Nearly half a century ago, a bloodless palace coup in Afghanistan ended more than two centuries of Durrani monarchy in Afghanistan.
But the power grab of the July 17, 1973, coup that saw Sardar Muhammad Daud Khan appoint himself president and declared Afghanistan a republic by deposing his cousin, King Zahir Shah, was the trigger for subsequent turmoil that still engulfs the mountainous country of 35 million.
Today, 47 years after the political storm stirred by the coup forced Afghanistan to witness instability and a seemingly endless war, Afghans are still divided about Daud Khan’s coup. Was it a harbinger of stability, development, and modernity, or did it unleash the subsequent rebellions and revolutions that saw communists and Islamists impose authoritarianism and attracted superpowers and regional states to shape and influence their impoverished country?
As the current Afghan government is fighting to preserve the democratic Islamic Republic and join vital peace talks with the hard-line Taliban, who are fighting to restore their Islamic Emirate, the legacy of the 1973 coup still looms large over Afghanistan.
Supporters see Daud Khan as a staunch Afghan nationalist driven by a desire to create a modern Afghan state that could ultimately transform into a self-sustaining democratic republic. But opponents remember him as an authoritarian figure who disrupted Afghanistan’s democratic journey by overthrowing the constitutional monarchy.
Historian Habibullah Rafi argues that Daud Khan’s main motivation in declaring Afghanistan as a republic was to devolve power to the country’s diverse population. He says the lack of protest or popular opposition to the coup is evidence of popular support.
A republican [political] system is a democratic system in which people are empowered. He [Daud Khan] wished for Afghanistan to gradually move toward a stage where people could elect their president and affairs of the state could move in accordance with the will of the people,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.
Rafi says the republican political system Daud Khan pioneered was violently disrupted. “Like elsewhere in the world, it would have evolved and delivered stability in Afghanistan,” he said.
But the coup ended a decade of democracy in Afghanistan. Under the 1964 constitution, King Zahir Shah had turned Afghanistan into a constitutional monarchy. Elections in 1965 and 1969 elected the parliament, and successive governments worked under prime ministers who were not members of the ruling Durrani dynasty. While the pace of reform was slow, Afghan democracy was remarkable in a region dominated by authoritarian regimes.
This has prompted critics such as Ghulam Nabi Mohammadi, a historian, to view Daud Khan’s coup as a power grab aimed at limiting freedoms for Afghans.
“Daud Khan was opposed to democracy, social justice, political parties, and a free press,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan while pointing to his authoritarian tendencies as royal prime minister from 1953 to 1963.
“When he was in power as the prime minister, he limited freedoms by doing away with political parties and censoring the media,” he said. “Even his coup was motivated by [repeating] these steps.”
While military officers loyal to one faction of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, the country’s pro-Soviet communist party, helped Daud Khan launch the coup, officers loyal to another faction ended it in a gory episode. After a lengthy gunbattle, young communist army officers killed the Afghan president and his entire extended family on April 27, 1978.
More than a decade of communist dictatorship was followed by an anarchic mujahedin Islamic republic in the early 1990s. A ragtag student militia called the Taliban exploited the chaos to declare a harsh Islamic Emirate, but their regime crumbled following a U.S.-led military attack following the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States.
Nearly 19 year later, the Taliban are poised to initiate critical peace talks with the Afghan government after signing an initial peace agreement with Washington, which paves the way for the withdrawal of foreign forces.
For sustainable peace in the country, the two Afghan sides need to agree on whether they can co-exist under the umbrella of the current political system or the if the Taliban will continue to militarily push to recreate their Islamic Emirate.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Omid Zahirmal’s reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.