During the last decade, I have written about many possible solutions to Afghanistan’s failed-state status, but none more controversial than this: It’s time for a return to monarchy.
In 1973, Afghan king Mohammad Zahir Shah – who ruled for 40 years – was overthrown in a bloodless palace coup by his cousin, Sardar Mohammad Daoud Khan. Since then, we’ve seen 45 years of misery for Afghans.
The country sank into a bloody civil war, millions of Afghans were killed or forced to leave their country, and Daoud’s self-proclaimed “democratic” party (headed by communists) faltered, leading to the Soviet invasion. That war was followed by the Taliban takeover and its Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, US soldiers arrived, launching the longest war in their history, which continues to this day.
When I suggest a return to monarchy, I am not advocating the classical rule-by-tyrant. Far from it. I am calling for a monarchy like Jordan’s, where the king protects democratic progress. It is not so important what a system is called (democracy, republic, monarchy), only that the system brings stability and guards individual rights.
As Walt Whitman wrote in Democratic Vistas, “The purpose of democracy is not wealth, or even equality; it is the full flowering of individuals."
Then why a monarchy, rather than a democratic republic?
Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic society with regions and tribes that have practiced self-rule for millennia. From 1933 to 1973, the monarchy of King Zahir Shah served as the glue that kept these regions from ethnic conflict. Although Afghan rulers hailed from Pashtun tribes of the Durrani dynasty in the south, they pursued modernization and welcomed non-Pashtuns into government.
The pace of progress toward inclusiveness accelerated during the monarchy. This era of political and social stability was highlighted by the signing of a new constitution in 1964 that changed the absolute monarchy into a constitutional one and gave women equal rights and access to education.
The king had a ceremonial role as head of state, not unlike Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, but during his reign, schools, universities and major infrastructure projects were built throughout the country. His Majesty was admired as a Baba or father of the nation.
To Americans, the idea of a monarchy may seem regressive, but think of successful monarchies in the world today: Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Japan, Jordan and, of course, the United Kingdom, which still has the word “king” in its name. For Afghanistan, the right monarch could restore peace and order.
Despite all the might and money rendered by the US, Afghanistan still flounders.
President Trump’s strategy seemed to be more bombs, but it hasn’t helped. US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis hinted at a new approach during a surprise visit to Kabul recently when he said, “We do look toward a victory in Afghanistan. Not a military victory on battlefields, but in facilitating a Taliban reconciliation with the Afghan government.”
But even peace with the Taliban will not solve the Afghan conflict unless Afghanistan changes its political system.
Afghanistan’s current constitution puts too much responsibility in the hands of the president; every government action, from appointing governors to hiring minor employees, must bear the president’s signature. As a result, government has ground to a halt, and so has the economy.
The US seeks to coerce the Taliban and its de facto sponsor – Pakistan – to the negotiating table. Perhaps it would throttle back some violence if the Taliban had a voice in government.
But as a native of Afghanistan who worked as a NATO forces interpreter for 10 years, I believe the conflict in Afghanistan will not be solved without a comprehensive understanding of the cultural and ethnic dynamics of the country. These conflicts cannot be fixed simply by foreigners applying pressure.
The Taliban still carries out deadly attacks on Afghan security forces and suicide bombings in Kabul and other major cities. Some members of Parliament, politicians and prominent tribal elders are calling for President Ashraf Ghani and his CEO Abdullah Abdullah to step down when their term ends next year; they advocate the convening of a Loya Jirga (an assembly of tribal and other influential figures) to select a transitional government. But no Loya Jirga or US military effort will end the Afghan conflict. Nothing in 45 years since the fall of the monarchy has solved the problems.
The 2014 Afghanistan presidential election between Ghani and Abdullah ended up in a quagmire, each claiming victory, bringing governmental affairs to a halt for almost a year.
If it weren’t for the mediation of US Secretary of State John Kerry, who brokered a deal between the two contenders to share power and a “national unity government,” the country could have fallen into another civil war. Four years later, both men are reportedly in constant quarrels.
Recently, representatives from more than 20 countries and organizations met in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to discuss the Afghanistan problem. They came from the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia and Central Asian nations, among others.
But despite their good will, no foreigner can impose peace on a fractured state like Afghanistan. It begs for a home-grown solution, perhaps even a monarch in the tradition of King Zahir, who can hold together disparate tribes and provinces. It’s worth a try. Nothing else has worked.