Afghanistan: Political history

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A brief history

Vivek Katju, 100 Years Of Afghanistan, August 19, 2019: The Times of India

The last 40 years have been the darkest in its post-independence history, with no end in sight

The writer is former secretary, MEA

Three months after a short spell of armed hostilities between Britain and Afghanistan in May 1919, the former ambiguously relinquished control over the latter’s foreign relations in the Treaty of Rawalpindi. Afghanistan celebrates the event as its independence day this day every year.

A little later Afghanistan got rid of the ambiguity. As Louis Dupree notes, “So no matter what Britain planned for Afghanistan’s future, the Afghans themselves had already seized their future and become independent of overt British policy.” How has that ‘seized future’, in foreign policy and overall, evolved in the hundred years that have elapsed since the Afghans asserted their will?

Afghanistan was an absolute monarchy with power tightly controlled within an extended Barakzai Pashtun family in 1919; Amanullah had succeeded his father Habibullah who was murdered while on a hunting expedition that year. The country remained, for all practical purposes, absolutist till Zahir Shah who became king in 1933 at the age of 19, in the midst of opposition from influential family members, converted it into a constitutional monarchy in 1964.

In 1973, Zahir Shah was overthrown in a coup staged by his cousin Daud Khan, who as prime minister from 1953 to 1963 had administered the country with an iron hand. After the coup Daud Khan abolished the monarchy and became president. Zahir Shah went into exile in Italy only to return, in a twist of history, as the Baba-e-Millat (Father of the Nation) to Kabul in 2002 after Taliban were ousted from the country the previous year. He died in 2007.

The four decades of Zahir Shah’s reign was a period of relative internal calm, infrastructural development and cautious and incremental modernisation in major cities, while the countryside held firmly to its conservative social traditions. With the quickening of political activity after 1964 both Islamic and communist movements became established, beginning with the universities.

During the Zahir Shah period Afghanistan also developed its foreign relations on the basis of largely neutral postures. It did not take sides in World War II, as Prime Minister Daud Khan pursued an active but largely neutral foreign policy. Departing from the past he developed close ties with the Soviet Union and willingly accepted large Soviet assistance. While the US extended aid it refrained from seeking to curtail the Soviet involvement in the country. The US priority was Pakistan whose ties with Afghanistan remained confrontational; consequently, Afghanistan was relegated to periphery of policy. Daud Khan vigorously promoted the Pakthoonistan cause to recover the Pashtun lands in Pakistan.

The Daud Khan coup destroyed the traditional anchors of the Afghan polity. It paved the way in April 1978 for the communists who killed Daud, and unleashed enormous violence in pursuit of doctrinaire Marxist social and religious change in a country which almost completely rejected it. Consequently, Afghans began to move into Pakistan and Iran as refugees and the country descended into disorder.

The communists themselves divided largely on ethnic lines and turned on each other murderously in 1979. At this stage the Soviet Union, already alarmed at the Iranian revolution and the ferment in the Islamic world, made a disastrous strategic blunder. It moved its troops into Afghanistan in December 1979 to prevent ‘losing’ it.

With that move an endless dark, violent and tragic night descended upon Afghanistan; 40 years on, dawn is still not in sight. In these decades Afghanistan witnessed five distinct political phases – from communism to three years of Afghan nationalistauthoritarianism under Najibullah to three years of mujahideen confusion to Taliban’s seventh century Islamic Emirate to the internationally supported democratic Islamic republic. Now with the Islamic republic in tatters and Taliban staging a comeback the shape of the new polity that will come is uncertain, but a full blown Emirate would be unacceptable to the Afghan people and the international community. Also unacceptable to non-Pashtuns would be a fully Pashtun dominated political order.

The dislocation of these four decades has inevitably impacted Afghan society. The old influencers – the court, land owning elite and their mullah support base and the old business classes – have disappeared. In their place are the mujahideen, the diaspora and the children of the digital age open to global trends, all at odds with each other. Through this confusion a new Afghanistan has to emerge.

The economic potential locked up in the Hindu Kush, which promises the Afghan state to move from its ‘rentier’ status for the first time, awaits liberation. However, that is dependent on the return of peace and stability which is uncertain as the US, like the Soviets, prepares to withdraw having suffered a strategic defeat. Pakistan waits in the wings to extend its influence through heightened intervention, on account of the fanciful demons that continue to haunt it. Through all this it will make renewed but futile efforts for the acceptance of the Durand Line as the border.

The Durand Line was thrust on Amir Abdur Rahman Khan (1880-1901), who consolidated the Afghan state set up by Ahmed Shah Abdali in 1757. Named after the British Indian foreign secretary who virtually out-manoeuvred the iron Amir to accept it in 1893 the Durand Line did not go beyond demarcating ‘spheres of influence’ between British India and Afghanistan. Not a formal border it never impeded movement of peoples, but for the Pashtuns it has always been a dagger run through their heart.


Sikh leader to enter parliament unopposed

In boost for minorities, Sikh leader to enter Afghan House, June 19, 2018: The Times of India

Avtar Singh Khalsa, a Sikh and a longtime leader of the community, will run unopposed for a parliament seat in the October elections
From: In boost for minorities, Sikh leader to enter Afghan House, June 19, 2018: The Times of India

Avtar Singh Khalsa will represent Afghanistan’s tiny Sikh and Hindu minority in the next parliament, where he says he hopes to serve the entire country.

Few Afghans are as invested in the government’s quest for peace and stability as the dwindling Sikh and Hindu minorities, which have been decimated by decades of conflict. The community numbered more than 80,000 in the 1970s, but today only around 1,000 remain.

Khalsa, a Sikh and longtime leader of the community, will run unopposed for a seat in the lower house of parliament that was apportioned to the minority by presidential decree in 2016.

After the October election, he will be a solitary voice among 259 legislators, but hopes his 10 years of service in the Afghan army can help him secure a seat on the defence and security committee. “I don’t only want to serve my Sikh and Hindu brothers. I have to be able to serve all the Afghan people, no matter which ethnicity or group they belong to.”

The 52-year-old father of four has lived most of his life in Kabul. He also served as a senator representing the minority, which has long had a seat in the upper house of parliament. Sikhs and Hindus have been driven out of many areas by heavy fighting. They have suffered widespread discrimination in the conservative Muslim country.

Khalsa will join parliament at a time when Afghanistan is struggling against a resurgent Taliban and an Islamic State affiliate. But Khalsa said he will continue to fight for his community’s survival. “I don’t care if I lose my whole family and I get killed for this cause. I will struggle until I get their rights.”

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