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Remembering President Daoud’s Coup: Lessons for Afghanistan’s Future

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Remembering President Daoud’s Coup: Lessons for Afghanistan’s Future

The domestic and diplomatic blunders of Mohammad Daoud continue to loom large in Afghanistan, almost 50 years later.

Remembering President Daoud’s Coup: Lessons for Afghanistan’s Future

President Daoud of Afghanistan in New Delhi, India in April 1975.

Credit: AP Photo/R. Satakopan

On July 17, 1973, former Prime Minister Mohammad Daoud Khan staged a coup against Afghanistan’s last king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, Daoud’s cousin and brother-in-law. Exactly what motivated Daoud to topple his cousin is a matter of contention. At the time neither Daoud nor his allies had the slightest idea that they were setting in motion a tidal wave, of which they would soon lose control. As a result Afghanistan would be plunged into the darkness of chaos and instability.

Daoud’s Domestic Blunders

Daoud’s first domestic blunder was abolishing the monarchy, which in one form or another had existed since 1747. The conservative Afghans had immense respect for both the institution of the monarchy and the monarch. Daoud’s so-called republic, by contrast, was alien to most Afghans. By abolishing the monarchy, Daoud cleared the way for opportunists who couldn’t have acted against the monarchy to act against his republic, which hadn’t taken root in Afghanistan yet.

Second, by involving (especially lower ranking) army officers in the coup and in politics, Daoud opened a Pandora’s box, which would come back to haunt him five years later. That encouraged the left-leaning People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) to seek a similar path to coming to power. Plus, Daoud bestowed “double promotions” upon lower ranking army officers after having utilized their services to topple the king, tempting others to take part in future coups.

Third, Daoud appointed left-leaning ministers in his cabinet, which alarmed the Islamists (later to emerge as the Mujahideen). The Islamists’ anti-government activities — including uprisings — earned them Daoud’s ire. Islamist leaders such as Burhanuddin Rabbani and Gulbadin Hekmatyar fled to Pakistan, where Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto welcomed them. These events echoed in Afghanistan for decades. Having emerged victorious in the jihad against the Soviets, Rabbani and Hekmatyar, along with other fundamentalists, returned to Afghanistan in the early 1990s and fought one another along ethnic and linguistic lines.

Fourth, since Daoud wanted to dispose of the monarchy once and for all, he introduced a new national anthem, a new flag, and new banknotes. Daoud thus set a notorious precedent for future governments. The national anthem, flag, and banknotes would be changed multiple times in the coming decades by the PDPA, the Mujahideen, the Taliban, and the post-9/11 Afghan government, wasting resources and making a mockery of Afghanistan.

Fifth, Daoud’s government was a republic in name only. He cracked down on political dissent and limited civil liberties. Under his leadership, Daoud founded a one-party system and only members of his party could be appointed to positions of power. By suppressing political activities (though ironically not banning political activities in the army) and founding a one-party system, Daoud laid the foundation of his own demise.

The Daoud regime arrested the Moscow-back PDPA leaders after they had criticized the government at a PDPA member’s funeral in Kabul. In response, PDPA elements in the army toppled Daoud. Since then, Afghanistan has been embroiled in a series of conflicts, ranging from the Soviet invasion in the 1980s to the civil war in the 1990s and to the so-called War on Terror since 2001. Had Daoud allowed the monarchy to evolve peacefully, Afghanistan might have progressed and prospered.

Nonetheless, the conflicts and chaos have led to a political awakening among Afghanistan’s various ethnic and linguistic groups, culminating in the 1990s’ civil war along ethnic and linguistic lines. Thus, it’s very unlikely that the pre-1978 order, where power was concentrated in the hands of a few in Kabul, can ever be restored again. If Afghans want durable peace, the country must devolve power to the provinces to truly embrace Afghanistan’s ethnic and linguistic diversity.

Daoud’s Costly Foreign Policy Blunders

Daoud’s major foreign policy blunder was that he upset the delicate balance of interest between major stakeholders (major powers and neighbors) in Afghanistan. From the outset of World War I until Daoud’s coup, the stakeholders had maintained a balance in Afghanistan, where no one’s interests were threatened by its competitor. Daoud upset that arrangement.

First, no sooner did Daoud take office after the coup than he deteriorated relations with Pakistan by reinvigorating the so-called Pashtunistan and Durand Line issues, reminiscent of his time as prime minister (1953-1963). Daoud’s coup coincided with the outbreak of the Baloch insurgency in Pakistan in 1973. To put pressure on Pakistan, Daoud provided shelter, training, and weapons to Baloch insurgents and Pakistani Pashtun nationalists alike.

Second, because he had a hard time selling his Pashtunistan policy to Pakistan’s allies (Iran, the Arab world, and the United States), Daoud leaned more than he should have (and more than his country could afford) toward Moscow. The Soviets exploited this opportunity to make Daoud more reliant on them, and in the process they trapped him like a spider traps a fly.

When Daoud realized the futility of the Pashtunistan issue, it was too late. In order to balance his foreign relations, Daoud needed to improve relations with Pakistan and start distancing himself from Moscow. Doing the latter wouldn’t be easy though. Anwar Sadat had shunned Moscow earlier for closer ties with the United States. Therefore, Moscow was eager to stop Daoud before he, too, could slip out of the Soviet grasp.

The easiest way for Moscow to prevent Daoud from deserting it was to have him removed through a coup by the PDPA (who could not have toppled Daoud without Moscow’s consent). The concept of maintaining a balance of interest fully perished under the rule of the PDPA (1978-92), which relied on Moscow for survival. Since Moscow was involved more than its fair share in Afghanistan, other stakeholders joined the fray to protect their interests.

With the passage of time, “untying the Afghan knot” has become more and more complicated. No stakeholder involved in Afghanistan wants to disengage before its competitor. For instance, Pakistan and India each view each other’s involvement in Afghanistan with suspicion; the same is true about Iran and the United States. Unless all stakeholders agree on a framework to not use Afghanistan’s territory against one another, it’s very unlikely that peace and stability will return to Afghanistan.

The balance that Daoud upset and the PDPA dumped needs to be restored and upheld, otherwise conflict will likely continue under different names, with negative repercussions for the entire region and beyond. In the worlds of Allama Mohammad Iqbal, Afghanistan is “the heart of Asia… whose prosperity is Asia’s prosperity, and whose corruption is Asia’s corruption.”

Arwin Rahi is a former adviser to the Parwan governor in Afghanistan.