With all due respect to NRO contributor James Robbins, his soft-focus reverie about the many virtues of former Afghan king Zahir Shah’s reign seems a bit misplaced. Yes, it is true that Zahir Shah’s 40-year reign, ending in 1973, was notably more peaceful and less controversial than anything that has come since. And, in fact, he was responsible for some real progress, including a certain limited but real measure of democracy, the advent of education for women (pretty much only in Kabul), and even voting rights for women.
Certainly after the Soviets marched into Afghanistan in 1979 there was more than a little nostalgia for the old days. How could there not be? The Soviets were brutal, killed, bombed, and strafed wantonly, and plunged the country into the nightmare that continues to this day. The Tajiks who ruled briefly after the Sovs, in the early 90s, were brutal and lawless; the Taliban more brutal still. Nor is the country really free or peaceful at the moment.
But in the years that I was in and out of Pakistan and Afghanistan — in the late 1980s –when the Afghans (and the USG, and the Europeans, and every other interested party) were considering what government should succeed the Soviets, there was only the smallest support for a return of the king — even though he was clearly the only person who could serve as a unifying political symbol. Why? Because across the political spectrum, from radical Islamists, to the most conservative rural aristocrats, to the (tiny) educated urban elites it was understood that King Zahir Shah had had 40 years — and had accomplished almost nothing in terms of bringing Afghanistan into the modern world. His very small political changes had affected mostly the urban elites. The country had made very little progress building any kind of infrastructure to create even a bare midcentury economy. The vast majority of Afghans were entirely illiterate and unschooled. (They only ever claimed an 11-percent male literacy rate, in the 1970s.) There was almost zero medical care available in the countryside, where the vast majority of the population lived, resulting in a 45-percent infant-mortality rate, and the shortest average lifespan of any country measured. And the first time most Afghans encountered electricity or even such rudimentary sewage systems as ditches and outhouses was in refugee camps in Pakistan in the 1980s.
A great many Afghan intellectuals, mujahideen, and warlords shared the belief that the absolute failure of the King to effectuate real economic, scientific or technological progress is what paved the way for his cousin Daoud’s coup — and, in a very real sense — the Soviet incursion. After all, the Soviets began inserting themselves during Daoud’s rule with promises of education, science and technology — to bring Afghanistan up to the sorry but superior levels of neighboring Soviet Central Asian republics.
The gardens were beautiful in prewar Afghanistan, and the people were friendly and proud — and dirt poor with very little opportunity for better. The King lived quite well in Kabul, Geneva, and Rome. The country was not wrong to want more of the progress that the rest of the world was making in postwar years. It is a tragedy that Mohammed Zahir Shah gave them so little that their intellectuals were tempted by the Soviets.