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Afghanistan: History Of 1973 Coup Sheds Light On Relations With Pakistan

  • Ron Synovitz

Many Afghans old enough to remember the 40-year reign of former King Mohammad Zahir Shah describe his rule as a nostalgic era of peace and prosperity. RFE/RL examines some of the events that led to the 1973 coup against Zahir Shah and the troubled decades that followed.

Prague, 18 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- This week marks the 30th anniversary of the coup that forced Afghanistan's King Mohammad Zahir Shah from the throne and brought his cousin Sardar Mohammad Daoud Khan briefly to power.

The Afghan king had gone to Britain for medical treatment in the summer of 1973 when the events leading to Daoud Khan's coup began unfolding.

By 17 July 1973, while Zahir Shah and his family were on a reported stopover visit to Italy, then-army commander Lieutenant General Mohammad Daoud Khan seized control in Kabul. Daoud Khan declared Afghanistan a republic, calling the coup a "national and progressive revolution," and then declared himself president.

"I, in connection with my various responsibilities, am serving my country. I have always pursued a goal for my people -- for the people of Afghanistan. In particular, for the deprived and our young, to provide a positive financial and spiritual environment," Daoud Khan said.

But for millions of Afghans, Daoud Khan's coup marked the end of the last relatively peaceful and prosperous period of their lives. For the remainder of the 20th century, Afghanistan suffered through unstable governments, bloody coups, and, after the Soviet invasion in late 1979, more than two decades of war.

As Afghans this week look back on Daoud Khan's role in their history, many are asking why the coup of 1973 against Zahir Shah occurred in the first place. Debate on the issue centers on several theories. One suggests the coup was the result of divisions within Afghanistan's royal family.

Daoud Khan had been the Afghan prime minister during the 1950s and early 1960s. But his views on the so-called "Pashtunistan" issue seriously damaged Kabul's relations with neighboring Pakistan. Daoud Khan saw all of the Pashtun tribal regions straddling the two countries' border as part of historical Afghanistan. Pakistan, for its part, felt threatened by this claim.

The dispute stemmed from an agreement by British officials in 1893 to create an eastern border for Afghanistan -- the "Durand Line" -- in a mountainous area that could be easily defended by the troops of British colonial India.

But the Durand Line also cut through Pashtun tribal lands. It has never been officially recognized by any Afghan government -- giving the border a central role in disputes between Kabul and Islamabad since the creation of Pakistan in 1947.

Afghan scholars say Daoud Khan's "Pashtunistan" policies caused so many problems with Islamabad that Zahir Shah removed him from the post of prime minister in 1963.

Legal scholars say Afghanistan's 1964 constitution specifically forbade members of the royal family from holding cabinet posts in order to prevent Daoud Khan from regaining office.

But many Pashtuns in both Afghanistan and Pakistan still speak of a "Pashtunistan" that straddles parts of both countries.

With clashes and alleged incursions reported in recent weeks by forces on both sides of the Durand Line, as well as ongoing operations of the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign in those same border areas, the possible reemergence of "Pashtunistan" as a diplomatic issue is something Afghan Foreign Ministry officials rule out for now. Yet the experts consider "Pashtunistan" to be a dormant issue rather than a dead one.

Afghan Culture and Information Minister Sayyed Makhdum Rahin told RFE/RL this week that historical disputes between Daoud Khan and Zahir Shah may, indeed, have had some effect on Daoud Khan's decision to launch a coup.

But Rahin agreed that scholars and historians may also be correct when they say the 1973 coup may have been the result of a plot by Afghan communists or even direct involvement by Moscow.

Still, Rahin says he does not think Daoud Khan would knowingly have gone along with any plot directed by the Kremlin. "All of his life experience is evidence that Sardar Mohammad Daoud Khan would not bow to foreigners, regardless of their nationality," Rahin said. "Particularly, in his last meeting with [Soviet leader] Leonid Brezhnev, he proved his bravery and patriotism. But KGB deceptions and the games that they played could have benefited from Daoud Khan's influence in the armed forces. So Daoud Khan, indirectly and with total unawareness, could have been manipulated by the KGB. But no other way."

Sayyed Abdullah Kazim was the head of Kabul University during the time of Daoud Khan's regime. He told RFE/RL the critical question regarding possible Russian influence in the 1973 coup is why the Kremlin would suddenly want a regime change in Kabul after cooperating and supporting Zahir Shah's monarchy for years.

Kazim said one possible answer is that Musa Shafiq, the prime minister of the early 1970s, was pushing an agenda for the liberalization of traditional Afghan society. That agenda favored a more pro-Western approach -- including better relations with the pro-American government in Islamabad as well as the shah of Iran.

"It all happened during the 'decade of democratization' when the late Dr. Shafiq became Afghanistan's prime minister. This alarmed Russia because he was a renowned liberal, a Muslim scholar, anticommunist, and pro-Western. To change the perception [in the region] he signed [a] contract with [the shah's] Iran and resumed a direct relationship with Pakistan. Therefore, Russian officials felt threatened and thought Afghanistan may decrease its interest toward Russia," Kazim said.

Whatever the causes behind Afghanistan's 1973 coup, the years that followed saw the opposite of Daoud Khan's declared desire to better the economic and spiritual conditions of Afghans.

Daoud Khan was killed, along with his wife and children, in the Saur revolution of 1978 that brought Afghanistan's communists to power. And after the Soviet invasion of 1979, millions of Afghans were either killed or fled to refugee camps in Pakistan, Iran, or neighboring Central Asian republics.

When Moscow finally withdrew its troops from Afghanistan in 1989, the mujahedin commanders who had fought against the Soviet forces began fighting among themselves -- creating the desperate conditions that gave rise to the Taliban regime.

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