New Politics, New Classes, New Struggles


[ Go To Part 1: The Birth of Modern Afghanistan ]

Zahir Shah’s government continued its modernization with ample support from German industry and expertise. His surviving uncles held the Prime Ministership through the Second World War, in which Afghanistan remained neutral. In 1953 Zahir Shah would appoint his cousin Mohammed Daoud Khan, son of the assassinated Aziz Khan, to be his new Prime Minister. 

Like Zahir Shah, Daoud Khan had been educated at European model schools in Afghanistan before attending university in France. He was a thoroughly modern man and continued European-modeled reforms including women’s rights and popular education: it was necessary to develop human capital in order to further develop Afghanistan’s industrial capital. Daoud had served as a provincial governor from 1935 to 1939, when he was made Commander of the Central Forces in the national capital: he led these men during the tribal revolts along the border with British India from 1944-1947. In the course of this conflict he was made Minister of War, a position he used to incite international conflict. 

During the Partition of British India in 1947 there was an uprising of Pashtun people living on the British side of the Durand Line (the border with Afghanistan). They demanded the right to form an independent nation, Pashtunistan, or else to join their territory to Afghanistan. Daoud Khan took an irridentist line, insisting that all Pashto-speaking people should be united in one state. Daoud’s Pashto irridentism would have given the plurality of Pashtun people inside Afghanistan an absolute majority of the population. This naturally threatened the peace between Pashtun-ruled Kabul and tribal groups such as the Tajiks, who had so frequently and recently fought with the state power. 

After a successful diplomatic mission to Paris in 1948 Daoud Khan was made Interior Minister from 1949 to 1951. In that year he was promoted to General and Commander of the Central Corps, leaving that position only to accept the Prime Ministership in 1953. 

Daoud Khan, third from left (June 5, 1953.) From National Portrait Gallery

While Zahir Shah proclaimed neutrality in the Cold War, Daoud built Afghanistan’s capability to carry out his nationalist project. During his ten years as PM Daoud turned Afghanistan’s foreign policy decisively towards the socialist camp. By 1960 Afghanistan had signed a Treaty of Friendship with the People’s Republic of China, and in 1961 Daoud and Nikita Khruschev issued a “statement of full mutual understanding and identity of long-range views” between Afghanistan and the USSR. Daoud acquired weapons, machinery, and expertise from the USSR as well as the United States. By 1960 the Afghan Army was ready to invade Pakistan’s Northwest and to provoke an insurrection of the Pashtun people living there. This incursion was defeated by Pakistani resistance and in 1961 a second attempt was made, resulting in an international crisis. 

The 1961 crisis between Pakistan and Afghanistan resulted in Pakistan’s closure of the border and blockade of all trade with Afghanistan. The resulting economic crisis left Afghanistan more dependent on Soviet trade and supply routes, even to receive American aid. In 1963 Zahir Shah forced Daoud Khan to resign the premiership and began crafting a new constitution for the country. In 1964 that constitution came into effect, establishing a National Assembly elected by universal suffrage. This constitution replaced the previous absolute monarchy with a constitutionally restricted monarchy and specifically forbade members of the royal family, such as Daoud, from holding elected office. 

Further reading for this section

The Atlantic: Afghanistan (Jan 1958).

National Democratic Radicals

In 1949 a general election was called, permitting some protection of freedom of press and expression. This parliament had limited power and served as a popular consultant for the Cabinet, which it could not overrule. It did give a place for voices critical of the government to be heard, and for political alliances to be formed between popular groups. The Kabul Students Union was formed against this background in 1950.

An organic intelligentsia had arisen at the universities founded by Amanullah Khan: student activists who sought further modernization, democratization, and liberalization of “backwards” Afghanistan. These dissenting intellectual circles, called roshanfekran (“enlightened thinkers,”) became political agitators during the economic crisis that followed World War II and the collapse of Afghanistan’s export markets (i.e. Germany). 

Abdul Hai Habibi, historian and member of Jabha-ye Melli

Arising from the modernist, European-style education founded by Amanullah Khan, the roshanfekran represented a modern class mobility. The students at Kabul University and other institutions had come from the lower classes of society, not only from the top: lower class workers and artisans could hustle their way into the new petit-bourgeois, and could afford to send their children to the same schools as the children of aristocrats. Roshankfekran agitated among the educated classes and they supported strikes by miners, cotton workers, and more.

The roshanfekran began their political careers at the same time that pioneering industrialist and Minister of Commerce, Abdulmajid Zabuli, faced the post-war economic crisis. His employees had called strikes and these striking workers had been supported by some of the roshanfekran. At the same time, Minister of War Daoud Khan was fighting rebellions along the British Indian border and had an interest in frustrating opposition from the urban classes. The two ministers collaborated in the last month of 1946 to recruit intellectuals to a pro-government political circle. This failed to gain support and instead provoked roshanfekran to form their own political circle in August 1947, the Wesh Zalmian or Jawanan-e Bedar (“Awakened Youth”). This movement operated as a “big tent,” recruiting intellectuals from all tribes, professions, and classes in the country. 

Prime Minister Shah Mahmud called a general election in 1949. The elections were held in an attempt to placate the masses and to ease the political crisis. The electoral law granted some freedom of expression to the press and the people as they campaigned in a relatively free and democratic election. The natural result was an eruption of Public Opinion as the roshanfekran and Wesh Zalmian were free to organize politically and to publish their opinions.

Babrak Karmal, member of the Kabul Students Union, first from left

A wave of liberals and other opponents of the regime was elected to office. Despite the impotence of this parliament it was targeted for state repression. By 1950 Zabuli and Daoud Khan, now Interior Minister, moved to recruit students to a loyal nationalist organization. Instead, the Kabul Students Union became a radical pro-democracy group working to organize the nation against the oligarchic state. Many activists started their political careers in the KSU including Babrak Karmal, a future leader of the country. By 1951 the Wesh Zalmian members of Parliament formed the nucleus of a new faction named after Mohammed Mossadegh’s Iranian movement, Jabha-ye Melli (“National Front.”)

In 1951 Daoud Khan cracked down on the KSU, NF, and other democratic organizations, arresting their leaders and membership or else driving them into exile. The 1952 election was severely restricted and no further elections were held after Daoud became Prime Minister in 1953. Throughout his tenure the work of democratic activists would continue, with periodic student protests and clandestine organizing by Babrak Karmal and many more opponents of the government.

It would only be after Daoud’s ouster as Prime Minister that these activist groups would come together in a new parliamentary combination, one which presented a much deeper and broader challenge to the Shah. The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan would start its life in 1965 as a national democratic movement and would play a central role in the decades to come. 

Further reading for this section

Flash from the Past: The 1950 Kabul Students Union and its Impact on the Post-WWII Opposition Movement

[Featured image: “Afghan King Mohammad Zahir Shah talks with US President John F. Kennedy in the car that took them to the White House, Sept. 8, 1963.” From Reddit.]

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