US forces in Afghanistan just got another competent military commander in Gen. David Petraeus. However, the current US strategy that General Petraeus must enforce only guarantees mission failure in the long run because it bolsters an unpopular Afghan government. This, in turn, ensures increased support for the insurgency led by the Taliban, who love to boast that they have Allah and time on their side.
It’s time that Western leaders answer a politically incorrect but vital question: Do they care more about establishing democracy than stability? Because if the mission is still about ensuring that Afghanistan – as a relatively cohesive state – remains free from Taliban and Al Qaeda, then the West should be willing to consider a dramatic step: reinstatement of a constitutional monarchy.
Pushing for a constitutional monarchy runs counter to America’s traditional antipathy toward monarchies as a form of governance, but in the case of Afghanistan, it’s probably now the only alternative to the Taliban rule that seems almost inevitable once NATO forces withdraw.
After weathering nine years of war, the Taliban have grown stronger, not weaker. Fueled by money and support from Pakistan and the Arab Khaleej states, they are getting more brazen in their attacks. Girls increasingly resist going to school, terrified that their classes might be bombed, or acid thrown in their faces, as they walk home. Shopkeepers have stopped selling videos and other “un-Islamic” items.
Meanwhile, the Karzai government, which won reelection amid wide reports of ballot fraud, continues to lose popular support. Corruption is rife. The drug and smuggling mafias are back and many are closely affiliated with the Afghan government.
In this environment, Afghans are hedging their bets. They don’t want the Taliban to return to power, but they understand that survival means siding with the winner.
It didn’t have to be this way.
In 2001, most Afghans welcomed US forces as saviors, not crusaders.
Thanks to their presence, Afghans were able to resume cherished pastimes banned under the Taliban: They played soccer, flew kites, danced the Attan, and, most importantly, they laughed out loud. Afghans could tend to their beloved rose gardens, or drive their buses and cars, blaring loud music. Woman could seek medical help, and widows could find employment, without running the risk of being beaten, or worse: stoned or shot to death in the soccer stadium.
After the fall of the Taliban, the overwhelming majority of Afghans – across ethnic lines – wanted to reinstate the constitutional monarchy that had served Afghanistan so well in the past.
During the long reign of King Zahir Shah (1933-1973), Afghanistan blossomed into a modern state. It became the largest exporter of raisins in the world, and was renowned in the region for its carpets, fruits, melons, and semi-precious stones. Kabul rivaled Islamabad as a city of modernity and culture, and was considered by Westerners in the 1960s as the Geneva of Asia.
There was relative stability in this historically strife-ridden state, which enabled completion of large-scale development projects like dams and roads. Most important, the only “Taliban” were religious students who studied the Koran.
Afghans saw their king as fair and inclusive. Under Zahir Shah, the central government established Afghanistan’s first professional standing Army, yet generally left the provinces alone in their handling of day-to-day affairs. Kabul did not try to force its “modernization” program upon the conservative elements, especially in the Pashtun belt inhabited by proud tribes who were deeply skeptical of anything “foreign” being imposed on them.
So memorable was this period that Afghans at the Bonn Conference in 2001, which was set up to plan the future of Afghanistan’s government, clamored to reinstate Zahir Shah and the 1964 Constitution that set forth equal rights for all Afghans before the law.
Yet this broad desire was stymied.
What happened? Washington sought the counsel of certain expatriate Afghans with self-interested agendas in 2001 that had long divorced themselves from their people and culture. Their heeded advice did not mirror the hopes and aspirations of Afghans who had stayed behind to endure the brutality of the Soviets, the warlords, and then the Taliban. So Afghan-American kingmakers thrust Hamid Karzai as the new head of government, relegating Zahir Shah to photo-ops for the Western press.
Today, President Karzai is derisively called the “mayor of Kabul,” as his mandate barely extends outside the cities. The 2004 Constitution does not mirror the hopes and aspirations of its people. The Afghan National Army is dubbed “The Northern Alliance Forces” by Pashtuns. And Kabul tries to exert control over the provinces by direct fiat, defying their history of fierce independence.
At this stage, Washington and its coalition partners have tough choices: 1) Leave or 2) Fix the political mess they helped to create.
The US military surge that Petraeus now directs will probably just delay the descent into chaos once NATO begins pulling out in 2011. Saving Afghanistan now requires encouraging Karzai and his political and military leadership to accept some painful options that might include comfortable exile. It requires holding another Afghan loya jirga (grand council) to determine if Afghans want a constitutional monarchy reinstated under a charismatic descendant of Zahir Shah.
His lineage would serve as a reminder of what was, and what can be. It would be a public relations nightmare for the Taliban. If NATO is serious about its mission it needs to ensure that Afghanistan’s commander-in-chief is seen as legitimate in the eyes of Afghans.
Shireen K. Burki is currently completing a book on state-society relations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. An ethnic Pashtun, she served at the United States Marine Corps’ Center For Advanced Operational Culture Learning from 2006 to 2008 as an expert on South Asia and Southwest Asia.