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Mohammad Zahir Shah, 1933-73

Mohammad Zahir ShahZahir Shah, Nadir Shan's son and successor, became Afghanistan's final king. For his first thirty years on the throne, he accepted the tutelage of powerful advisers in the royal family, first his uncles, later his cousin, Mohammad Daoud Khan. And only in the last decade of his sovereignty did Zahir Shah rule as well as reign unencumbered.

Three of the four Musahiban brothers survived Nadir Shah's death, and went on to exercise decisive influence over decision making during Zahir Shah's first twenty years of reign. The eldest, Muhammad Hashim, who had been prime minister under the previous king, retained that post until replaced by his youngest brother, Shah Mahmud in 1946.

Hashim put into effect the policies already orchestrated by his brothers. Internal objectives of the new Afghan government focused on strengthening the army and shoring up the economy, including transport and communications. Both goals required foreign assistance. Preferring not to involve the Soviet Union or Britain, Hashim turned to Germany. By 1935 German experts and businessmen had set up factories and hydroelectric projects at the invitation of the Afghan government. Smaller amounts of aid were also forthcoming from Japan and Italy.

Afghanistan joined the League of Nations in 1934, the same year the United States officially recognized Afghanistan. The conclusion of the Treaty of Saadabad with Iran, Iraq, and Turkey in 1937 reinforced Afghanistan's regional ties to neighboring Islamic States.

After the outbreak of World War II, the king proclaimed Afghan neutrality on August 17, 1940, but the Allies were unhappy with the presence of a large group of German nondiplomatic personnel. In October British and Soviet governments demanded that Afghanistan expel all nondiplomatic personnel from the Axis nations. Although the Afghan government considered this demand insulting and illegitimate, it appeared to heed the example of Iran; Britain and the Soviet Union occupied Iran in August 1941 after the government ignored a similar demand. Afghanistan ordered nondiplomatic personnel from all belligerents to leave, and a loya jirgah called by the king supported his policy of absolute neutrality. As the war progressed, it provided larger markets for Afghan agricultural produce (especially in India).

Shortly before the end of the war, Shah Mahmud replaced his older brother as prime minister, ushering in a period of great change in both internal and external policies. Among other things, he presided over the inauguration of the Helmand Valley Project, a cooperative irrigation venture drawing Afghanistan into a closer relationship with the United States, which financed much of the work, He also oversaw the opening of relations with the newly created state of Pakistan, which inherited the Pashtuns from the formerly British-ruled side of the Durand Line. The Pashtuns (or Pakhtuns) sought an independent or semi-independent statehood, that would include the Pashto (or Pakhtu) speakers within Pakistan. This issue would have a resounding impact on Afghan politics, as would Shah Mahmud's political liberalization of the country.

Amir Abdur Rahman had bitterly resented the Durand Line and none of his successors relinquished the notion of Pashtun unity even as they cooperated with the British government on other matters. Eventually, the line dividing the Pashtun people became extremely contentious to the governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Although the issue became most vexing during partition, British policy in the area before 1947 also aggravated the Pashtunistan problem. In 1901 the British had created a new administrative area, the North-West Frontier Province, which they detached from the Punjab. This new province was divided into Settled Districts and Tribal Agencies, with the latter ruled by a British political agent who reported directly to Delhi.

In 1934 Britain extended self-government to the North-West Frontier Province. By this time, the Indian National Congress (Congress Party), which many Muslims saw as a predominately Hindu organization, had expanded its political activities to include the province. The links between the political leaders of the North-West Frontier Province and the Hindu leaders of Congress were such that a majority in the North-West Frontier Province assembly originally voted to go with India in the partition, a decision which probably would have been rejected by the voting majority in the province. In July 1947, the British held a referendum in the Settled Districts of the province offering the population the choice of either joining an independent India or a now-inevitable Pakistan. An estimated 56 percent of the eligible voters participated and over 90 percent elected to join Pakistan. A loya jirgah was held in the Tribal Agencies. Offered a choice between joining India or Pakistan, the tribes declared their preference for the latter.

Although both Afghanistan and Pakistan made conciliatory gestures, the matter remained unresolved. In one of the government's attempts to suppress tribal uprisings in 1949, a Pakistani air force plane bombed a village just across the frontier. In response, the Afghan government called a loya jirgah, which promptly declared that it recognized "neither the imaginary Durand nor any similar line" and that all agreements--from the 1893 Durand agreement onward--pertaining to the issue were void. Irregular forces led by a local Pashtun leader crossed the border in 1950 and 1951 to back Afghan claims. Pakistan's government refused to accept the Afghan assertion that it had no control over these men, and both nations' ambassadors were withdrawn, but were exchanged again a few months later.

The issue of an international boundary through Pashtun areas was of great importance to policymakers in Kabul. Pakistan halted vital transshipments of petroleum to Afghanistan for about three months in 1950, presumably in retaliation for Afghan tribal attacks across the border. At this time, Afghan government interest shifted to offers of aid from the Soviet Union and in July 1950 it signed a major agreement with the Soviet Union.

Pakistan's petroleum cutoff over the Pashtunistan issue and the resulting trade agreement between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union were major watersheds in bilateral relations. The agreement was much more than a barter arrangement exchanging Soviet oil, textiles, and manufactured goods for Afghan wool and cotton; the Soviets offered construction aid to erect petroleum storage facilities, to explore oil and gas reserves in northern Afghanistan, and permission for free transportation of goods across Soviet territory. This new relationship was attractive not only because it made it difficult for Pakistan to disrupt the Afghan economy by blockading or slowing down transshipped goods but also because it provided a balance to United States aid in the Helmand Valley Project. After 1950 Soviet-Afghan trade increased sharply as Soviet technicians were welcomed and a trade office was opened.

The third major policy focus of the immediate post-World War II period was Shah Mahmud's experiment in greater political tolerance and liberalization. Encouraged by young, Western-educated members of the political elite, the prime minister allowed National Assembly elections that were distinctly less controlled than they had been in the past; the result was the "liberal parliament" of 1949. He tolerated the activity of opposition political groups. The most vocal of these groups was the Wikh-i-Zalmayan (Awakened Youth), a movement comprised of diverse dissident groups founded in Qandahar in 1947. A newly formed student union not only provided a forum for political debate but also produced theatrical plays critical of Islam and the monarchy. Newspapers criticized the government, and many groups began demanding a more open political system.

But the liberalization went farther than the prime minister had intended. He reacted by attempting to form a government party, and when this failed, he began cracking down. The Kabul University student union was dissolved in 1951; newspapers criticizing the government were closed down; many opposition leaders were jailed. The parliament that was elected in 1952 was a significant step backward from the one that had been elected in 1949. The brief experiment in open politics was over.

Despite its failure, the liberal experiment had important repercussions for the nation's political future: it provided a breeding ground for the revolutionary movement that would come to power in 1978. Future Marxist leaders of Afghanistan, Nur Muhammad Taraki, Babrak Karmal, and Hafizullah Amin were all involved. The government crackdown in 1951 and 1952 that brought an abrupt end to liberalization alienated many young, reformist Afghans who had originally hoped only to improve the existing structure rather than radically transforming it.



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