The above photo of President John F. Kennedy welcoming the former and last King of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, to the White House in September, 1963 made me think about the parallels that exist between these two icons. Both were immensely popular, tried to push progressive reform and fought for peace in our time. Americans reminisce about the days of Camelot the way Afghans long for the return of Royalty. They are tragic figures - Kennedy taken away too young, the King ousted too soon - and both left this earth with unfinished business. Fortunately for the United States, most of Kennedy's dreams were ultimately realized, whereas Afghanistan's future was shattered by more than 30 years of unending war. Now, many Afghans wish they could return to the era captured in this snapshot, a moment frozen in time that can rekindle hope, especially if Afghanistan is provided the freedom to realize its own destiny.
There is only one prescription for peace in Afghanistan - a formula clearly laid out to me recently by renowned experts and authorities on Central Asia, including the former highest ranking officer of Pakistan's armed forces. What Afghanistan requires is a legitimate leader who can unify the nation - one that is chosen by the Afghan people according to Afghan custom, as opposed to being handpicked by U.S. diplomats or as the result of fraudulent elections.
If there's anything more contraindicative than the current U.S.-led remedy, I pray we never see it. The Associated Press reported recently that violence is at record levels despite an increase in troops. According to a recent Pentagon survey, only 24% of Afghans in key provinces support President Hamid Karzai's government - those who don't support it perceive his administration as rampantly corrupt.
The decisive offensive in Kandahar Province - birthplace of the Taliban and heartland of Afghanistan's largest tribe, the Pashtuns - has been put on hold by Karzai until they win the support of tribal elders. Which means the coalition should start packing up because that has now become a near impossible sell. Word has leaked that Karzai is experiencing a meltdown, believes the war is unwinnable and has gone behind America's back to try and strike a potential power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban. Not to mention, the President's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai - an "alleged" extortionist and drug trafficker extraordinaire, sits at the head of the provincial council and runs Kandahar like a mob boss. Why would anyone risk assassination by the Taliban to support such a cause?
The outlook has never seemed bleaker, however - there is still hope. The experts I interviewed roundly asserted stability is still possible but wholly contingent upon the seating of a unifying national figure in Kabul, who is well-respected, uncorrupt and perceived as legitimate by all Afghan tribes.
This leader must have the capacity to build an independent nation that owes no allegiance to any other foreign power. One who can win Pashtun loyalty and diffuse ethnic tensions in a country certain to erupt into civil war once international forces withdraw. Said leader must also garner Pakistan's support, who would like to see a viable Afghan state utterly immune to India's influence. History has shown that governments possessing these qualities can succeed in Afghanistan.
Is the quest for such a person a fool's errand? Believe it or not, such a national hero did once walk this earth and could have competently filled the post-Taliban power vacuum. And it wasn't Hamid Karzai.
His name was King Zahir Shah, a Pashtun who presided over the most peaceful era in Afghan history - a run lasting forty years until ousted by a family coup in 1973. He could have laid the foundation for another epoch of peace until his passing in 2007, but we'll never know because of outside interference led by none other than the United States. Thus, instead of being left a society on a path towards stability, Afghans are only left to wonder "What if?"
A grossly underreported historical fact is how U.S. diplomats ignored the will of the Afghan people at the Bonn Accord in 2001 and the Emergency Loya Jirga in Kabul in 2002, and strong-armed the King into stepping aside so they could install a preordained candidate that best met Western interests.
Dr. M. Chris Mason, who served as a political officer on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, described the Bonn Process to me as a stage play rigged by the U.S. to "put our man Karzai in office." Dr. Mason also commented on the emergency jirga in The Military Review, which is published by the U.S. Army's think tank:
In 2002, three-quarters of the participants in the Emergency Loya Jirga signed a petition to make the late King, Zahir Shah, the interim head of state, an inconvenient show of reverence for the monarchy, which required an extraordinary level of covert shenanigans to subvert. Even a ceremonial monarchy would have provided the critically needed source of traditional legitimacy necessary to stabilize the new government and constitution.
Although King Zahir Shah's no longer with us, Dr. Shireen Burki, a political scientist writing a book about state-society relations in Pakistan and Afghanistan, suggested that a relative of the King could perhaps play a similar role down the road. Dr. Burki elaborated:
The reason I mention a descendant of Zahir Shah is because the Afghans, across ethnic lines, literally begged that he be reinstated as King/Amir and, instead, had Karzai forced upon them by Washington. What is significant about this development was that this request was not only made by Zahir Shah's normally divisive fellow Pushtuns. But, more importantly, this was supported by the Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks to varying degrees.
If Afghanistan today had a symbolic, charismatic head of state - a constitutional King who could oversee a loose federation of provinces (rather than an attempt at strong centralized institutions), he could have started the process of healing some very deep wounds from the 90s that continue to fester between Afghanistan's various ethnic groups. They want someone who is fair, just, and in some way represents what was and what can be.
Since the Pashtuns are divided between Pakistan and Afghanistan, it makes sense to include Islamabad in the process, who would have accepted the King's rule. Pakistan's former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Iftikhar Ahmed Sirohey relayed to me that stability will come after the "invaders" leave and a Zahir Shah-like government is implemented. As far as the current regime, Admiral Sirohey was fairly blunt: "Karzai has been imposed on them hence he will survive a day after his external escort is removed."
However, God save us if Admiral Sirohey's prophecy is realized because for all Karzai's defects, he's much more preferable than his would-be successor, the Tajik warlord Mohammad Qasin Fahim, who's even more corrupt, has the blood of many Afghans on his hands from previous civil wars, and his ascendance would just fuel the next one.
Nearly a decade has passed since the U.S. bypassed the king, and at this instant national unity and government legitimacy seem like pipe dreams. Ironically, Zahir Shah had introduced a series of reforms in the 1960s and - unlike now - Afghanistan was progressing toward a sound democratic society, including the development of private enterprise and competitive free markets, as opposed to the corruption and no-bid contracts we see today.
All is not lost... yet. King Zahir Shah's royal blood still courses through the well-respected Mohammadzai clan, along with the bloodline of another beloved ruler - King Amanullah Khan. This clan would not only unite the country long term, but can have an immediate impact in Kandahar because it's the Mohammadzai's homeland and their strong influence can instantly win local hearts and minds.
It's time we allow the Afghans to select their own leader via another loya jirga of tribal elders with significant involvement of the Zahir Shah and Amanullah Khan families, and without the intervention of foreign interlopers. Although it may seem like an affront to our Jeffersonian sensibilities, the jirga will be a hell of a lot more representative than the Afghan government's idea of self-determination.
This process could start with a leadership conference of key tribal elders who would create a list of candidates for Afghan head of state. They could then travel around the world to gather feedback from Afghans abroad, establishing a spirit of unity while observing best practices. These new founders will see for themselves what is needed to bring Afghanistan into the 21st Century before selecting their leader.
Then, perhaps, the Afghans can achieve "what can be", as Dr. Burki put it. Because all they have right now are memories of the days prior to the meddling of foreign powers, before their nation regressed in terms of security, prosperity, human rights, education and culture. Most Westerners cannot grasp such regression, nor do they grasp the importance of history, lineage and ancestry in a tribal society - hence, the "resetting" of one's government back to monarchial rule is an alien concept. Which is why, to this day, the U.S. and its allies have failed to comprehend that the key to Afghanistan's future... lies in its past.