever since.”

That 1964 constitution also established a parliament and instated legal gender equality for the first time—both gains to be reversed in the generation of war and reaction following the king’s ouster. Zahir Shah returned from exile in Rome in 2002, committed to helping build democracy in his nation. It was only as members of his delegation that the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), by far the most progressive presence on the Afghan political scene today, won a seat at the November 2001 Bonn conference which established the Afghan interim government. As paradoxical as it may seem, Zahir Shah was—during his reign, and, to the extent possible, after his return from exile—a force for secular nationalism and a course independent of the superpowers. Even if Afghanistan is lucky enough to now achieve the former—still gravely in doubt—the latter isn’t even on the table today. Concludes Arab Times: “It is said that it was Washington that opposed him having any constitutional role in the new Afghanistan, believing that he would not fit in with the democratic environment it hoped would emerge. Perhaps not, but the re-emergence of the Taleban now puts the whole democratic vision into jeopardy. He was an asset sadly wasted.”

We suspect Washington had other reasons for wanting to sideline the former monarch. It was US pressure at the June 2002 Loya Jirga that assured the more compliant Karzai would become head of state, and the US even engaged in behind-the-scenes intrigues to delay Zahir Shah’s return from exile. One factor was assuredly the need to appease Washington’s proxies in the Northern Alliance, Tajik fundamentalist warlords who opposed Zahir Shah both for his ethnicity (Pashtun) as well as his secularism. But another factor may have been memories of Zahir Shah’s reign, when Afghanistan joined the Non-Aligned Movement and resisted embroilment in the Cold War. Even as the US intervened in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9-11, at least some Pashtun anti-Taliban insurgents loyal to the king (in contrast to their Northern Alliance counterparts) protested Washington’s bombing campaign as likely to play into Taliban hands by exacting a heavy toll in civilian casualties. These warnings seem all too prophetic today as US air strikes and “collateral damage” continue—and Afghanistan witnesses a Taliban resurgence.

And Zahir Shah did not seek a “constitutional role” in the post-Taliban order, other than the purely symbolic title of “father of the nation.” When Pashtun warlord Bacha Khan Zadran threatened to take up arms in the king’s support in 2002, Zahir Shah disavowed him, stating, “No one who disturbs the peace of the nation will have my support.”

You can tell much about a man from the enemies he makes. And it seems that from the war-torn mountains of Afghanistan to the corridors of power, Zahir Shah had all the right enemies.

See our last post on the Afghanistan.