When Afghanistan Almost Worked

Five decades ago, before the great powers intervened, Afghanistan was on a much better path than today. But the longed-for “decade of democracy” was soon shattered.

Former Afghan King Mohammed Zahir Shah arrives at Kabul’s international airport.
Former Afghan King Mohammed Zahir Shah (center), accompanied by then-interim leader Hamid Karzai (left), arrives at Kabul’s international airport on April 18, 2002, after nearly 30 years in exile. Natalie Behring-Chisholm/Getty Images

While U.S. troops and NATO allies prepare for their withdrawal, many older Afghans are invoking a brief shining moment—call it their “Camelot” moment—when Afghanistan almost became a modern democracy on its own, without any help or interference from the United States or other major powers. 

It was a period of 10 years that began in 1963 when then-King Mohammed Zahir Shah launched a democratic project, drawing up a radical new constitution that granted his people freedom of thought, expression, and assembly while limiting the powers of his royal family. For the first time in Afghanistan’s history, elections would select members of the modernized parliament, and the country’s political sphere began to change significantly. The “decade of democracy” ended in 1973 when Mohammed Daoud Khan, the king’s cousin, staged a peaceful coup and became the new republic’s first president. 

“Today, we know that our aim is going back to this era. But it will take years to do that,” said Masoud Qani, who fled some years after the coup and now lives in Germany.

In the 1960s, Kabul was quite different. Women, wearing either Western skirts, headscarves, or burqas depending on their personal inclination, walked next to one another. The same goes for students, male and female, who imitated the style of U.S. or Indian cinema icons or pop stars. There was no sign of fear, apprehension, or anxiety. There was no threat of explosions, truck bombs, suicide attacks, or being robbed at gunpoint. 

“We, the whole school or neighborhood, became sad about small quarrels. Today, grief and bloodshed is everywhere,” said one former Kabul resident who asked not to be identified. 

Some determined Afghans tried to improve their country’s trajectory during that brief era. Aspiring writers, political activists, and intellectuals formed debate circles, regularly meeting one another to discuss their homeland’s future: that of a relatively young nation-state deeply attached to its traditions and customs, sandwiched between superpowers and the seemingly opposed thrusts of modernization and conservatism. At the same time, the country’s leadership—in particular, the king himself—walked freely among his subjects, often alone and without a security detail—something unimaginable now when even minor dignitaries and their children can’t venture out without their pick-up convoys and Kalashnikovs.

And during that short golden age, it was a suited and clean-shaven man who served as a standard bearer of the country’s deeply rooted cultural traditions and religious sanctities. Fluent in both Dari and Pashto as well as in English and Arabic, former Prime Minister Mohammed Musa Shafiq sported a Clark Gable mustache and had thick hair. He hailed not from the upper classes of Kabul, which frequently rubbed shoulders with the likes of the king, but from the deprived and remotely situated Kama district in eastern Nangarhar province.

Shafiq rose high, not just relative to his disadvantaged origins. Born in 1932, he made his way, slowly but steadily, from a small provincial village to Cairo, New York, and the king’s palace in Kabul. Shafiq had a comprehensive knowledge of who his people were, particularly the rural- and conservative-minded. He was the son of Mawlawi Mohammed Ibrahim Kamavi, a known religious scholar and tribal leader. Like most Afghans of the age, Shafiq traveled to Kabul to continue his higher education, earning a law degree at the highly revered Al-Azhar University: the foremost institution of Sunni Islamic learning in the world. After Shafiq returned, he became a clerk at the Supreme Court in Kabul and, ultimately, one of the main architects of the country’s new constitution and a strong supporter of reforms aimed at increasing the participation of the traditionally ignored lower classes in government. Meanwhile, ruling elites too noticed that men like Shafiq could serve their country in many different ways. Thus, he was called by the Afghan Foreign Ministry to start a career as a diplomat. Within a few years, Shafiq became Shah’s foreign secretary and in December 1972, he was appointed prime minister. As someone who had witnessed the East and West firsthand, he tried to adopt a pragmatic approach. 

Rooted in his religious convictions, he pushed for changes within the context of Afghan values. He resolved through diplomatic means disputes over water rights with Iran, widened the scope of political participation with different members of society while also pushing forth an increasingly religious ethos in his government. It was during his time in office that the adhan, the Muslim call for prayer, usually blared out of the country’s thousands of mosques, was aired for the first time on the national radio.

For an all-too brief period, Shafiq was seen as the bright face of Afghanistan’s new generation, which would finally bring Afghanistan into the modern age, balancing the undoubted need for modernization with the need to preserve Afghanistan’s deeply embedded cultural and traditional fabric.

However, Shafiq was not the only one busy with his career.

Like Shafiq, former Afghan President Hafizullah Amin hailed from a rural Pashtun family in Paghman, a few miles to the west of Kabul. Situated higher up in the mountains, Paghman’s higher altitude meant cooler weather and immaculate scenery, which earned it the status as a local resort for the royal family and urban elites. The region was mainly inhabited by Pashtun landlords and peasants, among them Amin’s family. Thus, Amin grew up with the inequality between urban elites and peasant Afghans glaring him in the face—a reality that would play an important role in Amin’s political trajectory.

Amin would eventually turn into one of Afghanistan’s bloodiest tyrants. The path from apathy to anger to insurrection, however, was long.

Handsome and charismatic, Amin moved into a house in Kabul. Together with his later mentor, Nur Mohammed Taraki, and other thinkers, activists, and writers who considered themselves left wing, socialist, and progressive, Amin founded the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) in January 1965. With the party’s creation, the Cold War started to shape Afghanistan in a dangerous way. From early on, the PDPA had two different wings: the Khalq (“Masses”), dominated by rural Pashtuns and the Parcham (“Flag/Banner”), a harbor for ethnically mixed urbanites. Today, it is known that the PDPA received Soviet funding and that Taraki was one of Moscow’s most important assets. A new “Great Game,” similar to the one between the British and Russians in the 19th century, had started. Its protagonists were not treacherous princes or warlords but intellectuals, writers, political activists, Marxist radicals, and revolutionary Islamists. And although Washington showed little interest in the Afghan monarchy, Moscow presented itself as a generous superpower willing to help.

The creation of a political party was not, however, enough to change all of Afghanistan’s society or even large parts of it—at least not right away. Specifically in Kabul’s vibrant, political landscape, the leftists appeared to be just a small part of the whole picture; there also were royalists, republicans, liberals, nationalists, and both Islamist democrats and more radical elements. With the latter, in particular, the PDPA clashed regularly. 

But Amin was the polar opposite of Shafiq. Unlike most of his PDPA comrades, Amin never visited the Soviet Union through the scholarships that were largely embraced by many young Afghans. These generally comprised of rural Pashtuns from southeastern provinces—young men who made military careers and later became the backbone of the PDPA’s Khalqi faction, which would come to be led by Amin. Instead, and like Shafiq, the aspiring educator attended Columbia University in New York. It was paradoxically in the United States, in the heart of capitalism, that Amin became a radicalized leftist. After he returned to Afghanistan, Amin used his position as a teacher to spread radical ideas among the youth. He became a lecturer at Kabul’s Darul Muslimin, where he educated young teachers before sending them back to their rural villages, indoctrinated with radical Marxist ideology. Many of them would later become a crucial part of the Afghan communist regime.

Things began to come apart in July 1973, when Afghanistan faced a bloodless coup by the king’s first cousin and brother-in-law, Sardar Mohammed Daoud Khan, who declared himself president. Shafiq’s time as prime minister thus ended abruptly. Instead, he was forced to stay under house arrest by Khan’s regime, which was heavily supported by the Parcham wing of the PDPA leadership.

Khan had a much more authoritarian character than Shafiq or the deposed king. He ordered, or forced, his cousin, Mohammed Zahir Shah, to stay in Italy at his holiday resort. Khan imprisoned several political opponents, including leading Islamist dissidents who were planning a revolt against him. Also, while the former king and his loyalists preferred a much more neutral stance toward the world’s leading superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, Khan found himself aligning himself closer with Moscow, especially because of his PDPA supporters within the military and the intelligentsia.

Khan could not foresee this would not just lead to the fall of his country but also to his and his family’s deaths.

Khan’s authoritarian and suspicious personality meant his erstwhile Parchami allies soon came under his watchful eyes. He systematically attempted to marginalize them from power. Mass protests precipitated Khan’s imprisonment of many PDPA leaders, including Taraki and Amin, after the assassination of Mir Akbar Khyber, a prominent Parcham leader. The PDPA blamed Khan for his murder. On April 27, 1978, Khan, the first and last president of the Afghan Republic, was overthrown in a violent coup staged by the PDPA. In true Bolshevik fashion, Khan and 18 members of his immediate family were killed by the communists in what was called the Saur Revolution (after the month of Saur on the Persian calendar).

Afghanistan never recovered. Shah’s democratic experiment ended abruptly, but the policies of his cousin and the PDPA’s bloody coup ultimately destroyed it, and Afghanistan once again became a plaything for superpowers—in particular, the Soviet Union. In December 1979, the Red Army entered Afghanistan to end the PDPA’s internal disputes once and for all. Amin was killed by Soviet elite forces and Babrak Karmal, the Parcham wing’s leader who was obedient to Moscow, was installed as the country’s new leader. Karmal became a true puppet leader and never acted on his own. Even the rifles of his Afghan guards were empty. 

That, in turn, opened the door to reactionary forces like the mujahideen, supported by the United States. Afghanistan has never recovered since. Indeed, some people ask themselves what path the country would have taken if people like Shafiq and others were not brutally executed or if the communist coup did not happen at all. If Afghanistan had not been a victim of the Cold War, might it have succeeded as a democracy on its own?

Emran Feroz is a freelance journalist, author, and the founder of Drone Memorial, a virtual memorial for civilian drone strike victims. Twitter: @Emran_Feroz