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.


Ahmed Rashid: Afghanistan and Pakistan after the Western pullout

Speaking last night at a joint SOAS/Pakistan Society lecture, the author Ahmed Rashid painted a predictably gloomy picture of the future for Afghanistan, and even more so for Pakistan. Although there was much in his analysis which seems to make sense, some of his observations about the current state of play were surprising and call for further comment.

The danger to Afghanistan at this juncture is perfectly clear. The political institutions have remained half-baked and prone to corruption. The President, Hamid Karzai, has been reluctant to prevent a culture of bribery and criminality in the highest echelons of the Afghan state. He has proved to be a vacillating leader, interested in leaving a legacy but not sure what it should be, or how to go about it. The legitimacy of the Kabul government amongst the people is not strong. The withdrawal of Western forces threatens the Afghan economy – much of the employment has been dependent on the presence of foreign institutions and aid donors, and without it many educated Afghans will be jobless. No significant economy beyond this field has developed over the last 12 years. The army and police forces are not reliable to enforce security or unity. The absence of Western forces will allow the Taliban or other actors to take over the government in the south and east of the country. Extremist movements, such as Laskhar-i Taiba, which were originally associated with Pakistan, are now operating more freely in Afghanistan and linking together with similar Central Asian movements. The neighbouring powers are not yet deeply involved in the conflict, but should one choose to enter the fray, then a conflagration involving Russia, Central Asia, Iran, Pakistan and India in Afghanistan is certainly not impossible.

There is as great a danger for Pakistan. The absence of a visible enemy – the West – on Afghan soil could encourage the extremist movements to be more ambitious in bringing about their objectives of an Islamic state in the region and the overthrow of the current government in Pakistan. Terrorism in Pakistan has recently been on the increase, with indiscriminate bombings and the murder of senior officials calculated to demoralise the population. The region has not come to terms with the fact that the West will be withdrawing from the region shortly, and that the age of “Fixing Failed States” is coming to an end. Rather than the elites of the region looking to the West to bail them out and support them whilst they themselves refuse to solve the underlying problems and stand on their own two feet is a fair and important comment. Indeed, the West itself, wearied by intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention Libya, is perhaps not questioning itself about the consequences of losing interest in intervention – greater repression and the development of new dictatorships are the likely results.

Thus far, the analysis seems good. However, some of Rashid’s other statements, as I said earlier, were surprising:

1. He said that the question of a military transition was relatively unimportant. What matters over the next four months is an election which is seen to be free and fair. A government legitimised by the democratic process was a necessity for any future negotiation with the Taliban. If the next election is rigged or seen to be without legitimacy, that might act as the catalyst for a new civil war which could be worse than that of the 1990s and spiral into regional conflict.

2. He suggested that the US withdrawal would cause the “peace party” within the Afghan Taliban to swell. The Taliban were now more understanding of the needs of a modern state and government than they had been in the 1990s. They were reconciled to allowing cosmopolitan and relatively free cities, recognising that they were necessary drivers of economic growth and prosperity. Indeed, the older generation of the Afghan Taliban who had lived through the Jihad of the 1980s and the Civil War of the 1990s, followed by the post 2001 exile were eager to come to a settlement and return to a peaceful existence.

3. Pakistan had lost interest in the old doctrine of “Strategic Depth” – a Great Game style notion, whereby they would be the de facto ruler of the south of Afghanistan up to the Hindu Kush (including Kabul, Ghazni and Kandahar), and call on this territory in the event of any major conflict with India. Pakistan had lost any interest in attempting to govern in Afghanistan or project its hegemony there. This, indeed, was confirmed by a representative of the Pakistan High Commission who was also present.

4. He also suggested that, although this was difficult to verify by concrete research, many of the ordinary inhabitants of FATA (the tribal areas in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (the former North Western Frontier Province of Pakistan) actually welcomed the use of drone strikes against extremist militant leaders who had caused much misery in these areas over the last few years.

One might append a few comments to these points:

1. It seems strange to put democratic elections ahead of the question of a secure military handover. Without the apparatus of security, no state in Afghanistan is going to be able to preserve itself against the many players who wish to overthrow or disregard it. A successful democratic election is hardly going to overawe extremists or external actors who do not consider an election – free and fair or otherwise – as a means of legitimating a government.

2. It seems incredible that the Taliban is going to allow a free cosmopolitanism in the Afghan cities – it would be completely against its essence. One only has to look at the vile and idiotic bombing of the Taverna du Liban in Kabul yesterday to see this. The Taliban is in essence an outgrowth of the historic conflict between the conservative countryside and the cosmopolitan cities in Afghanistan, and if the Taliban forsakes this idea it forsakes one of the very basic tenets of its identity.

3. Perhaps this is in truth the case, but if so it would be a change of policy overturning hundreds of years of geo-politics. The regional power based in the Indian subcontinent has always tried to control Afghanistan up to the Hindu Kush.

4. Perhaps the ordinary people of FATA do welcome drone strikes against militant leaders, but one wishes it were easier to understand their wishes. I asked Rashid whether Pakistan’s new-found interest in seeing an independent and stable Afghanistan extended to offering a negotiated settlement of the troubled question of the “Durand Line” – the outdated frontier established by the British in 1893 which is one of the basic generators of instability in the FATA Tribal Region as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan (see my articles here and here) – but unfortunately, according to Rashid, there is no particular interest in dealing with this fundamental problem. As I relate in my articles, the British who set up the line in the 1890s foresaw that it was basically ungovernable and that hot pursuit would have to be allowed to maintain its security – i.e. that something along the lines of drone strikes would happen sooner or later. A frontier constituted in such a way is hardly the basis for generating modern and secure states.

Regardless of these points, we should consider what Rashid says about the end of the era of Western intervention, especially in the region. The West may have behaved carelessly or criminally in many respects, but their presence has provided a scapegoat for enemies and a support to a fragile order. In the West’s absence, more extreme forms of government could well develop, and it is necessary to ask if the moral ease which the West gains from refusing to interfere in affairs which it considers not its own is ultimately the right option, both in terms of moral as well as practical correctness.