Exploring the Graveyard: A Concise Historical Account of Afghanistan (Part 1: Monarchs)

Devon Douglas-Bowers I Geopolitics I History I March 26th, 2014

Thirteen years. It's been thirteen long, dangerous, painful years that we've been there. We have suffered over 2,000 dead soldiers and spent virtually $700 billion on the war in Afghanistan. The polls have shown a decrease in the number of people who support the war and yet we are still there.

Due to the incompetence and complicity of the mainstream media, there is little to no serious historical or geopolitical analysis of Afghanistan and how US interests have helped to create today's situation.

The Monarchy

Unlike the ethnic and religious tensions that plague Afghanistan today, the country was not in constant strife or under religious rule in the past, but rather it was ruled by a monarchy. The first monarch was Amir 'Abd al-Rahman, who founded his rule on "divine right" and laid "a theoretical foundation for the monarchy at the same time that he spread the power of the central government over the country through a centrally-controlled bureaucracy, backed by a strong standing army."[1] Over time, the nature of the regime changed. A significant change occurred in the 1950s when Afghanistan shifted its regional politics and, rather than turn west to the US and its allies, turned to the Soviet Union.

Mohammed Daoud Khan became the Afghan Prime Minister in 1953. He was an admirer of the former Afghan king, Aman Allah, who ruled in 1923 and, among many things, oversaw the country's move towards independence, "acquired a written constitution and various other new laws," "entered into diplomatic, commercial, educational, and developmental agreements with foreign countries," and "embarked on a comprehensive scheme of modernization to transform - almost overnight - the basically conservative society into a modern one."[2] In the same vein as Aman Allah, Khan sought to modernize Afghanistan, using Soviet aid to bolster the country's army and infrastructure.

These changes, along with increased education and socioeconomic reforms, led to the creation of a middle class which was not content with elements of the monarchy. Sensing these sentiments, in 1962, Khan moved to propose reforms to the monarchy that would allow the people more say in the nation's affairs. Specifically, he stated that, since "the intelligentsia desired change and various kinds of ideologies were secretly active, the present system of government was no longer viable;" and that a way to change the government while still allowing for the existence of the monarchy was to transition to a new system "based on a constitutional monarchy, parliamentary democracy, and the legalization of either one or two political parties," [3] with the king being the head of state, the executive branch being responsible for carrying out domestic affairs, and the inclusion of an independent judiciary.

These reforms were proposed at a time when the nation was virtually bankrupt, dependent on the Soviet Union, and faced with a number of coups that were taking place in the Greater Middle East region. While the political and economic climate pushed the monarchy to embrace the proposed reforms, the king was suspicious of Khan, viewing him as autocratic and thinking that the reforms would allow the ambitious Prime Minister to gain control of the country by de facto rule. Only when Khan submitted his resignation did the monarch begin to implement the reforms, and they were done in such a manner that constitutionally strengthened his own position in Afghanistan's hierarchy. The king had hoped this self-serving approach to modifying the constitution would allow him the means to better connect with the middle class and rural areas. However, it would ultimately lead to his downfall.

Eventually, Afghanistan would garner attention not only from the Soviet Union, but also from its neighbor to the east, Pakistan, as well as the United States.

Soviet Union

The Soviets first became interested in Afghanistan in the 1950s. The political dynamics of the region changed greatly with the death of Stalin and the arrival of Mohammed Daoud Khan as Afghan Prime Minister in 1953. Khan looked toward the Soviets for "rapid economic development and a quick solution to the Pashtunistan issue." In time, Afghanistan would become more dependent on the Soviets as a result of Cold War maneuvering. In 1955, when the US refused to give Afghanistan military aid, the Soviet Union capitalized by pledging a $100-million "long-term loan" and providing direct military assistance."[4] Between 1953 and 1963, the two countries became extremely friendly as the Soviets provided developmental assistance in building infrastructure, such as roads and airfields, as well as gas pipelines that could transport natural gas from the Soviet Union to Afghanistan.

In the 1970s, the Soviets ramped up aid to Afghanistan. Standard economic aid increased to $150 annually in 1974, and military aid more than doubled from $66 million in 1971-72 to $137 million in 1973-74. The result was an Afghan military that was essentially created and modernized by the Soviet Union.

Up to 1978, the main goals for the Soviets in Afghanistan were "conducting mutually beneficial trade relations," "using Afghanistan to support the programs of Soviet foreign policy," "using Afghanistan as a model of relations between states with different social systems," and using Soviet aid to develop dependency and turn Afghanistan into a client state.[5]

The United States

For much of the 1950s and 60s, the United States, strangely enough, had little interest in Afghanistan even though the Soviet Union was increasing its influence there. The US foreign policy agenda considered a potential alliance with Afghanistan as offering little hopes of cooperation and usefulness. Afghanistan wasn't an important trading partner, had no strategic resources, and didn't provide the US with any kind of military or intelligence facilities.

While the Daoud government claimed US aid was contingent on the Afghan government's willingness to sign mutual security agreements or join the Baghdad Pact, Washington argued that "some of the Afghan military wanted to join the pact but demanded assurances that they would be defended by the United States if their acceptance of arms aid precipitated a Russian invasion or major subversive efforts inside Afghanistan." [6] If true, this would have been problematic for the US, which hadn't the regional presence or capability to aid in the defense of Afghanistan.


The problems between Afghanistan and Pakistan go back to 1947, stemming from demands made by the Afghan government for the creation of Pashtunistan, a region incorporating parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where, historically, the Pashtun people have lived. Pashtunistan dates back to "the Durand Line in 1893, dividing Pashtun and Baluch tribes living in Afghanistan from those living in what later became Pakistan." [7] Over the 1950s and 60s, series of small clashes took place between Afghanistan and Pakistan, with both countries (mainly Pakistan) responding with diplomatic removals and, at one point, from September 1961 to June 1963, "diplomatic, trade, transit, and consular relations between the countries were suspended."[8] Eventually, due to Afghanistan's deteriorating economy, the Afghan monarch, King Zahir Shah, sought the aforementioned Daoud Khan's resignation "on the basis that the country's economy was deteriorating due to his position regarding the Pashtun tribes in Pakistan."[9] Daoud Khan resigned his position in March 1963 and was succeeded by Dr. Mohammed Yousuf, a change of guard that improved relations between the two countries almost immediately.

Fall of the Monarchy

On July 17, 1973, Lieutenant General (Prince) Mohammad Daud Khan, cousin and brother-in-law of the King, along with a small number of young army officers, led a coup against Afghan king Zahir Shah.

The military went along with the coup, a development most likely tied to Soviet involvement, which had long required Afghan military officers to "take courses in dialectical and historical material and in the history of the international communist movement" in return for military aid. "Whether these officers were really communists is highly debatable, but there is no doubt that they were against the establishment and in favor of social justice." This, combined with the fact that junior offices were paid low wages, regularly faced harsh disciplinary actions, and in some cases were given to senior officers as domestic servants - as well as their newly found "democratic outlook, which was shaped by the conditions of an egalitarian society and the Islamic concept of social justice, and was reinforced by the Marxian view of social justice and morality as practiced in Russia" [10] - resulted in the junior officers viewing the monarchy as the highest form of social injustice.

On a larger societal level, many were fed up with the king as the economic situation was becoming more and more precarious due to increased dependence on foreign aid for its revenue and from 1969-1972. A massive drought also occurred during this time, and not only did it further damage the dominant agrarian economy but, due to corruption, much of the relief aid which was provided to assist with agriculture was siphoned off by officials who then sold the aid on the black market.

In regards to foreign policy, the Afghan public was not too pleased with the king's concessions to Iran. The government had agreed to give Iran some of the Helmand River water in exchange for oil; however, due to the drought and an increased suspicion of Iran's regional aims, the Afghan people expressed "strong feelings that the government had betrayed national interests in return for financial inducements." In relation to Pakistan, the Pashtunistan issue came to the fore once again with "the defeat of the Pakistani army in Bangladesh in December 1971, and the dismissal of the National Awami Party government in Baluchistan in February 1973."[11] Many who were keen on the Pashtunistan issue - Daoud Khan among the - felt this was the time for Afghan interests to be reasserted.

The monarchy was overthrown due to its failure to preserve military support. As soon as those circumstances changed, the power of the monarchy effectively ceased to exist.

Upon receiving news of the coup, the US government worried that it "might well change the ultimate power balance in South and Southwest Asia," and openly wondered if the coup had been engineered by the Soviets. In response, the Soviet Union maintained a rather calm demeanor, noting in the news that "Afghanistan had been proclaimed a republic" and "things were generally under control."[12]

Yet, just like hate begets hate and evil begets evil, Daoud Khan's ascension to the Presidency via a coup would ultimately come back to haunt him less than a decade later.


[1] Hasan Kakar, "The Fall of the Afghan Monarchy in 1973," International Journal of Middle East Studies 9:2 (1978) pg 195

[2] Kakar, pgs 197-198

[3] Khan, pgs 198-199

[4] Khalid Nawaz Kahn, Soviet Interests in Afghanistan and Implications upon Withdrawal, Defense Technical Information Center, http://www.dtic.mil/get-tr-doc/pdf?AD=ADA229568, June 1, 1990

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Khan, pg 212

[11] Fred Halliday, "Revolution in Afghanistan," New Left Review 1:112 (1978), pg 20

[12] Shaheen F. Dil, "The Cabal in Kabul: Great-Power Interaction in Afghanistan," The American Political Science Review 71:2 (1977), pgs 474-475