The former king responded to the Pishin jirga in words that reflected Afghan nationalism. In a communiqué issued on the occasion, he stated that traditional jirgas were the last resort for free debates and the adoption of resolutions in a democratic fashion about national problems in times of emergencies such as the present one. In the former king’s view, the resolutions of such jirgas must take into account the viewpoints and tendencies of all national groups who are engaged in the struggle for the realization of common goals—in this case, “independence, territorial integrity, restoration of the status of traditional nonalignment, the national and Islamic identity of our homeland, and the maintenance of the right to self-determination for the institution of the future government through free elections.”
By the “state of emergency” the former king meant the lack of a legitimate government in the country and its occupation by the Soviet Union. The king responded to the situation by convening a loya jirga and pursuing a policy of waging armed jehad and holding political negotiations, depending on the circumstances. From the elaboration of these points, the features of Afghan nationalism as envisaged by the former king become clear.
In the king’s view, the jirga is a traditional institution in which all tribes and sectors of society (through their elders) take part on an equal basis to settle national problems. The jirga is convened in times of national emergency, especially when Afghanistan feels pressured by outside powers. King Amanullah even required participants of a jirga to “settle by consensus of votes all the vital problems and schemes for the uplift and progress of Afghanistan.” The agenda fixed for the jirga covered the entire range of foreign and domestic affairs. In general, an elderly statesman presides over the jirga until someone else is appointed for the whole session. Whatever the issue, the participants resolve it by consensus after they discuss it in a democratic way. This is a description of a national jirga (loya jirga) attended by influential people from throughout the country and by selected government officials. The national jirga is then open to influence by governments, which have frequently held them in modern times and particularly in the twentieth century. But in a particular locality everyone concerned with the issue attends the jirga, along with elders and other persons (jirgamawr, marakchiyan) who have special knowledge of its rules and procedures. The mullas are invited to attend the jirga not to administer it but to provide advice, if needed. The jirga is solemnly convened after the usual Muslim prayer is offered, and a Pashto verse is recited: “Events are with God, but deliberation is allowed to man.” The more democratic the tribe, the larger the jirga. Part of Pashtunwali (the social and legal codes of the Pashtuns), the jirga is a Pashtun institution by which the Pashtuns resolve not only ordinary disputes but also issues, particularly criminal issues, that defy solutions through the Shari’a or civil courts. The decisions are enforced and, among some tribes, the violators punished by a special militia (the arobaki).
As noted, Mohammad Zahir held that such an assembly was to deliberate over ways and means to restore Afghan sovereignty and lay down the basis for a future government. But since the prospect for holding jirgas were dim, the former king also viewed armed jehad as a means of realizing the national goal. In his view, “Presently the people of Afghanistan are engaged in an armed jehad for the restoration of their rights and national honor. Other than that no way has been left open to them, and if this goal can be attained by a peaceful means they would consider it.” For the success of jehad, in December 1981 he proposed the formation of a “united front.” He appealed to his compatriots to set aside—in accord with the injunctions of Islam and the approved national traditions—whatever personal and tribal differences they might have and choose their representatives “so that if God wills through the institution of a great national assembly with the participation of the representatives of all tribes, existing unions, organizations, and associations the foundation for such a united front may be laid down which can represent all the people of Afghanistan for the purpose of waging the armed struggle, and legally representing the people in international councils and states.” Realizing the difficulty of convening a loya jirga under the conditions of war, the former king proposed setting up a constituent assembly to pave the way for it. For this purpose a commission was set up.
Even opponents of “a united front” could not reject overnight the proposal for its formation. Afghans were disturbed by the disunity among the jehad organizations. That was why, according to the king, by October 1984 a number of “fronts and other groups from inside and outside Afghanistan as well as a large number of Afghan refugees in Pakistan and the majority of Afghan associations in various parts of the world” supported the proposal. The three moderate groups, the Triple Alliance, also endorsed it, suggesting at the same time that the Muslim and other interested organizations and governments should be consulted about it.
Nevertheless, the proposal remained in abeyance. In particular, Pakistan was against it. As already described, although Pakistan supported the jehad, it preferred a divided leadership even among the Islamic organizations. It was even more in favor of division in the case of a national front, especially the one propounded by the former king, who was considered a symbol of Afghan nationalism. Also, the rift between the two countries on the issue of Pashtunistan might have influenced Pakistan to oppose a movement that would have helped Afghan nationalists rise to leadership. The king had favored improved relations with Pakistan, offering “his pledge to Pakistan during her wars with India that Afghanistan would not move her troops nor create any disturbance on the Pak-Afghan border”; even so, Pakistan did not trust him. For forty years he had been the sovereign of an independent land, and now, too, he stated, “I do not think I can become an instrument in the hands of anyone.”
This may have been why Pakistan discouraged those groups and persons who supported the former king as well as the cause of the Afghan nation. Among the known nationalist Afghans was Abdur Rahman Pazhwak, a diplomat and former president of the General Assembly of the United Nations. The Social Democratic Party (Afghan Millat) is a case in point of a nationalist party that—although it had opposed the Khalqi government, and although the Parcham regime had imprisoned many of its leaders—was not allowed to work independently but only under the umbrella of the National Islamic Front. Azizulla Wasifi, an influential Alkozay elder from Kandahar and a former cabinet minister and president of the last loya jirga of the precommunist period, was the only one who was able to carry on his resistance activities in the spirit of nationalism. He could do so because as an elder of the Durrani tribal confederation he enjoyed the support of his refugee tribesmen in Quetta, where in 1980 he set up the Islamic National United Front (Islami Muttahida Mille Jabha). Apparently, this scheme also called for the elimination by terrorists of leaders of emerging self-reliant Afghan groups and for the discouragement of others—community elders in particular—who might otherwise undertake resistance activities beyond the aegis of the Islamic groups. Many such persons took refuge in the West. Pakistan refused politely or deferred to an indefinite date the requests that the former king had made to visit it. The Islamist organizations opposed both him and his proposals to set up a national front.
Under these circumstances it was not feasible for a united front to be formed through a jirga. It was so not because the jirga had become anachronistic, to be looked on as “a final attempt by an aristocracy in decline to oppose the rise of Islamists,” but because the neighboring governments opposed the emergence of a national leadership since each followed an agenda of its own to dominate Afghanistan. For this purpose they supported the Islamist groups in their bid to restrict to themselves the right not only to wage jehad but also to be part of the future political leadership. But in the sociopolitical structure of Afghan society at the time, there was no alternative to the jirga of influential groups and magnates to set up a political leadership in accord with the social norms and conventions—unless, of course, one believed in the use of violence and the setting up of an undemocratic or client leadership.
The opposition deterred the former king from moving from Rome, where he met with foreign emissaries. Since he had neither an organization nor a dynasty nor independent financial or military means, he had no other choice. Contrary to the rumors his opponents had spread, the former king, while a ruler, was among the poorest monarchs in the world. In Rome he lived in a villa with financial assistance from the king of Saudi Arabia. A realist and unambitious, he said he would not try to restore the monarchy. Like other Afghans, he was convinced that the Mohammadzay rule has become a part of history. But he was popular. In an opinion survey among the Afghan refugees in Peshawar in 1987, more than 72 percent favored him as their leader. He is, however, not the sort of person to accept risks as his father did in 1929. In his defense, he has been quoted as saying that if he became active, his followers might suffer at the hands of the opponents and he would not be able to help them.
Such a statement is believable from a person who, during forty years of rule, did not sign a writ for the execution of any person for political reasons. He also used his royal influence to commute capital punishment for persons convicted in criminal cases. This is unusual for a king of the Afghans, who have in their history appreciated a strong ruler. Mohammad Zahir Shah was instead a mild ruler. A decade of his reign constituted the constitutional democracy, which had no precedent in Afghan history. He has also played an important role in demonstrating a spirit of nonpartisanship, stating that “during my reign I did not relate myself to a particular tribe or clan, but looked on the entire people of Afghanistan from the same angle.” His unifying efforts in these turbulent times, when other contenders of power showed themselves willing to resort to any means available, reflect that view. In the period of divisiveness, violence, and anarchy the former king was steadfast in his stand for unity, accommodation, construction, and cooperation. Now, half a decade after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, it is unclear whether he will be able to play a role. He can do so only when the Islamic fundamentalists and the governments of Iran and Pakistan leave the Afghans to themselves to set up a political leadership in accord with their social conventions.