A monarchical system of government may sound regressive to Westerners, but Afghanistan once thrived under monarchy, and the existing Western-imposed government is destined to fail.
Something must change in Afghanistan. The status quo will never do.
On April 30 two bombings in Kabul killed at least 25 persons, including nine journalists – the deadliest single attack involving journalists in Afghanistan since at least 2002, and one of the most lethal. This came as Afghan president Ashraf Ghani offered an unconditional peace plan to end the war. The Taliban then announced their spring offensive. There seems no hope for peace.
President Trump’s strategy to address the conflict in Afghanistan has been a moving target since his first days in office. First, he disparaged the idea of “nation-building.” Then he vowed to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan. More recently, he seems to have shifted to favoring a political solution, as signaled by remarks from U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis during a surprise visit to Kabul in March.
“We do look toward a victory in Afghanistan,” Mattis said. “Not a military victory—the victory will be a political reconciliation” between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
Yet there’s no reason to believe any reconciliation forged within the current political system will bring lasting peace.
The hostilities in Afghanistan can never be solved without a full reckoning with the country’s tribal culture and ethnic dynamics. Fierce, competing internal forces exacerbate conflicts in a region that has been plagued by foreign invaders for centuries. Neither a blizzard of bombs nor peace with the Taliban will lift the country out of its violent quagmire. Disparate factions continually weaken central government, and that doesn’t figure to change even if the Taliban is given a seat at the table.
But there is another option. As a native of Afghanistan who has worked for the past 10 years as an interpreter for NATO forces, I believe the country needs a complete overhaul of its political system and the re-establishment of a constitutional monarchy.
To Americans, the idea of monarchy may seem regressive. But Afghanistan is a country where monarchy has been shown to work. It was not so long ago—during the reign of Mohammad Zahir Shah, from 1933 to 1973—that a king presided over a period of striking political and social stability.
During the Shah’s four-decade reign, the pace of social and political reform in Afghanistan accelerated. In 1964, the adoption of a new constitution for the first time recognized women’s equal rights and allowed them access to education in a society long dominated by men.
When I share with American friends photographs of life in 1960s Kabul—a cosmopolitan city where men and women, dressed in Western attire, worked and attended school and university together—they shake their heads in disbelief. “Are you are kidding me?” they say, because their only experience is an Afghanistan torn by war, suicide bombings and never-ending suffering.
The roots of Afghanistan’s present-day troubles go back to 1973, when the Shah was overthrown in a bloodless coup by his cousin Mohammed Daud Khan, who was seeking to avenge his dismissal as prime minister. Daud Khan ruled as president until his assassination in 1978, after which the country sunk into a bloody war. The young pro-Soviet officers who overthrew Daud Khan faced stiff resistance from a religious and tribal establishment.
Afghanistan evolved into a democratic republic ruled by communists who promised land reform, free housing, and education and economic prosperity, but failed to deliver. Instead, they eradicated their opponents with a campaign of terrorism and imprisonment, which was followed by an invasion of Soviet forces to support their clients in Kabul. Soon Afghanistan was roiling in blood as the US-backed Mujahedeen and other groups vied for political power. The result was a breakdown of law and order and hundreds of thousands of deaths.
The Taliban eventually was able to seize control, and Afghans embraced these fighters who promised citizens they would restore much-needed law and order. Citizens believed that the rise of the Taliban would clear the path for a return of the king because they knew the king enjoyed broad support among Afghans, and because the Taliban were mainly Pashtun from Kandahar. The Taliban also promised citizens that they would not seek political hegemony and would instead allow the people to chose their own political destiny.
Unfortunately, the citizens were misled on all counts. After disarming their opponents and taken control over most of the country, the Taliban established The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and imposed their own restrictive interpretation of Islam on citizens.
Later, when America was dropping bombs on Taliban targets, Afghans and the U.S. government were searching for a leader to fill the political vacuum that was certain to emerge after the Taliban’s fall.
To many, the former king looked like the best option. He was a symbol of moderation, and Afghans were tired of the Islamic regime and sharia law imposed by the Taliban. They enjoyed the distinct line between government and religion during the king’s four-decades reign.
In 2001 BBC reported that about 10,000 people gathered in a football ground to hear speakers call for moderate Afghans to decide their own future by calling for Afghan tribal gathering, a Loya Jirga, under the former king’s supervision.
At the same time, I was a freelance journalist, and traveled to Rome to interview the Shah, who was in exile there. I encountered intellectuals, influential tribal leaders and militia commanders from Afghanistan, along with foreign dignitaries, all of whom had flocked to Italy to express their support for the king’s return to head a revived constitutional monarchy.
In December of that year, Germany hosted the Bonn Conference, where a group of Afghan delegates representing different ethnic groups (including the king’s own delegation, headed by Abdul Satar Syrat, a former justice minister) met to decide on the future of a post-Taliban Afghanistan. But two major things went terribly wrong.
First, the Taliban, who controlled most of the country, were excluded from participation. The Northern Alliance—a united front made up mostly of Tajiks that had helped the U.S. to overthrow the Taliban (which is comprised mostly of Pashtuns)—leveraged their military gains to usurp most government positions. The relatively few remaining positions were filled based on religious, regional and tribal affiliations, which stoked resentment among Pashtuns, who felt disfranchised.
Second, the king’s delegate, Syrat, was blocked from heading the provisional government pending the convening of a loya jirga (a tribal council of ethnic, religious and tribal leaders to settle matters of national importance). Instead, delegates in Bonn chose Hamid Karzai, a relative unknown from the south. Later, Syrat told supporters at a meeting in San Diego that delegates had voted for him, but that because he was an Uzbek, not a Pashtun, he was passed over in a secret deal between representatives of the Northern Alliance and Karzai, who is a Pashtun.
And now, despite the help of tens of thousands of U.S. troops and billions of U.S. dollars, the Afghan government teeters on the brink of collapse.
So would a return to monarchy with a Pashtun king be welcomed by Afghanistan’s multi-ethnic tribes? I believe it would, at least in part because it’s obvious that sham presidential elections have failed.
The 2014 election—b etween Ashraf Ghani, who had the support of Pashtuns, and Abdullah Abdullah, favored by the Tajiks—ended in deadlock, with each side claiming victory. Government affairs were brought to a halt for nearly a year. This was a perfect example of how democratic elections modeled on those in Western countries simply cannot work in Afghanistan, where political battles incite long-standing ethnic tensions.
If not for the vigorous mediation of John Kerry, then the U.S. Secretary of State, who brokered a deal for the two candidates to share power, the country’s civil war with the Taliban could have exploded into utter chaos. Even so, four years later, Ghani and Abdullah reportedly are quarreling constantly, and the government is dysfunctional. The Taliban still inflict deadly attacks on Afghan security forces, and Kabul and other major cities remain targets of horrific suicide bombings.
The atmosphere has become so chaotic that members of parliament, other politicians, and prominent tribal elders are calling for both Ghani and Abdullah to step down, although their term doesn’t end until next year. There is even talk of convening another loya jirga to select a transitional government until the 2019 presidential election.
But neither a tribal council nor further U.S. efforts can stop the violence in Afghanistan. After all, the U.S. has been in the country for 16 years, and Afghans have held many loya jirgas and peace talks since the fall of the monarchy.
If not for the 1973 coup, the Shah’s dynasty might have ruled the country to the present day. Re-establishing a constitutional monarchy—with the right king in place—could unify Afghanistan by bridging connections across ethnic, religious and tribal lines, which in turn would help quell the current spiral of violence. It worked for 40 years under King Zahir, Disparate tribes and provinces embraced his fair and gentle rule. It could work again.
One option would be to restore the Durani dynasty—comprised of Pashtun tribes—which could satisfy the Pashtun-dominated Taliban.
It may be in America’s interest to talk with the Taliban, but without a change in the current Afghan system, American political efforts are as likely to falter as its military ones. No foreigner can impose peace on a fractured state like Afghanistan. The country needs a homegrown solution—ideally, a monarch who would bring together the varied tribes and provinces. It’s worth a try. Nothing else has worked.