Afghan presidential handover – a historical perspective

Last week I wrote a historical perspective for the BBC Persian Service on the handover of power in Afghanistan from President Karzai to his successor, Ashraf Ghani. Here is a translation of the article:

A Harmless handover

In the week of the Afghan presidential inauguration, Bijan Omrani looks at previous handovers of power in Afghanistan.

No-one would deny that the process of finding a successor to Hamid Karzai as Afghan president has not been easy. A delay of over three months between the second presidential poll and the inauguration; an assassination attempt on the runner-up, Abdullah Abdullah; accusations of vast electoral fraud involving over one million votes appearing from nowhere; and weeks of protracted negotiations about power-sharing and whether to reveal the numerical result of the poll: all of this has led to widespread dissatisfaction and even fear within Afghanistan and the international community.

Yet, for those who feel this way about the 2014 Afghan presidential poll, it pays to stand back for a moment and take a longer view of Afghanistan’s history. In Afghanistan, the handover of power has never been easy, and a look at what has happened in the past might make one more sanguine about the present.

Spare a thought, for example, for Zaman Shah. He ruled Afghanistan from 1793-1800, the third king on the Afghan throne since the country was established in 1747. In the mid-18th century, Afghanistan had been a formidable empire, reaching down to the Indian Ocean in Baluchistan, and also including the Punjab and Kashmir. But by Zaman Shah’s time the country was breaking up. He had relied on various Afghan chiefs to help him secure the throne and keep his kingdom together, but caught up in bitter tribal rivalries, he started to execute the chiefs who had helped him and replace them with members of his own clan. In 1800, his former allies decided that he had to be replaced. Instead of using negotiation or the ballot box, they blinded him, piercing his eyes with a needle. One of his brothers was put on the throne in his place, and Zaman Shah later fled to British India, where he lived on a British Government pension until 1844.

He might have been relieved to have been spared the sight of what went on in Afghan politics in the first half of the 19th century. A host of royal princes – brothers and half-brothers – manipulated by powerful tribal interests struggled bitterly for control of Kabul. Five kings were deposed, two of whom managed even to regain power for short periods. One of them, Shah Shuja, was put back on the throne by a British occupying army in 1839 during the First Afghan War, only to be assassinated shortly after their withdrawal in 1842. He was gunned down by a party of riflemen after being lured out of his Kabul stronghold, the Bala Hissar. Shot through the head, his body was stripped of the mass of jewels he always wore in public, and was then thrown into a ditch.

After a further prolonged period of civil war in the 1860s which saw another struggle between members of the royal family, with no fewer than three people claiming the throne in as many years, the British were again responsible for the loss of two Afghan kings in the 1870s. Fearing Russian interference, they invaded in 1878. Sher Ali Khan, a king who had worked hard to reunify the country after the earlier civil war, fled Kabul and died in Mazar-i Sharif, probably of despair. His son, Yaqub Khan, took the throne in February 1879, but abdicated in October that year after being unable to stop Kabul rioters massacring the members of a British diplomatic mission in the city. Surrendering to the British, he complained “I would rather be a grass-cutter in your camp than king of Afghanistan.”

It was little better in the 20th century. King Habibullah (1901-1919) was assassinated on a hunting expedition by an unknown killer, shot through the ear whilst alone in his tent. His successor, King Amanullah, who had forced through wide ranging social reforms including the education and unveiling of women, was overthrown in a revolution in 1929 by outraged traditionalists. Having fled Kabul in a Rolls-Royce, his role as king was later taken by a bandit chief nicknamed Bacha-i Saqao, “the son of the water carrier”. A member of the royal family, Nadir Shah, managed to rally resistance, capture and execute him by firing squad later in the year, taking over the throne. However, Nadir himself was assassinated by conspirators in 1933. He was attacked by a number of trusted servants outside the royal harem, shot three times and stabbed with daggers.

Although the Afghan monarchy was abolished in 1973 (again, thanks to a coup where one of the king’s uncles, Mohammed Daoud, took over executive power as president and prime minister whilst the then king, Zahir Shah, was out of the country), the violence still continued. Daoud, along with most of his family, was murdered in a communist coup in 1978. Nur Mohammed Taraki, who became president shortly afterwards, was killed in September 1979 after falling out with one of his former political allies, Hafizullah Amin. After gunmen under Amin’s orders failed to assassinate him, he was captured and smothered to death with a pillow in the presidential palace. Amin himself, as Afghanistan spiralled out of control, was ordered to be killed by the Soviet government who thought that his bad government was giving communism a bad name. After failed attempts to poison him, he was killed by Soviet Special Forces when they stormed his residence in December 1979.

The 2014 presidential election and handover of power from Hamid Karzai to Ashraf Ghani has hardly been a smooth or painless process. However, in a country where there is little tradition of executive power being transferred peacefully, and where the building of stable state institutions to allow such peaceful handovers has been deeply disrupted by decades of foreign interference, the sight of a well-ordered and amicable presidential inauguration on Monday can only give one hope. This week’s presidential handover, which has been based on the ballot box and negotiation, is a vast improvement on what has happened before.